Jack Daniel’s Recipe Is So Good, It Should Be Mandatory!

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Imagine that you were starting your own auto mechanic business. Would you think it was a good idea to have a random, totally unrelated bunch of guys decide if the cars you fixed were safe enough to put back on the road? Would their judgement likely be better than your own? What if many of them hardly had any prior experience in the field, and their sole duty was to set the “safety standards” as they deemed fit, and to punish people for driving vehicles they’ve determined to be dangerous, for whatever reasons? They may or may not have ever even worked on a car themselves, let alone studied auto mechanics, in the first place. Would that be a system guaranteed to keep things as fair and safe as possible for all parties involved, including you and your mechanic business, any future passengers of the car, any other drivers on the road, the car’s manufacturer, pedestrians, etc.? What if those random guys also happened to have some friends who worked for one of your auto shop’s competitors, and often liked to favor that business over your own, even though the other shop might not have the same spotless safety record as yours? What if they got kickbacks for doing so? Would that still seem fair to you, then, do you think? Would that still seem safe?

Well, in a nutshell, for many industries, that group of “random guys” is the government. And in Tennessee, they’re coming for your whiskey next. That’s right: these anonymous bureaucratic mobsters, most of whom lack any credible background in whiskey production, are now working to establish the standard for what “Tennessee whiskey” will officially come to be universally considered. They’ve also managed to spark quite a controversy in the process, and with good reason.

The regulation standards that are presently on the table for discussion include making it mandatory for every batch of alcohol that is produced bearing the label “Tennessee whiskey” to be made from at least 51% corn fermented mash filtered through maple charcoal, and to have an alcohol content of at least 40% by volume. Additionally, each new batch of the stuff to be produced will have to be aged in new barrels made from charred oak wood, every single time. Interestingly enough, these distillation requirements are identical to those of Jack Daniel’s–the top-selling maker of Tennessee whiskey in the world. Just a coincidence, or a calculated attempt by Jack Daniel’s and Brown-Forman (the company who owns Jack Daniel’s brand) to stifle competition?

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To that effect, even the single stipulation alone that each batch of Tennessee whiskey be aged in new barrels made of charred oak every time would raise production costs for many whiskey distillers by hundreds of dollar per barrel. A spike in cost such as that would make production virtually impossible for smaller competitors, and that’s just one of the new rules being proposed. Now, imagine each of the other new requirements’ additional costs factored in as well, and it’s easy to predict the kind of devastating effect that these new rules would have on countless businesses.

Jeff Arnett, the master distiller for Jack Daniel’s, argues that the move is no different from the standards that govern the classification of champagne versus regular wine, for example, and that the newly-imposed standards will actually benefit independent distilleries. He insists that smaller whiskey makers “don’t mind being held to a higher standard, because they don’t want to create cheap products simply to be synonymous with the state name.” Other voices in the industry seem to disagree, though, insisting that the production process should remain as it has always has in Tennessee: free and lax, allowing for greater varieties of quality and taste to be produced.

This is hardly the first time that “random guys” in government have meddled with industry in the name of regulating “certifiable standards,” though–often with the same harmful results for producers and consumers, alike. One example is the new set of labeling standards for gluten-free products, which has been in place only since August of 2013. The government now requires that in order for any product to bear the label “gluten-free,” the FDA must first conduct an “assessment” to determine that each ingredient contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten, and that the item has never at any point contained gluten (even if the gluten has since been entirely taken out). As a result, many companies must now choose a different, less-convincing description for their products’ labels. Meanwhile, large-scale producers who hold industry clout seem to have little difficulty getting their products certified.

Defenders of such policies argue that systems like this are in place to keep people safe and informed. Opponents of government monopoly over various industry standards insist that businesses’ reputations among consumers are enough of a means of regulation. They feel that basic word of mouth, along with certifications by reputable independent agencies, would do just as good of a job at keeping the public safe and informed, without the need for the expensive assessments which often favor big-name producers. Businesses that consistently and responsibly satisfied the needs and demands of their customers’ would naturally come to be trusted over those that were less reliable.

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An even worse side-effect of these kinds of policies is that oftentimes, government labeling standards aren’t entirely informative, and are frequently vague to the point of being downright misleading. An example of this is the USDA’s certification process for labeling organic products. For one thing, items bearing the “organic” label must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, as has been certified by a “USDA-accredited” third party organization. Who’s to say that those “accredited” organizations are even credible in the first place? The USDA, with their exclusive authority over the entire classification process? It’s hard to take the word of any monopoly seriously; consider the earlier example of the “random guys” favoring their friends’ business, simply because they have the power to do so. This kind of stuff happens in the real world all the time. And what’s more, the remaining 5% window allowed for non-organic ingredients is still a wide enough range of concentration for there a possibility of toxicity to remain. There are endless varieties of chemicals in existence (organic, or otherwise) which are so toxic to humans that even as small a ratio as 5% could be lethal. Such a system of labeling standards is misleading, and not only bars market entry for newer or smaller businesses, but actually makes consumers less safe by providing them with a false sense of security. At its best, it’s unnecessary; at its worst, it could be deadly.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always so obvious in every case who the well-connected political cronies are that lurk behind each of these treacherous policies, or what the true motives are behind why they’re passed into law in the first place. However, in almost every scenario, they are imposed under the guise of being in the name of public safety. Thankfully, though, the case of labeling standards for Tennessee whiskey is an exception to that all-too-common shroud of mystery. To anyone with any basic level of insight about the matter, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here: this is nothing but an attempt by Jack Daniel’s and its owners to permanently corner the market for Tennessee whiskey by passing regulations to their advantage.

