Sunday, February 23, 2014

In Defense of the Legal Profession

I entered the legal profession because of my strong belief that it was a noble profession and could do much to defend the weak from the powerful and fight against injustice. After more than 50 years in this profession I have not changed my mind but get a little weary of the legal profession being blamed for a multitude of sins—especially by the right-wing elements that seem to speak so loudly today. 

The Tea Party, in particular, seems to have bought into the Republican strategy of demonizing lawyers. Those who attack the legal profession need to expand their study of American History beyond the Boston Tea Party.  History will show that lawyers, more than members of any other profession, were leaders in creating a nation of free men.  At the writing of the Constitution dubbed “the miracle in Philadelphia,” there were more lawyers present and participating at the risk of being hanged than any other profession.  Had the conservatives in the 1700s had their way, America would still be under the rule of Great Britain.

While lawyers are vilified as greedy ambulance chasers who add nothing to the good of society, history proves this characterization absolutely wrong. 

Lawyers were in the forefront of fighting to protect the right of working men and women to organize themselves into unions and try to secure better wages and working conditions.  Lawyers fought the brave fight when companies such as those owned by Rockefeller and other billionaires were actually shooting union members for daring to form picket lines around their businesses.

Lawyers were blamed for the high costs of medical care when the Republican conservatives in Texas passed so-called medical tort reform on the theory it would lessen the costs of medical care.  This has proven to be a lie.  If you don’t believe this, simply check the last bill you received from a medical provider.  While it may have increased the profits for hospitals and other medical providers, it’s done little to lessen your medical bills.

Were it not for lawyers, working men and women in industry would still be contracting asbestosis and other industrial diseases.  While industry covered up this horrendous attack on working people, lawyers, to their credit, uncovered it and sought justice for those condemned to an agonizing death caused by some greedy industrialists simply wanting a better profit.

Lawyers have led the fight for justice, for minorities, women, safer automobiles, and the efforts to stop environmental poisoning by various industrial plants throughout the nation.

Conservatives, particularly in Texas, have continued their unrelenting attack to make it harder for injured workers to receive a fair jury trial. And, most recently, the Republican Supreme Court has ruled that arbitration agreements forced bypowerful companies against individual workers are okay.  All of this is done in the guise of trying to provide a cheaper method of resolving disputes when, in fact, all it does is empower the rich and powerful at the expense of individual workers and ignores the mandate of the United States Constitution that American citizens should have access to jury trials.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Education Over Corporate Welfare

Rick Perry has spent almost 4 million dollars of tax money on his security detail whilee traipsing across the United States running for president--oftentimes under the guise of trying to promote economic growth for the state of Texas.  He tends to boast that Texas has a good business climate because of lack of regulation, lack of lawsuits and low wages.  Unfortunately, if examined closely, Perry’s boasting of what a vibrant state Texas is and will be has a hollow ring.  Our lack of regulation is clearly in part responsible for the tragic explosion in a small town in central Texas which virtually leveled the city.  Lack of motivation of threatened lawsuits has made Texas’ workplace one of the most unsafe in the nation, for the past several years, leading the country in job deaths almost every year.  While low-wage workers may attract some businesses, it attracts only those greedy employers who want to get rich on the back of labor.  None of these factors bode well for the future of our state.  Low-wage jobs are not the future of the state of Texas, and have thus far brought us more poverty, more hungry children, fewer people with adequate medical coverage, and a multitude of other problems which nobody in their right mind would view as a firm foundation for a good future for our state.

Perry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, dolling out through such gimmicks as his Emerging Technology Fund, mostly to his pals who donated money to his various campaigns.   He points to this as a way to stimulate a growing economy in our state, but of the several businesses which have been helped with an investment of over 300 million dollars, 16 of these have filed for bankruptcy and have shut down. 

While Perry and his fellow travelers always come up with the old adage that you can’t fix education by throwing money at it, they apparently believe the same is not true about fixing the economy.  While they don’t seem to have any problem pouring money into a program where a substantial number of the recipients of the state’s largess went bankrupt, they seem to have no problem robbing the school children of Texas of over 5 billion dollars.

I would submit to the people of Texas that a vision for the future of this state should include more emphasis on providing high quality education and preparing for high paying jobs for future generations rather than doling out corporate welfare to investors who are big donors to our top government officials.

Friday, February 14, 2014

On Public Education

I have a theory that people who love the Constitution enough to carry it in their breast pocket sometimes fail to read it all.  Likewise, those that thump the Bible and parade their Christianity before the public for political reasons probably have never read the Bible from cover to cover.  Whether you are religious or not, the Bible contains a great deal of good advice and wisdom.  Proverbs 29:18 says in part, “Where there is no vision the people perish...”  Unfortunately, it seems to me there is a good deal of shortage of vision among our current legislature.  The most glaring example is failure of our entire system to look forward to the next two to three generations of Texas schoolchildren with regard to an educated population.

