Saturday, December 28, 2019

What Is Amazon?

The ever-growing retail supremacy of Amazon has contributed to the closing of 9300 stores in the U.S. in 2019. Has it or is it just a coincidence of a larger problem? Is this behemoth a monopoly as many have argued and it thus must be broken into smaller entities?

"I think we're just in the middle of a major transition in the retail space. Traditional brick and mortar stores for the most part haven't learned how to compete," stated Nathan. Amazon is a major time saver, delivering stuff to customers door instead of using limited time to go shopping.  

People still use some local businesses for certain things and some avoid the national big box stores in favor of Amazon. They like Amazon's lower prices on many things and free delivery to the front door. Return policies are generous and return shipping is almost always free with convenient pre-printed postage paid label. But other online retailers do the same thing.

"Amazon's customer service is amazing and they've given some customers things for free rather than make them return it. So I reward them with my business and I think that's just fine. I'd be foolish not to do it. I understand the concerns that smaller companies are unable to compete but it's a problem that I don't want to be responsible for solving. I usually prefer to buy clothing at brick and mortar stores however because I like to try things on. And I don't have to fight traffic and weather," added Shannah.

Some have argued that Amazon is not a monopoly at all. 

There are two types of monopolies, pure and natural.

A pure monopoly is an industry in which there is only one supplier of a product for which there are no close substitutes and in which it is very difficult or impossible for another firm to coexist. Sources of maintenance of such a monopoly include legal restrictions (U.S. postal service has a monopoly because Congress has given it one; that is not to say that there are not other mail delivery companies but they are much more expensive), patents (most pharmaceutical companies have patents on their drugs so, until the patent expires, they control a specific drug they develop thus they are a monopolist in that sense), control of scarce resource or input (De Beers control the diamond market), deliberately erected entry barriers into the business (start expensive lawsuits on trumped-up charges or spending outrageous amounts on advertising that rivals cannot match), and large sunk costs (airplane producing companies like Boeing in the U.S. and Airbus in Europe).

A natural monopoly is an industry in which advantages of large-scale production make it possible for a single firm to produce the entire output of the market at lower average cost than a number of smaller firms, each producing a smaller quantity.

Which one of these does Amazon fit into? It supplies and ships goods, connecting suppliers with customers in a novel way that does not require huge personal inventories. But it is still a behemoth company that controls a large swath of the market. So, is it a monopoly? Is it becoming one? Will it eventually put out of business ALL the little guys?

Another interesting issue is that a monopolist engages in price discrimination - charging higher prices for the same goods to customers who are less resistant to price increases, or failing to charge higher prices to customers whom it costs more to serve. (one example is national health care)  
Price discrimination can sometimes be damaging to the public interest, but at other times it can be beneficial. Some firms cannot survive without it, and price discrimination may even reduce prices to ALL customers if there are substantial economies of scale. (Amazon is definitely an economy of scale).

More questions to ponder of other products and service providers:
- Is the software industry a natural monopoly?
- Are Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube monopolies?
Some have argued that they are and should be broken up, particularly the social platform ones that drive the information highway.

Last but not least, why do we have Anti-trust laws at the Justice Department and are they doing their job?

What will happen to customer choice for goods and delivery charges once Amazon is the only one left delivering goods and the shipping costs skyrocket? As it is now, Amazon hires the postal service for weekend deliveries.

Not withstanding the wide variety of goods provided, stellar service, free returns and rapid deliveries, does Amazon fall under monopoly, monopolistic competition, oligopoly, or perfect competition?

Christmas Rush is Over

Fishing Pier on the Maryland side 
Photo: Ileana Johnson
It’s a chilly but sunny day in late December. Christmas rush finally passed and the skirmish to buy a loved one that perfect gift has ended – the constant flurry of delivered and sometimes lost packages, seemingly joyful but hurried crowds, the constant strangling traffic on all roads, fewer and fewer decorations and Merry Christmas wishes in stores, and even less cheer in people’s hearts. But the children were happy, oblivious to reality and drowning in gifts from everyone, scattered toys all over the floor, and discarded empty boxes in the driveway.

Churches provided angel gifts to the local needy children who asked for the latest electronic gadgets but got toys and clothes instead; one lone Salvation Army red bucket was collecting financial donations.

Grocery stores were asking for food and money donations for disadvantaged children, the same children who a few months ago had caught the interest of the all-knowing leftist media, railing against their obesity and excessive meat intake and other harmful foods distributed in schools or by eager-to-please and overwhelmed parents.

The Christmas songs of my youth have been replaced by modern PC versions of happy holidays, rap, and other personal and distorted renditions of songs that are allowed on the radio waves by the PC police.

If one atheist group or person claimed that they were offended by traditions and God, out went the Christmas tree, the ornaments, the Nativity Scene, the reference to Christ, everything was scrapped and sent to the dusty shelves of offensive history ruled by the “diversity” police that scoped hate before it even happened.  

Freestone Point
Photo: Ileana Johnson

Seagulls rookery on the Potomac shore
Photo: Ileana Johnson

It’s peaceful again, so it seems, and I escape to my beloved woods and the river. It’s a serene silence interrupted by nature’s sounds, the gurgling of water, the waves lapping at the shore, the sea gulls squawking, the rustling of the carpet of dead leaves beneath squirrels darting about, and the chirping of hopping birds.

