Laws are not absolute, but the rule of law should be

I broke the law yesterday.

I went out to grab some lunch and on the way I found myself going 38 miles per hour. The posted speed limit was 35. According to Section 257.627(16) of the Michigan Vehicle Code (Act 300 of 1949, as amended):

A person who violates a speed limit established under this section is responsible for a civil infraction.

I probably exceeded the 35 mph limit on the way home, too. Obviously, I’m a habitual offender of this law. I’m sorry.

There were no police officers observing my deviant behavior to issue the required civil infraction. But it’s likely that even if they had, they wouldn’t have stopped me. I wasn’t racing; I wasn’t weaving through traffic like I was in a Fast and Furious sequel; I was in full control of my vehicle. I was just a bit over the posted limit, and (most of the time) the police have more critical things to do than pull a driver over for that.

(I have been pulled over for speeding. Once. I was going 34 in a 25 mph zone. I honestly thought the speed limit was 35, though that’s not an excuse. Since I had no points on my record, the officer let me off with a warning.)

Another example: I was a high school football official for several years, primarily as an umpire, who is normally stationed behind the defensive line and is responsible for watching for holding by the interior linemen during a play. You may have heard that it’s possible to call holding on every play. In my experience, that’s true. It takes an incredible amount of discipline not to grab onto an opponent, especially if you think he’s starting to get around you. So there’s often holding on plays.

But I didn’t throw a flag on every play, and there’s not a coach or player who wanted me to. The rule says offensive linemen can’t close their hands on an opponent’s jersey or wrap their arms around them to restrain them. If it affects the outcome of the play, by opening a hole for a runner or preventing a defender from reaching the quarterback and allowing them to complete a pass, it has to be called. If it’s blatantly obvious, like one of the guards full-on tackling the oncoming rusher, it has to be called (even if it was away from the point of attack). But a bit of grabbing on a straight-ahead block generally won’t get called; a lot of the time the umpire can’t even see it if it’s done between the shoulders of the defender’s body.

This doesn’t mean that the rules of football, like speed limits, should be ignored. The rules are there to draw a “line in the sand.” While a few miles per hour over the limit will generally be tolerated by the police, going 55 in a residential neighborhood should get you pulled over, and at the least get you a “civil infraction” per Section 257.627(16). A bit of clutch and grab is hard to detect, but a WWE-style takedown of a linebacker will get a flag every time.

So laws and rules can be flexible. Our commitment to them, and our consent to live by them, can’t be. If I decide that traffic laws don’t apply to me, I become a danger to myself and to my community. If I determine that football’s laws are just restrictions on my freedom to play the game any way I choose, I no longer belong on the field. Laws and rules make society tenable. They keep the game fair for everyone. Rejecting them leads to chaos.

There are a lot of people today who no longer think that the rule of law applies to them. Their pick-and-choose attitudes toward laws (very supportive of the Second Amendment, for example, but not so much on public health policies such as masks or vaccines) have been abetted by our leaders. Instead of enforcing existing laws, we spend time negotiating and appeasing those who have rejected the concept of the common good, which is what the rule of law represents.

The recent disturbances in downtown Ottawa are an excellent example. Here’s a photo from Google Street Maps of Wellington Street, just in front of the Parliament building:

Parliament Building, Ottawa, September 2021 (source: Google Maps)
Parliament Building, Ottawa, September 2021 (source: Google Maps)

See that “No Stopping” sign? I’m pretty sure if I drove to Ottawa and just stopped my pickup truck at the spot in the picture, the Ottawa police would rather quickly show up and suggest that I move along. If I brought a few dozen of my pickup and semi-tractor driving friends along, it might complicate the issue, but the law itself wouldn’t change… just the authorities’ response to the situation we’ve created.

There’s now a debate over the Canadian government’s invoking of the Emergencies Act to resolve the three week long standoff in Ottawa, but it seems to me that the whole thing might not have escalated as it did if they’d simply enforced the existing law.

(As an aside, isn’t it impressive that Canadians still have such open access to their seat of government? That may change due to the events of that past few weeks, which is a shame.)

