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Another round of points to ponder
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Forsyth County News

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By: Jim Dean

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Every now and then, issues arise which I believe are important, but which can be dealt with in substantially less than a full column. When I accumulate a few, “points to ponder” is the result.

• The First Amendment to the Constitution contains the wording: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…”

Never, in the history of human language, have so few words been stretched to cover so much ground. They seem to form their own expanding universe, covering more and more concepts with the passage of time. I’m particularly sensitive to some of the odd items that show up in the news. Let’s look at a few from recent times, and an interesting anomoly.

The federal and state courts (including various state Supreme Courts and the Supreme Court of the United States) have handed down decisions, based upon these 10 words which justify: politicans knowingly lying about their opponents; politicians lying about military decorations they never received; tattoo parlors being able to locate where they wish, violent computer games being able to be sold to children, and to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Stevens, finding that when it comes to corporations engaging in campaign advertising, spending “money is the equivalent of protected speech.”

Note the direction all of these go — “protecting” political and corporate interests.

Now the odd one. A Federal judge ruled that graphic warnings that the FDA required to be placed on cigarette packs “constitutes advocacy” which violates rights of free speech. Figure that one out. Notice any sort of bias?

• The medium or the message —I was recently intrigued by a home-imrovement product that I saw advertised on TV in a frequent infomercial. It looked great.

Then next time I was in a hardware store I asked about it and, surprisingly, was told that they neither had the product (or anything similar) or knew about it, except that they had recently had a barrage of customers asking the same question I did.

So I turned to the now-universal-source-of-information, the Internet. What I discovered also came as a bit of a surprise.

The Internet was choked with people complaining about the product and the company. Charges included false advertising, false billing, numerous cases of legal problems and problems with the Better Business Bureau, and even a video, done by a consumer rights organization, which showed that the product did not perform as claimed.

The infomercials are still running.

Question: What is the responsibiltiy of the medium which conveys these messages to the public — particularly once the furor has reached the level where it is impossible to ignore the fact that it is possible that fraud is being committed? Does the medium have any responsibility?

Clearly there is a broad spectrum of situations. At one end we have the product that does exactly what it claims. At the other, we have the total sham. Many promotional efforts fall in the middle. 

When is censorship justified and in what stage does it kick in? Whose responsibility is it to protect the public? Does the organization that is conveying the message (and making money from it) share in the responsibility — a form of aiding and abeting? Or do we want to establish “caveat emptor” as a firm rule of the society in which we live?

• Rip-offs vs. reasonability and responsibility — In August, the FDA approved a new scorpion anti-venom for use in the United States. It actually wasn’t a new product as it had been used in Mexico for many years. Three to five doses are required in those cases, particularly for children and the elderly, where severe reactions to scorpion bites occur.
In Mexico, where the drug is produced, the cost is about $100 per vial (a single dose). The situation is somewhat different in the U.S. — largely blamed on the cost of clinical trials and other high expenditures required by the FDA in introducing new drugs.

The Arizona Republic checked hospitals administering the drug and found a price range of $7,900-$15,000 per vile. No! That is not a typo. Something seems a bit awry — with the approval processes, pricing or hospital overheads — or perhaps all of the above. Bottom line: Stay away from scorpions.

• Congressional perks — Should members of Congress receive pensions, in addition to their participation in Social Security?
On the one hand, the founding fathers never envisioned professional politicians. Citizen legislators would derive their primary livelihood from their farms or businesses. The business of government was a part-time activity.

But now we do have “professionals” who build their careers around Capitol Hill. Should they, like corporate employees, have access to separate pension plans? If so, why should their plans be better than that of other government employees?

No one expects a member of Congress to starve, but shouldn’t serving be a priveledge, rather than a path to wealth?

“60 Minutes” recently did a segment on another element of Congressional privilege. In partial it was an explanation why many members of Congress retire with much greater wealth than their salaries would provide.

Unlike corporate executives, who can go to prison for trading on insider information, there is no such restriction on members of Congress. So a member of a key committee who learns of a new development (e.g. in a defense contract or a pharmaceutical product) is free to buy or sell stocks, well before the information becomes public.

These are only two of the many areas where Congressional “perks” outpace those of the public. There is a growing movement to seek an amendment to the Constitution to limit such benefits. But unless a major grassroots effort takes hold, it’s kinda like having the fox watch the chicken coop. It would be nice, for example, if the next elections to the House and Senate went to individuals who, among other things, vowed to restore some sense of equity.

• The great Facebook/Twitter society — I’m obviously a Neanderthal. I neither use Facebook nor do I “tweet.” So perhaps you’ll write this off to my ignorance.

So much of the time of our young people is spent in what I would consider non-productive time on these latest miracles of our modern civilization.

I wonder, as we backslide on basic mathematic, scientific and reading skills, how many of them truly understand the technologies they are captured by (no, I am not talking about how to use them, I’m talking about underlying scientific and engineering principles that will lead to new and creative efforts in the future).

And I wonder what our nation would look like if all that time spent on “linking up” was instead devoted to studying math and science (history, geography, art and philosophy too) and improving reading abilities.

Can’t help but think it would lead to a better future. But again, I sometimes find myself looking backwards rather than forwards.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Arizona and Georgia. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other week, more or less. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at For further information go to