Fishing pier view from the battery
Photo: Ileana Johnson

I don't think this squirrel missed many meals
Photo: Ileana Johnson

I counted eight grey squirrels so far, more than I’ve ever seen in the woods before. One portly Chip or perhaps Dale, was cracking nuts on a branch, a quite plump specimen that did not seem to have missed any meals. Perhaps the fishermen on the pier below had fed them if they were brave enough to make their way down half a mile to the river’s bank.

Fairfax home chimney of 1825
Photo: Ileana Johnson

I pass by the lone chimney, the ruins left from the Fairfax family home built here in 1825. Captain Henry Fairfax purchased the 2,000-acre property from Alfred Lee, the grandson of Henry Lee II. Henry and his third wife Elizabeth lived and raised seven children here from 1825 until their deaths in 1847. They are buried further up the hill in an enclosed cemetery covered in a thick carpet of dry leaves. In 1849 the $16,253 property, with twenty-four slaves, was left to his children, Martha and John Walter.

Potomac River shore on the Virginia side
Photo: Ileana Johnson

John inherited the portion of the plantation that is now Leesylvania State Park. John Walter Fairfax joined the Confederate Army and General James Longstreet’s staff. John Walter returned to live in Leesylvania after his wife’s death where he rebuilt his father’s residence and lived there until his death in 1908. I find it curious that his home burned shortly after his death. If only the still-standing brick chimney, weathered by time, could talk!

Civil war cannon facing the river
Photo: Ileana Johnson

Up the bluff at Freestone Point, with a spectacular view now partly obscured by scraggly bushes and a few dormant trees, there is a civil war cannon preserved from the original Gun Battery. This northernmost battery was a decoy along a six-mile front. The more effective batteries were located down river at Possum Point, Cockpit Point, and Evansport.

What's left of the battery at Freestone Point
Photo: Ileana Johnson

Confederate General Robert E. Lee issued orders on August 22, 1861 to blockade the Potomac River’s sailing channel. The Confederates effectively closed commercial traffic on the Potomac by December 1861 and maintained the blockade until March 9, 1862.

From the diary of Sgt. Wilmot Walter Curry, we know that the Freestone Point battery contained two rifled six-pounders and an eleven-foot-long thirty-pounder cannon known as “Long Tom,” captured at Manassas plains. Sgt. Curry described one such battle on September 25, 1861 when “the Lincolnite men of war,” floating on the Potomac, engaged the battery eleven times before the Confederates answered with their own guns. Fortunately, there were no casualties on either side.

Bluff over Potomac where the battery was located
Photo: Ileana Johnson

The view from the battery bluff today overlooks a fishing pier, quite busy on most days – one third of it is in Virginia and two-thirds in Maryland. How exactly does one measure the distance of ownership over the flowing river?

Monday, December 23, 2019

Inconvenient Anti Socialism Video Banned by Social Media Censors

We are going to take care of all people who are NOT willing to work. – part of the Socialist Democrat platform in the United States of America

I have made peace with the fact that social media censors like Twitter and Facebook have shadow-banned me. Google has not allowed any advertising on my website.

What I found disturbing is that on the infamous phony impeachment day, Wednesday, December 18, 2019, my Facebook page censors removed content to an article that was inconvenient to the liberal false narrative that “socialism is great once we get to do it,” more specifically, the video (I’ve seen the breadlines of communism) in which Donald Jr. talks about his 93-year old maternal grandmother whom he visited every summer in the former Czechoslovakia.

He talked about himself as a five-year old boy, dressed in a blue jean jacket with stars on it, experiencing fear for the first time, going through communist customs, being pulled out of the line at the airport, by a drab-uniformed soldier from the communist era, armed with an AK-47, asking him if he was there to preach capitalism and America. What could a five-year old boy possibly know about capitalism?

Donald Jr. told a crowd in a recent speech, “I’ve seen the breadlines of communism” while he visited his grandparents in the former Soviet satellite, Czechoslovakia.

I was unfortunate enough to have to stand in those breadlines under socialism imposed by the Communist Party. Imagine the disappointment and hunger, as a small child, having to stand in endless lines to buy bread and other necessities, and getting to the front of the line and the cashier telling me that the delivery for that day had been sold out.

My oldest child still remembers her visit to Romania as a 4 ½-year old in 1985. After a 23-hour flight and delays, we were finally at the airport in Bucharest, waiting in customs to have our passports checked out and validated, my child was tired, and she was rattling a metal fence with her foot. The burly armed soldier snarled at her with a thump of his weapon on the metal gate and told her to stop or he would arrest her. Arrest a little girl for being a tired and bored child?

A self-described “unlikely conservative, the son of a billionaire,” Donald Jr. told the audience that his conservatism was shaped by the experiences and events he had witnessed in the former Czechoslovakia, the country of his mother and grandparents’ birth. His mother “escaped communist Czechoslovakia.”

“The boats go only one way,” away from the oppressive communism. She, like many others who escaped communism around the world, saw and understood how lucky Americans were to live under freedom.

Having learned at an early age to speak Czech fluently, Donald Jr. was exposed by his grandfather to the reality of communism, of what it was like to live under the socialist/communist oppression in Czechoslovakia. He spent 4-6 weeks there every summer and the breadlines he saw “were not so glamorous. There is nothing glamorous about an empty supermarket and waiting for food,” he described.

