Capital Punishment

April 12, 2019

I propose that we take into receivership property that is used irresponsibly. Confiscation would be mandated in the case of assets used in a way to cause harm to employees, customers, or the general public. We would be seizing property--items of land, equipment, currency, securities, industrial plants, extraction sites, and other capital assets--from parties that used them in a way that caused injury.

This idea is not as radical as it sounds. If I default on the repayment of a debt, I can be separated from my property. The law gives creditors a variety of ways--foreclosures, attachments, replevins, executions--to seize assets from a defaulting debtor. It's a pretty heavy penalty for an offense that may be altogether innocent, but we've always tolerated it as a society. That the burden falls almost always on people who don't have the means to bear it seems to bother us not at all.

The difference, in the case of misuse of property, is mainly one of scale. We would be removing items of greater value, not just a house or a car. Another difference is that, in at least some casees and maybe in most cases, the loss would be bearable and even affordable. Owners of capital lose money routinely when the value of corporate shares declines, and confiscation may be only slightly worse than a precipitous decline.

There's nothing novel or radical about receivership. The receiver takes the place of the owner or owners of an organization's assets. The owner could be a person or a family or a corporation or an arrangement of partners. The organization could be a commercial enterprise, a social agency, a professional association, or even a social club. The assets could be just about any item of property. During the early years of my law practice, my state adopted a receivership scheme to keep the heat on for tenants of landlords that couldn't pay their oil bills. Lawyers, judges and rent receivers learned how to use the law to beneficial effect within a few weeks of adoption. Receiverships have been a staple of state law for generations.

Grounds for receivership might be the commission of any offense by or on behalf of the owners. Depending on the punitiveness of the public in adopting a system of receivership, triggering offenses might range from acts that are merely negligent--on the Draconian side--to malfeasance that is clearly criminal--the lenient alternative. At some designated threshold of severity of harm, receivership would kick in.

In the case of misuse of property, receiverships could be ordered and receivers could be selected by a dedicated agency of state government or by the preference of employees, customers or the local public. The obligations of the receiver of a particular asset might be to preserve the asset to the extent possible while managing the asset with due regard for the injured employees, customers or members of the public. Any profit earned in the process would escheat to the state in the scheme I would recommend.

A receivership scheme might encompass imminent threats to public health and safety, as well as acts of malfeasance. This could protect potential victims of predictable, preventable catastrophes by early intervention.

It's possible that the assets of for-profit business--commercial enterprise being largely a branch of organized crime--would eventually pass wholly into the hands of receivers. It's also possible that the owners of capital assets would clean up their act and voluntarily cede the power that accrues to them solely because of the vast wealth they control.

Betting on the Asteroid

March 15, 2019

If you haven't seen Greta Thunberg's speech at this year's Davos Forum (an annual gathering of rich people in Switzerland) it's readily available on line. The diminutive high-schooler lectured an audience of grown-ups on the urgency of a reduction in polluting emissions. She told them they would be held responsible for the climatic catastrophe awaiting her and her age-mates if things continue as usual.

She reminded them of something you hardly ever hear about anymore: the traditional parental commitment to a better life for the children. If you ask parents today whether they think their children will end up better or worse off than they did, most will be forced to say "worse." This reflects widespread acceptance in America of a future marked by greater violence, insecurity, environmental pollution, moral and ethical decay, illiteracy, superstition, curtailment of individual rights, degradation of institutions, material poverty, and just plain bad taste.

Parents don't seem to be particularly bothered by this. Greta's reasoned critique notwithstanding, they don't see themselves as reckless stewards who, unlike their own parents, squandered their children's birthright. Rather, they take no responsibility whatsoever. "It's human nature," they plead helplessly.

That may be. Never mind that responsible stewards, in the interest of civil life, have always worked to limit natural urges for the good of the group. Never mind that the complacent acceptance of less for posterity guarantees that Greta and her peers will suffer.

And so the average American grown-up, without regard to the possible consequences for future generations, consumes resources at a rate slightly exceeding that allowed by his or her material circumstances and at least ten times the rate of the average citizen of the world. Not only that, we repudiate laws and standards restricting our personal conduct and reject all forms of civic involvement. We require neither decency nor honor of our leaders.

This mass self-indulgence of grown-ups should at some point cause concern among the elders, but instead it gives rise to mass public denial. Greta's remarks are suppressed or forgotten. There seems to be no hint in the heads of the current generations of adults that what they consume now won't be available for their issue and that their failure to contol polluting emissions today will make the world uninhabitable for their grandchildren. They're acquainted with these facts, which are patent, but they have stricken them from consciousness, so that they can pursue their present activities in blissful ignorance.

Conveniently, science has given us a rational basis for dealing with the future in this way. We know that an asteroid will eventually hit us, and that it will destroy most life on the planet. We don't know when this will happen, but it's happened before repeatedly (as recently as 60 million years ago) and it will happen again. One way or another, the world will become hostile to human life. The people who are on the planet then will have to deal with it. No point in worrying the current occupants. Nothing can be done. It's cold comfort for Greta, but a ready excuse for the rest of us to continue as usual. Sure, maybe our kids will inherit a damaged planet. but that's the breaks. They're probably going to be incinerated anyway, and if not them, their kids or grandkids. We'll all be dead by then. Right?

Down to Earth

April 2019

Prematurely bound for heaven

On a seven thirty-seven,

If you’re lucky you just might

Survive to take another flight.

In the aftermath of two deadly plane crashes involving new, improved Boeing 737 airliners, we learn that there have been several complaints about the aircraft since it was introduced. No one is saying whether some response to these reports could have prevented the deaths of two planeloads of travelers. Also unknown is why the flying public here and worldwide heard nothing about the pilots’ complaints in the months since they were recorded.

It appears that the reports were made with our own Federal Aviation Administration and that they were made voluntarily by anonymous airline pilots. This suggests that there is no mandatory reporting requirement placed on a pilot whose airplane suddenly nose-dives on its own and must have its auto-pilot disengaged to right itself. It suggests, further, that such reports can be made anonymously, so that problems with particular airplanes can’t be tracked down. It’s clear that there’s no mention of the reports in any warning or protocol issued to commercial pilots. According to reporters for the Dallas Morning News, who discovered the complaints in a database accessible to the media and the general public, the complaints suggest the presence of a design defect that could have caused both crashes. Why none of the five reports was revealed until after the latest accident remains a mystery.

Two days after the disclosure of the anonymous complaints, all mention of them has been censored out of the news. There’s no mystery behind this peculiar circumstance. The news media didn’t do their job, and dozens of people got incinerated as a result, and that is not the sort of thing news-mongers like to talk about. Their incompetence even disables them from holding the US government accountable for its deficient and deadly incident-reporting scheme. And what if it wasn’t just incompetence? You won’t read about this in your newspaper, but people might well be asking whether the lapses of governmental and journalistic responsibility could have been purposeful. Does somebody in the chain of command at FAA or CNN own a block of shares in Boeing? Losses would have been suffered if it had been known last October that the new planes were lethal.

We don’t know yet whether the problems reported by pilots in the months preceding the latest crash were at fault in this crash, and we may never know for sure. After all, the lesson in this is that we should never trust our government or our news media to tell us what’s really happening, and so any report we might receive about this event must be considered suspect.