Category: Government

John Smith, Jamestown, and the Beginnings of America


Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. – Pope Francis

In October 1609, Capt. John Smith, hero of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, left to go back to England, injured and disgraced, never to return.

It was probably for the best. Jamestown was turning out to be a mistake, contained in a disaster, wrapped up in a tragedy. The settlers wanted to abandon it more than once. It was a pathetic beginning for the colonization of the part of North America that would, 170 years later, declare its independence and become the United States.

Of the approximately 560 people who had so far been transplanted to live at Jamestown, more than 240 had died. The Sea Venture, one of the largest and most modern ships to set sail for Virginia, was shipwrecked with 150 on board. Even worse was yet to come during the winter of 1609-10 when 440 out of 500 settlers died in what has become known as the “starving time.” This is an 88 percent death rate!

I visited the Jamestown archaeological site this past summer. The work done there to date is well documented in both the main visitor center and the Archaearium, but I found myself leaving with many questions. What motivated the settlers to leave England for such a miserable ending? How did the backers and financiers in London justify sending so many to their deaths? Were these people just victims of circumstances or was there something else going on that was crippling their ability to thrive?

Photo by A. Taylor

Crosses marking the dead at Jamestown. Photo by A. Taylor

The answers to these questions have been the subject of debate for several decades at least. But it is undeniable that Jamestown was the beginning of America.

However, our American myth of origin is exactly that–a myth. This country did not begin with noble Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rather, it began in a swampy, stinking scrap of land in Virginia.

According to author and historian James Horn, Jamestown–the first permanent English settlement on the continent–“was not intended as a model for some kind of idealized version of English society…or as a religious refuge for ‘God’s chosen people.'” Rather, “colonies would produce goods in demand in England that hitherto had to be imported from Europe and Asia, and English merchants would provide colonists with necessary credit, laborers, and supplies.”

By modern standards, though, this colony was an astonishing waste of resources, money, and human life. It is surprising to me that human life was given so little value. Not only were the Indians slaughtered mercilessly merely for being not Christians, but the English settlers were sent to their almost certain death simply because the lords wanted to beat the Spanish and claim North America for their king.

And to make money. Lots of money.

What it boils down to for me is this: The idea that we are a great nation with a manifest destiny founded on Christian principles is a fiction. Yes, we have persevered, but mostly out of dumb luck and not a divine plan.

Are these the so-called values that some Americans want to restore when they say our country needs to be restored to her former glory? If not, what is it exactly that they want to restore?

There is no immutable force guiding our direction. It is we, the People, who have a sacred obligation to set the nation’s course, to seek positive change, to honor our fellow citizens, and be committed to democracy and the Constitutional process.

I wonder what Capt. John Smith would think of America today. Would he be disappointed? Would he see a lot of material wealth without much unity? Maybe. Or perhaps he would he be happy to see that, despite the ill-conceived trainwreck of our first settlement, we somehow have risen above our beginnings and just might have a shot at another 400 years.



To Greek or Not To Greek

I’ve hit upon an idea to save Greece from its financial crisis. Well, maybe not complete salvation, but hear me out.

The Greeks say they’re chafing under the austerity that has been imposed on them. Seems to me that what would help is some new revenue.

To accomplish that, Greece should charge a licensing fee to every yogurt company that uses the word “Greek” to describe their product. The euros would be rolling in, because Greek yogurt is selling like mad these days. yogurt

Greek yogurt now accounts for more than 50 percent of the yogurt market in the United States. Often, it is the only style of yogurt I see in the store. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you.

According to the most recent figures I could find, Fage, which as far as I can tell makes almost exclusively Greek-style yogurt, has nearly $575 million in annual sales. For Dannon (aka Danone), their Oikos brand of Greek yogurt was in the top 3 in terms of contribution to growth, with a reported €11 billion in annual sales of dairy products and “several years of robust growth [in the U.S.] powered by the Greek yogurt segment.”

Even Stonyfield Farms, which I love, and Yoplait, which I can’t stand, have joined the fray.

Anyway, with all this marketing of Greek this and Greek that, it seems to me that poor little Greece should be benefiting. I’d be willing to add a penny to the price of yogurt if it would put a little cash in Greece’s pocket.

Royalties as a percentage of sales is extremely common under intellectual properly law. In fact, the royalty rates customarily go up as sales increase–and we know sales of Greek yogurt are increasing. I say we start at 5% and go from there. It may not be the whole solution, but it couldn’t hurt.

I must confess that I don’t actually buy that much yogurt with the word “Greek” on the label. My favorite brand of strained yogurt is the Icelandic-style Siggi’s.

But I’m not opposed to sending a few pennies to Iceland either.


Looking for Truth on Keystone XL

There’s an old saying that truth will out. Eventually. Given enough time. Someday, we can expect we’ll get the real story.

Which implies that for now, we probably aren’t.

Nearly two years ago, I pointed out the flawed reporting regarding the Keystone XL pipeline and its associated environmental impact statement. Specifically, I noted that

the State Department did not prepare the environmental impact statement. If you read the department’s web page on the project, you will see that they farmed out the EIS to Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a multinational environmental “consulting” firm.

I took issue not only with how the journalist was reporting the story, but also with the fact that, all too often, our government places undue confidence in private firms to conduct its business.

Art: iStock

Art: iStock

It now appears that Bloomberg Businessweek agrees with me.

In an article dated Jan. 23, Brad Wieners lays bare the clear case for ERM’s conflict of interest in being awarded the job of doing the environmental review for the Keystone XL pipeline. He states that, at the very least, there is not enough separation between the reviewer and the reviewee:

The State Department review process has a built-in conflict of interest, because contractors like ERM are paid for by the applicant—in this case, TransCanada, ERM’s former client.