Donald Jr. remembered seeing his parents’ wedding pictures in which his grandmother was missing because the socialist one party state ruled with an iron fist by the communist party kept tight control over the population by only allowing one person to travel abroad, keeping the other hostage in case the couple decided to defect. Some people defected anyway, leaving behind a spouse, a child, and other family members who were mistreated because their loved one chose to live in freedom and never returned to the prison state. He asks rhetorically, “What kind of system does not let you leave because they know, you ain’t coming back?”

My friend Flor defected 29 years ago and left her eight-year old son behind with his grandfather. She was eventually able to bring him to the United States after years of legal interventions and expenses. She cannot buy back the time she was separated from her child, but she is happy that he is here.

When Donald Jr.’s grandmother watches CNN there because “there is no alternative conservative viewpoint” in the former Soviet satellite, she tells him that you cannot let communism come to the U.S. A tough survivor, she hid from the Nazis in her basement, and spent 40 years under the communist party rule. “She gets it,” said Donald Jr. She is in tears from fear that her children, grandchildren, and greatgrandchildren could live under communism in America, the last bastion of freedom.

Donald Jr. made a very good final point that the Democrats have not been able to find one credible witness who would vouch for the utopian socialism they peddle to the American people and would be willing to say, “Let’s bring that crap here, it’s awesome!”

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Wikipedia photo
The next stop on our cold day D.C. tour was the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the place where billions of banknotes, without any backing of gold, or even sufficient goods and services, are printed at the request of the Federal Reserve (the Fed) which engages in fractional reserve banking and controls our money supply and interest rates.

The Fed, despite the name, is not really associated with the federal government as people think, it is a private corporation composed of twelve federal reserve banking regions with individual member-banks which are also corporations with shareholders. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve does inform Congress periodically about interest rates and whether the price of lending and borrowing money is going to change.

For a long time, banks in various towns printed their own currency which could only be used as a medium of exchange in that town. The currency was worth something only so long as the bank stayed solvent, was not robbed, or experienced a run-on-the-bank when all depositors withdrew their money at the same time.

On August 29, 1862, six employees, two men and four women, started operating in a one-room attic out of the main Treasury Building which is located near the White House.  They separated and sealed one and two-dollar notes made by private printing companies which were under contract with the federal government. For fifteen years, bonds, notes, and other valuable paper was engraved and printed in this part of the Treasury.

By 1880, the larger production had outgrown the facility and Congress appropriated $300,000 to build the first location of the Bureau. In 1894 the Bureau of Engraving and Printing expanded operations to postage stamps printing and the Bureau moved to a $3-million location in 1914. Today, with the added annex, the Bureau occupies 27 acres. In 1991 the Bureau opened the Western currency facility in Fort Worth, Texas, the first outside of Washington, D.C.

The vast spread employs 2,500 people, manufacturing 28 million banknotes a day in both facilities.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) is considered the Bureau’s customer and the nation’s central bank. The Federal Reserve, a private corporation with shareholders not tied to the federal government, gives an annual order of currency printing (new notes and notes to replace old and worn out currency) and the order is divided between the two facilities.

Every 7-10 years the currency is changed in order to deter counterfeiting. Color shifting, security metal threading, microprinting, and watermarks on the cotton/linen paper have been added to various dollar denominations. Three colors are printed simultaneously on both sides of the currency, adding more security. The printing presses can produce 14 colors simultaneously. The Secretary of the Treasury has the final decision-making power as to what changes are made to our currency.

Prior to 1929, the size of the currency was much larger than that in use today. The bureau printed demand notes, U.S. notes, national bank notes, gold certificates, treasury coin notes, silver certificates, Federal Reserve Bank notes. Printers produced sheets of four notes and sent them to the Treasury Department where they were signed, separated, and trimmed by hand before issuance.

U.S. Notes (Greenbacks) were issued in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 and used well into the 20th century (1862-1994). After 1994, they were no longer issued.

Fractional currency  (notes with values less than a dollar) was authorized and issued during the Civil War due to a shortage of coins.

Gold certificates were issued 1865-1935 whereby people deposited gold in the Treasury and received gold certificates in exchange.  But later the U.S. government moved to own the gold that backed the certificates. Denominations were the same as Greenbacks plus a certificate of $100,000.

Demand notes were only issued 1861-1862 in denominations of $5, $10, and $20. They were authorized by Congress in order to pay for the Civil War. Demand notes were redeemable “on demand” for gold coin at certain Treasury facilities.

Some financial instruments issued by the bureau involved war savings certificate stamps and thrift stamps. The War Savings Certificate stamps were offered during 1918-1921 and it consisted of $5 stamp purchased for $4 at the beginning of the year of issuance; it increased in value each month and reached face value after five years. The stamps could be affixed in a War Savings Certificate pamphlet. The certificate held 20 stamps, totaling $100. If the bearer had one complete certificate, he could exchange it for a $100 Liberty Loan.

The thrift stamps were offered in 1918 to those who could not afford to buy war savings certificate stamps. The 25-cent thrift stamp was popular with elementary schools, community groups, and places of employment; they organized thrift stamp sales. A thrift card held 16 stamps, equaling $4. A complete card booklet could then be exchanged for a War Savings Certificate stamp.

Gold coins were produced by the U.S. mint from 1795 until 1933. The Great Depression and the financial crisis forced the U.S. to end gold circulation. The Gold Reserve Act of 1934 prohibited most private possession of gold. The restriction ended by Executive Order in 1974. The Mint produces today a limited number of gold coins for collectors.