A recent editorial by Bill King, syndicated columnist in The Houston Chronicle, reminded me of the problem with blurred vision as it relates to education.

While I was serving on the Perot Committee in preparation for our major overhaul of public education in the 1980's, we took a look at other systems throughout the world.  Most Asian countries are beating the socks off of American students, particularly  in math and science.  As a matter of fact, American students do not even rank in the top 10 worldwide in academic achievement.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that part of the problem is that every developed nation of the world, except us, devotes considerably more time to schooling its children.  As Bill King pointed out in his recent article, the Texas system of education, along with many other states, grew up when America was an agrarian, farm-oriented country.  Children were needed, particularly at harvest time, to help bring in the crops and provide a living for the family.  In the 1800's Texas legislators were very mindful of this and patterned the requirement for free public education around this agrarian system.  The reason for the system has long since departed, but other special interest factors are causing us to cling to a shorter school year than most any other nation. 

The old adage that money talks could never be truer than in the area of public education in Texas.  Disneyland and “Camp Wahoo” have consistently, since I was in the Legislature, won out when the argument arises about why we should devote more time to teaching our children.  Every time there is an effort to increase the school year from 180 days to something more, those people with special interests who run fancy camps throughout Texas and the travel industry come out of the woodwork to oppose the measure with their army of lobbyists.  Thus far, it’s been a one-sided battle with the money folks winning out over a vision for an educated population. 

The sad part of it all is that every logical factor speaks loudly in favor of shortening summer vacation and increasing the school year for learning.  First of all, research has shown that with a long summer vacation children forget a lot they were taught at the beginning of the school year.  Secondly, it does not make sense to have a multi-billion dollar investment in school buildings throughout the state of Texas sit idle for almost 1/4 of the year.  I suspect also that teachers would fare better with their quest for better pay should they take away the argument that teachers only work 9 months of the year--which of course is false, and the accusation is particularly rich coming from a part-time biennial legislature. 

When my conservative friends get through with my recommended Bible reading--which in full reads "Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he."-- I strongly further suggest they read again the provision in the Texas Constitution that’s been there for almost 150 years.  It says, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to thepreservation of liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of theLegislature of the state to establish and make suitable provisions for thesupport and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”  Anyone who believes our current system of public education in Texas is an efficient system of free public schools may be dreaming--but without vision, and without the benefit of compliance with the law.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Pox on Democrats and Republicans Alike

A recent article by a syndicated columnist, Gene Lyons, pointed out that neither Republicans nor Democrats were doing very much to create jobs or lay a lasting foundation for the future economic prosperity of America.  The current hot issue in Congress centers around extending unemployment benefits.  Democrats advocate a longer extension of benefits for the longtime unemployed, while the Republicans advocate cutting them off to incentivize those not working to redouble their efforts to find a productive slot in the American economy. Neither solution does very much for the long-term economic growth of our nation.

While I am certainly a fan of capitalism, I still subscribe to the thought of one of my old economic professors from college.  ProfessorRobert Montgomery in his lecture entitled “Socialists’ Control of Industry” pointed out there are some needs of our society which cannot be met by the motivations of capitalism and investment alone. Some endeavors do not lend themselves to competition and are not well-motivated by profit alone for the social good.  Several glaring examples of where government needs to step in and provide an orderly operation of things are transmission of the airwaves--radio and television, control of air travel and our air space, flood control and medical treatment.  While some capitalistic purists believe private enterprise will eventually take care of our ever-increasing medical care costs, experience proves otherwise.  America is the only developed countryin the world with no government program to control the cost of health caredelivery.  As a result, our system places adequate healthcare out of reach for many of our citizens with serious health care needs.

Another example of the need for government participation in the best interest of our country and communities is right here in Southeast Texas.  If our refining industry is to continue receiving its life blood of crude oil and other raw materials necessary for refining, then government involvement is absolutely imperative.  Private industry would never be able to afford or be motivated to give us an adequate waterway leading from the Gulf of Mexico to Beaumont.  A classic example of partisanship and lack of vision can be related to this phenomenon by viewing the fact that both of our United States Senators from Texas voted against the measure to give Southeast Texas a waterway which could accommodate supertankers of the future.

