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Constitution Day

We celebrate September 17 as Constitution Day, marking the day in 1787 when delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution of the United States in Philadelphia.

I remember when I first studied this great document. You couldn’t graduate from the eighth grade in the Chicago Public Schools without passing an exam on the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Illinois. In class of O’Keeffe Elementary I was fascinated by the text and the little we learned of the history. And I have remained impressed today, after much more detailed study in college and graduate school, and as I teach First Amendment law to young journalists.

But the unabashed awe of my young years has been tempered over time by the knowledge that the nation did not live up to the words, even in the time they were written. And the noble cause our Constitution represents seems to have been forgotten by so many, especially those who strive to be our political leaders. In grade school, we memorized the preamble:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

As my teachers used to say, compare and contrast. The opening words of England’s Great Charter, the Magna Carta, are “JOHN, by the grace of God King of England….” clearly state that the rights the document bestows on various classes of Englishmen, specifically the nobles and clergy, are the King’s to give. “We, the People…” echos the words of the Declaration of Independence, which refer to the United States of America as “one People”, and is something quite different. James Madison, one of the principal authors of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist No. 49, “As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived . . . .”

We lament our current government, where the checks and balances purposely created, with all their ambiguities, by the framers of the Constitution, seem to have failed. And we tend to blame the government. Yes, Congress under the control of Republicans appears to have abdicated its responsibility to monitor and restrain the excesses of the Executive. Yes, the President seems to have forgotten that his oath of office is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and that the members of his administration swear allegiance not to him but to that same Constitution. And yes, the Supreme Court, which likes to hold itself up as the arbiter of the law and not a writer of same, and says it concedes to the elected branches the right of authorship, has nonetheless in a series of 5-4 decisions thrown out legislation produced as a result of years of negotiation between the political parties.

The system seems to have failed.

The framers never thought the document they signed 231 years ago today was perfect. They never even thought it was complete. Prescient though many of them were, their wildest dreams could not have anticipated a nation stretching more than 2,500 miles from coast to coast. One where you could have breakfast in any location and be anywhere else in time for dinner. A world where Europe was just hours away and communication was instantaneous. Where weapons had huge destructive power and decisions on their use had to be made in minutes. And where movement between the states was as trivial as walking across a street.

Nor would they have contemplated a nation where women had suffrage. Or where the slaves were free.

But they did contemplate a world where the people must always be on guard least weak and corrupt members of the political class forget the guiding principal that sovereignty, in their new nation, resides in the people.

Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” In truth, the buck travels further. It stops with us, each and every one of us. And we are not living up to that responsibility. Read and weep:


This chart, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shows voter participation rates in the major industrialized nations of the world. I’ve highlighted the US. We may be the cradle of democracy, but we’re not doing much to support it.

Yes, it is an uphill battle. We have to face the Electoral College, gerrymandering of legislative districts, voter suppression efforts and a massive amount of scandalous political advertising, often funded by the who-knows-who-or-what of the so-called “dark money,” loaded with half truths and out and out lies. We have to face a constant flood of disinformation coming from some elected officials and many media outlets.

But we have to try.

It is said that Benjamin Franklin, another major contributor to the Constitution, upon leaving the meeting hall on the day the document was signed was stopped by a lady who asked, “Well Doctor, what have we got. A Republic or a monarch?” “A Republic,” Dr. Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

Let’s keep it.

Honor our Constitution on this Constitution Day. Look up the location of your polling place. Check your registration. And mark your calendar with the note to vote on November 6th.

Who is to Blame for Trump?

Why write about Trump, you ask? Everybody is writing about Trump. True. And you will have to be the judge of whether I have anything of value to add to the discussion. But everywhere I go Trump is the main topic of debate. And the debate is about as heated and uncivil as anything I’ve ever seen.

I had a journalism professor, the late John Patterson, who hated clichés. If you were in the mood for a good yelling at all you had to do was begin a stand-up with the phrase, “It remains to be seen”.

