Successful Evil

22 02 2009

All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing to oppose it.

Roughly paraphrased from an unknown source. What brought that particular quote to mind is the actions of an insurance company in the matter of a McDonald’s employee claim for Workman’s Compensation.

It turns out that this young man working at a McD’s in Arkansas saw a customer beating the crap out of a female customer inside the restaurant. Being what his manager described as a good man, he immediately intervened on behalf of the female victim and muscled the attacker outside … where he ended up getting shot three times.

Several surgeries and hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses later, his application for Workman’s Compensation was denied by the company managing the McDonald’s insurance plan. Here’s the story.

By any rational standard, the young man in question exhibited courage and good character. His manager went out of his way to praise Nigel for his work habits and general attitude, suggesting that Nigel Haskitt is the sort of man you would want to work for you or to watch your six in a firefight. He saw something wrong and knew he had the power to stop it, and did so without any thought for himself. He got shot helping out a total stranger, because it was the right thing to do.

And yet, the attorneys and insurance companies in this country indulge in histrionic shudders of revulsion at the mere idea of this sort of action. Ordinarily, this would be just one more reason to justifiably refer to those creatures as vampires, leeches, and similar vermin. Sadly, the attorneys and insurance companies are gradually destroying the American will to do the right thing.

Their method for this conversion is slow and subtle, but nonethless certain. Every business must carry liability insurance or be rent asunder at the hands of lawyers for a host of plaintiffs with real or imagined grievances against the business. Insurance companies are in the business of making money for their shareholders, so they are understandably reluctant to part with any money for such ephemera as justifiable claims. Those insurers will therefore force their clients to adopt rules and business practices which should reduce the number of claims, or suffer from increasingly high insurance premiums. Attorneys then heavily punish (through scads of lawsuits for real or imagined grievances) those businesses which fail to adhere to the insurance companies’ will.

The end result is generations of Americans who are more and more inclined to worry about potential lawsuits when faced with danger. In lieu of dealing with the immediate threat, Americans are more and more inclined to gauge the possible legal penalties to be as great (or greater) a threat than the immediate hazard.

Don’t get involved. None of my business. It’s not my problem. This is the language of serfs.

Guess what? If you see it happen, you are involved. If it happens in your neighborhood, city, state, or country, it is your fucking business, and it is your problem. If you let this sort of rot fester and grow through inattention or indifference, you will inevitably become a victim of the behavior you fail to act against.

Failure to act is itself an action. Actions have consequences. The consequence of allowing social predators to act freely in our society is the destruction of that society. Just take a look at what happened to Nigel Haskitt. He stood up for what was right and helped a total stranger. At some point in time, you will be that total stranger who needs help. If the insurance companies and lawyers have their way, you will be looking for your own Nigel Haskitt, but he will be worrying about possible lawsuits. No one will stand up and do the right thing, because the cost is growing prohibitively high.

That sound you hear? It’s our civilization circling the drain. You have three choices on what to do about it. You can do nothing at all, you can try to save our society, or you can help push it into the toilet. Unfortunately, choosing to do nothing is exactly the same as actively working to destroy our civilization (such as it is).

Current status: Vexed

Current music: Bard Dance by Enya

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Entitlement

13 02 2009

For those of you not paying attention, a massive entitlement crisis is creeping up on us with cat-like tread.

There are approximately 150 million workers in the US. In other words, roughly half the US population is contributing to the nation’s gross domestic product. Those 150 million workers are the ones who are responsible for the current technological and social structure in this country. By the way, workers refers to everyone drawing a paycheck, from the migrant workers harvesting lettuce to the highest-paid CEO on Wall Street. All of these people are part of the process of creating wealth- for themselves and for others. All of these people make the US economy a global powerhouse.The problem is, maintaining the economic juggernaut requires keeping roughly the same number of people creating wealth through their own efforts.

Under ideal conditions, a country’s population would remain relatively static. Each family would produce just enough children (on average) to replace the current crop of workers. The babies born each year would match the number of deaths and the number of people entering the work force would equal the number of those retiring. Reality seldom bears even a faint resemblance to ideal conditions, however. In the real world, population gradually increases over time. When I was in High School, the Earth’s population was on the close order of four billion humans. Today, that number is well over six billion.

