The Midnight Hunter Musings, ruminations and wild rants about life from the Midnight Hunter.

January 31, 2010

General Motors and Me

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 7:26 pm

General Motors and I are exactly alike.  Can’t you see the resemblance?

General Motors Headquarters Me

The Supreme Court of the United States of America sure can. As far as the “supremes” are concerned, GM and I are exactly alike, perfectly equal. This is all due to a colossally bad idea known as corporate personhood.  The idea of corporate personhood goes back only to the 19th century, when the Supreme Court first determined, in Dartmouth College v. Woodward that corporate charters were, in fact, contracts, and thus protected under the constitution, which prohibits states (but not the federal government, curiously) from passing laws “impairing the obligation of contracts”(Article 1 Section 10).

This all seems harmless enough; corporations, once chartered, can’t be simply legislated out of existence at whim. But in the 1880s the justices went a dramatic step forward, and in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad ruled that for the purposes of some rights granted in the United States Constitution, specifically, the 14th Amendment (the right to due process for all persons before state courts) corporations are equal to persons. Again, this might seem harmless, but it has ever since been used to claim that corporations are equivalent to so-called “natural persons” in virtually all circumstances.

Why is this such a colossally bad idea? Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad has opened the floodgates to a never-ending line of litigation opening various rights to corporations, the latest of which is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision guaranteeing to corporations the “right to free speech.” This decision is problematical for several reasons. Perhaps at some other time I’ll discuss the problem of equating the spending of money with speech, but for now I’ll remain focused on the problem of corporate personhood.

In the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the Supreme Court essentially gutted campaign finance reform on the basis that corporations (which include not only for-profit businesses, but also unions, non-governmental organizations, universities, churches, Rotary Clubs, you name it…) are just the same as people, albeit “people” with billions of dollars and the ability to cajole and coerce their employees and members into contributing even more dollars to their “free speech”.

The real problem with corporate personhood, however, comes when those corporate persons break the law, or act in ways that harm society. If you or I, natural persons, break the law by stealing a large sum of money, or causing the death or serious injury of another person, we will likely be sent to prison for a number of years. If the offense is grave enough, we might even be subject to capital punishment. But despite all the erstwhile claims of equivalence, when corporations break the law the consequences are orders of magnitude smaller. If I am put in prison for ten years, I am unable to do very much of anything I might like. A corporation committing the same act might receive a fine, usually amounting to no more than a month or two worth of income, and often far, far less than even that. Even worse, a large enough corporation simply pays a few hundred lobbyists or bribes (legally or illegally) a few politicians to legislate ex post facto immunity for the corporation and no penalty is paid at all.

It is this inequity in the way natural persons and corporations are treated when the law is broken that is most problematic. It has engendered a complete contempt for the law and a total disregard for the welfare of our society among the titans of corporate boardrooms. It has also encouraged widespread apathy toward and distrust of our government and justice system among natural persons who see our corporate “equals” treated very unequally. The most recent behavior that resulted in the Great Recession of the 2000’s is but the most recent, and hardly the most egregious example.

Corporate personhood is not the only way to protect the contractual obligations of businesses. It creates fundamentally and inescapably unequal “persons” and ensures that they will be treated preferentially before the courts and the legislature. It is, in short, a colossally bad idea.

Until the Revolution, Yours,


January 16, 2010

Walls Tumbling Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 5:07 pm

Like most everyone else with a computer or TV set on this little planet, I’ve been watching with awe and horror the images from Haiti this past week. Unlike most, I’ve actually been to Port-au-Prince and have images of the city that were already in my head, which have been competing with these latest images all week, images of a somewhat happier, definitely less devastated time. Elsewhere on my website you can read a story of one of my experiences in Haiti, Schools Are Heavy. I am excerpting a small part of the story here:

Traveling through the city you had noticed that everything here hides behind walls.  There were no yards, no parking lots, no plazas, no open, empty lots in the city, only walls.  Some were simple cinderblock affairs, unpainted and uninviting.  Some were stucco or cement, studded with shells or bright colored stones.  Some were even painted with fading murals.  They had corrugated metal gates, heavy steel gates, painted wooden gates or even ornate wrought iron, but everywhere there were walls.  Now you were in the country and instead of seeing the occasional pleasant farmhouse you saw… walls.  And the further from the city, the more inventive the walls.  Lack of money, it seemed, was no barrier to constructing walls.  Stones and hedges replaced cinderblock as the day wore on.  And somewhere about the center of the island, you saw the most enterprising and forbidding wall of them all: a neatly trimmed prickly-pear cactus wall.  And you learned, this land is all about walls.

At 4:48 on Tuesday, January 12, those walls, which have for so long sheltered and protected the Haitian people, came tumbling down, killing, maiming and entombing tens, likely hundreds of thousands of people. I urge you to give what you can to help the Haitian people in this hour of distress.

January 9, 2010

The New Liberum Veto

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 9:42 pm

As I was walking home from the gym this morning I thought about how the US congress has become so much like the Polish Sejm of the Middle Ages. Admittedly, this may seem like a strange non-sequitur; perhaps due to the effects of the extreme cold on my addled brain. Most people trudging home in 14 degree cold would be thinking of warm places like Florida, but I really don’t like Florida, or other such places, so my mind focuses on other things.  Anyway, I digress.