Sometimes governments are concerned that enforcing the law will make them seem repressive. If the laws themselves are repressive, they should be changed, but respecting the rule of law by enforcing them is not repression.

If you’re not willing to follow the rules when circumstances demand it, then what are the rules good for?

“The presidency is not a popularity contest.”

Joe Biden’s popularity with the American public continues to decline, per FiveThirtyEight:

To be clear, Biden wasn’t very popular to begin with. On Inauguration Day, only 53% of us approved, while 36% disapproved (leaving about 11 percent withholding judgement, which seems prudent now). That figure was at or below nearly every president since Harry S Truman, and only significantly higher than The Former Guy.

His current 42.9% number is similarly higher than few recent presidents after 286 days in office. (Trump had the worst number at only 38% approval, with Gerald Ford – who admittedly had a lot working against him, especially after pardoning Nixon – only slightly higher at 38.4%.)

What’s causing this erosion in popularity? Has he been charging the federal government millions of dollars to have international visitors, lobbyists, and staff stay at his hotels and golf courses? Nope. Has he been insulting minorities and our allies? Again, no. Has he proposed wide-reaching, xenophobic “travel bans” aimed at members of a particular religion? Not that I’ve noticed.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about Biden to begin with. I’m old enough to remember when, during the 1988 presidential primary race, he was caught plagiarizing in a speech, and it later came out that he’d done the same thing in law school. Plagiarism is hardly a capital offense, but it does open up a question of overall honesty, and frankly, he’s never really recovered from that in my mind. I voted for him for the same reason I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016; he wasn’t Donald J. Trump. (I’m also old enough to remember that Trump has been a punchline for decades.)

Back in March, I wrote that if the Democrats weren’t able to move significant legislation through Congress in 2021, they’d pay for it in 2022:

If Democrats are unable to move significant legislation through both houses of Congress and to the president’s desk in the next two years, they will lose control of one or both houses. Republicans will be able to point at their inability to act, and they’ll be right. The time has come for bold action on the filibuster; if not eliminating it altogether, at least modifying it to require that those filibustering a bill actually hold the floor (and stopping all Senate business altogether while doing so), or perhaps reducing the number of votes required for cloture depending on how long the filibuster has gone on (60 for the first three hours, 58 for the next three, and so on). Democrats have the majority today. They should start acting like it.

Some of the president’s popularly decline is due to the relentless lying from the right-wing media, that mostly reaches those who already hated Biden because he wasn’t Trump. But some of that vitriol seeps onto the more independent-minded centrists who are malleable enough to be influenced against whoever the current president is based on the braying of media pundits.

But I think quite a bit of the decline is from Democrats themselves, who had great hopes for transformative work from a Congress that’s nominally controlled by their party. In return for that faith in November, they’ve gotten pretty much nothing. The filibuster allows Mitch McConnell and the Republican minority to dictate what can and what can’t be seriously considered in the Senate. And Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin get to be kingmakers by refusing to go along with the elimination, or even the modification, of the filibuster rules. I’m not even certain what they want anymore outside of being the center of attention.

Biden himself is such a creation of the Senate that I think he finds it hard to imagine changing the filibuster. So he hasn’t pushed very hard for that. It needs to be done, however, and soon. As the calendar flips into 2022, all of the congress critters will go into full-time re-election mode (as if they ever leave that mode anymore!) and nothing – or perhaps more accurately, less than nothing – will get done.

Al Gore said “The presidency is more than a popularity contest.” As a leader, when you do the right things, it may lose you popularity points, and it may take months or years for the positive outcomes of your actions to be reflected in people’s retroactive judgement of you. Some of us had hopes that Joe Biden could be the type of leader who could cajole his party to make the hard decisions needed to move us away from the Trump era. So far, those hopes have turned out to be hollow, and it’s reflected in the poll numbers.

Our exit strategy is death

Craig Newmark founded Craigslist in 1995. A dozen years later – at which point Craigslist was a senior citizen by venture-capital-fueled Internet standards – Newmark was asked for the umpteenth time, “When are you going to sell your company and cash out?” In other words, what was his “exit strategy?”