Even this incremental increase would not necessarily be a serious problem. Advances in technology and improvements in local infrastructure could easily keep this staggering number of humans healthy- assuming that the growth was uniform in location and time. As long as each generation was slightly more numerous than the previous one at a relatively uniform rate of increase (on average), there is no reason (from an engineer’s perspective) why population growth should be a problem.

Alas, the real world does not proceed according to the calculations of engineers. Pig-headed ignorance, local superstition, and politics (different names for essentially the same phenomenon) cause human populations to grow in fits and starts, with some populations growing far beyond the ability of local infrastructure to support them, and other populations actually shrinking. Historically, this has been a self-correcting problem: the growing population conquers or otherwise absorbs the shrinking population, and changes the population growth cycle for all three groups (the original two populations and the new, combined population group).

Therein lies the entitlement crisis I mentioned in the first paragraph. US population growth had been relatively stable throughout much of our history. Even when the birth rate was not keeping pace with the death rate, the tide of immigrants coming to our shores more than made up the difference. We were blessed with a constant infusion of fresh workers at a relatively constant rate, which made planning for social programs a relatively simple proposition.

In the middle of the last century, however, the US got swept up in the global population-recalibration spasm we call World War Two. The US was spared the horrendous loss of life which afflicted population groups in Europe and Asia by the broad oceans which separated us from the worst of the turmoil. That protection also meant that the only major industrialized area on the planet with a working infrastructure was in North America. When our troops returned home after four years of war (another benefit for the US was the fact that we didn’t join in the festivities for the full six years- we just popped in for the last four), they came home to what was almost literally a heaven on Earth.

Human nature often louses up the well-thought-out plans of engineers and social programmers. The US population experienced a massive surge in births in the aftermath of the war and a booming economy. Normally, booming economies lower the birthrate. Prosperous nations always see their birthrates drop below replacement levels. Think of it as a self-correcting wealth-distribution machine. A country gets wealthy, then shrinks in population. Less wealthy countries either conquer the wealthy state or provide surplus population to offset the population loss. An equilibrium is reached with both countries. Lather, rinse, repeat. The so-called “Baby Boom” was possible only under the unique circumstances in North America at the end of WW II.

Before WW II. the social planners in the US had developed a program to take advantage of the supposedly constant growth rate. They called it Social Security. This elaborate pyramid scheme was predicated upon a constant growth rate- there would always be more workers coming into the workforce than leaving it. Everyone would pay into the Social Security system, guaranteeing that the system would be self-perpetuating. The Baby Boom threw all that straight into the toilet. Once the boom years were over, US population growth returned to the classic pattern. Newly restrictive immigration policies also slowed the flood of immigrants into the US to a trickle. We never quite went into negative population growth, but our birthrate and immigration rates combined were not enough to offset the huge “bulge” in US demographics.

That bulge is soon to become an indigestible lump in our collective throats. All of the Baby Boomers will soon be retiring- and collecting Social Security benefits. This would not be nearly as much of a problem if the system had been maintained in its original form, as a trust fund for individual contributors. Pig-headed ignorance, superstition, and politics reared its collective ugly head again. Congress was looking around for extra money, and noticed that the Baby Boomers were pouring money into the Social Security coffers in amounts far exceeding the outlays for retiring workers. Congress- being composed of liars, thieves, mountebanks, idiots, and poltroons- immediately jettisoned long-term goals in favor of short-term profit and enacted legislation to allow them to loot Social Security to pay for their own programs. Protestations from people with the ability to see beyond the next election were waved aside as immaterial- the population growth would continue to bring new suckers into the lower levels of the pyramid scheme forever. Social Security could replace the misappropriated funding easily … so long as the Baby Boom birthrate was continued indefinitely.

All pyramid schemes fall apart when there aren’t enough new suckers filling the base of the pyramid. That is where we are now. More people will be leaving the workforce and drawing Social Security benefits over the next decade than the entire remaining workforce. Where is all the money going to come from? Don’t look to the Gummint for answers. They’re the ones who created this problem. There simply isn’t enough money available from the remaining workforce to pay for the Social Security of the retiring Boomers.