What do the United States Congress and the Sejm, or parliament, of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth have in common? The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a large and powerful nation that evolved in the Middle Ages. Poland at that time was larger and further east than the modern nation. The commonwealth included central and eastern Poland, Lithuania and Belarus, much of modern Latvia and Ukraine and parts of Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia and Russia. It was a remarkable nation; a powerful, multi-ethnic and multi-religious state noted for it’s tolerance. Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians and even some Protestants and Muslims lived in the Commonwealth. Dozens of nationalities lived within its borders. It was ruled by an elected monarch and what was at the time perhaps the most powerful legislature in the world. Surrounded by absolute monarchies and despots, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the beacon of liberty in it’s day. With it’s famous winged Hussars, it also saved Europe from the advances of the Ottoman Empire, breaking the siege of Vienna, making it a sort of seventeenth century superpower.

The Polish Sejm, however, developed over time an institution known as the Liberum Veto, which would prove it’s and the nation’s undoing. The basic premise of the Liberum Veto was that any member of the legislature could veto any legislation. This was further amplified by the fact that all legislation that passed the Sejm in a given session was lumped together as a single resolution, therefore, the Liberum Veto negated not just a single piece of legislation, but the entire legislative session. Over time, the political environment in the Commonwealth became more and more fragmented and contentious while Poland’s neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary grew more powerful and learned to manipulate the various factions in the Sejm to weaken and ultimately dismantle the state. Poland was partitioned three times and by the end of the eighteenth century ceased to exist.

What are the similarities to the United States congress? The answer is quite simple; the evolution of the institution of the Senate filibuster. As absurd as the Liberum Veto appears to us today, the current system of filibuster and cloture in the US Senate certainly would have appeared equally absurd to the framers of the American constitution, who witnessed the partition and elimination of the Polish nation from 1772 to 1795.  The filibuster, which is based on the Senates parliamentary rules and is not mentioned (nor is cloture) anywhere in the constitution, was first employed in 1837. Cloture, the vote of a super majority (originally two thirds of the Senate, presently 60 votes) to end debate and call the question, was introduced in 1917 as a means to improve the situation. In reality, it has only gotten worse.

As American politics has become more and more contentious and the Senate more partisan, the ultimate result is a de-facto Liberum Veto, in which currently nearly all legislation requires sixty senate votes to pass. In the current environment, it is impossible to imagine the passage of bills such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation of the New Deal, or even the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. The result is an ineffective legislature unable to address the nation’s health care crisis, civil rights for gays and lesbians, reform of corporate governance or any other serious threat to the civil and financial health of the nation.

The Liberum Veto evolved as a means of protecting vulnerable minorities within a diverse multi-ethic state. Many would argue that the filibuster is likewise a means of preventing majorities from running rough-shod over minorities in our sprawling and diverse nation. While the current system of filibuster and cloture is clearly not the same as the Sejm’s Liberum Veto, the Liberum Veto, and it’s ultimate impact on the survival of the state, provide a sobering object lesson on the use of parliamentary tactics to subvert the will of the majority.  History’s verdict has been deservedly unkind to the Liberum Veto, and I’ve not doubt it will be likewise of the filibuster and cloture.

Until the revolution, yours,


January 3, 2010

Great Books … Great Recordings?

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 8:46 pm

A couple of seemingly unrelated threads came converged in my head one recent evening.  I’ve been considering buying an ebook (the Sony Daily Edition is the target of my current interest). Getting actually close to purchasing the device, I’m now considering just what to put on it, which rekindled my interest in the old concept of the Great Books… that list of fine literature which some academics in the early or mid twentieth century determined to represent the epitome of Western civilization, and which several major universities built their liberal arts curriculum around.

In an originally unrelated event, I received from my parents for Christmas a boxed set of CDs of the original Columbia recordings of Simon and Garfunkel; 5 great albums, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM; Sounds of Silence; Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme; Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Listening to these albums again (I already owned a boxed set of the albums on vinyl, but rarely fire up the turntable anymore) I was struck by the thought: “What are the Great Albums that one simply cannot be fully “literate” in Western culture without the knowledge of?” After all, the idea of the Great Books was that they are relevant to the great ideas and issues that have occupied the minds of great thinkers through the centuries.  Isn’t music a part of that conversation as well? Rolling Stone has compiled a list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, but their criteria are not the same as mine, they are more interested in the musical influence than the greater cultural influence. Of course, recorded music is a phenomenon of only the past century or so, with Johannes Brahms being perhaps the first recorded musician, and his wax cylinder recording (made by a representative of Thomas Edison) being barely recognizable today. Still, a century is long enough for the medium to have an impact on the great minds of the recent past, and certainly on those of today.

So what are the great recordings? Here’s a short list of albums I consider to be worthy of cut:

  • Tapestry (Carole King, 1971)
  • Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (Simon and Garfunkel, 1966)
  • Revolver (The Beatles, 1966)
  • Dust Bowl Ballads (Woody Guthrie, 1940)
  • Time Out (Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1959)
  • Bringing it All Back Home (Bob Dylan, 1965)
  • Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan, 1965)
  • Déjà Vu (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1970)
  • Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould, 1955)
  • In the Wee Small Hours (Frank Sinatra, 1955)
  • Getz/Gilberto (Stan Getz, João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, 1964)
  • West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast) (1957)
  • Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)

There are many other important albums I’ve not mentioned here, either because my poor memory fails me, or they are of a genre I’m not much familiar with, or because, although they are beautiful, excellent albums, they haven’t contributed to the greater conversation in Western culture. And there are single songs that rise above the rest of an album to reach that level (Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones quickly comes to mind). But as far as I’m concerned, this baker’s dozen albums is unquestionably a part of the conversation.  Your thoughts?

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