Looking at some foreign currencies that are quite colorful, one can understand how they would be hard to counterfeit with modern printers as it would be impossible to match every color exactly without disturbing the hues of others.

Adding three-dimensional holographic features to currencies does not work well as the holograms cannot survive the multiple-folding and rolling-tight test. The American dollar can survive intact after multiple days of baking in the sun and multiple laundry tests since the paper is made from a combination of cotton and linen. The famous green ink of the “greenback” is produced by the same company. Computers monitor the ink levels and its quality.

The 32-notes per sheet require 72 hours of curing time between the printing with the green and then the black ink. Intaglio printing is achieved with presses that can create ten tons of pressure without cutting the paper, creating the raised surface feel. After each 32-note sheet is examined by computers and by humans against previous ones, the sheet is cut into two 16-notes sheets.

Currency overprinting adds the Treasury seal, the Federal Reserve seal, and serial numbers. The 16-subject sheets are then cut into notes and packaged into bundles of 4,000.  One large shrink wrap contains 16,000 notes. Every currency is numerically sequenced and accounted for in terms of date, time, and year, and where it was shipped to.

The bundle is sent to the Federal Reserve vault where the money is “monetized,” it is now real money because the Federal Reserve says so. In terms of intrinsic value, the banknote is only worth the paper, the ink, and the labor that was put into it to design, print, and inspect it.

Our currency is nothing but a medium of exchange, fiat (Latin for “let it be”) money, deemed so by the government. It has no value as a commodity, but it has value only because people have faith that the issuer will stand behind every piece of printed paper and limit their production.

The question is, do they only replace worn out bills? Obviously, the Federal Reserve has the power to “monetize the deficit,” printing money in excess of goods and services produced in a year in the U.S. If they didn’t print more, how else would we have such a huge national budget and national debt in the trillions of dollars, over $23 trillion at the writing of this article? And that does not even include all the unfunded liabilities such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unfunded pensions, or unfunded debt.

To get a more-dimensional idea of how truly unpayable our national debt is, consider this: 233 of $100-notes make one inch for a total of $23,300. If you are 5’ 10” tall, your height represents $1,631,000 in currency.

Look at the Weimar Republic and what happened to their out of control printing of money – runaway hyperinflation which required an entire wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of bread - an opening for a two-bit dictator called Adolf Hitler to come to power by promising a good economy and prosperity.

Can we accurately measure the supply of money, coins, paper money, and checkable deposits? Not because we have no idea how much illegal cash circulates in the underground economy. We can measure well what banks hold in deposits and in the vault in their fractional reserves if their books are kept accurately.

Every dollar kept in the bank’s vault has the potential to eventually create several dollars’ worth of bank deposits once loans are paid back in full.

Bankers’ decisions on how much to hold in reserves in the vaults influence the supply of money. But there are banks that do not belong to the Federal Reserve System and do not follow the Fed dictates.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Visit to the Supreme Court

Photo: Ileana Johnson
On a sunny but cold day in December, we were guided on a tour of the Supreme Court, the bastion of definitive justice in the U.S., handed down by the nine black-robed group, a chief justice and eight associate justices, who ultimately decide, in case by case they cherry-pick, the hanging-in-the-balance fate of our Constitutional Republic.

Liberals in this esteemed group echo the sentiments of Democrats who keep telling us non-stop that we are a democracy that we must promote by twisting our Founding Fathers’ documents and intent because Americans are too dumb to know the difference and know so little of their history thanks to the socialist leaning education system and academia.

Photo: Ileana Johnson

Photo: Ileana Johnson
The Supreme Court is in a cold marble building, with 16 huge and overwhelming Corinthian columns.  Just in case you missed the profound power and importance of the Supremes in our daily lives, a triangle-shaped pediment with a group of figures reminds you with the words, “Equal justice under law.” Somehow flawed human beings with biases and different backgrounds are going to use a perfect measurement to deliver equal justice to each case brought before them.

Male statue facing the Capitol building
Photo: Ileana Johnson
Female statue 
Photo: Ileana Johnson
Two marble statues by sculptor James Earle Fraser are located on the side of the main entrance - a seated female figure on the left called the “Contemplation of Justice,” and a seated male figure on the right called the “Guardian or Authority of Law.”

The building faces the other part of our governing system, the Capitol, with the House of Representatives currently suffused with Democrats eager to deliver us as quickly as possible on a downward slide into socialism and communism.
Photo: Ileana Johnson

Photo: Ileana Johnson
John Marshall statue
More busts along the marble corridors
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The interior is also cold and rich in marble, decorated with Greek keys and blue rosette freezes, and heavily brocaded red velvet curtains trimmed with gold rope. Statues, portraits, and court memorabilia adorn the interior. Antonin Scalia’s portrait, a favorite among conservatives, hangs near the entrance to the cafeteria’s serving line.

Photo: Ileana Johnson
The Supreme Court Police, the law enforcement arm, was present everywhere throughout the massive building with bronze doors that weigh 6.5 tons each. The Great Hall is 91 feet long, 82 feet wide, and has an overwhelming 44-foot ceiling. The rich marble was quarried from Alabama, Georgia, Vermont, Italy, and Spain.

