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Today’s Big News: No News

January 27, 2010

Just in case you’ve been hiding in some undisclosed secure location for the past week, it’s worth noting that Apple CEO Steve Jobs, on the heels of announcing record profits, intends to reveal the company’s latest offering today. In a much anticipated and widely discussed move, he is expected to unveil Apple’s latest foray into the tablet computer market. If successful, as expected, Apple’s product will establish a whole new category, which Jobs himself has claimed to be the most important work of his life. Others have simply hailed it as a “game changer.”

Okay, now that I have your attention, I would like to recap some of the other issues competing for your attention today:

  • President Obama will address a joint session of Congress tonight in his first State of the Union Address; he is expected, among other things, to call for a freeze in non-defense discretionary spending in an effort to curb the federal budget deficit.
  • Massachusetts voters in a stunning defeat for Democrats elected Republican Scott Brown to fill the unexpired term of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, undermining the Democrats’ filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear that the U.S. House of Representatives lacked sufficient votes to pass the Senate health care reform bill in its current form, which resulted in calls for a stripped down agreement or at least further delay.
  • Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden claimed credit for the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. jetliner by a Nigerian radical.
  • Oregon voters, counter to the assumed public backlash over tax-and-spend business-as-usual politics, voted to raise their own taxes.
  • A series of bombing in the Iraqi capitol killed scores of people and raised questions about the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces.
  • Iraq executed convicted mass-murderer and Saddam Hussein cousin AliHassan al-Majeed, better know in the west as “Chemical Ali” for his gas ttacks against the country’s Kurdish and Shiite minorities in the north and south, respectively.
  • In a striking precedent, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned two of its own precedents, deciding by a 5-4 majority to allow corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of cash to national electoral campaigns.
  • And, oh yeah, hundreds of thousands of Haitians died after a massive earthquake struck their impoverished nation leaving millions homeless.

Now, which of these stories has the most sweeping implications for U.S. national security?

For my money, it’s the Supreme Court decision. In an almost unprecedented statement yesterday, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor criticized the decision as an, “arms race” that will be a “problem for maintaining an independent judiciary.”  Her concerns do not reflect the lingering Senate stalemate over appointments to the federal bench rooted in partisan bickering over judicial ideology. Rather, she’s concerned that the vast majority of state and local judges are elected.

Confidence in and the independence of the judiciary represents an important bulwark against the deepening partisan divide and associated erosion of public confidence in the other two branches. Without it, confidence in government, or for that matter our constitutional form of government, becomes increasingly suspect if not downright untenable.

The vastly different electoral results in the Massachusetts Senate race and the Oregon tax referendum only serve to illustrate the difficulty characterizing the political mood of the country with any precision. That said, both illustrate deep skepticism and growing cynicism surrounding the established political order.

At the same time, the overwhelming, even unprecedented public response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti should give us hope. Most Americans still care deeply and passionately about the plight of others. They want to help. But as the mood attending events in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate, they do not like getting their hands bit by those who benefit from aid.

This leaves me wondering what Jobs’ announcement today and the veritable furore surrounding it says about us as a country and a people. Apple is not just a huge, profitable company that produces innovative products. Its brand has taken on the air of cultural metaphor. Despite some recent criticism of the company’s environmental record, Apple has often been credited with doing well by doing good.

This brings me back to the potential threat posed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. If the global financial crisis has taught us anything, companies have no inherent moral code that impels them to do right by others. In contrast, biological evidence of an evolutionary bias toward altruism among individuals is well-established and growing.

When assembled in a group, our tendency toward altruism finds expression in efforts to conform our behavior to perceived group norms. When those norms run contrary to morals or accepted notions of the public good, we often have difficulty detecting the discrepancy much less changing the overall mood of the group. We’re more likely to consider our own views aberrant than that of the perceived group will. This pack mentality makes us susceptible to all sorts of unintended, and more importantly, unsuspected, evil.

An independent judiciary provides an important check on the pack mentality that often infects corporate bodies, including mobs in the legislative and executive branches of government. Allowing corporations, often under the control of interests hostile to the public good and sometimes under the influence of foreign nationals or others not otherwise allowed to participate in elections, to contribute freely to campaigns, especially judicial campaigns, poses an unchecked threat to our liberty.

Threat to our liberty are neither limited to nor dominated by international terrorism and the radical extremism that breeds it. A failure to give adequate expression to our best intentions by providing a durable and independent check on our own impetuous behavior poses just as great a threat to our liberty.

If the anticipation surrounding Apple’s announcement is any indication, we may need intervention of the clinical rather than the political sort sooner rather than later. With any luck, we will see the error of our ways and insist on the essential distinction between our individual and corporate lives.

In the meantime, enjoy your iSlate, iTablet, MacPad or whatever it’s called and don’t forget to vote. Take it away Steve Jobs …

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