Monday, July 29, 2013

Utility Rate Increase


The recent request of our local water company for a 23% rate increase has caused a storm of opposition. Required public hearings have brought out politicians and citizens alike to protest. Company officials have tried to explain that the rate increase is necessary to cover millions of dollars spent over the past few years to repair and upgrade an aging infrastructure but no one seems sympathetic. The water company is another big bad profit making company that only wants to gouge its customers.

Actually, a glance at my utility bills over the past year indicates that the water bill is actually the lowest of my household expenses. Last year my wife and I paid about $550 for a year’s supply of water. In the last three months we used 17000 gallons of water and paid about $125, less than a penny per gallon for the most valuable and necessary of all the things we buy.

A local hospital was reported to have used over 30 million gallons of water last year at a cost of about $350000. That's less than it took the City of Bridgeport to build a driveway for a local contractor.

Here in Connecticut we take for granted an almost unlimited supply of the purest freshest water on the face of the Earth. We can drink, wash, flush our toilets, and even water our lawns whenever we want.  During some of the major storms that hit Connecticut in the past two years, we never lost the use of water. We know people who did and it was no picnic.

Nevertheless, people complain about a rate increase for a product that costs a penny per gallon. At the same time, they will not object to paying a dollar or two for a gallon of bottled water in a supermarket. Nor do gym rats or joggers object to paying a dollar or two for just a little bottle of the water necessary for their workouts.  Moreover, go to Yankee Stadium where you have to pay over $5 for a small bottle.

What about other commodities that are nowhere near the cost of water. People think nothing of paying three times their water bill for their monthly TV service. Cell phone bills are substantially greater than water bills. I know that people don’t think they can live without their cell phones but they really can’t live without water. If you drive 10000 miles per year and average 20 miles per gallon, you will use 500 gallons of gas per year. At $4.00 per gallon you will pay $2000 each year or about four times your water bill.

I think most of the opposition to increases in utility rates come from a deep down animus against profit making companies. For people today so-called non-profit companies are a good thing but profit-making companies are a bad thing. Yet the same people who rail against company profits would never think of working even an hour without pay. Why has it become so wrong to provide essential goods and services and then profit by your efforts?

We recently hired a man to do some work on our home. He gave us an estimate that we thought was fair and paid him half to start the work and the balance on completion. Although we did not ask him to break it down, his estimate included the cost of materials and the balance would be his profit—the value of his labor. Why has that become a bad thing in America?  Why should he even do the work if he couldn’t profit by it? How else could he support him and his family?

It’s no different with the water company. Why shouldn’t it make a profit? What motivation would they have to deliver such a valuable commodity at such a reasonable price? Why else should it employ so many people if it could not profit by it? Why would those people even work for the company if they couldn’t profit by their labor?

I know that some will say that a non-profit organization or government agency could do it better and cheaper. They will do the job as a public service. Has anyone ever found a public service union whose members are allowed to work for nothing? Other people will complain that CEOs make too much money and in some cases I think this might be true. Still, these same people never complain that movie stars, rock musicians, and athletes make too much money.

Years ago I bought some Apple stock at $20 per share and sold it for a nice profit when it went up $30. One of the reasons I sold was that I read that the company was paying Steve Jobs over $20 million per year. Who is worth that, I thought? What a dope I was! It turned out that he was worth every penny and more. In the same way if all we have to do to get pure drinkable water every day is turn on the tap, then the people who do all the work of delivering it should be well compensated. Does anyone complain that Johnny Depp made over $20 million dollars to star in a money-losing bomb like the “Lone Ranger”?


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Trayvon Martin Reaction

The fallout from the acquittal of George Zimmerman of all charges relating to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin has been predictable. A long editorial in the Connecticut Post, complained of a travesty of justice. The same newspaper ran a long op-ed (sermon) from a black minister who felt that the verdict was a sign that it was still safe to murder African American men in America. The minister believed that black men would now have a renewed consciousness of vulnerability, and even spoke of genocide.