To keep the support staff entertained and in good shape, the fifth floor has a basketball court referred to as “the highest court in the land.”

RBG rack in gift shop
Photo: Ileana Johnson
Across from the cafeteria entrance is a small museum gift shop filled with trinkets and books written by or dedicated to current justices. An entire shelf is dedicated to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the declared heroine of the communist left. She hangs on to her powerful seat despite severe health issues. She was in court asking questions, fresh from her hospital bed.

The Court, we are told by the guide, holds sway over judicial review and the power to invalidate a statute that violates a provision of the U.S. Constitution, or to strike down presidential directives that violate either the Constitution or statutory law. When it was asked to decide if forcing Americans to buy insurance under the Affordable Care Act of 2010 was constitutional, Justice Roberts’ Court decided that buying health insurance was a tax and therefore constitutional.

“The Court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide non-justiciable political questions.” If you are confused, you are not alone.

Photo: Ileana Johnson
Article III of the Constitution established the Supreme Court and the 1st Congress established its composition and procedures through the Judiciary Act of 1789.  In the Judiciary Act of 1869, the Court was to have a chief justice and eight associate justices with lifetime tenure, until such a time that one resigned, retired, died, or was removed from office. The President, with advice and consent of the Senate, appointed a new justice. There have been as few as five and as many as ten justices on the court as determined by Congress.

Before this building was dedicated, the Supreme Court met in locales outside of Washington, D.C., i.e., the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City, Philadelphia in 1790, and finally moved to Washington in 1800 where it met in the newly built U.S. Capitol Building. Thanks to President William Howard Taft, himself a Chief Justice, this permanent home for the Supreme Court was completed in 1935.

According to the guide, in this life-time government job, the chief justice is remunerated $260,000 annually, and the associate justices $250,000 each.

In Marbury v. Madison, judicial review was established, making the Supreme Court the final arbiter and say of what Congress and what the President do. If it’s not consistent with the Constitution, it is supposed to be illegal. However, the interpretation of the Affordable Care Act requirement to buy health insurance as a tax was decided and influenced for political reasons.

During argument, the lawyers on each side have 30 minutes each to present their cases. For each lawyer, the first two minutes are uninterrupted time. The next 28 minutes are constantly interrupted by various justices who ask questions. The fine art of winning is a lawyer who answers questions in such a way that his answers may sway the decision of the individual justices. Justices do have their own histories and political biases, have read the underlying briefs, and have probably already decided how they would vote in the case.

The opinions of the court are given out during the term of the court, October through September. Once a majority decision has been reached, the chief justice decides who writes the opinion of the court.

Male statue by Fraser overlooking the Capitol
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The actual courtroom is average in size, with seats for the press on the right of the bench, black chairs for the court families and friends on the left, seats for the lawyers in the middle, and seats for the audience in the back. The clerk of the court sits under the flag. A female marshal times the proceedings and, when the 30 minutes are up, a red light turns on. The case is thus submitted but nobody knows whether they’ve won or lost.

Photo: Ileana Johnson
The Supremes meet once a week and talk about the cases they’ve heard that week. Once five justices agree on how the case will be decided, then a written opinion is issued. A dissenting opinion can also be issued and a concurring opinion, meaning, it agrees with the ruling but for a different reason.

During oral argument justices ask questions, letting the world know in what direction they lean on a case. Two lawyers for each side can argue but usually one speaks. During court session arguments are heard on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 10-12.

Behind metal gates on both sides, corridors are lined with chairs where clerks can sit and listen during arguments.

Photo: Ileana Johnson
The audience red velvet seats are occupied on a first come, first served basis, but the lines to get in are formed days and hours in advance. There are actual companies which, for a fee, will send line sitters for you.

The press is not allowed any recording devices or photography. The court sketch artist sits behind them.

Per tradition, no video is allowed during proceedings on the bench, per decision of the justices, but there is an audio and a video transcript of the proceedings posted on the website. The recording device is located on the left side of the Chief Justice and the human timekeeper sits on the same end.

The guide informed us that the court hears only about 60 cases (less than one percent) per term out of more than 7,000-8,000 petition cases that are brought for consideration to be heard by the court.

Photo: Ileana Johnson
The Chief Justice of SCOTUS sits in the middle chair (John Roberts), on his immediate right sit justices in order of seniority. The Associate Justice with the most time on the court is Clarence Thomas. On his left sits Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second one with seniority on the court.

Spiral staircase
Photo: Ileana Johnson
As I left the marble mausoleum-like building, I wondered how many millions of Americans across many generations have been affected by the good and bad decisions made by nine fallible, biased, and all-powerful humans in black robes, decisions that can never be reversed?

Friday, December 13, 2019

Citrus, Chocolate, Lotion, Socks, and the Nursing Home

Photo: Wikipedia
I decided to take small tangelos to the nursing home this week. Last week I took small tubes of hand lotion and small Ziploc bags of Lindt chocolate balls for the non-diabetic residents who either don’t have families or whose families are either too far away to make the trip or never come to see them, they’ve abandoned them to the care of the state of Virginia and its employees who are mostly foreign and do not understand how people can discard their loved ones into a nursing home, a dreadful but necessary place for those who need round the clock care or who truly do not have any family left. The alternative would probably be that they would join the homeless in the streets.