Option 1- Print money in boxcar lots. This has the advantage of being easy to do, and the downside (hyperinflation, collapsed economy, etc) can probably be held at bay until our Leaders are safely dead.

Option 2- Open the borders. Bring in workers from everywhere to fill the gaps in the workforce, and make ’em all pay into Social Security. This is easy to do- except for politicians- but only delays the inevitable. The only way this would work would be if the new workers were forced to contribute to Social Security without getting any benefits from the program. Ever.

Option 3- … you got me, pilgrim. I haven’t a clue.

You and I are probably never going to see a nickle from Social Security.  A great many people in this country are counting on that mythical Social Security check to keep them afloat after retirement. Those people are in for a nasty shock. That pyramid scheme is busted, and it’s probably going to bring the country down with it. Even if the United States survives the economic turmoil ahead (the current economic debacle? Bah! This is a mere hiccup compared to the clusterfuck that’s coming), the country will probably be changed forever.

Just to add icing to an already-bloated cake, I haven’t mentioned Medicare. Medicare is in exactly the same boat as Social Security, and for the same reasons.

I can describe the forces which make our Universe work, and how understanding of those forces allows us to operate our current level of technology. I don’t understand economics, and nobody else does, either. Anyone claiming to have a handle on economic theory is selling something- usually snake-oil. That said, there are a few things which might help during the coming economicalypse: Specialized personal skills, especially in functional disciplines associated with producing goods; tolerance and sympathy for others; willingness to work hard to get what you want; unwillingness to put up with bullshit, and the ability to recognize bullshit when presented with it.

Current status: disgusted

Current music: Down Under by Men At Work





Work In Progress

3 02 2009

I realize I’ve been a bit quiet for a while. Apologies. I’m extremely busy in both work and personal life. In lieu of the usual rants and brain squeezings, here’s the first chapter of a story I’m working on:

I woke up slowly. My mouth felt like a stray dog had relieved itself in it, and my head felt like an army of Cossacks were marching through it, complete with a marching band. I’d been waking up this way a lot lately.

The pounding on the front door that had dug me out of bed started again. I looked at the alarm clock on the headboard through eyes that felt bloodshot. 8:30 in the morning. I assumed it was morning. Groaning, I crawled out of bed and staggered to the bathroom.

The doorbell started ringing. I threw on a pair of shorts and headed downstairs, carefully not looking at the empty left side of the bed. I noticed that the living room was still a wreck. Another day probably wouldn’t hurt it. I looked through the window at the stranger on my front porch. Dark suit, black tie. Nice haircut. Professional mustache. “Gotta be a cop.” I said to myself. “Now what?”

I opened the door. The Suit stood right in the center of the doorway. Another Suit stood by the plain blue sedan at the end of the driveway. I looked left. I could see the nose of another sedan was parked on Second. I wondered again what the hell was going on.

I looked back at the first Suit. He was a bit taller than me, which seemed to please him as he looked down. He had that grayish sort of blond hair that most of the major Hollywood stars had been sporting the last couple of years. Since his moustache matched the hair, I figured it was hair coloring. He produced a wallet with the special flap on it for the badge and ID, and held it in front of my face.

“Mr. MacKenzie, I am Detective Sergeant Whittaker of the Corpus Christi Police Department.” I could hear the capital letters as he spoke. “With me is Patrolman Thompson of the Ingleside Police Department.”

I looked around. No sign of Tom. I looked back at the Suit. A little frown briefly crossed his face. He turned his head to the Suit at the end of the driveway, who gestured off to the right, around the corner of the house. At about that moment, Tom came around the corner. He wasn’t wearing a suit, just his green and brown uniform. Tom was about Whittaker’s height, but his chest and shoulders made him look huge by comparison. The body armor under his uniform made him seem even bigger. He smiled.

“Hey, Bar! How’s it going?” His voice was the usual hoarse bray it always was. It was almost more than I could stand with a hangover. “Goddamn! You look like you were ate by a coyote and shit off a cliff.”

