Uncommon Sense

July 23, 2021

Are Religious Exceptions to Vaccination Requirements Valid?

According to the LA Times:

“Many universities, including the University of California, are requiring vaccination for all students, staff and faculty returning to campus. Many employers, public and private, are doing so as well. These policies are essential to protect public health. The virulent Delta variant of the Coronavirus has made it imperative to ensure vaccination of as many people as possible.

“Unfortunately, though, many of these policies have an exception for those who have a religious objection to vaccination. These are neither required by the law nor are they desirable as a matter of policy because they make it possible for anyone to circumvent the vaccine mandate.

“The UC’s mandatory vaccination policy, for example, has an exception for those who object on religious grounds. It states that this is because the law requires such an exemption, declaring: “The University is required by law to offer reasonable accommodations to . . . employees who object to vaccination based on their sincerely-held religious belief, practice, or observance.”

“This is simply wrong as a matter of law. No law requires such a religious exemption. In terms of free exercise of religion under the 1st Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago in Employment Division vs. Smith that the Constitution does not require exceptions to general laws for religious beliefs. In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court said that as long as a law is neutral, not motivated by a desire to interfere with religion and of general applicability to all individuals, it cannot be challenged based on free exercise of religion. In June, in Fulton vs. City of Philadelphia, the court reaffirmed this legal test.

“Laws that require vaccination are the epitome of a neutral law of general applicability: a requirement that applies to everyone and that was not motivated by a desire to interfere with religion. Even if this were not so, the government can infringe on religious freedom if its action is necessary to achieve a compelling interest.”

Okay, now let us consider the “religious” basis for such objections. Most of the objectors in this country are Christians, so I will comment from that viewpoint.

Do you see anywhere in the New Testament, or even the Old for that matter, where it says “Thou shalt not vaccinate”? or “Thou shalt not take medicine of any kind?” or “Thou shalt not befoul your body, the temple of your soul?” Anything? No? Hmm, interesting.

Religion is the third rail of American politics, not Social Security or any other policy. (For those not getting the reference to a “third rail” it comes from electric trains in which the wheels of the cars travel on the normal two rails but a third rail is added to supply the electric power needed to make the train go. Touching either of the two and the third rail results in a massive amount of electricity coursing through your body and usually death. S)

Religion is such a hot button issue, if someone claims a religious basis for and exception to law or rules, we accept that without comment. We do not require people to fill out a form explaining the source of the objection with appropriate references and citations. Nope, we just accept what is claimed as being valid. (What can you expect from a government that accepted Scientology as a legitimate religion?)

Basically what we have here is people who are saying “Neener, neener, neener, you can’t make me! Uh, ‘cause, ‘cause . . . the Bible says so!”

No, it does not and we have to stop pretending that thousand year old documents, especially those which claim that diseases come from demon possession are fit guides to modern life.

There is a long history of “religious exemption” claims from fundamentalist theists. They opposed smallpox vaccination because it was against God’s will. They have opposed many other medical treatments as being “against God’s will” without showing how the heck they know what God’s will is. And endangering many of the rest of us. I think they are opposing modernity as a whole because they are losing an understanding of how they fit into our culture. Instead if white neighbors being the norm, now they neighbors “of color,” and . . . gasp . . . people of different cultures. It just offends their sense of the way things s’posed to be.

July 18, 2021

What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?

Filed under: Politics,The Law — Steve Ruis @ 10:17 am
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The leaking of the Kremlin Papers shows that Russia actively tried to nudge Mr. Trump over the finish line in his first presidential contest. (Whether they did or did not has yet to be proven.) My initial suspicions were that Trump was ignorant of these attempts to secure him the presidency, because Mr. Trump has shown himself to be ignorant of almost everything.

But Mr. Trump’s obsequiousness toward Vladimir Putin is hard to explain otherwise. In business Mr. Trump’s persona is that he is the biggest bully on the block or the whole city if you wanted to know. So, to be in character, Mr. Trump should have been chesty with Mr. Putin. Yet his persona was that of an underling toward a mafia don.

So, the big question is: what did he know about these Russian efforts and when did he know it. If he knew of them before his election and did nothing, he has committed treason. If he knew about them after his election and said nothing, which his ego would propel him to do, then he is guilty of several felonies. His ego, of course, would require that he won that election because he was Donald Fucking Trump, a proven winner, don’t you know.

His obsequious behavior toward Putin was a stupid move either way, because it created doubts in people’s minds as being otherwise inexplicable. Remember when we were trying to figure out what hold Putin had over Trump? Mr. Trump would have been better off posturing (chest beating, etc.; he knows the drill) in public and going “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean” in private with Mr. Putin. Putin would have understood, as he was getting exactly what he wanted in either case.