As a foreign born American, two residents affected me most profoundly – a German lady (I shall call her Helga) who has such severe diabetes, her right leg had been partially amputated twice. I speak German and I can communicate with her every time I go. A spark of joy lights up in her eyes when we talk in German. Helga has no other relatives in the U.S.

The second resident is an Italian lady whom I call Maria. She does not speak English much and has advanced dementia but is otherwise calm. Because she is toothless, I have a hard time understanding what she says. The nursing home did not provide her with dentures, they just puree her food. I asked her many times if she has family and what part of Italy she is from. She always responds, I am from Italy, all over, and I have no children. She cannot remember her hometown anymore or her name.

Maria resides in the Arcadia section of the nursing home, a place really far from the mythological Arcadia which was a paradise of sorts; most residents in this Arcadia are locked up since they are ambulatory and might otherwise try to walk away from the nursing home. But Maria is wheelchair bound and has more freedom. She would never remember the elevator passcode but she could sneak into the elevator with a careless visitor. They do wear ankle or wrist bracelets just in case they get lost.

One man managed to escape last week and I witnessed him trying to cross a busy highway intersection with no pedestrian crossing. Three nurses were chasing him with a wheelchair in tow, trying to bring him back.

Obviously the nursing staff is too busy and not very attentive to their patients’ whereabouts and needs, the ratio of care to the number of patients is appalling. My own mother had escaped their care but she did not make it too far, her granddaughter found her, all dressed up to go into town, waiting on a bench outside for an imaginary ride.

Why give tangelos you ask? Fragrant citrus fruits, especially oranges, bring back memories of my childhood under tyrannical socialist society, a nursing home of sorts for able-bodied people from which we could not escape if we wanted to – we were locked up within the borders of our country which served as a prison to keep us in, away from the rest of the free world that lived so much better than we did.

Once a year, usually at Christmas, the dictator would order more food in the stores and exotic fruits would be brought in, bananas and oranges. I loved the oranges wrapped in thin tissue, printed with unrecognizable words from a faraway country, Israel; the fragrant fruit was filling the house with intoxicating citrus perfume. It was such a treat, we placed a few oranges in the Christmas tree, in small paper baskets decorated with colorful crepe paper. Chocolate candy and butter cookies were dangling from colorful threads as well.

Last year I gave everybody socks – a small but such useful gift!  Socks were so hard to find in the communist stores, we had to learn to knit to make our own if we wanted our feet to be warm in wintertime.

I took hand lotion too every year – it is painful to have dry and cracked hands. I know all too well – commies were not producing anything so frivolous as hand lotion. The elites were able to buy Nivea from their own stores but we did not have such imported luxuries.

One patient asked me if I worked in the mall – why else would I bring such stuff to them as lotion, chocolate, oranges, and socks? I must have some overstock in my private warehouse. I just smiled and walked on.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Khrushchev's Communist Propaganda Lives on In the Democrat Party Today

Nikita Khrushchev in 1963

“You Americans are so gullible. No, you won't accept communism outright, but we'll keep feeding you small doses of socialism until you'll finally wake up and find you already have communism. We won't have to fight you. We'll so weaken your economy until you'll fall like overripe fruit into our hands.” – Nikita Khrushchev

There was a time, sixty years ago to be exact, when people recognized communism as a threat to world peace, stability, and freedom. Works were published in the west that revealed communism and its dark totalitarian philosophy. Today most publishers bring to light anything liberal and progressive, singing lofty praises to socialism and communism.

Trident Press published in June 1961 a small pocketbook called Conquest Without War, “a mosaic of the words and ideas of the new force that threatens to change the way of life on this planet.” Compiled and edited by N.H. Mager and Jacques Katel, it used Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev’s own words and those of his ghost writers, words of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, and remarks and commentary made by the two editors in order to provide better understanding of the context in which Khrushchev made certain statements that outraged the world at the time but have been since forgotten in the dustbin of history.

It is crucial to unearth what was supposedly buried with the “death” of communism in 1989 as the American youth is utterly infatuated by socialism, communism, and the ideology which killed more people on the planet than many modern wars combined.

Khrushchev was never shy about stating his desire to establish world communism with the Soviet Union at its helm. Western countries did not take his rhetoric seriously at the time since the Soviet Union barely had enough resources to feed its own people adequately or pay his army well.

Soviet Bolsheviks had a vast network of spies and informers, a strong school of indoctrination, and a disarmed populace that was a very captive audience inside its vast borders, literally and figuratively, as the communist party made sure guns were confiscated for “the good of the people.”

The left in this country, represented by the Democrat Party, has accelerated its anti-gun rhetoric, determined to repeal our right to bear arms. Criminals would not exist, the left says, if only the benevolent government would be allowed to bear arms. Why would we need guns to protect ourselves when the government can do it for us?

Khrushchev’s speeches and unsolicited advice ranged from farming, how to milk cows properly, growing corn and wheat, to how to be a good Soviet, how to write novels, world affairs, harsh criticisms of world leaders, threats, communist slogans, and how communism will be victorious and rule the world under his power. He certainly passed away before he became ruler of the world, preventing more unnecessary human pain, suffering, and misery under his dictatorship of equality.

The central theme of his philosophy was “socialism v. capitalism.” How could he not be victorious over the “decadent, crumbling capitalism,” the very capitalism that has lifted the economic boats of millions of poor people in the U.S.

This theme, “socialism v. capitalism,” has been resurrected today by our domestic communists, new and old, declared communists among U.S. Congress members, socialist academics and public-school teachers, and their indoctrinated generations of students.