The Suits all stiffened a little at that. I kept my smile inside. Horace Jeremiah “Tom” Thompson, one of Ingleside’s finest, was doing his “Hayseed Cop” routine. He didn’t like Suits any more than I did.

Whittaker gestured impatiently at Tom. “Let’s get on with this,” he said with controlled politeness. Tom looked at me and shook his head. It was a small shake, and very fast. He wasn’t part of this- whatever this was- but he had to do it. I wondered again what was going on. Tom pulled a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket, and handed it to me. As I started to open it, he said, “Bar, that there is a Search Warrant. These gentlemen are going to search your house.”

I opened the paper. It was a search warrant all right. I looked back at Tom. “What for?” I asked in what I hoped was a reasonable tone of voice.

Whittaker got to it before Tom could. “A murder weapon, Mr. McKenzie.” He tried to push past me into the house. I don’t push easily at the best of times, and my hangover made this a long way from a good day. I was minded to be stubborn. Whittaker was a big lad- around six feet, and probably in pretty good shape. I’m only about five-ten, but my 190 pounds hadn’t been going soft in a suit. He bounced back. Tom got between us before he could try again.

“Now, Bar, don’t be that way.” he said. “These gentlemen have the legal right to enter your house and search for a murder weapon.” Tom was blocking Whittaker away from me while he talked me out of being stupid. Whittaker had as much chance of moving the house unassisted as he had of moving Tom. “Now, you quit being a damned fool and let these people do what they came here for.”

With that, Tom poked me in the chest with his finger and moved me out of the way. I walked back into the kitchen and picked up the phone. Several suits came in with Whittaker, whose red face and white lips made him out to be furious or a candidate for a coronary. Probably both. As I dialed the phone, one of the Suits followed me into the kitchen and hit the disconnect button.

I grabbed the Suit’s hand and twisted it in one of the ways the human wrist is not supposed to go. He yelped a bit and backed into the living room. I let him go and started in his direction. Tom got to him before I could do something really stupid. One of his big paws grabbed the Suit by the collar and yanked him into the center of the living room. Staring at him from about four inches away, he asked, “What in the Hell do you think you’re doing?”

The Suit mumbled something I couldn’t make out. All the rest of the Suits were alternately looking at Tom and Whittaker. Whittaker nodded for them to start working and stepped up to Tom. “Officer Thompson…” he started.

Tom cut him off and tapped the Suit on the chest. “If Bar, here, ain’t under arrest, then what business do you have stopping him from using the phone? Do you think maybe he has a weapon hidden in there?” He spun the Suit toward the stairs with a quick shove. “Go search and get it over with.”

Tom winked at me as he turned around. I don’t think Whittaker noticed. While the Suits began destroying the living room, I dialed Sam Arbanez, my attorney. I didn’t have his number on speed-dial, but I did have it memorized. It had been that kind of year. Sam’s service answered. I gave the girl the message, and she said she’d call Sam right away.

I thanked her and hung up. I started to walk into the living room. One of the Suits tried to block me with his body. He wasn’t very good at it. I glided past him without contact. Three Suits were in the process of tossing the room. This, they were reasonably competent at. Tom walked up beside me, and we watched for a while. Judging by the way they were searching, I guessed aloud that the weapon they were after must be about two or three inches long. Tom stifled a chuckle.

“Why else would they be looking in the remote control?” I asked. The Suits paid no attention, although I think one of the younger ones reddened a bit. Whittaker didn’t do any searching. He stood by the stairs and watched, his arms folded across his chest.

After they finished the living room, they went into the kitchen. The phone rang. One of the Suits got to it before me. He said, “Hello?” and listened. By the time I got to it, he was holding the phone out to me with a dazed expression on his face, and Sam’s voice was coming out of the receiver in rapid-fire legalese. I waited for a bit, then shouted, “Sam! It’s me!”

Sam calmed down instantly. “Did they give you a warrant? If they did, keep it. If they try to take anything before I get there, stall them. If they don’t stall, get a receipt. Don’t answer any questions until I get there. And, whatever else happens, don’t lose your temper! 20 minutes!” He hung up. I hung up, with a slightly dazed expression on my face. Sam always has that effect on me.