So, what did Mr. Trump know about these Russian efforts and when did he know it?

June 25, 2021

U.S. Billionaires Don’t Pay Taxes

I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you!

Recently a federal government official leaked the fact that over the past decade, U.S. billionaires effectively paid no federal tax. The response from the government was swift: a veritable thunderstorm of condemnation . . . of the leaker, with threats of FBI investigations into the leak, jail sentences, etc. Condemnation of the billionaires for “rigging the system?” Not so much.

Was there any difference between the Republican and Democratic Party’s reactions? A slight difference in style, maybe, but in content no. Gee, I wonder why that is?

Both political parties have been captured by the “rich donors” who fill party coffers. Since these “donors” are in the cadre of wealthy assholes paying few to no taxes, is this situation surprising to you?

Just another sign that the elites, the wealthy and powerful elites, are on their side of a line and the rest of us are on the other. And they are defending their privileges tooth and nail.

When the whistleblower law was enacted, it was framed as a protection for government officials and corporate officials who “leak” information that the public needs to know.

Isn’t this something we need to know? That the recent Republican tax cuts reduced already small tax burdens on the very rich down to no tax burden at all? And, guess who is going to make up for the lost revenue? (And you don’t get three guesses!)

I wonder how these rich assholes can complain about U.S. tax policy when they are paying no federal taxes at all. Chutzpah personified.

April 26, 2021

The Flaws of Capitalism

Filed under: Business,Economics,Morality,Politics,Reason,The Law — Steve Ruis @ 11:09 am
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The major flaw of capitalism, that it has no limit of even a brake on greed, I have pointed out before, but there are others. Here are a few.

It is claimed that capitalism provides the most efficient distribution of resources. That may or may not be true, but capitalism sure doesn’t do diddly-squat for the distribution of production wastes. There are a spare few examples in which capitalism did have an effect upon waste. A steel company was drawing some heat from the amount of waste they were producing. This waste stemmed from the “pickling acid” (actually hydrochloric acid) used to reduce corrosion of newly poured iron ingots. The acid “passivated” the iron but it also dissolved a bit of the iron and so “wore out” its ability to perform that task. They were dumping that liquid waste, some legally, other not so much and were drawing heat from the federal government (too much regulation, my ass). A consultant told them that their “spent” pickling acid contained a great deal of iron(III) chloride which could be sold on the market and much of the unused acid could be recycled. The sale of the iron(III) chloride and reuse of the acid reclaimed paid for the processing and, in fact, made a profit. Ta da! A capitalism success story. Unfortunately such stories are rare. Dumping of waste is the lazy and cost effective way to deal with it and has been for a very long time.

A capitalism horror story involved a battery recycling plant near Oakland, CA. This plant took car batteries, broke them down, and recycled the lead in them to make new car batteries. Sounds cool, no? Well, part of the process involved emptying the old batters of the fluid in them which was heavily acidic (sulphuric acid, stronger even than hydrochloric acid) and had a great deal of dissolved lead in it as well. So, how did they dispose of this nasty liquid? They poured out on a bare patch of ground out back behind their buildings . . . for decades. Evidence of this waste process was discovered many tens of miles (hundreds even) away as the ground water system spread it out to cover a large part of central California. We do not possess the resources or the techniques to clean this up. The company? Oh, they declared bankruptcy to avoid any liability on the part of those who did the deed.

Basically, capitalism abuses “the commons,” that is those things we hold in common: the air, our waterways, the ground and all of the systems operating therein. Capitalists pollute it, we clean it up. (We are still spending tax money to clean up Superfund sites from decades ago.)

Capitalism does a lousy job of distributing wages. As a prime example, CEOs in the 1950’s made 20-30 times what their average worker made. Today, more than a few CEO’s make 300-400X what their average worker makes. Wow, did CEOs increase productivity, knowledge, customer satisfaction, anything that much? Nope. If one could track CEO productivity (and that would be hard to do), I am sure that CEO salaries have rocketed ahead of any productivity measurement you could some up with. How is this so? It is so because the CEOs packed their own boards of trustees with friendly faces and when the issue of “CEO salary” came up they vote for “raise” every damned time. Some of these CEOs return the favor by serving on their friend’s boards so they could get unwarranted raises, too. Unwarranted salaries paid out to CEOs doesn’t end up in shareholder’s pockets, so how could this happen? Capitalism basically doesn’t care.