He believed that one man, with help from a small but trusted elite group, could control the entire life of humanity as long as the secret police, informers, and a strong army controlled everyone from cradle to grave with incentives for good behavior and harsh punishments for crimes of thought and of insubordination to his philosophy of total control of the human spirit.

Khrushchev died before his dream became reality – he never got to rule the world with an iron fist. But, his philosophical followers, have chosen the global communist leader to be the United Nations with its myriad of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) spread around the globe.

Rule by the Party of One and the Party State, ideas promoted by Khrushchev and the Bolshevik ideology have become the major political drive among the U.S. population, the electorate, politicians in power, and in other western nations which strangely mirror these developments.

How did the Soviets sell socialism to the masses? The method may seem eerily familiar to you today because it is exactly how the Democrat Socialists like Bernie Sanders and AOC are trying to sell socialism to their voting base.

1.       Socialism is presented as a good, progressive, enlightened, and effective system based on equality for all. Capitalism is bad, tired, and evil.

2.       Socialists/communists “cultivate falsehoods as a deliberate weapon of policy.”

3.       The young and useful idiots alike are mesmerized by socialism even if they don’t know exactly what it is, or understand the theory of “scientific socialism,” renamed “Democrat socialism” by Bernie Sanders; it just sounds great, everything is free and who can resist free?

4.       Socialists say that economic progress is not possible under capitalism because capitalists are greedy, and they exploit millions of “working people.” Never mind that socialism has been a disaster everywhere. The Scandinavian model of generous welfare Democrats desire is based on heavy capitalist taxation of corporations and of people, it is not socialism.

5.       Khrushchev said that after the liquidation of classes, the Soviets had a “monolithic society.” That was, of course, a blatant lie. Discrimination based on ancestry was rampant. There was the proletariat, the elites, and the farmers, all neatly stacked in their own little world.

6.       The capitalist system is based on workers who are “enslaved, living in capitalist bondage,” said Khrushchev. But he then admitted that the “slaves of capitalism” lived well. Compared to how we lived under socialism, I would choose capitalism over socialism every time.

7.       Capitalist workers are exploited, Khrushchev said. During Khrushchev’s time, Soviet workers received 27 cents of what they produced while Americans received 67 cents and they produced twice as much. I call that production efficiency not exploitation. And the distribution of the national product was more egalitarian in the U.S. “Egalitarianism was actually taboo in the Soviet Union.”

8.       Unemployment was described by socialists as the “great disaster of capitalism.” The truth was, during Khrushchev’s time, the “unemployed in the U.S. received in benefits almost twice as much as the Soviet worker was paid when he was employed.” Khrushchev said that in the USSR there was no unemployment. He called it surplus workers. If the Soviets did recognize that technological unemployment existed, they would have had to recognize that there were other categories of unemployment.

9.       Khrushchev warned those who did not work. “An able-bodied person who does not work steals from those who work, that is, lives at the expense of those who create material or spiritual values. An atmosphere must be created in which those who despise work are not tolerated. Every person who lives in a communist society must make a contribution by his or her labor toward the building and further development of that society.”

10.   Socialist women were emancipated, Khrushchev said. Yet they worked much harder than other women and at back-breaking work in factories, side by side with men.

11.   Eventually socialism will turn into communism when people will receive “to each according to his needs.” Translation – everyone will work according to his abilities and be rewarded according to his needs. Who will get to decide? The communist party elites. One thing is sure, nobody will be idle, everyone will toil for collectivism. Will there be enough wealth to satisfy all needs in whatever distribution scheme the elites arrange? Probably not, rationing will have to take place. But they say, there will be no more “want” of anything under socialism/communism. Really?

12.   When no more “wants” exist, the population will be entirely happy and satisfied and the police state will have to disappear. Will it? And then “the citizens will manage the nation.” Will they manage the nation, or will chaos descend?

The reality was that the Soviet Union, a super-welfare socialist state, with all its socialist satellites, had to be maintained by intense propaganda, an army of security police, regular police, economic police, informers, communist party apparatchiks, closed borders with mine fields and barbed wire to keep people prisoners within, armed security guards told to shoot if anyone tried to escape, propagandists at work, in schools, in the mass media, and enforcers who followed “lucky” travelers abroad very closely. All these armed to their teeth guardians of socialism kept a tight reign on the disarmed, afraid, and barely fed population. A dog kept on a chain all the time and partially fed has no choice but to appear loyal to his master.

Socialism was just boastful and meaningless semantic propaganda, cleverly worded and designed to keep a tight totalitarian reign on a scared and demoralized populace that realized too late that the rose-colored lies they were promised were just too good to be true.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Christmas, the Season of Faith, Family, and Charity

Photo: Ileana Johnson
 Christmas was my Dad bringing home proudly a scraggly fir with sparse branches - fragrant with the smell of winter, tiny icicles hanging from the branches, miniature crystal daggers, melting on my mom’s well-scrubbed parquet floor. I never knew nor asked how he could afford it from his $70 a month salary that barely covered the communist subsidized rent, utilities, and food. No matter how bare the branches of my Christmas tree were, it was magical to me.

We decorated it together with home-made paper baskets filled with hard candy, raisins, and small butter cookies, crepe paper garlands, small pretzels, an orange wrapped in fine tissue paper coming all the way from Israel, a few apples dangling from a string, and 12 red and green 3-inch candles clipped carefully away from overhanging branches that could catch on fire.

