Democracy or Free Press!!!

Growing up  I assumed that everybody knew the importance of a free press to a democracy . As I read about the horrors perpetrated by governments and those in power and the efforts by the free press to reel them in (Watergate , The Pentagon papers and the press in India during the Emergency readily come to mind ), I cannot help but believe that journalists are replaying the same role that Brutus played in ancient Rome when he assassinated Julius Caesar . Regardless of personal motivations , at the heart of the treachery was a love for Rome that overwhelmed his affection and loyalty to Caesar (the anti-Antigone behavior where the state comes before the self)  . To me this symbiosis of democracy and free press is as essential to democracy as oxygen to living creatures; even to a democracy as venerable as ours or especially to one as venerable as ours .

I love change.org and have support several of their initiatives including the brutal butchery of sharks for their fins , puppy mills , blood lions, human trafficking, dog fighting and even supported one initiative which recommended that we deport the lion killing dentist back to Zimbabwe to face trial (given the quick disappearance of that particular incident from the collective memory, I imagine life is back to normal for him). But the one that I remember the most is one that I did not vote for , it was so audacious that it has stuck with me. It was an initiative where they wanted  Facebook and Google to verify the authenticity of news that was being spread on their platforms . I love Facebook which I use to keep in touch with my family in India as well as friends in India and Ohio and it also serves as my online scrapbook for all the pictures that I take .But while Facebook is a luxury , Google is a necessity . I would starve to death without Google , every day I search for dozens and dozens of resolutions to issues that I cannot resolve and given the diversity of platforms , languages and libraries that software engineers have to deal with , Google is a life saver . So needless to say , I am grateful for both of them but I do not expect them to vet my news for me . Portals of free information on the internet cannot  be expected to be held to the same standards of reputable news papers.

Recently I listened in mute fascination to an associate who was reciting to me her total faith in the FDA.  Sometime back I was working for a giant pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia and I was part of the engineering team which comprised of mechanical , electronics , electrical , instrumentation and software engineers and on the pharmaceutical side was an army of PhDs . We had to document everything as was required by the FDA , my software was the glue that triggered the syringe to squirt the drug  , measure the volume of the drop , weigh the pill and send all this information to the central data repository that was a write once read many (WORM) database . Awesome stuff !! Great lengths to prevent tampering. Admirable except there was nobody who could audit what I had written , little to prevent a bug in my calculations (an implementation of Integration by parts; mention of calculus would have most software engineers in tears) , little to prevent an overestimation in the amount of drug in the drop and I certainly do not expect a FDA employee or even an army to go through the mechanical design, the electrical design , the software and the vagaries of organic chemistry to understand the drug . So we had to produce voluminous amount of documentation that they keep as part of their records .  What does this have to do with a free press ? a free press keeps everybody on their toes , some thing that is common to all Pharma companies is their fear of negative publicity , anybody remember Vioxx?  The FDA was bought into existence by Theodore Roosevelt who read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and was horrified to learn that it was not unusual for lard to have human remains .The vats were massive and it was extremely difficult and expensive to stop them . So if the odd Lithuanian immigrant happened to fall in , it was cheaper to pay money to his non English speaking family and if some nosy government agent started asking questions (as did happen after TR read “The Jungle” ), ship them back to Lithuania or Latvia . While the FDA is essential , it is the free press that keeps the Pharma companies in line . The particular process that I worked on was for a painkiller , the machine was first of its kind but once they found that the drug was causing cancer in rats , not only did they have to abandon the drug but also the machine , it was mandated as part of the FDA process which is overkill but it is due to the fact that they are seriously under equipped to deal with the technology and rapid innovation. At the other extreme are FDA agents who visit Joel Salatin’s grass farm in Virginia . They are hampered by his concepts like the open air abattoir which obviously do not require adherence to regulations that are in place to protect the McDonalds customer . If I buy a chicken from the Salatin farm , they slaughter the chicken in front of you if desired or the same day that you buy it alleviating the need to protect yourself from E-Coli or Salmonella. The McDonalds meat comes from some mystery farm in Kansas raised on a diet of who knows what . If interested ,read the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan , a delightful book. In light of all this , it is easy to see that while we need the FDA , they are inundated and under equipped . Therefore our biggest defense is a free press that is not afraid to print and hold our businesses to high standards.

Cleveland ,OH is home to the Great lakes Brewery , the beer is delicious enough to almost claim it to be a micro brewery. I meet quite a few North East Ohio expats in the bay area and almost invariably the conversation becomes rueful once The Great Lakes brewery is mentioned because we don’t get it here. They have a delightful collection but the one that stands out for me is called Burning River. I wish it was just the amazing imagination of the brewer but unfortunately it is inspired by the Cuyahoga river which caught fire in June 1969 . I will let you digest that for a minute , the river caught fire!!! It was caused by the  chemicals that were being dumped by the companies who had nothing to stop them . President Nixon created the EPA to deal with issues like these . I have had zero dealings with the EPA but I imagine the same issues that plague the FDA plague the EPA as well and again it is only the free press which is our last defense against companies who would go to great lengths to avoid negative publicity and therefore try to hold themselves to higher standards.

I reserve my last argument for the financial regulations especially the Dodd-Frank Act. I have read almost all of Michael Lewis’s books where he details Wall Street’s antics  , the Wolf of Wall Street did little to assuage my growing anxiety and anger reserved at Wall Street. The Dodd-Frank act was created after the gigantic cluster f*#@ that was the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Short clearly details how many in Big Finance knew but did nothing to stop it quite the contrary.Around 2015 , one of my closest friends got a call from one of his drunk classmates who happens to work in Wall Street. This fellow had just received a huge bonus for creating a enticing financial product.  Being drunk , he could not help bragging about the fact that he had 7-8 $10000/hour hookers and proceeds to tell my friend that this product will be a poison pill in about 10 years but right now it is extremely profitable for his employer and hence the bonus. It was a scene right out of the Wolf of Wall Street. This is obviously after the Dodd-Frank act and under President Obama’s so called age of regulations . So the Wall Street analysts are still having a gala time . About 2 weeks ago another close friend and his wife go to their financial planner for advice , he was all agog with excitement because President Trump had promised to dismantle all of these regulations which was crippling the financial industry and he could offer them much better products . All I could think of was Bernie Madoff!!! The financial crisis caused trillions of dollars to vanish and yet nobody went to jail . Not too long after the rescue of Citibank in 2009, I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about a Citi stock broker getting a bonus of $340 million. Here is another interesting article. All of this happened in spite of extensive news coverage so I am convinced that we need every weapon possible to protect us from them including government regulations and investigative reporters.

Growing up , I was of a libertarian bent of mind which believes in less government but the more I read of businesses that hire armies of lawyers and accountants to seek loopholes , engineer financial products that is engineered to swindle us out of our hard earned money, I am convinced that regulators are needed , they don’t exist to provide jobs to incompetent government bureaucrats but to protect us.I don’t know what is going to happen to these government regulatory bodies or regulations which are in place to protect us, the common man and woman . What I do know is that our only defense against big businesses or politicians running amuck at this point is a free press which is not afraid to print what they see . Regardless of  right or left leanings, Republican or Democrat or Libertarian beliefs, we need a free press to thrive in order to have a thriving democracy , to protect the land we love.

A free press cannot survive without its subscribers . I started my annual subscription to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal . I urge every one of you to do the same , whether the subscription is to your local newspaper or a national one.

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