In this country we have come to view capitalism as a thing in itself, rather than a tool we wield. We think “it” does this and “it” does that when it is we who do everything. It is very, very (very) clear that unregulated capitalism is disastrous. So, why does one of our two major political parties campaign all of the time on a “less regulation” is better and “no regulation” is best platform? Shouldn’t we be searching for the best regulation and if not that, better regulation? Why would capitalists campaign against the thing that makes capitalism viable? Oh, it’s the greed thing again. Even rabid anti-socialist politicians will vote for corporate socialism almost every time and the reason they do? They are being paid generously, by capitalists, to do so. Apparently politics doesn’t limit greed either.

April 23, 2021

Greed, Capitalism, and Fixing It

I will start by quoting myself:

The Achilles Heel of capitalism is that there is no limit to greed. (Me)

This is hardly a novel position. As evidence I offer:

“No bound is set on riches for men” (Solon)

“Money is like sea water: The more you drink, the thirstier you get.” (a Roman proverb)

“Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)

The problem at the core of this problem is that wealth translates into political power. People with great wealth can use their wealth to buy political attention to their needs. Those needs always address their interests, the primary of which is maintaining and expanding their wealth.

So the big question is: “How do we fix this flaw” in the grand American experiment in self-governance? If greed results in the collapse of our society, as history shows that it will, how do we address it?

At first I was thinking of a bottom-up solution constructed of social pressures. One idea was that when people earn certain levels of wealth we would slap titles on them. Say, one a millionaire we would refer tot hem with the title of A Really Big Deal or Fat Cat. As their wealth increased with would come up with more and more disparaging titles that we would use publicly. Maybe at the ten million dollar wealth plateau, they would be Rich Assholes. At the Jeff Bezos level, maybe Filthy Rich Money-grubbing Obnoxious Asshole.

I have decided this won’t work as people have the attention spans of gnats nowadays and would be distracted by Brittany Spears news or something equally irrelevant, and stop following through.

There is a method that has worked for us and could work again and that is progressive taxation. During World War 2 the highest income tax bracket was close to 100%. Now, to clarify, that taxation rate was on earnings over $100,000 dollars when the average worker was making about $1885 per year (1942 figure). So, two points: this tax rate didn’t kick in until one had made $100,000 and only applied to the money earned after that $100,000 was earned. And $100,000 represented 53 times what the average worker made!

We generally craft tax brackets so there are small jumps in the tax rate between any two categories but that isn’t necessary. It could be 39% and then after $250,000 it could jump to 95%.

The consequences of doing this were made obvious when we had this system deployed. One consequence was that CEO salaries were about 20 time that of the average worker in their corporations instead of the 250-350 times we see now. And, instead of paying their CEOs ever more money, stock options, etc. They were treated with the trappings, or as they called them the perquisites, of their offices. They had lavishly decorated offices, with very expensive art work on the walls. They had company cars and trips on company airplanes, clothing budgets, and on and on. Many of these are now necessary to be declared as “income” for tax purposes, but they were not necessarily back then.

Of course to change the tax codes along these lines we would need to take back control of our Congress, but no matter what solution we come up with that task will be at the core, otherwise the wealth of the rich will result in laws undermining any system we set up.

And as part of the results of that “natural experiment” in economics that were our progressive tax rates after WW2, we found out that American corporations could be lead by leaders to become pre-eminent in the world without making 200 times or even 50 times, what their average worker made. CEOs have gamed the system to their benefit, not their corporations and not ours.

And, as you might not know, President Franklin Roosevelt brought the “captains of industry” and their ilk to the White House to strong arm them into accepting the high marginal tax rates with little to no protest using the scare of the Socialist Party of America, then one of the the largest socialist organizations in the world, and Labor Unions to make his point. They had to be given something otherwise labor chaos would result. (No business type likes labor chaos.).

Of course, priority one for the fat cats after WW2 was the destruction of the Socialist Party of America, which ceased operations on December 31, 1972 (and not because their goals had been met—Note another Socialist party rose from the ashes, in 1973, but it was and still is much smaller and almost entirely without political influence). And, as you probably know, union jobs in the US have shrunk from about a third in the 1950’s to around 7% today. This is due to a concerted effort on the part of the rich to de-fang labor unions, Our neighbor Canada still has the same level of union jobs as they had in the 1950’s, likewise about 33%, but they had no organized political effort to disempower their unions.

April 21, 2021

If We are Going to Pass Anti-blasphemy Laws We Should Know What Blasphemy Is

Filed under: Culture,Morality,Religion,The Law — Steve Ruis @ 11:07 am
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A number of high ranking officials in the Muslim world, most often it seems the President of Pakistan, have been suggesting that western nations really, really should pass anti-blasphemy laws.