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Of course, there are still many instances every day where the present system of government-monopolized regulation policies does actually inform and protect consumers to an extent, but that’s not really the point here. The point is that this system is far from perfect, certainly anything but fair, and definitely not always safe. And in the case of setting standards for something as arbitrary as quality and flavor labeling of a certain type of whiskey, lawmakers aren’t even pretending that safety is the issue here, in the first place. Government has no good reason to be involved with something as trivial as labeling a style of whiskey. It’s not a public safety issue. Quality standards are something that only businesses themselves can prove to their buyers by providing a product that lives up to customers expectations of what a good “Tennessee Whiskey” ought to taste like. This legislation, if passed, will absolutely just be plain and simple market meddling to favor a specific group and disadvantage it’s competitors. Period.

In a society that was truly free, there could be more alternatives for labeling standards which are less costly to everyone, and less harmful for struggling competitors and new businesses looking to enter the market. Why not let individuals choose for themselves which products they want to buy, based on labeling systems that they come to trust through various independent means (especially now that we have the internet to help us all make better-informed decisions)? Let spontaneous order occur; people will figure out what works best for them and their loved ones. Having only one labeling system might keep people safe to a certain extent, but it squashes opportunities for new product alternatives, and ultimately limits the ability of consumers to make informed choices, because they become forced to rely on only one institution to tell them what’s safe to consume. Buyers must then trust that institution to always conduct its approvals in a fair and unbiased manner–something I’ve already given two examples of the government not always doing. Why not let freedom of information guide people in making their decisions, instead of a single third party group of “random guys” who are neither foolproof, nor necessarily impartial? It would be safer, cheaper, easier, and more fair for everyone involved, in the long run. Guaranteed.

“Papers, Please! Papers, Please!”

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So, after 23 years of life and a two-month-long struggle trying to get it, I have finally been issued my first-ever state ID card.

For me, this is a huge deal–I’ve always resisted the institution of a state-issued identification system for a variety of reasons, generally privacy-related. The idea of a scannable government barcode used to track you and your purchases, as well as to aid police in running background checks by creating a centralized pool of identities and the criminal records associated with them, has always turned me off. I’ve never understood how having one’s “papers” could be such a necessity in the “land of the free;” all I can hear when the need to check them arises is, “Papers, please. Papers, please. Vere are your papers??” like the Nazis used to do.

Because I believe that all individuals are sovereign inhabitants of planet earth, and that country borders are just imaginary lines created by the state and enforced with violence, I feel as though mandatory state identification cards are contrary to both natural law and the overall freedom of mankind.  It ought to be up to individuals themselves, and those with whom they directly interact, to determine how one’s identity ought to be proven.  Even in the total absence of government, there would certainly still be a market for identification and background information services.  The demand for them might perhaps be even greater in the absence of a state, actually.  The ability to verify one’s own identity, as well as others’, can be quite crucial in many scenarios.  It’s only when the state holds a centralized monopoly over such identification practices that I take issue with them.

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Somehow, I’ve managed to avoid getting an ID for this long.  When it came to employment, I would always just find jobs that didn’t require one, or where I knew people who could let not having an ID slide.  Renting my various living spaces throughout the years followed a similar model.  When it came to having fun, I’ve always managed to get into various bars and events using the countless connections I’ve had to make.   In order to enjoy my life without giving in to the will of the system, I had to make and keep strong personal connections; my very livelihood depended on it.  Unfortunately, I still have had to miss out on a lot of good times and opportunities as a consequence of not having the required identification.  It has always just been an unfortunate price I was willing to pay in order to remain outside of “the system”–that is, until quite recently.

The only reason I even decided to cave in and get one in the first place after all this time without it is because I have been out of work for the past several months, and both of the positions I was finally offered after extensive job hunting required a photo ID before I could even start working.  I haven’t been able to pay rent, and have been literally penniless for the last month or so, during which time I tried to get my documentation together for the state.  Thankfully, my parents had my original birth certificate, but my Social Security card was lost.  It was pretty clear that step one was to work on getting a new one.

The first time I went to the Social Security office, located in center city, Philadelphia, I waited for two and a half hours in a room full of all kinds of people (and their screaming kids) from all walks of Philadelphia life while the security guards patrolled us all, yelling at anyone who dared to use their cellphone.  After my number was finally called (yes, you really are just a number there), they denied me from being issued a new Social Security card because my date of birth was absent from my medical insurance card.  They told me I had to come back with additional papers.  Of the list of acceptable documents, the only option that I had left was my high school transcripts.  I’ve never had a bank account (you can’t get one without a photo ID card), and I no longer have health insurance; it’s been years since I’ve even been to see a doctor, let alone a Primary Care Practitioner.  My only remaining chance was to go back to my “alma mater” and retrieve whatever records they had of me.  Also, there was no one available to answer my questions about their requirements when I tried to call–it states clearly on their website that there are no live operators for the Social Security phone line.  Moreover, the telephone numbers of their individual office locations are unlisted–you get what you get when there’s a monopoly over any service, whether you like it or not.  There’s no competition.

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I was hardly shocked to discover that the school (a public school, if that even bears mentioning) had lost my medical records.  The woman  behind the desk told me that they must have had them at one point or another, otherwise I would never have even been able to attend in the first place.  Basically, all I got out of my interaction with the school was a resounding, “Oops!”  My transcript was all they could offer me, and the photos of me that were included with it were so blurry from the cheap Xerox printer ink and ancient scanner they had used to enter them into their database.  When I took this to the DMV (along with my birth certificate, former medical insurance card, old W2 forms, and official jury duty notifications), they told me it wasn’t enough.  I still needed a Social Security card.