However, the evidence clearly shows that if young black men in America should be afraid of anything, it should be other young black men. In the Wall Street Journal today New York Police Chief Ray Kelly noted that in New York city in 2003 “96% of the individuals who were shot and 90% of those murdered were black and Hispanic.” Does anyone realistically doubt that most of the killers were black or Hispanic? Kelly argued that that policies that are commonly lumped together under the name “stop and frisk laws” have led to a dramatic drop in the murder rate in NYC and have saved thousands of lives, “largely the lives of young men of color.” The greatest beneficiaries of the “stop and frisk laws” have been young black men. Yet, so called civil-rights activists want to overturn these “stop and frisk” policies.

In Connecticut a quick check on the web reveals that most young black men murdered in cities like Bridgeport and New Haven were murdered by other young black men. These murders are so common that they hardly rate as news and quickly disappear from the front pages. Only in the rare case of a shooting of a young black man by a white man does the young victim become a posthumous celebrity celebrated by entertainers, activists, and politicians.

In the same issue of the above mentioned newspaper the Sports pages carried a feature on three young black men who were trying to use their basketball prowess to escape the inner city and play ball even at a small junior college somewhere. These young men were not afraid of white men or policemen but only hoped that some coach or recruiter of any color would give them a chance to play. However, despite stellar high school athletic achievements no one was interested in these young men because they did not have even the minimal grades necessary to get into these schools.

Their basketball ability had allowed them to get through high school with hardly any academic effort. In other words, they were free to pursue their own teenage interests without any leadership or direction. It would be easy enough to blame their predicament on poor Bridgeport schools but in another Wall St. Journal article this week, Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and the son of a black father and a white mother, had this to say.

One wants to scream at all those outraged at the Zimmerman verdict: Where is your outrage over the collapse of the black family? Today’s civil-rights leaders swat at mosquitoes like Zimmerman when they have gorillas on their back. Seventy-three percent of all black children are born without fathers married to their mothers. And you want to bring the nation to a standstill over George Zimmerman?

One of the three Bridgeport athletes has been accepted by a small mid-west junior college. The second is also being considered. The third has already served time in jail for attempted robbery but one coach seems to be interested in giving him a second chance. None of them has a father involved in their lives. If they can’t make it, they have no other skills to fall back on. They will likely wind up back on the streets where they will have a high probability of being gunned down not by a white security guard but by another young black man of color.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Zimmerman and Gosnell


The acquittal of George Zimmerman by a Florida jury of all charges relating to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin has led to the predictable response on the part of some leaders of the so-called black community. It did not take the jury long to realize that the prosecution had no case against Zimmerman. The jury’s verdict only confirmed the initial findings of the local police that there was no reason under Florida law to hold Zimmerman for anything.

Nevertheless, political and media pressure forced state politicians to cave in and appoint a special team of prosecutors to get Zimmerman. It was obvious from the beginning that there would be no presumption of innocence for Zimmerman in the media. Even during the trial I heard one reporter say that he was looking for inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s story. Obviously, he was not looking for evidence to confirm Zimmerman’s innocence or for inconsistencies in the prosecution’s charges.

It is interesting to contrast the media attention to the Zimmerman/Martin case with the appalling lack of attention to the recently concluded trail of Dr. Kermit Gosnell. On May 13 this year Gosnell was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder of infants born alive, and one count of involuntary manslaughter of a woman, Karnamaya Mongar, who died of an overdose of anesthesia given by an unqualified Gosnell assistant.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell

The following is drawn from an editorial by Barry MacDonald, the editor of the St. Croix Review.* MacDonald quotes the grand jury case against Gosnell:
This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women. What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy—and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels-–and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths.
The grand jury indictment went on to describe the terrible conditions in the so-called medical facility that functioned as a prescription mill during the day and an abortuary at night. Gosnell specialized in the abortion of late term babies who were too big or advance for other doctors. A large baby was a difficult “procedure” and would cost a lot to “terminate.” Gosnell’s procedure was to administer labor inducing drugs during the day to the poor, mostly black, women who came to him; let them deliver the baby and then come back in the evening to kill the newborn by severing its spinal cord with a scissor.