Hurricane Sam arrived as the Suits were finishing the guest room downstairs. He smiled and waved to Tom. “Hello, Tom! How’re the girls?” Tom started to answer, but Sam blew right past him. “Morning, Bar. Do you have the warrant?” From long experience, I knew better than to try answering. I just handed the warrant to him, and followed the Suits into the sewing room.

I hadn’t even looked in the sewing room for months. The sewing room had been Helen’s getaway from the world. I didn’t want them in there. The memories of the last six months tried clawing their way out of the hole in my head I’d dropped them into. I was having trouble breathing. My throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow, and my vision was starting to blur at the edges. Tom grabbed me by the arm and pulled me around to face him. “Pull yourself together, Bar!” he said, speaking softly. He shook me, and pulled me a little bit down the hall. “Bar!” His voice was getting a little concerned.

I took several deep breaths, then nodded. My sight was going back to normal, and I had the normal amount of saliva, again. “Thanks, Tom.” I whispered. “Keep an eye on these idiots in there, will you?”

Tom clapped me on the shoulder and went down the hall into the sewing room. I sat down at the kitchen table and practiced breathing for a while. Sam came into the kitchen, and I pointed down the hall. He nodded, and headed down to the sewing room. I sat in the kitchen and reflected on the last six months, and wondered again what this was all about.

Nothing much happened until they hit the den upstairs. One of the Suits went straight up to the rack above the desk and started to reach for my katana. Helen had bought the sword for me as a surprise, special order from Japan. It had arrived by mail, with a note, about two weeks after my world went to shit. To me, the sword was slightly more valuable and personal than an equal weight in diamonds. Tom grabbed me as I started for the little twit, and Sam gave me a sharp look and shook his head. I raised my hands in mute surrender, and stood back and let the Suits work. They took a couple of pictures with the sword in place, then bagged it and set it aside.

The search of the den took awhile. The Suits were extremely thorough. The search of the bedroom, by contrast, was almost cursory. They went through the room quickly, and hit all the obvious places, but they seemed discouraged. It didn’t take long for them to finish. I stood in the doorway with Tom the whole time, refusing to look at the left side of the bed.

After finishing the bedroom, the junior Suits started down the stairs. Whittaker spoke briefly to Sam, then came over to me.

“Mr. McKenzie,” he said. “Our records show that you have a Concealed Weapons Permit for both Revolver and Automatic.”

“Do they?”

“Yes, sir. That would seem to indicate the presence of at least one firearm in the house.”

“So?”

“We didn’t find any. Neither did we find any cleaning kits, ammunition, or even a weapons locker.”

“Maybe your boys were less than thorough.”

“Mr. McKenzie, you are not under any obligation to help us with our search. But we can take this house apart- nail by nail if necessary- to search for what we believe to be a murder weapon. If you have a hidden weapons locker on the premises, it is in your best interest to open it for us. Otherwise, we bring in the wrecking crew.”

I looked at Sam as Whittaker finished. He had the tight, satisfied smile on his face that meant he had somebody’s balls in a vise. I was beginning to feel a bit sorry for Whittaker. But only a bit.

Sam nodded. I looked at Whittaker. “Okay.” I sighed. “Lemme get my keys.”

I went into the bedroom and fished my keys off of the nightstand. Back in the den, I moved the brass ornament that concealed the keyhole on the bookcase, and unlocked the safe. I hadn’t opened the bookcase for almost a year. It moved stiffly away from the wall. Hanging on the back were my two handguns. Several boxes of ammo were stacked next to the speed loaders and magazines at the bottom of the hollow in the wall between the den and the upstairs bathroom. The shoulder holster hung next to the guns on the back of the bookcase.

Whittaker looked disappointed. He called the Suit with the camera to come up and take a few pics of the locker, then bagged both guns and ammo. He waved for me to close the safe, and headed downstairs. Still grinning, Sam followed him. I relocked the safe, and went downstairs, too, Tom walking behind me.

There was a brief dispute in progress about whether or not the Suits could legitimately take the floppies from my computer, followed by another dispute over the seizure of my guns and the katana. One of Whittaker’s flunkies wrote receipts for everything they had taken. The assembled Suits left the house, looking disappointed in unison. They piled into their nondescript sedans, and left in a huff.