And so I went back to the Social Security office, this time trying a slightly different approach with the attendant who saw me.  I simply handed her all of my documentation, saying confidently, “Here’s my birth certificate, insurance card, and high school transcripts with photos, just like you asked.”  Thankfully, she overlooked the fact that the insurance card lacked my birth date, and after waiting about a week and a half, I received my new card in the mail.

Finally, with all of my paperwork in order, I went back to the DMV again, only to be told that I lacked an acceptable proof of residency because none of the documents I’d provided had been issued within the previous 90 days.  90 days.  That’s all they give you in New Jersey.  I went into hysterics, and the man behind the counter told me that my stepfather and I would have to issue a statement that I lived with him at the address I was claiming and have it notarized.  I asked him and the woman next to him if they ever felt like the gestapo, demanding peoples’ papers and processing them into a system that is oppressive, corrupt, and invasive of privacy.  All he said in response was, “Nein,” and then threatened to have me escorted out by police if I didn’t calm myself down.  We were already leaving anyway to go have that letter notarized, though.

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Once all that had been settled, and the DMV had finally approved me as qualifying for an ID, they moved me to another booth to have my photograph taken.  To my dismay, they wouldn’t let me use my old mugshot from my 2011 arrest as my photo on the ID as I had requested.  The guy at the desk even said to me flat out that, “It’s basically a mugshot we’re taking of you, anyway.” I asked him if he was seriously listening to the words coming out of his mouth; he ignored the question.  I managed to sneak a bit of a scowl into the photo, at least–I do not look happy about any of this.

I also tried to use, “All Rights Reserved,” as my signature, but after a big debate about it between myself and the supervisor, they still wouldn’t let me. So instead, I sneaked an anarchy symbol in with it.

It’s still amazing to me that I can get into bars now, though, or on airplanes (or trains, for that matter: most transit methods demand identification nowadays).  As dehumanizing and against my will as the whole process has been, it’s interesting that there is a certain element of liberation that comes with having an ID when one lives within the confines of such an un-free society. But anyway, I’m ready to finally join the world of adults, with all of its legally granted privileges. It’s just a shame that without a little piece of plastic with our name and picture on it that assigns us all our government barcodes, we are denied such endeavors. But anyway, here’s to the future! I’m just glad this ridiculous, soul-crushing, and old-world-ish mess of bureaucracy is over with, finally, and I can resume my status as a productive member of society and begin to support myself once again.

And get into bars, obviously.  Did I mention that already?

Sledgehammers, Shopping Carts, Flight Tickets, and Nutter

In a series of shocking displays that can be described as nothing short of bizarre, Democratic State Representative Tom Brower has recently undertaken an aggressive personal crusade against the epidemic of homelessness that has come to ravage his home state of Hawaii.  The disgruntled public official has taken to patrolling his district of Waikiki-Ala Moana, armed with a sledgehammer, which he uses to forcefully destroy shopping carts that have been left behind by members of the local homeless population.  Brower was apparently driven to take matters into his own hands amid the region’s escalating epidemic of homelessness, attempting to clean up one of the neighborhood’s “biggest eyesores” (as he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser): the remnants of vagabonds’ castaway luggage carriers.  While one can only surmise as to how effective the act of lashing out against an inanimate symbol of desolate poverty could be, the practice of attacking the symptoms of destitution–rather than the root cause–seems to have caught on among politicians from various other cities across the United States.

Brower (nicknamed the “Evil Miley Cyrus“) also admits to frequently waking up any sleeping vagrants that he finds lounging about throughout the city, bellowing orders such as, “Get your ass moving!” in an attempt to clear them off the streets.  Ironically, however, Brower insists that he never disturbs sleeping have-nots during nighttime hours, out of respect for their circumstances.  And there is quite a set of circumstances to be taken into consideration on Oahu, indeed: between 2005-2007, the homeless population of the island increased by a staggering 28.6% [1].  Homelessness is certainly becoming an urgent problem in Hawaii, and Brower’s measures are not the only actions that have been taken by government officials in an attempt to counteract the epidemic.

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Another doomed attempt to combat the rapid increase in Hawaiian homelessness is scheduled to debut itself during Hawaii’s fiscal year of 2014.  Entitled the “Return to Home” program, this new government initiative will be providing one-way airline tickets to select destitute individuals, flying them back to the United States mainland in the hopes of reducing the island state’s population of more than 17,000 homeless people.  Critics say that the program could create the illusion to those seeking to take advantage of it that there will always be a guaranteed flight back to the continental U.S. waiting for them in the event that it becomes necessary to leave the island, but supporters of this new provision argue otherwise.  According to the project’s enthusiasts, only as many as 100 people per year will be eligible to participate in it, limiting the potential for its services to be taken advantage of. [2]

Similar methods of dealing with socio-economic challenges such as these have been observed recently in other American cities, as well.  In New York City, the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg has on occasion utilized a program which is not unlike Hawaii’s upcoming “Return to Home” program in order to combat its own epidemic of homelessness.  From 2007-2009, the city paid for the airline flights of 550 struggling families with the intention of aiding them in making their pilgrimage elsewhere, all in the hopes that they might settle down and live more comfortably in some other part of the world.  New York City’s Department of Homeless Services is in charge of coordinating these assisted excursions, whose annual expenses consume roughly $500,000 of the city’s yearly budget.   Supporters of the initiative extoll that the program is far more affordable than the alternative option, which is to provide housing for these families through the city’s system of homeless shelters at an annual cost of approximately $36,000 per family.  Apparently, it is simply cheaper for the city to send such disparate people elsewhere and forget about them entirely, showcasing yet another depiction of the government’s recent inclination to address merely the symptoms of debilitating poverty (in this case with the intention of saving city money), rather than remedying its underlying causes. [3]