His response was (more or less) “My exit strategy is death.” He’s repeated that sentiment many times since. He retired from day-to-day operations at Craigslist in 2016 to focus on his philanthropic efforts (Forbes estimated in 2017 that the company was worth $3 billion, making Newmark – who’s assumed to own at least 40% of the company – worth around $1.3 billion or so.) He has no plans to sell Craigslist to any of the many suitors who’ve come calling over the years, nor is he interested in further monetizing the site, which remains pleasantly archaic in appearance and functionality in 2021, yet likely brings in several hundred million dollars per year.

Newmark’s approach continues to be refreshingly offbeat in a world where the quick buck is treasured. But his plan was based on real information, which we used to call “facts,” and led him to make the decisions that turned Craigslist from a San Francisco-based mailing list helping locals find Bay Area arts and entertainment events to a global company that was truly one of the Internet’s first “social networks.” (Fortunately, his stewardship of Craigslist meant it didn’t turn into a platform with the power to destroy American democracy itself, *cough* “Facebook” *cough*.)

On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the endless misinformation campaign, led by right-wing media such as Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax, as well as *cough* “Facebook” *cough*, against the COVID-19 vaccines has been wildly successful in convincing nearly half of Americans that the vaccines are part of a widespread government plot to steal their guns, make pedophilia legal, and turn the U.S. into a freedom-hating socialist state. COVID cases are rising nearly everywhere as we’ve seen vaccination rates taper off and everyone, including the non-vaccinated who should still be wearing masks, tossed those masks away and started hanging out in crowded restaurants and bars again. Only this time, nearly everyone who is being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 is unvaccinated:

Appeals to reason and common sense haven’t worked. Most of those who say they still won’t get vaccinated overlap very neatly with those who think the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Despite all the evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective (and that there was no “steal” to be stopped when it comes to the presidential election), these folks are sure that’s all “fake news.” Until it isn’t:

Maybe if enough unvaccinated people start becoming seriously, even permanently, ill – or perhaps even dying from COVID-19 – it will start to convince the doubters that the only way we can escape endless waves of COVID-19 infections is by getting shots in the arms of everyone who can be vaccinated. Nothing else seems to be working to change minds.

It’s a morbid thought, but perhaps our best shot at an exit strategy from COVID is death.

A change is gonna come

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

From “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1964)

Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd this afternoon.

A white police officer was convicted of killing a Black man. That happens so rarely in the United States that, even in 2021 and even after watching the incontrovertible video footage and emotional eyewitness testimony, there was no guarantee that the jury would return a guilty verdict. But they did, and justice wins – this time.

As a white man approaching the end of six decades living in America, it may be that my satisfaction over the outcome isn’t important. I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, in the 1970s, just as the schools were desegregated by court order. Since third grade, I’ve watched as my Black friends, despite Congress passing and the legal system attempting to enforce laws designed to promote their civil rights (and by extension my own), continued to face discrimination and racism. I’ve seen us slide backwards over the past decade or so, from the election and re-election of Barack Obama (which was so hopeful and was, frankly, something I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime) to the nakedly nationalist and xenophobic Trump presidency.

I’ve tried throughout my life to remain an ally for civil rights of all people. Unfortunately, white people are often self-satisfied by their symbolic gestures of support while not really doing very much of substance to change things in America, which leaves a justifiable skepticism on the part of those who have been repeatedly let down by the system. As Stevie Wonder sang in “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”:

But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
‘Cause if you really want to hear our views
You haven’t done nothin’.

Stevie recorded that song in 1974, 47 years ago. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” was ten years before that. And here we are in 2021, still wondering whether a jury will find a white police officer guilty of murder, even though we could all see it as it actually happened. Even now, Chauvin’s attorney thought criticizing George Floyd for not being perfect, for having character flaws and personal demons, for being, you know, different and not worthy of respect, might just get Chauvin off in the eyes of the jury. At least this time it didn’t work.

A change is gonna come. Perhaps a small step in that direction happened today. But not if we – and particularly white Americans – think the job is finished because of a single verdict. President Kennedy, almost sixty years ago, said “[T]his nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

This is not an ending, but instead another chance to begin.