Even if you are in favor of abortion, you would have to admit that this procedure was infanticide. The babies had been born, they were outside the womb, and they were killed.
Incredibly, owing to political correctness Gosnell’s facility in Pennsylvania had gone unsupervised, uninspected, and uncontrolled by Pennsylvania agencies for years. MacDonald again quoted the grand jury:
…the Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all. The Politics in question were not anti-abortion, but pro. With the change of administration from Governor Casey [ a pro-life Democrat] to Governor Ridge, [ a pro-choice Republican], officials concluded that inspections would be “putting a barrier up to women” seeking abortions. Better to leave clinics to do as they pleased, even though, as Gosnell proved, that meant both women and babies would pay.
Despite repeated complaints Gosnell’s “clinic” was only shut down by the Pennsylvania Department of Health after the arrest and trial of Dr. Gosnell. Other state agencies refused to take action, much less investigate. Two nearby hospitals who had to treat some of the women injured never reported the dangerous clinic to the proper authorities.
The grand jury noted that the reason no one acted was because the “women in question were poor and of color. Dr. Gosnell is a black man and most of his victims were poor black women who were forced to pay his exorbitant fees up front.

Today, people will be demonstrating in the streets because of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. Already, prominent black spokesmen are branding the trial a gross injustice and a sign of racism in America. Liberal politicians are quickly falling into line and calling for a new Federal trial. But where was their outrage over the Gosnell trial?

Actually, both cases would appear to have been evidence for the fairness and justice of the American legal system especially when matters can be left to an ordinary jury to decide. Zimmerman was innocent until proven guilty and the prosecution could not produce evidence of his guilt. Despite political correctness and ideology, the jury in Pennsylvania responded to an incredible amount of evidence and put away Dr. Gosnell for life.


*The St. Croix Review, a small Mid-Western journal of opinion bills itself as a "A Thoughtful Journal for Thoughtful People." It is a personal favorite.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Masterpiece: Titian, "Sacred and Profane Love"

Below find the second in a series of Masterpiece essays on great and mysterious paintings of the Renaissance. Click on images to enlarge.

Perhaps the most spectacular work of art in the magnificent collection of Rome’s Borghese Gallery is Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love,” one of the great masterpieces of the Venetian Renaissance. Early in the last century a collector offered more for this one painting than the appraised value of the entire Museum. Measuring over 9.5 by 3.5 feet this beautiful painting seems to dominate almost an entire wall in one of the largest rooms.

Despite its fame there has never been agreement on the subject of Titian’s painting. The title “Sacred and Profane Love” was only attached to it long after Titian’s death in an attempt to describe the two beautiful fair-haired women in the foreground. One is fully clothed in a sumptuous gown, and the other is semi-nude except for garments that billow around her but only cover her privates.

Commentators have always noted the resemblance between the two women. Some call them sisters, even twins. Most scholars have accepted the view, expressed by famed Art historian Erwin Panofsky almost 75 years ago, that the women are versions of a Neoplatonic Venus, one earthly and the other celestial.

More recently, another famed art historian argued that Titian represented one woman in two guises. The woman was an idealized version of a bride, chaste and sexual at the same time. Indeed, the painting appears to commemorate the marriage in 1514 of a young widow, Laura Bagarotto, to a Venetian official, Niccolo Aurelio, whose coat of arms can be seen on the mysterious fountain.

I agree that Titian did depict one woman in two separate guises, but the only person who could be portrayed at the same time as a well dressed, even sumptuously dressed, woman, and as a semi-nude figure is Mary Magdalen, whose perceived life was the epitome of sexuality and chastity.

The popularity that Mary Magdalen enjoyed during the Renaissance was different than the resurgence she is having in our own time. Today, authors like to depict her as the literal wife and sexual partner of Jesus. Feminist scholars don’t usually go so far but they elevate her to the rank of Apostle, even to the rank of first among the Apostles.