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In Philadelphia, the so-called “City of Brotherly Love,” neither shopping carts, nor homeless individuals themselves have become the focus of such eradication efforts by local officials.  Instead, the city’s own destitution crisis has prompted an attempt at a different sort of extrication, altogether.  In March of 2012, the city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, announced that a ban on the feeding of homeless people would soon go into effect at any of the city’s outdoor locations that generally draws a high level of pedestrian traffic.  Unconvincingly citing sanitation issues and a concern for the individual dignity of those receiving the food donations as being the primary motivation for passing the ban, Nutter declared:

“Providing to those who are hungry must not be about opening the car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.” [4]

He went on to insist that every individual deserves the right to eat a proper meal in a comfortable, indoor setting, a belief which he proceeded to reiterate in numerous interviews:

“My motivation is not to exclude anyone.  I want a hungry person in need to know they can go to a clean, dry place.” [5]
The mayor’s spokespeople echoed similar sentiments, among them, Mark MacDonald, who spoke with USA Today on behalf of Nutter, claiming that the ban was aiming to force the homeless to go indoors to eat their meals in the hopes that they might become subjected to other health services (or so he alleged):
“This is about an activity on city park land that the mayor thinks is better suited elsewhere.  We think it’s a much more dignified place to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant…The overarching policy goal of the mayor is based on a belief that hungry people deserve something more than getting a ham sandwich out on the side of the street.” [6]
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At no point did Nutter or his representatives address the point that few individuals, if any, would rather starve on the street than eat a much-needed meal in an outdoor environment.  Nor did they offer to provide an indoor dining environment for the homeless, despite being so seemingly passionate about this detail.  This is comparable to the fact that at no point did Rep. Tom Brower address the fact that lashing out against shopping carts (or any other artifact common among the poor) would have absolutely no impact on reducing Hawaiian poverty levels.  Regardless of the empty gestures committed in either case, or by either of the two ultimately powerless political saps, the obvious truth of the matter remains unchangeable: homelessness doesn’t cease to exist simply because one of its many physical symptoms goes under attack from some desperate politician.  No individual or group of individuals can reduce the level of destitution in society simply by destroying a vagabond’s shopping cart, or by forcing him to eat indoors, or by purchasing him a plane ticket to some other faraway place–doing so may at most conceal some of the more obvious aspects of the economic suffering of a society, if even that.

While the outwardly freakish wrath being wielded by Rep. Tom Brower against both inanimate objects and the sleeping impoverished alike is simultaneously alarming, comical, and ultimately pathetic, the underlying motivation behind such outbursts is actually a relatively common theme among politicians nowadays.  Powerless to prevent the onward march of society towards escalating poverty and economic despair as the financial climate of the 21st century continues its downward spiral, desperate politicians like Brower, Bloomberg, and Nutter can only be expected to continue to do what is typical of elected officials in such times of social distress: lash out by passing laws, all of which are enforced with violence.

Whether on a scale of pitifully-channeled, simple-minded, and childish aggression directed toward an inanimate object–such as in Brower’s case–or in a more complex and sophisticated manner, involving the ill-conceived redistribution of wealth (as has been exhibited by Bloomberg and Nutter), politicians inevitably have only one card available for them to play: the use of force.  And (as has been demonstrated so conveniently by the outcome of Brower’s tantrums) beating a misplaced shopping cart with a sledgehammer does nothing to alter society’s level of poverty–if anything, it only makes the vagabond with little else to carry his cargo around in even poorer than he had been to start with.  Neither of these scenarios differs from one another with any measure of significance, in that respect.  Poverty is poverty, and force is force, and politicians are ultimately powerless to treat even the symptoms of poverty through such brutish means.  And if they are so unable to treat even the very symptoms of destitution, how could they ever possibly hope to cure the root cause of the condition itself–whether they choose to brandish either a sledgehammer or a scrawled edict to aid in the attempt?

Sources:

  1. N/A. “Hawaii lawmaker wages campaign against the homeless and their belongings with sledgehammer.”  Russia Today.  19 Nov. 2013. http://rt.com/usa/hawaii-sledgehammer-homeless-possessions-986/
  2. Wing, Nick.  “Hawaii ‘Return To Home’ Program Will Pay To Fly Homeless To The Mainland.”  Huffington Post.  25 Jul. 2013.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/25/hawaii-return-to-home-homeless_n_3653498.html
  3. Bosman, Julie.  “City Aids Homeless With One-Way Tickets Home.”  New York Times.  28 Jul. 2009.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/nyregion/29oneway.html?_r=1&
  4. Dunn, Mike.  Hunter, Walt.  “City To Ban Street-Corner Feedings Of Homeless.”  CBS Philadelphia.  14 Mar. 2012.  http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2012/03/14/nutter-announces-ban-on-outdoor-feeding-of-homeless/
  5. Hill, Miriam.  “End to feeding homeless in city parks?”  Philly.com.  14 Mar. 2012.  http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/heardinthehall/publicfeeding.html?c=r
  6. Pearce, Matt.  “Homeless feeding bans: Well-meaning policy or war on the poor?”  11 Jun. 2012.  http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/11/nation/la-na-nn-homeless-feeding-bans-20120611