So what is blasphemy?

Blasphemy is an insult that shows contempt, disrespect, or lack of reverence concerning a deity, a sacred object, or something considered inviolable. Some religions consider blasphemy to be a religious crime.” (Wikipedia)

But, you see, blasphemy is a religious crime, specific to each religion. You cannot generalize it. The churches themselves do not vehemently insist that you cannot blaspheme another religion. You can only blaspheme your own religion, they say. If you do try to generalize blasphemy so that it applies to all religions . . .
• Any Catholic who demeans a Protestant religion could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Any Hindu who demeans Muslims could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Any Muslim who demeans Hindus could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Any evangelical who bad mouths the Pope could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Any movie actor swearing according to script could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Political cartoonists could be charged with blasphemy on an almost daily basis.
•  Comedians could be charged with blasphemy on an almost daily basis.
•  Any one putting pineapple on a pizza could be charged with blasphemy.

Well, maybe not that last one.

Would we really want our courts bogged down with such cases? Plus, consider the complications. Would jurors be asked what their religion was during voire dire? (If so, what happens to the Constitutional “no religious test for public office/position” provision?) Would public defenders have to be the “right religion?” What would happen if the “church” of the religion so offended disagrees with the decision of our secular courts?

Think about what the standards for “showing a lack of respect” for a religion might entail. Where I come from, if you want respect, you have to earn it. Such laws would apparently give respect to all forms of worship (even worshipping Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?) whether it has been earned or not.

Can you imagine the religious brought into court for demeaning the worship of Satan? (Oh, please, please, please let it happen.)

I have no problem if religions want to chastise or punish members of their churches for such infractions. But when they try to impose their rules on the rest of us, that is where I draw the line. What’s next? Country clubs trying to impose their dress codes on the rest of the nation? Book clubs deciding what we can and cannot read?

I think these people have become a bit too full of themselves. I do know that for officials like the President of Pakistan, that this is a form of virtue signaling, but some less observant think he is serious in his demands.

March 20, 2021

The Massage Parlor Shootings

Filed under: Culture,History,Morality,Race,The Law — Steve Ruis @ 8:16 am
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It seems that everyone has some kind of opinion about why these killings were made. Waiting for the shooter to be interviewed and the investigation to be complete is apparently too much to ask. By the time we find out what his motivations were, we will have moved on to some new atrocity or other.

I am placing my bet right now, however. I am betting that that young man’s training occurred at the toxic intersection of white privilege and evangelical Christianity. Both “communities” prey on young men, distorting whatever values that might have had. One pushes hard on white supremacy, the other on male supremacy. Both blame others for any problems they experience. Both demonize “others” matter-of-factly.

Why do we keep doing this to ourselves and then protect the right to do so as something near sacred?

March 15, 2021

The Anti-American Big Corporations

When it became clear to corporate leaders that the rest of the manufacturing world was catching up, what was their response? If you believed their rhetoric, it would have been to double down on American workers. These leaders would have reached out to labor unions and partnered with them to devise ways to shove American productivity, then the highest in the world, even higher. This was necessary, it is said, because while other workforces were nowhere near as productive as ours (most were not even close), the low cost of the labor in many of those countries allowed for that lack of productivity and still allowed for very healthy profit margins.

So, the segment of our society we call “corporate leaders” saw the writing on the wall and did . . . what? They lifted up themselves on their own ideology (“My Country Right or Wrong” “This is the greatest country in the world!” “American exceptionalism is what guides commerce.” etc.), rolled up their sleeves . . . and moved their factories to countries with cheaper labor.

Not long after this “movement” swept the bulk of American manufacturing jobs overseas, it was shown that the lower productivities, the difficulty of managing factories from far away, and the increased transportation costs (for both raw materials and finished goods) ate up all or most of the so-called savings harvested by moving production facilities overseas.

So, why did they do it? Mostly, it was for purposes of tax avoidance. Tariffs were low, so not much had to be paid to import those “American Made” goods (yes, they still claimed they were American made because they were made in American owned factories). But by running their “earnings” through shell corporations in low tax countries they could reduce the taxes they paid substantially.

So, this country was still their country, right or wrong, but they didn’t want to pay for any of it in either case.