However, during the Renaissance the sinful and fallen women of the gospels were all considered to be Mary Magdalen. Indeed, it was the imputed sinfulness of her life that brought her nearer to her devotees. She was the sinner with the heart of gold who had finally seen the light. In Venice a long established tradition of venerating the penitent Magdalen went hand in hand with the largest concentration of prostitutes in Europe.

Artists often depicted the Magdalen as a richly attired and seductive courtesan contemplating the folly of her life and considering the opportunity that had been opened up to her by the words of Jesus to sin no more. She could, however, also be portrayed as a semi-nude penitent sinner fasting and mortifying herself, according to legend, in a desert. Donatello’s penitent Magdalen; gaunt, haggard, and covered almost entirely by long hair that reaches to her ankles is the most famous fifteenth century version.

Apparently Venetian patrons preferred a beautiful to a gaunt Magdalen. Usually she would be depicted in the vestiges of her finery but at the same time tearful, sorrowful, and disheveled with breasts fully or partially exposed.

Titian became the most prolific and famous painter of Mary Magdalens. His half-length depictions of a beautiful, full-figured semi-nude show her long red hair around her body but parted to reveal bared breasts. She looks upward with the jar of ointment-- used to anoint Jesus-- beside her.
Titian: Mary Magdalen
However, in the “Sacred and Profane Love” Titian separated the Magdalen into both guises. The clothed woman is the courtesan contemplating the error of her ways.  Contemporary preachers often complained that Venetian women in their finery could hardly be distinguished from courtesans. Some scholars believe that the folds of her gown and her spread legs are sensual and erotic but I can’t see it. To me she seems to stare off into the distance rapt in contemplation of a life changing decision. It almost appears that she is about to fall to her knees.

We notice the woman’s beautiful red hair so characteristic of Titian’s later Magdalens. The red color of her sleeve is also a Magdalen attribute as is the sprig of wild rose she holds in her hand. Her left hand rests on a container that could hold her jewels and perfumes. Both hands are gloved. Mary Magdalen was the patroness of all those engaged in producing female luxury items like perfumes and gloves.

On the right the semi-nude woman is the newly converted, penitent Magdalen rejecting her jewels and finery. Legend had it that she spent the last 30 years of her life fasting and mortifying herself in a desert outside of Marseilles. The converted sinner in the “Sacred and Profane Love” has the same flowing red hair as well as the red garment of the courtesan. In her left hand she holds aloft the jar of oil that is the single most recognizable symbol of Mary Magdalen.

Titian joked of his Magdalens that he liked to portray them at the beginning of their fasting rather than as thin, wasted figures. Joking aside, in the “Sacred and Profane Love” Titian could actually be portraying the moment of conversion. 

Both the Magdalens sit on a sarcophagus-like fountain that further serves to connect them. The wild rose bush in front is also a traditional symbol of Mary Magdalen. The fountain is a puzzle in itself and the relief has also eluded identification.

There are three scenes on the relief and we can now see that they depict great sinners. On the far right two nudes stand on each side of a tree. The figure on the left is Eve portrayed in her usual full frontal nudity. Adam is on the other side of the tree. Moving toward the center we see an act of murderous violence that represents the story of Cain and Abel, the first incident of sin after the Fall.

On the other side of the relief a man leads a horse whose rider appears to be falling off. The falling rider can only be St. Paul, one of the few sinners capable of being mentioned in the same breath as Mary Magdalen. In his letter to Timothy, Paul called himself the greatest of sinners.