Carpe Brutality, Carpe Corruption: Prime Time For Government Crime

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Ask virtually any private sector employees how they feel about the perks and rewards that are offered to those who work on the payroll of the government instead of an independent employer, and you’re likely to receive similar responses.  Few among the commonly blue-collar ranks of privately employed workers are shy about the advantages of taking a job in the public sector instead of working for a private enterprise.  Who can blame them, given the obvious differences between the two types of career fields and their systems of financial incentives, especially in terms of their benefits packages and the consequences (or lack thereof) for failing to perform their required job duties?  Most government jobs come packaged with health benefits, paid vacation time, generous salaries, and an unspoken guarantee that the position being filled will always continue to exist in the future (unlike offices in the more competitive private market, which are subject to obsolescence if the business itself fails to succeed).  Morality aside, why wouldn’t anyone want job perks such as those which the government promises its employees?  From an employment standpoint, it would be financial insanity not to.

Combing through the news lately in search of subject matter to write about, as I so often do, I must admit that every day I become more and more envious of those who are part of the public sector workforce.  It sounds like quite “the life” to me: working less frequently, with more holidays, and for better pay than most other employers might be able to offer, filling a position which isn’t likely to be going out of business in the near future, and which above all else, offers health benefits (something that many of even the best employers aren’t able to afford for their workers).  If it was possible to remove the immorality of government from the equation altogether, I’d take just about any job offered to me that boasted perks such as these in a heartbeat.  For now, however, all I can do is envy those who remain ignorant enough of the ethical implications of government and its methods of conduct to continue serving it.  And believe me when I tell you that the media has been providing me with plenty of enviable subject matter lately, several of which are as follows.

The first example of some of the aspects of public employment that most private employers could never even hope to be able to compete with comes about in light of the recent and controversial “government shutdown.”  When the federal government was temporarily forced to halt many of its operations due to an alleged dispute between congressional democrats and republicans, up to 80,000 of its employees were forced to take a mandatory vacation until a decision could be reached regarding its new budget standards.  I use the term “vacation” deliberately here, because essentially, that’s all it was: congress has agreed to refund federal employees who were affected by the shutdown for the lost time they incurred as a result of the debacle.  While such a refund alone is enough to rival many businesses in terms of their ability to compensate employees for time lost to them during a company hiatus, the paybacks for those who were temporarily put out of work because of the shutdown don’t just stop there.  Apparently, depending upon which state they live in and its individual laws regarding the matter, government employees who were impacted by the temporary closings are also going to be able to receive the unemployment compensation they would have been entitled to (had they not been brought back following the shutdown) in order to cover the time during which they were forced to spend out of work.

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Talk about a dream job, right?  Imagine if your boss realized his company was going broke, and closed it down to make some important budget changes, and in the process, you received both a paid vacation and an additional unemployment check for lost time once the company reopened?  That would hardly sound like a bad deal to anyone, especially considering the fact that many independent business endeavors never reopen once they have reached the level of financial turmoil that the United States government has managed to get itself into.  No business could ever afford that kind of compensation for employees who were put out of work as a result of its own financial mismanagement.  Only the government could manage such a feat, due to its means of funding itself, which relies on the forcefulness of involuntary taxation rather than on peaceful and voluntary contributions offered in exchange for the services it provides.  Such a business model would make any entrepreneur envious.

The second example involves now-infamous former UC Davis police lieutenant John Pike (pictured at the top of this page), who was catapulted into the public eye back in 2011 when he brutally pepper-sprayed 21 students during a peaceful demonstration that took place as part of the global Occupy movement.  This week, Pike was awarded a $38,000 workers’ compensation settlement that he pursued due to alleged psychological problems which he claims resulted in the aftermath of the incident.  Pike, who also received eight months of paid administrative leave following his shocking display of violence, has since left the force altogether, but not without the kind of hefty compensation that accompanies a position of government employment.  Despite the fact that UC Davis has been forced to cover nearly all of the damages (shelling out roughly $30,000 a piece to each of Pike’s victims, in addition to his workers’ compensation settlement), the fact remains that few other positions could ever possibly afford an individual the kind of cushy leeway that Pike has received, especially after having committed such an unspeakable atrocity.

Allow me to attempt to put it in perspective.  If you hired a babysitter to care for your children, and found him instead endangering them with physical abuse, would you pay him to take an eight month vacation and then hand him a large settlement if he claimed to have been distraught by the public backlash that followed the incident (which had been his own fault, anyway)?  What kind of a system would follow such a standard list of procedures?  What kind of message might be sent to others still in Pike’s former line of work, as a result?  Wouldn’t it make more sense for such individuals to just wait until the right moment to abuse some person or another in order to receive time off with full pay and benefits, before filing for a settlement to cover the “psychological distress” that was ultimately the the result of their own actions, in the first place?  Such an incident is hardly different from the outcome of the majority of police brutality cases observed today–if anything, police are indirectly rewarded for their actions, rather than penalized for them.  Even if they are fired outright, which is generally rare, they almost always still receive pensions and compensation for the rest of their lives, the figures of which many private sector workers could only dream of matching in all of their years of hard work.  Who wouldn’t want a job that pays its employees forever once they do the wrong thing, without ever even making them work again?  Does any of this sound like “justice” to you?  Does any of it sound right?