After they had gone, I asked Tom. “What the HELL was all that about?”

Tom looked a bit sheepish. “Sorry, Bar. It wasn’t my idea.”

“I know that, Tom. I just want to know who I’m supposed to have killed.”

Tom looked me right in the eye. “Josh Burger.”

“Burger? When did that happen? What’s going on?” I asked. Sam was suspiciously quiet, so he must have heard something about it. I decided to try getting that out of him later.

“Last night, around eight. Someone popped him with what looks like a 30.06 round in the head as he was leaving his lawyer’s office.”

“What the hell was he doing out of jail? And why would anyone- let alone a weasel like that Whittaker- think that I did it?”

Tom said, “He was out on bond during the trial. As for why Whittaker has you in his sights, well…it looks like he was done at long range. The bullet went in above the left eyebrow, down through the skull, and came out through the neck below and behind the right ear. They still haven’t found the bullet. But the hole above the eyebrow is consistent with a 30.06.”

“I’m still waiting to hear how this ties in with me.”

“Bar, the nearest building where the shot could have come from, judging by where the body was found, was almost a thousand yards away. Whittaker read your file, and knows you used to be a dead shot with a rifle.”

“Sure. With a stabilized, special-built military sniper rifle, complete with recoil compensator and military-grade optics, I’m a fair shot. But there are probably dozens of people in the Corpus area with that kind of skill. Aside from the obvious, what would convince a judge to issue a warrant with circumstantial evidence that thin?”

Sam spoke up. “Bar, the police found a witness who gave a description and license plate number of a vehicle registered to you leaving the area about that time last night.”

I looked at both of them. “Which vehicle?” I asked, in what I hoped were normal tones.

Tom looked thoughtful. “That’s the part I can’t figure, Bar.” He said. “The plate and the description match- a red, ’97 Ford Taurus. ZGY 49L. And the plate and vehicle are registered to you, at this address.”

“WHAT?” I walked out the back door and looked in the garage. Silver Ford pickup, gray Chevy Sedan, Black Honda motorcycle. No Ford sedan.

Tom and Sam had followed me out. Tom looked uncomfortable. He said, “I checked already, Bar. No one has ever seen that car around here. I don’t know what’s going on, but the suits convinced a judge to issue a search warrant on the basis of motive and the witness statement.”

I was starting to get pissed off. Sam headed me off at the pass before I said anything.

“That’s all right, Tom.” He soothed. “You’re just doing your job. Let me ask you something. Do you think Bar did it?”

Tom looked me in the eyes and said, “No. If Bar was gonna ice Burger, he’d have done it imediately with his hands, not a gun.”

I relaxed. “Thanks, Tom.” I held out my hand and shook his. “This is just hitting me a little hard- and me with a hangover.” Tom grinned at me, and all was well with the world again.

Sam and Tom stayed a while longer, trying to see if I had a valid alibi. I didn’t really have one. I was home all night, alone. The Swensons- my neighbors across the street- had seen the lights go on around six. None of the cars had been driven last night, as far as any of the other neighbors knew. Tom went and made a few inquiries around the block, then went back to work. Sam said something about tearing a strip out of Whittaker’s hide, and left to see the judge who’d issued the warrant.

Brian Swenson came over to ask what was going on. Mrs. Garibaldi, from next door, also came over to join the festivities. I gave them the story in a few short words. Brian was thoughtful as he went back across the street, but Lisa Garibaldi was thrilled. “Wow!” she gushed. “A real, live murder investigation!” She scuttled back to her house down the street, obviously all aquiver with the anticipation of dialing up everyone she knew to tell them all about it. I went back in the house, and took a shower.

After about a half-hour of alternately scalding and freezing myself, I felt almost human again. I had shaved in the shower after my hands were up to it, so I was almost presentable. I still needed a haircut, but that could wait. I hadn’t worked out in weeks, but that could wait, too. I came out of the bathroom with the fixed intention of doing a lot of thinking and maybe straightening up the mess my life had become. I would start by cleaning up the house.

Current Status: Doped to the eyes

Current music: Breathe by Anna Nalick