A move away from the GOP by U.S. businesses, however unlikely, would be a defining moment

The backlash against Georgia’s recently-passed restrictions on voting, especially by voters that are more likely to support Democratic candidates, continues to build. Several Georgia-based corporations, including Delta Air Lines (which is the state’s largest employer) and Coca-Cola, have gone from carefully parsed statements of displeasure about the new legislation to stronger public comments from the companies’ CEOs on national media. Major League Baseball – rather surprisingly, in my opinion – decided to move this year’s All Star Game and Amateur Draft from Atlanta to Denver due to the controversy.

In yesterday’s Morning Brief from Yahoo! Finance, editor-in-chief Andy Serwer suggests the fallout from the ongoing situation is “changing the relationship between politics (mostly the GOP) and business.”

Used to be that if you ran a business in America you’d stay as far away as possible from politics, (unless you sold George McGovern T-shirts or some such.) The math was simple. Take a stand and potentially lose 40% to 60% of your customers. So most businesspeople when asked a question about politics kept mum, even when they felt strongly about an issue.

We accepted this choice of money over principles because as customers, employees or shareholders while we might not agree with someone’s politics, we just wanted the business relationship and knowing someone’s politics might make things awkward, inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Serwer quotes Dick Parsons, who is the former CEO of Citigroup, Time Warner, and was also briefly the chairman of the board of CBS. Parsons is African-American and a “lifelong Republican,” he said. He was one of 72 Black executives who signed a letter protesting Georgia’s new law.

My party has sort of said, ‘Well, look, we got one or two choices, we can either battle for those votes going forward or we can just try and preclude them from showing up again. And I think the direction that has been taken, certainly in Georgia and in other states is, ‘let’s not go out and battle for those votes. Let’s just try and keep them from showing up.’ That’s just flat wrong.

Dick Parsons

Companies like Delta and Coke have faced boycotts from both sides of the political spectrum: from the left for not speaking out soon enough or more forcefully; and from the right for now being too “woke.” Faced with that type of pressure, the traditional relationship of American businesses to the Republican Party is looking like it needs some counseling.

Senate Minority Leader (few things give me more pleasure than writing that phrase, even though because of the filibuster he still has tremendous power over what can and can’t get passed in Congress) Mitch McConnell made it clear that he doesn’t believe corporations should be playing politics:

Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order. Businesses must not use economic blackmail to spread disinformation and push bad ideas that citizens reject at the ballot box…. My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Of course, that doesn’t include corporate free speech in the form of massive contributions to Republican campaigns, which McConnell is explicitly in favor of. “Give us the money and keep your mouth shut” is the real message here, which is not unlike getting mugged in broad daylight.

Adam Serwer (no relation to Andy Serwer), senior editor at The Atlantic, also wrote on the topic recently with a warning not to buy this “rebellion” against corporations by the GOP.

Republicans cannot imagine labor relations as exploitative except in that someone might have to sit through a tedious video on race or gender sensitivity in the workplace. They do not perceive the concentration of corporate power as perilous unless companies’ desire to retain their customer base interferes with Republican schemes to entrench their own political dominance. They see freedom of speech as vital, unless it prevents them from using the state to sanction forms of political expression they oppose. Their criticisms of “woke capital” go no deeper than this.

As such, the Republican anti-corporate turn is entirely superficial. That’s a shame, because the concentration of corporate power has had a negative effect on American governance, leading to an age of inequality in which economic gains are mostly enjoyed by those in the highest income brackets. Since the 1970s, despite massive gains in productivity, most Americans have seen their wages rise very slowly, while the wealthiest have reaped almost all the gains of economic growth. That outcome was a policy choice, not an inevitability.

I suspect that this posturing by both corporations and the GOP leadership will ultimately not change very much. But it’s possible if politicians like McConnell overplay this, assuming that there’s no where else for American business to go but back into their loving arms, they could be in for a surprise. The Democrats could make a play to be more friendly to business, provided improved respect and rights for American workers was part of the deal. Again, not likely, but not impossible. The Democrats would also have to overcome the antipathy of the left-wing of the party toward big business, which wouldn’t be easy at all. But an opportunity exists.