While not claiming to be a national economist, I do believe common sense suggests at least three things which would enhance our present economy and lay a good foundation for the future.  First, increase the minimum wage in the United States to at least $10.  I doubt seriously if doing so would injure the viability or profitability of mega-corporations such as Walmart, the major oil companies, or even Papa John’s pizza.  All of these entities are reaping record profits in the millions, if not billions.  It seems 2-3% less in their profits could mean a great deal to their employees should they increase their pay from $7.50 or $8.00 an hour to $10.  I’ve had experience in a low-wage service job myself.  My first hourly employment was as a dishwasher at a drive-in for $.35 an hour when I was 15.  Like others stuck in such low-wage endeavors, I generally would spend every penny I made.  At the very least, Henry Ford had it right.  He had the vision to see that paying record wages to his Ford Motor Company employees would enable them to become better consumers and able to afford buying one of his Model-Ts.  It is a fact: low wage earners by necessity spend everything they make.  It takes little imagination to understand that a minimum wage increase would at thevery least help the sales of goods and services throughout our country.

The second thing I would do is have our country as well as states individually begin to make giant investments in our declining infrastructure.  Thousands of bridges across the nation, for example, are in serious decline--some to the point of becoming a danger to transportation.  Massive investments in roads, bridges, schools and even national parks would serve us well in the future and create jobs which are presently so needed.  This should be done, even at the risk of borrowing more money at the state and federal levels.  Money has never been so cheap, and the future benefits of economic stimulation would more than allow our states and federal government to make up for the deficit spending for future generations. 

Third, and probably most important, throughout the country, both at the state and federal levels, a greater effort should be made to make education more easily accessible.  There has been a trend in the last 20 years to privatize public education and make it more out of reach for the average, middle class American.  Too many of our elected officials continue to believe gimmicks can solve our educational shortcomings, and such an attitude continues to be proven wrong time after time.  Our nation willreap huge benefits for every investment we make in education--particularly investment geared to technology and trends of the future.  To make this happen, however, we must make adequate investment and adjust our attitude to more highly revere those who choose the career of educating our fellow citizens.

Political partisanship and gridlock are not solving our present problems, nor do they provide visionary leadership for the future for our country.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

…on Freedom of Speech

 My mother, who turned 99 last month, is quite naturally a throwback to old school ways of doing things.  She believes all people should be civil to one another.  One of her favorite clichés is that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.

We are fortunate to live in a nation where we have unbridled free speech; and while it is a wonderful privilege, I think we are gradually reaching a point to where it is misused.  Many nations of the world provide harsh penalties for criticizing their leaders.  Imagine what would happen in North Korea should a commentator on television, or even a comedy program, refer to its current leader as a little short, fat, frump. He would probably meet the same fate the North Korean leader’s uncle met recently.

In general, Americans, Texans in particular, feel very comfortable saying most anything to their elected officials.  “They work for me,” they say, “why shouldn’t I be able to tell them anything I want,” no matter how demeaning or insulting.  I will forever defend the right of citizens to criticize their elected leaders, but there are ways it can be done without being hurtful, mean and too often non-productive.

Another reason elected officials are the target of unkind and even slanderous accusations is the state of the law relating to libel and slander in America.  In order to assure a free press without inhibition, the Supreme Court of the United States has decreed that in order for a public figure (most elected officials are considered public figures) to be successful in a suit for libel or slander, he or she must prove not only that the statement made about them is false and slanderous, but it was made intentionally with the motive to harm.  Recent  cases have decreed that the statement itself could not be used as proof of intentioned harm.  This, as a practical matter, in most cases makes it almost impossible for an elected official to win a lawsuit for libel or slander.

Adding to the long-suffering of public officials who have to undergo insulting, slanderous or ugly things said about them is the explosion of the electronic media.  Unfortunately, even bloggers are covered by the same protections as described above which are enjoyed by major news outlets such as television or newspapers.  Anyone with a computer can, in most instances, enjoy the protection granted to all media on the theory of full disclosure to the public of what elected officials are doing or not doing. 

As an elected official, I developed a fairly thick skin and paid little attention to stupid comments like, “All politicians are just in it for what they can get”  “All elected officials are crooks”  “Most people who are elected to office are stupid;” and on and on to ad nauseam.   I and other elected officials develop various defense mechanisms to deal with these kinds of stupid confrontations.  For example, one of my pet peeves was the person who would walk up to you, get into my face and say, “You don’t remember my name, do you?”  I would generally, if there was an audience, reply, “How could I forget someone who I got out of jail.”  Usually it would amuse the onlookers but not the perpetrator of the stupid question.  I probably was not as politically correct as Barbara Jordan whose response to such a question was more politic.  When confronted with the one among several thousand constituents demanding to know whether or not she remembered their name, when asked, “Do you remember my name?” Barbara would glare at them with her dark countenance and respond, “Should I?”

It would be a good thing if constituents would remember that elected officials are people too and deserving of some modicum of respect.  In the event you approach your elected representative with a barb that makes you feel good, you shouldn’t take offense if he or she responds in kind.  We would all be better off if all of us could remember what my mother said: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”