The third and final recent example of how government jobs feature such enticing (though skewed) programs of rewards and consequences is a recent story reported by the Associated Press that raises some rather alarming concerns about the dependability of the individuals who are most entrusted with the safety of both the national and international public.  As was confirmed by the Air Force on October 23, 2013, an incident transpired earlier this year in which one of the members of a two-person crew that was responsible for watching over an underground facility containing nuclear missiles left his post unattended, door open, in order to receive a food delivery while his fellow crew member slept.  A similar incident took place at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana back in May of the same year, when a maintenance crew was allowed into an underground launch control center while one of the crew members responsible for its attendance remained asleep.  Such conditions violate Air Force safety standards, and with good reason: nuclear missiles are hardly a lighthearted matter, especially when left almost entirely unattended by those to whom the responsibility of maintaining their security has been delegated.

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But what repercussions did those who were responsible for such potentially catastrophic breaches in the security of nuclear weapons face?  The most extreme penalty imposed upon these individuals was the mandatory forfeiture of no more than $3,100 pay for a total of two months, and the remaining parties who were found guilty of such negligence received punishments of even less severity.  And while there was admittedly no victim brought about by any of their actions, each of them failed to perform their most important job duties (which could have resulted in deadly consequences under the wrong circumstances) and were unable to fulfill the responsibilities that they had voluntarily sworn to personally uphold.  Anyone in a line of work not funded through the government and its system of taxation would have at the very least been terminated, and might even have had to face charges being pressed against him or her in court for engaging in hazardous occupational negligence.  However, when a government employee is caught doing so, even in the most extreme cases bearing life-or-death implications (in this instance, failure to properly watch over a nuclear missile control center), there are few repercussions, if any.  The ultimate outcome of scenarios such as these almost always results in what is, at most, a mere inconvenience for whomever comes to be held responsible (if anyone even is held responsible, in the first place).  Compare such an outcome with the case of a waitress who gets fired for accidentally missing even one of her shifts, and you might begin to see the point that I am trying to make here, if you haven’t already.

However well-intentioned, individuals who are employed by the government represent a different economic class of people altogether.  They operate under different codes of conduct, with different repercussions for their actions, and with different economic incentives to guide them through their decision-making processes than those who are otherwise employed by private citizens.  For these reasons alone, government services will rarely, if ever, be provided efficiently or conscientiously by those who are on the state’s payroll.  There just isn’t enough of a system of checks in place to ensure that state employees consistently strive to provide their “services” in such a manner, and there never will be.  It’s a logical impossibility, altogether.  In many cases, the motivating incentives are just the opposite: there are more often than not significant benefits to either abusing one’s position of power, or to simply neglecting one’s duties, both of which generally result in paid leaves of absence, enormous settlements, and various other forms of compensation–all in exchange for not even having to work.  It’s only logical that many individuals would respond to such incentives accordingly.

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Even I admit that I sometimes envy those who occupy such financially secure positions, required to provide such little labor output in return.  It must really be nice, after all.  However, once individuals across the board start to recognize the true nature of these conditions for what they are, along with their often-serious implications, the challenge of preventing future dilemmas like these from happening again can begin to be approached from a more sensible and strategic standpoint.  When a system that rewards failure, incompetence, and misconduct is in place, what else can anyone honestly expect from those who work for it?  Once the shift has been made towards the direction of personal responsibility, accountability, and more sensible economic incentives, the transition to a more morally responsible and economically sustainable means of organizing society can begin to occur.  As for now, who can really blame the freeloaders that just want to get paid for doing virtually nothing?  If you thought you could get away with it, wouldn’t you be doing the same thing?  And wouldn’t anyone else?  Isn’t that the problem, altogether?

***

Sources:

Government Shutdown:

Lt. Pike’s Settlement:

Nuclear Negligence:

 

 

 

Kensington’s Saga of Property Theft and Political Crooks

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In the city of Philadelphia, a group of property owners are rightfully outraged by the local government’s attempts to forcibly confiscate their rightfully-owned land through the use of eminent domain laws.  These property seizures are being conducted in order to build a proposed housing development project in the neighborhood of Philadelphia known as “Kensington,” an area which has become notorious for its poverty levels and high crime rates, despite the region’s burgeoning trend towards gradual gentrification.  This slow-moving increase in community conditions and home values has apparently prompted the project’s proposal, which seeks to stifle the area’s upward socio-economic shift by ensuring that low-income housing remain locally available to those who are unable to afford the rising prices that coincide with community improvement.

The proposed project, called “Tajdeed” (which is Arabic for “renewal”), would have the capacity to support up to 45 low-income families, replacing the various properties that already exist in the Kensington region.  The project is being funded through a private-public partnership between the city government, the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, and Conifer Realty LLC, a coalition of special interests that has been vehemently pushing for the completion of the housing project.  Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, has expressed that he and his partners, “Look at this [housing project] as the last chance to maintain low and moderate income in this area.”

Apparently, Kreidie and his group feel as though total gentrification is a bad thing for an impoverished community because it increases property taxes, making it hard for poor families to afford to live there.  In response, Kreidie has been pursuing what he proclaims to be a “public good:” he and his organization are seeking to combat the natural economic evolution of the city’s neighborhoods by using government force to seize privately-owned properties and replace them with low-income housing projects, the development of which is to be funded significantly in part by government grants.