Wieners’ article goes into much more depth than I could hope to get on my limited time and budget, but we’ve come to the same conclusion.

Which is refreshing.

Often, through all the shouting, I feel as if I’m off in a corner talking to myself. I’d rather feel like a contributor to a more rational conversation, one that leads in the general direction of truth.

Want to Stop Government Spending? Start With the Pentagon

Our illustrious and compassionate Speaker of the House, John Boehner–who has called unemployed people “lazy” and has fought hard to deny affordable health care coverage to millions of Americans–has been known to have a problem with wasteful government spending. He blames this spending squarely on Democrats, with comments such as this:

This is reflective of a decades-old belief by Democrats that Washington politicians know how to spend our money better than we do. Democrats won’t even let us see where they’re spending tax dollars anymore – we’re just supposed to nod and smile, and understand that they know what’s best for us. Well I don’t buy it.

Thanks John.

Unfortunately, in the three years that Boehner has been Speaker, the Republicans have tried to balance the budget by cutting social programs and benefits for those who need it–such as the disabled, the elderly, and the unemployed–and by routinely blocking anything proposed by President Obama and the Democrats. In the meantime, one government agency that accounts for $600 billion in pure government spending goes untouched and unchallenged.

The Pentagon.

The Pentagon

The Pentagon

In a recent column, CNN commentator and journalist Fareed Zakaria points out just how out of control the Defense Department is, with a budget larger than the gross domestic product of Poland and higher spending on weapons than China, Russia, and six other nations put together. Zakaria says this:

The Pentagon resembles nothing so much as some kind of gigantic socialist enterprise, run according to its own principles, shielded from market discipline and accountable to no one. How does it continue to function and perform?

Zakaria’s analogy is appropriate. The military is one of the most socialist institutions that we have in America, as I have pointed out before. Which is ironic considering that most service members consider themselves to be conservative on most issues and frequently vote Republican.

If Boehner and his party are serious about cutting wasteful government spending, the place they have to start looking is at the Pentagon. Rather than letting our national infrastructure collapse because they refuse to fund highway construction, or letting our workforce continue to be hobbled by ineffective health care policy, they should take a hard look at the wasteful spending that is going on right under their noses.

How to Work for the Federal Government Without Really Trying

usa jobs

A friend of a friend who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency had agreed to see me. Five years ago, after I’d been laid off, I was applying for jobs with the federal government. While this guy wasn’t in a position to hire me, I’d hoped to gain a look inside this massive agency.

I met him on a weekday morning at the Ariel Rios building, a large EPA office in Washington, D.C. He was polite and friendly, which I appreciated because he probably barely could afford the time out of his day.

I showed him my resume and he seemed impressed. “We can always use smart people around here,” I remember him saying.

But it takes more than being smart to land a job in Washington. What exactly it takes, however, remains a mystery.

The federal government is ineffective, many people say, and I’m not going to argue with that. Leaving aside Congress for the moment (which is its own special nightmare), most people when they talk about the government are referring to administrative agencies. As extensions of the office of the president, the “alphabet soup” of agencies employ the bulk of the federal workforce and are the focus of a majority of public bitterness. Just think about the IRS, the VA, or the EPA and notice how you feel inside.

Some of what irks folks about the government can be blamed on systemic problems. Bloated budgets, inane mandates from Congress, and a lack of clear purpose can hamper anyone’s effectiveness, no matter who you are.

Yet some of the problem also may be bad employees.** You don’t have to look too hard to find some egregious examples in the federal government….

Minerals Management Service: A few years ago, a little-known federal agency called the Minerals Management Service was reorganized because of its inability to properly function. Among other things, an internal investigation found that MMS staff members falsified records, used illegal drugs, and accepted gifts from the oil companies they were supposed to be regulating. Members of the royalty collection office in Denver even “had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”

Wow. Now that’s public service.

(To solve this problem, the Interior Department disbanded the MMS and created three new agencies, like more government is the solution.)

General Services Administration: In 2012, the head of the General Services Administration resigned over a scandal that threw her agency onto the front pages. An investigation discovered that the agency had spent more than $800,000 on an internal training conference in Las Vegas in 2010. This party–funded by the taxpayers–included a clown and a mind reader. The sushi alone cost $7,000.

The dude who authorized the party, Jeffrey Neely, was a career bureaucrat who received no significant punishment as a result of his extravagant use of government funds. He reportedly retired from the agency with full pension and benefits.

Gotta love it.

Environmental Protection Agency: More recently, the news came out that the EPA also has a few workers who are less than stellar. The Associated Press reported that an internal investigation found one  employee who had defrauded the agency out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and another who sold jewelry and diet pills on work time.EPA logo

Even better, there’s an EPA employee who has reportedly watched pornography at work for two to six hours daily, downloading more than 7,000 porn files on the agency’s servers.

And he still works there.

Just to be clear, many of my neighbors work for federal agencies and they are all terrific people. And I understand how one bad egg can unfairly tarnish an entire class of people (think Lance Armstrong), and that I shouldn’t paint them all with the same brush.

But the fact remains that these people were successful job candidates. They were hired and worked for their agencies, sometimes for years, while exhibiting behaviors that  most people would recognize as unacceptable in the workplace.

Back in 2009 when I spoke with the guy at the EPA, I was hopeful that I had a shot at the federal workforce. But over the years, having applied for at least five different federal jobs, I’ve never once been contacted for an interview.

It leads one to wonder what the qualifications are to work for the government. What’s a guy got to do to get noticed in this town?

I should add watching porn to the list of skills on my resume. Maybe that would help.

**I’m using “employee” here to cover career workers, staff, political appointees, and managers–I admit I’m lumping them all together.