If there was any woman in Venice who thought of turning to Mary Magdalen as an intercessor, it might have been the wife of the man who commissioned the painting. The arms of Niccolo Aurelio, a Venetian official, can be seen on the fountain. In 1514 he married Laura Bagarotto, a widow from Padua, whose father, as well as her husband, had been accused of treason in 1509 by the Venetian government for collaboration with the enemy during the War of the League of Cambrai. The husband most likely died in the war and the father was publicly hanged in the Piazza di San Marco, an execution that his wife and daughter were forced to witness.
Laura’s goods, including her substantial dowry, were confiscated. Subsequently, she campaigned for the restoration of the family’s good name as well as for the restoration of the dowry. Her marriage to Niccolo Aurelio in 1514 must have been an important step in her rehabilitation since her dowry was only restored the day before the marriage. One would like to think that Niccolo was honoring his new wife, or seeking to aid in her rehabilitation with this painting.
Given the ups and downs of her own life, Laura Bagarotto might have looked to the Magdalen as a patron. On that fateful day in 1509 she lost both her father and her patrimony. If she had not been a woman, she might have lost her own life. Eventually, she would provide the aging Niccolo with a beloved daughter and then a male heir. Who can doubt that she had prayed to the Magdalen, the patron saint of all women hoping for a family? 
Here is a link to my site that includes the full version of my interpretation of the Sacred and Profane Love.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Declaration of Independence


Every July 4 we celebrate Independence Day, the anniversary of the promulgation of our famed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Most of us have heard the famous opening lines of the document,

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

However, few have ever read the entire Declaration and even fewer have any understanding of the nature of the actual grievances that led the colonists to sever their ties with England and seek independence. Most readers don’t get past the following words.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Even though King George III of England was one of the nicest, most benevolent rulers that England ever had, the colonists portrayed him as a tyrannical despot. No one was a more determined supporter of representative government than this young King, who though descended from German ancestors prided himself on being an Englishman.

The real conflict between England and her American colonies was not between Monarchy and Democracy but between the rights of the British people represented as they were by their own Parliament, and the rights of the American colonists represented as they were by their own Colonial assemblies. In this conflict no one was a greater supporter of the rights and authority of the British Parliament than the King.

For the most part the Declaration of Independence does not complain about violations of individual human rights but concentrates on what it claims has been a systematic attempt on the part of the government in England to violate the rights and privileges of colonial representative assemblies.

The founding fathers believed that these assemblies that represented the leading citizens and property owners in the various colonies were the sole bulwark against monarchical tyranny on the one hand, and democratic anarchy on the other. They claimed that the King and his Colonial governors have repeatedly refused to put into operation laws passed by these assemblies.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operations till his assent should be obtained;
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature,…
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

In some cases the English government has even gone so far as to dissolve some of these representative assemblies and leave particular colonies without any form of self-government. The legal system, military defense, and tax collection have been taken out of the hands of the colonial representatives.

He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly for opposing with manly firmness his invasions of the rights of the people.
He has refused for a longtime, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected…
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.
•He has made the judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
•He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
•He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.
• He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.

In the end the Declaration claimed that it came down to a contest between their own local representative assemblies and a faraway legislature that did not represent them. Because they had come to deny the authority of the British Parliament, they never used the word Parliament in the document but the following words are unmistakable.

•He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation.

 These acts included the following.

•For quartering large bodies of troops among us:
•For protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment
•For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:
•For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
•For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:
•For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:

There are elements in the Declaration that might seem offensive to modern ears. Jefferson and others in America opposed the efforts of a reforming British government to permit religious toleration of the large Catholic population in newly conquered Canada. For them Catholicism went hand in hand with despotism.

•For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries, so as to render it at once an example…for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.

The Declaration also complained about attempts on the part of the British government to prevent colonization of Indian territory. Indeed, it claimed that England was encouraging the Indians.

•And has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.

Nevertheless, the leaders assembled in Congress insisted on their rights as Englishmen to govern themselves. They wanted government to be as close to home as possible. They would make their own laws, vote their own taxes when necessary, and be responsible for their own legal and military systems. They did not want to be governed by a faraway government that had little concern for their interests or welfare.

It was true that the founders were men of property and status. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin were not common men. Democracy would come later. For the present they wanted to protect their right to self-government. The British Parliament had declared itself “invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” To resist, they were prepared to risk everything.

“And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Jonathan Trumbull: Declaration of Independence
John Adams, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin present the Declaration to John Hancock