Yes, that’s right: he wants to keep certain areas of the poor neighborhoods poor in order to ensure that those with a low income can still afford to live in slums within that particular region.  What a hero.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez was another key contributor in pushing for the use of eminent domain to seize the properties in order to move forward with the Tajdeed project.  She shares an opinion about the neighborhood’s recent economic growth that is similar to Kreidie’s, and also wishes to stifle Kensington’s progress of gentrification and ensure that the neighborhood maintains its present status of debilitating impoverishment.  At a rally against the use of eminent domain in Kensington, she was quoted as saying that she, “doesn’t need consent,” to seize private property, and insisted that anything that is considered legal is therefore also moral.  In an interview with writer Solomon Jones, Sanchez made the following remarks:

“There is nothing more important that government can do… than to assure affordability and accessibility in the entire city…  You have to stop the gentrification by ensuring there’s affordability everywhere.”

That’s right, again.  We have to stop gentrification so that the poverty can stay within the community, rather than allow natural economic conditions to guide individuals of various financial statuses to the areas with costs of living more suitable for their levels of income.  Won’t that be great for the city and its local economy?

But wait: how will this marvelous feat of economic stabilization be conducted?  By use of government force, naturally, in the form of eminent domain laws (a fancy term for property theft used by the government to soften the blow of the crimes it commits)!

The use of eminent domain has absolutely exploded in popularity within the city of Philadelphia in just the last year alone.  In 2012, the City of Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (the city government’s division of property thieves) seized approximately 1,200 private properties from their rightful owners–a dramatic increase from the mere 100 cases of eminent domain use in the previous year, a number which seems miniscule by comparison.  The reason for the sudden drastic increase in eminent domain cases is likely the result of the grandfathering in of local eminent domain laws, which allowed the city to postpone adopting the state of Pennsylvania’s recently-changed policies regarding the acceptable use of eminent domain following a 2005 Supreme Court ruling.  This ruling, known as Kelo vs. City of New London, held that private redevelopment projects of “blighted” areas could be considered to fall within the realm of “public use” under the Fifth Amendment, and are therefore a legally-legitimate reason for the government to invoke eminent domain in order to allow for their construction.  Since the newly-modified Pennsylvania state laws are much more restrictive of the use of eminent domain, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority appears to have been scrambling to cram as many possible uses of property seizure laws into a single year as it could possibly process before the new laws could go into effect on January 1st, 2013.  And cram, they most certainly did, as is indicated by the dramatic difference in the number of annual eminent domain cases from each of the two years.

And now, in Kensington, that use of power to seize rightfully-owned property is being used against 19 property owners who are understandably angry about their local government’s tyrannical abuse of power.  Among them is Meletius Athanasiadis, who has been offered a mere $149,000 from the city in exchange for seven of his properties, which include among them six parking garages and one residential home, the tenants of which are now being threatened with displacement.  “Mel,” as he is called, along with the other victims of this tremendous violation of individual and property rights, was given little time to challenge the proceedings in court, and received notice of the impending property seizures just days before Christmas.  In addition to having received such short notice of the city’s intent to steal their land from them, Pennsylvania state law allows a window of only 30 days to contest eminent domain attempts (a condition that most of the Kensington property owners were unaware of at the time).  Since January 18th, their only option has been to negotiate with the government for financial compensation; they are no longer able to challenge the use of eminent domain against them and their properties.

Maria Quinones Sanchez admits that efforts to communicate with the victims of this injustice could have been much better, but remains indifferent about the matter and is continuing to push for the completion of the Tajdeed project:

“Our communication was not the best and that’s why we’ve hired a community outreach coordinator. We will do our best to be more deliberate moving forward.”

As for Marwan Kreidie, he expressed his stance on the matter in an interview for NBC10, Philadelphia:

“Look, the project is gonna happen.  I think the important thing now is to make sure that everybody knows what rights they have, and they basically have to go and negotiate with the City. We want to make sure everyone is happy and gets a fair amount.  We’re convinced this is gonna be a great project.  It’s a community project and we’re all excited about it.”

Everyone, that is, except the victims of the state aggression he supports.  For those being forced to give up to the city government what is rightfully theirs at the behest of the economically-illiterate political influences who are seeking to stifle their community’s development, excitement could not be further from their range of emotions.  Some of Mel’s statements on the matter include:

“I can’t get justice done. I made a good investment, and the government can come and take it off of me to give it to a developer, why?”

“How can this happen in the United States out of all places? They [the government] acted like they’re gods.”

“They’re stealing.  They’re taking my property, my tax dollars, and giving it to someone else…”

And Mel is correct in all cases.  Eminent domain is property theft, pure and simple, and there is no excuse on earth that could ever justify its use for any reason.  If a government can take someone’s property away based solely on whatever justifications it has made up for itself in an attempt to legitimize its crimes, then the question is raised about how much, if anything, anyone actually owns in this country.

Theft is theft, regardless of who commits it or whatever agency claims that there is a necessity for it, government being no exception.  What’s happening in Philadelphia is outright thuggery, and should not be tolerated for even an instant.

If people calling themselves “the government” have the ability and power to steal from you everything that you’ve worked your whole life to achieve, what does that say about what the term “ownership” actually means within the context of today’s society, or about which group is working to serve whom?  Do you think that a so-called “representative” or “public servant” ought to be able to steal your land and property from you for any justifiable reason, let alone for the outrageous excuse of needing to keep your community poor? 

A society in which such actions transpire is as far-removed from the ideals of freedom as one can be, and has already made its descent into complete and utter tyranny.  The only hope of putting a stop to these kinds of outrageous crimes is to resist allowing them to be committed at all costs, and to spread the word about such injustices to as many individuals as possible.  Property rights are the most important element of a free society, and if the state manages to take away an individual’s right to his own private property, it has also taken with it his self-ownership altogether.