We tend to exalt these corporate tycoons, but based upon their behaviors, they should be seen as pariahs instead. The taxes they avoided have been picked up by others (the rest of us and in the form of national debt). They have used political power, through bribes, er campaign donations, to gut American labor laws even after hiring new labor forces in other countries. They hate unions, just hate them. It used to be that corporate power was opposed only by labor unions and the government (remember anti-trust actions?). They eliminated the labor unions by changing the laws protecting them and protecting workers. They eliminated the government opposition by bribery, er campaign donations, and co-opting regulators (who often go to nice jobs in the industries they regulated after they leave government).

We could eliminate tax havens with a stroke of a pen, by changing the tax laws that allow for them. That does not happen because the legislators have been bought off. We could disadvantage companies who move overseas, but we don’t (guess why).

All we have the power to actually do is to change their social standing. Instead of idolizing the Jeff Bezoses and Elon Musks of this country, we should call them out on their abuses of their workers and our tax laws. These are far from nice people, we shouldn’t give them elevated social status to further inflate their already inflated egos. We should, instead, elevate what they owe to the culture and country that made what they have done possible. We should demand a higher level of civil virtue the bigger they get (. . . from those according to their ability . . . , btw this is not just to be found in Marx, but also Christian scripture). Instead we expect them to only manifest the worst of us . . . greed. Corporations have been sold the bogus idea that they should direct their efforts only to maximizing shareholder value. (Gee, I wonder who promoted that bogus idea? Step One: Find an economist needing a bit of money. Step Two: have them promote your bogus idea. Step Three: Spread a bit more cash around in economic circles to get the idea discussed. Done.)

These are the same corporations that have been making money hand over fist during the pandemic and who supported a government approach to the problem that guaranteed that the pandemic would last longer than anyone thought. Never let a good catastrophe, er opportunity, go to waste.

We are reaping what we have allowed to be sown.

February 12, 2021

It is Time to Do Away with the Stock Markets

A couple of recent stories surrounding the stock market are indicative of why we need to do away with it.

#1 “Collapsed revenues, astronomical losses, red-hot cash-burn, hellish new debt. Meanwhile, amid craziest markets ever, airline shares soared.”

#2 A stock buyback – a company purchasing its own shares to reduce the number openly available and so push the price up – is a form of market manipulation that was illegal in the US until Ronald Reagan decided that to ban it was to restrict market freedom. As a result, many corporations, instead of building factories, now plough money into their own shares.

It has helped raise the stock market to record levels and provided shareholders with a huge bonus. But few others have benefited. The pharmaceutical company Merck insists that it must charge exorbitant amounts for its medicines to help fund new research. In 2018, the company spent $10 billion on research and development – and $14 billion on share repurchases and dividends. One report suggests that had Wal-Mart diverted half the money it has spent on stock buybacks into wages, one million of its lowest-paid employees, many of whom live below the poverty line, could have had a 50% pay increase.

#3 A bunch of Reddit geeks on the online forum r/wallstreetbets, an investment discussion group that boasts more than 6 million users, decided to buy GameStop shares en masse. Perhaps they saw it as an investment, perhaps they were bored, perhaps they wanted to inflict pain on Wall Street. Whatever the reason, the consequence was to push GameStop’s share price up. And up. Once it became a global story, others piled in too, boosting the share price from about $40 to almost $400 in a matter of days. As a result, big investors lost big (billions of dollars reportedly), one hedge fund, Melvin Capital Management, even being forced to seek a rescue package. (They, of course, were “shorting” that stock looking to make money by providing, well, nothing to earn it. So sad.)

The “stock market” as you were taught about in school barely exists. Some companies do “go public,” selling pieces of their company to raise the money to expand, modernize, whatever. But this activity constitutes less than 10% of the activity of the American stock markets. Most of the “market activity” is what are called the “secondary market” in which people buy and sell stocks already existing. This benefits the companies not at all and, as you can see from point #2 above, it is not unusual for a company to buy and sell its own stock to manipulate their stock’s price (which is what stock brokers are complaining about in point #3, that manipulation not being done by the right kind of people, don’t you know).

The entirety of the stock market has been studied and shown to be a drain on the economy, so why do we allow this abomination to exist? Basically wealthy people are siphoning off money from the economy by pushing paper in the stock markets, contributing nothing in return. But because they are wealthy, and contribute much money to the campaign coffers of politicians, there is no serious movement to “defund the stock markets” as it were.

The time has come: either get rid of it or place a transaction tax upon the traders. That would at least discourage rampant secondary market stock trading which has no value for the American people (actually it has negative value).

February 10, 2021

Religious Privilege and What It Buys Us

The wages of sin religious privilege are death.

This is quite worth reading, regarding recent Supreme Court rulings on religion.

No Place for Science in the Supreme Court’s Christian America

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