Mom’s hand-stitched table cloth made a convenient tree skirt. Two metal bars forged by hand helped Dad nail the tree to the floor at the foot of the couch where I slept in the living room that doubled as my bedroom.

I fell asleep and woke up every morning setting my eyes on the scented tree. It lasted two enchanted weeks before the dried needles fell all over the floor.

Christmas was lighting one of the 12 candles for a few minutes every night, careful not to set the tree on fire, basking in the soft glow while Daddy’s twinkly eyes were beaming with pride that he made his family happy once more. We were rich with love and God’s blessings.

Christmas was standing in shorter lines for freshly baked bread, butter, milk, cooking oil, flour, sugar, and the small pork roast mom always baked in the gas oven. Grandpa’s homemade smoked sausages with pretzels toasted on the stove top were always on the menu. Grandpa used to joke that life was so spectacularly good, even the dogs ran around with pretzels on their tails. Pretzels were sold by big bags, hard and stale, but toasting them on the stove made them taste just baked.

Christmas was Daddy opening the ceremonial bottle of red wine freshly brewed that year by cousin Mircea from Grandma Elizabeta’s vineyard grapes.

Christmas were the village carolers in hand-sewn folk costumes coming door to door, trudging through 3 ft. of snow, pulling a plough decorated with a real fir tree, singing traditional songs and snapping their whips in spite of the Communist Party moratorium, forbidding the observance of such religious traditions.

Christmas was sneaking at midnight to the village Orthodox Church with aunt Leana, the singing deacon, lighting candles and praying, surrounding the building when the crowd overflowed its tiny confines into the yard and the cemetery. The cold chilled us to the bone but the inside eventually warmed from our bodies, the candles, and the excitement of prayers and closeness to God.

Christmas was eating with my Mom and Dad, feeling full, happy, and loved in our tiny apartment, sometimes sharing meals with family members who had traveled far to be with us. The spare wool comforter aunt Nicuta had woven, a blanket, and set of sheets painstakingly hand washed would make cozy beds on the floor for the tired traveler – no fire place to light up, just the coils of steam heat which the government generously made sufficiently hot during Christmas to make up for the cold misery during the winter.

Christmas was peering in the shop windows at the glass ornaments we could not afford but I wished I had. They were made in Poland, whimsical fairy tale characters, no religious symbols of any kind, they were “verboten.”

Every Christmas I longed to have the same doll in the window at Omnia department store, dressed with miniature detailed  clothes, real curly hair, blue eyes, and eyelashes. I never asked my Dad because Mom said it cost three months of his salary. I still had my raggedy cloth doll aunt Stella, the village seamstress, had made for me when I was two years old. When my first child was born, Dad mailed her a large doll similar to the one I had longed for. The doll was so big, it stayed in a corner untouched. My spoiled children had too many other toys to play with and never appreciated the sacrifice their Granddad had made in sending such a gift of love.

On Saint Nicholas Day, December 6, I would put my boots outside the door, hoping that they would be filled with candy in the morning and not coals. Grandpa had a wicked sense of humor – he would sometimes fill one boot with switches and another with candy and a chocolate bar. Chocolate was always in short supply and hard to find.

Photo: Ileana Johnson
Grandpa never bought a blue spruce - we cut a fir tree from the woods. We were careful not to cut down a tree that had bird nests in it. We decorated it with garlands made from shiny and multi-colored construction paper. We cut strips, glued them in an interlocking pattern and voila, we had our garland. For ornaments we used walnuts and shriveled apples from his cellar, tied with Grandma’s red knitting wool.

The warm adobe style fireplace built from mud bricks mixed with straw cast a dancing glow on the tree decked with  tokens of food, something our heathen Roman ancestors did during the celebration of Saturnalia. On December 17, the polytheistic Romans celebrated Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, for an entire week. As Christians, we celebrated the birth of Christ and the religious traditions in our Orthodox faith, in spite of the communist regime forcing the transformation of Christmas into a secular holiday.

On Christmas Eve, after we ate Grandma’s traditional Christmas supper, roasted pork, sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls with ground meat and rice), and mamaliga (corn mush with butter cooked in a cast iron pot), we went to the midnight service at the Orthodox Church not far from her house. Sometimes it was a sloshy trek and other times it was icy and slippery. If we got lucky, a heavy snow would turn our walk into a winter wonderland with dancing snowflakes shining in the weak street lights. We had to bundle up well – the church was not heated and we circled it three times during the procession with burning candles in our hands. I always wore my flannel pajamas under many layers of warm clothes. To this day, pajamas are my favorite garment – cozy and comfortable, keeping my body warm.

When my children were born, Christmas became a tradition of toys and happiness seen through squeals of innocence and twinkly eyes when unwrapping a favorite game, book, toy, stuffed animal, or bike. I taught my children to be charitable and to share with other children who were less fortunate than we.

I decorate my Douglas fir with beautiful lights and shiny ornaments now. My heart fills with loving and longing memories of glowing Christmases past and of family members lost who made our Christian traditions so special.

I hope and pray that American Christmas traditions will be passed on to future generations to light up the season of faith, family, and charity.

Note: An abbreviated version of this article appeared in my first book, Echoes of Communism, 2010 edition.