Eminent domain is theft, plain and simple, and it is wrong in every instance.  No amount of grandstanding or usage of flowery legal terminology will ever change that reality–theft is theft, and ought never to be accepted by anyone, whether such an act has been committed by a common crook or by an elected official.  The outcome remains the same, and until such conduct is rejected entirely by every single individual member of society, unfortunate stories such as this one are only likely to continue to be present in the everyday news stories of the future.  Hopefully, people will begin to recognize eminent domain (and all other government initiatives) as the violent theft that it is, and begin to resist it sooner rather than later.  Those people in Kensington sure did, and with any luck, more will be soon to follow.  Perhaps the state will shoot itself in the foot by continuing to commit such abuses of its power, and bring about its own destruction when those who have been subjected to its oppression are no longer willing to tolerate it.  Hopefully that day will come about sooner rather than later.  Until it does, however, the only thing that I and the Kensington victims of eminent domain can do is spread the word about the importance of private property rights, and about the dangerous pitfalls of a society that fails to recognize them.

Are Internet Spy Programs Here to Stay for Public Schools?

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A new “student safety initiative” in a California school district has been raising some questions about the issue of student surveillance, and about whether or not certain methods of monitoring students’ activities could be considered an invasion of privacy.  The Glendale Unified School District has recently contracted with Geo Listening, an agency that specializes in monitoring students’ usages of social media websites in order to prevent them from engaging in illegal or dangerous activities.  The district’s student body, which is comprised of roughly 13,000 young adults in both high school and middle school, is now subject to surveillance by the agency of virtually all public posts made on social media sites.  Geo Listening, which collects and analyzes data about posted material and reports its findings directly to designated local education officials, uses sources from a wide variety of sites, including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and other social networking giants.  In response to accusations that its methods constitute an invasion of privacy, Geo Listening has defended its position by insisting that it only monitors content that has been publicly posted by social media users, and that it never collects data from text messages, emails, or other private forms of communication.  Its method of gathering data for school authorities is based on the “frequency and severity” of various student posts, which are divided into categories that include “bullying,” “despair,” “truancy,” “substance abuse,” “vandalism,” and “hate,” among many others.  The agency’s mission, as touted by their website, is to, “Provide more timely and relevant information to school administrators so that they can better intervene in the lives of children.”  And while the agency’s goals may sound benevolent, the use of expensive surveillance technologies to monitor and track students’ online activities is a rightful cause for concern when being utilized by a public school district.

I can say with hardly any doubt that the technologies being offered by Geo Listening do indeed have the potential to revolutionize the safety of modern educational environments.  Such advances in data monitoring technology are bound to satisfy the market needs of some individual or other.  Geo Listening’s surveillance innovations might even successfully manage to promote more harmonious future interactions between students by stunting opportunities for interpersonal drama to arise, and by reducing instances of bullying.  It makes sense that some parents might seek out these kinds of services as part of their child’s schooling experience, especially if such technologies were offered by a unique private school that places an emphasis on utilizing cutting-edge innovations as part of its approach to providing a safer educational environment for students.  There will always be a market for safety, especially whenever children are concerned.

While I personally would not choose to send my child to such an invasively-monitored learning establishment, other individuals with differing priorities might find safety features such as those offered by Geo Listening to be a must-have detail when selecting a suitable private school for their child to attend.  Geo Listening would certainly find a demand for their innovations in a freer, more competitive market for private education—if they have already been successful in today’s financially-struggling, state-dominated public education system, then their success in a free market (which places greater emphasis on individual preferences) is practically guaranteed.

However, in the case of the public school district of Glendale, California, parents have received no say in the matter of whether or not the online activities of their children will be monitored.  Nor have they been consulted as to whether or not the annual $40,500 fee for Geo Listening’s services is an expense that they are willing to have delegated from the school’s education budget.  Instead, each of the district’s 13,000 students will be forcibly subjected to this internet surveillance technology, their parents will get to have little say in the matter, if any, and the taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill for it all, whether or not they even have any children in the first place.  As a result of this publicly-funded system, the only available option for Glendale parents who are concerned about the privacy of their children is to boycott their local school district altogether and privately educate their young ones.  And even if they decide to do so, they will remain forcibly obligated by the state to continue paying for the very same education services that they have never even used, having deemed public school systems unfit for their children.  Parents and taxpayers alike have no option but to continue to fund such endeavors, lest they risk fines, jail-time, or even potential murder by agents of the state for attempting to refuse.

What’s worse is that there is a strong likelihood that this particular California community will not be alone in adopting such programs.  The rise in school shootings and anti-bullying hype in the media will predictably feed into the falsely-perceived necessity for technologies such as those being offered by Geo Listening and other companies like it, and local bureaucrats will likely scramble to be next to assimilate such policies into their communities at the expense of the taxpayers and their civil liberties.  More of the same can only be expected unless individuals everywhere eliminate the demand for public schools by refusing to allow their children to be educated by means that have been provided through the use of involuntary government force.

As long as individuals allow themselves to be further denied their rightful say about education and continue to support the existence of the public school system by subjecting their children to its methods, this trend is only likely to continue, and will only become more personally invasive.  Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, and incidents such as the one in Glendale, California will serve as enough of a warning to people that they stand up for themselves and for their children, putting an end to the public school system by withdrawing their consent from it altogether.  Until that happens, technologies and institutions that infringe upon freedom as a result of their mandatory nature will continue to evolve and become ever more commonplace in the daily lives of the members of modern society.  When the day finally comes that people stop creating the demand for these wrongfully-enforced social establishments, their existences and impacts will cease to be prevalent once and for all, and both safety and education alike will become more tangible realities for parents everywhere.  Think about it.