Continue reading…

Losing Earth

I approve of paywalls because I believe content creators deserve to be paid for their efforts. I subscribe to several paywalled services, including The New York Times.
But I rarely recommend to others on social media stories behind paywalls because of the different rules and limits from site to site. For this I make an exception.
Do whatever it takes to get yourself a copy of the story which ran as the cover of the Times’ Magazine last Sunday. That cover was solid black, with the white letters, “Thirty years ago we could have saved the planet.” Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change by Nathaniel Rich is as good as it gets. And as important.


Financial Market Reporting, Part 8: Mutual Funds and Index Funds

In a previous post about indexes, I identified the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Standard and Poor’s 500 as the two most frequently referenced. They originated as short-cuts that summarized market trends, and are often used as a benchmark against which investment performance can be judged.

There has been an explosion in the number of indexes in recent years. There are hundreds if not thousands available, enough to slice and dice the markets in as many ways as can be imaged. Some are broad-based, like the NASDAQ Composite with more than 3,000 stocks. Others might track a region, like the EURO STOXX 50, based on 50 large companies in the Eurozone. Some follow companies of a certain size, like the Wilshire US Small Cap. And still others focus on an industry, such as the NYSE Arca (originally AMEX) Semiconductor Index.

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Financial Market Reporting, Part 7: Indexes

Business reporters can get up to speed on market indexes with a backgrounder on the Dow and S&PIn my first Financial Market Reporting piece, I complained that many reporters make casual reference to “the market” without specifying what they mean. Usually, I wrote, they mean the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which I called the “best known” stock market measure. The DJIA is just one of a multitude of stock market indexes that pop up in virtually every discussion of the markets, including reports evaluating individual stocks and other investment vehicles. So they warrant a closer look.

The first index

The DJIA was not the first stock market index. It was not even the first index created by Charles Dow. In 1880 Dow, who was 29 years old, moved to New York and got a job at the Kieman Wall Street Financial News Bureau, which furnished financial news to banks and brokerages. In those days there was a lot of “fake” news, designed to tout companies and their stocks. But the Kieman service had a reputation for sticking to the facts.

Dow figured if one responsible news service could succeed there was room for more, and with a fellow reporter, Edward Jones, founded Dow, Jones & Company. The pair produced newsletters and summaries of financial news, which they delivered to financial institutions and investors. Their “Customer’s Afternoon Letter” quickly grew to have more than 1,000 subscribers.

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Lunch with Paul Kangas, Nightly Business Report

Paul Kangas

I remember one specific lunch with Paul Kangas. Silly, isn’t it? I spent a fair amount of time with Paul during the many years I was associated with public television’s Nightly Business Report. That included several meals with a man who, among many other things, appreciated good food and drink. Why would one particular lunch stand out?

It was 1990. A year before I had moved from Chicago, my hometown, where I worked for CBS, NBC, and as a freelance contributor for NBR, to New York. Here I was NBR’s New York Bureau Chief and Senior Correspondent. Paul had been with NBR since it first went on the air in 1979. A former stockbroker, Paul was at first the broadcast’s stock commentator. Later he added co-anchor to his role.

But Paul was so much more than his title implies. On a broadcast that itself defined a new role for business news on television, Paul set the standard for both the program and the industry.

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9-11 + 15

9-11_memorial_namesI did not go to witness the ceremony of remembrance at the 9-11 Memorial today. I am never comfortable when I am at the 16 acre site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. It’s not the memories. Those come and go depending on what is going on in the world. It’s the images which lingered before me for months after that day. Now they almost never return. Unless I am at the site.

On September 11, 2001, my wife Amy and I lived in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. We had moved there from midtown just a few months earlier. Our apartment building was at the south end of the neighborhood, south and west of WTC Tower #2. I was the New York Bureau Chief and Senior Correspondent for public television’s Nightly Business Report and the newsroom/production facility/broadcast studio was just across West Street, even closer to the tower, due south of the site. Tower #2 filled the window of my bedroom, and of my office.

I was putting on my tie when I heard a noise I later described as the sound of a dump truck unloading gravel at my feet. Running to the window, I saw smoke coming from the top of tower #1, the view partially obscured by #2, which was closer to me. I had been through the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, so I did think of that. But I thought in terms of a bomb planted inside, or an explosion on one of the equipment floors toward the top of the building. It was 8:46am.

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