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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Joe Biden, Plagiarism, and Why He Shouldn’t Run For President

Today the President announced that Joe Biden has his “blessing” if he decides to run.  I’m a steady (but not exclusive) Democratic voter, but I could never support Joe Biden for president.  Joe has many good qualities, and I suspect if I knew him I’d think he was a hell of a nice guy, but his past makes it clear that (1) he has a big mouth that he can’t control, (2) he says things he regrets almost immediately, and (3) he’s a compulsive liar.  Those are not good characteristics for a President of the United States.

Biden has often embarrassed President Obama by blurting out things without clearance that put the President in awkward situations, but he’s been forgiven over and over (“That’s just Joe!”).  One of these (that much benefited the gay community) was Biden’s support for gay marriage months before Obama was ready to give such an endorsement, forcing the President’s hand and making him act earlier than planned, embarrassing the president by making the White House play catch-up to Biden’s lead.  But Biden follows his heart and not his brain.  That can be charming, but in matters of diplomacy it’s a door to disaster.

What amazes me about his possible run for the Presidency is that he’s considering it at all given his history of lying, which is part of the public record for all to see (Google up “Joe Biden plagiarism” and stand back).  These lies caught up with him in the 1988 Presidential race when they came to light and then he made things worse by making more untrue statements, forcing him to drop out early.  Even more troubling: these lies concerned things that were easily checked and shown to be wrong.  For example he claimed to have graduated in the top half of his class at Syracuse University Law School.  In fact in a class of 85 he was 76th.  When responding to a heckling voter on the campaign trail, Biden bragged, "I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect—I went to law school on a full academic scholarship."  He did not.  Nor, as he told the same voter, did he earn three degrees as an undergraduate; he earned one (with mediocre grades).

Then there was this statement from 1983 when speaking to New Jersey democrats:

When I was 17, I participated in sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie houses. And my stomach turned upon hearing the voices of Faubus and Wallace. My soul raged on seeing Bull Connor and his dogs. 

When pressed about his civil rights record in 1988 he confessed that this was simply wrong:

I worked at an all-black swimming pool in the east side of Wilmington, Del. I was involved in what they were thinking, what they were feeling. But I was not out marching . . . I was not down in Selma. I was not anywhere else. I was a suburbanite kid who got a dose of exposure to what was happening to black Americans. 

But it’s Joe Biden’s repeated plagiarisms that demonstrate his moral deficiencies and disqualify him from the office of the President of the United States. 

Syracuse University Law School
The first, and most serious, occurred in law school.  The Legal Methods course at Syracuse required him to write a paper and the one Biden submitted was fifteen pages long.  Five of those pages were lifted, word for word, from a law review article that had been published previously (to which he cited once without indicating he was quoting anything from it).  When this blatant theft was revealed Biden was given an “F” in the course.  On Nov. 30, 1965 he wrote a letter to the faculty begging not to be thrown out of school, stating that he had misunderstood the rules when he wrote the paper and this was “stupid” but not “malevolent.”  Joe is good at talking, and is charming as all get out, and eventually he was allowed to repeat the course and graduate.

You’d think that this ugly incident would make him very wary of avoiding plagiarism thereafter, but, sadly, no.  He did it again and again during his 1988 campaign when he lifted key sentences and/or whole paragraphs, without attribution, from the speeches of others, including those of both John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, as well as a terrific quote from a speech by Hubert Humphrey.  These high sounding words made him seem eloquent, but were immediately identified as plagiarized, at which point he said that the failure to explain he was quoting was a mistake.  [For a YouTube video on point see]  

The most blatant lifting was from a campaign commercial British politician Neal Kinnock had used, and it must have impressed Joe mightily because he took whole segments of it and used them as his own words.  Kinnock said:

Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? [Points to his wife.] Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick? Of course not. It was because there was no platform upon which they could stand.

Neal Kinnock

Joe’s version:

I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I'm the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?  It's because they didn't have a platform on which to stand.


Alas, the facts don’t match up.  Joe’s wife’s family had a number of college graduates.  Kinnock also spoke lovingly of his hardworking coal miner grandfather, so Joe invented a mythical coal miner grandfather of his own who “would come up [from the mines] after 12 hours and play football.”  [For a YouTube video about this see]

When all these lies were revealed, Joe Biden sadly withdrew from the race on September 23, 1987, more than a year before the election was held, saying that the press had cast an “exaggerated shadow” over his mistakes.

Now we are almost at the same point in the 2016 race and once again Joe Biden is considering jumping in.  But does he think his history will go away, or that no one will care, or that he can come up with some new explanation why all of this is unimportant when considering his qualifications for the office?

Given all the above I was astounded and worried when Obama first chose Joe Biden for his Vice President, putting this man one heartbeat away from the big office.  Joe’s still in that position and will be there for 17 more months.  That’s scary enough, but at least it’s not 17 months and four years of running the most influential country in the world.  


Related Posts:

“How To Make Ethical Decisions,” December 12, 2010;

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Collapse of 2050: Earth as a Ponzi Scheme

All my life I’ve been an optimist—a character flaw in the eyes of many of my friends.  But a confluence of a number of things has turned me into a major pessimist when it comes to the fate of the human race.  I’ve been reading the bestselling book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari in which he traces the history of our species from its beginning to now, with an emphasis on how—as we’ve developed—we’ve shaped our planet, with results that are not encouraging.  At the same time Free Inquiry Magazine published an issue (June/July 2015,issue 35, number 4) devoted largely to article after article (written by experts) about the population boom, with the depressing message that unless something is done immediately to stop it civilization will collapse, and collapse soon.  Add to that the PBS show “Humanity as Seen From Space,” [YouTube:] which gives us videos taken from the space station and satellites demonstrating our saturation of the planet with people, machines, commerce, and growth that cannot continue without drastic changes.

As a species we are very, very good at solving problems as they arise on a day to day basis, but wretched at preventing the long-term consequences of our routine actions.  Since no one thing is ruining our planet—a brew of many ill-considered behaviors is to blame—we largely ignore the very foreseeable horrors that will destroy our grandchildren.

It is commonly said that civilization itself is the cause of the destruction of our world, and that primitive man lived in harmony with his environment.  That’s simply untrue.  From the very beginning homo sapiens have been a destructive lot.  First we wiped out the other member of the genus “homo” (the Neanderthals, for example), and then as we spread across the planet we destroyed whole ecosystems one by one.  Large mammals continue to exist in Africa because we evolved together with them and they learned to fear us, but as we spread out of Africa we wiped out all the other large mammals elsewhere: the giants mammoths that roamed Europe, Asia, and North and South America were slaughtered faster than they could reproduce, as were sabertooth tigers, giant sloths, and hundreds of other species that didn’t understand how dangerous these pesky little apes could be.  We used fire to clear large areas of vegetation and the animals that lived there, making the Earth into our private playground.  We’re still doing this.  Every hour another species of either plants or animals disappears from our world.

Population: human beings are infesting their planet with billions more people than it can sustain, unable to stop themselves from reproducing until they reach a stage where collapse will come fast, ugly, and soon.  Even worse, no one is doing anything about this even though it is certain to occur. Every day more than 210,000 new people join us on this globe; 1.5 million more each week.  Even the poorest countries are increasing their populations by huge amounts every year, leading to more poverty, disease, crime, anarchy, and worse.  If we cannot control our birthrate, overpopulation will lead to a deathrate that will do the job for us in a brutal but effective way.

And why are most scientists and experts and enlightened countries not making a big push to lessen world population rates and avoid their deadly consequences?  The answer is that changing birth control practices is a very touchy and difficult subject.  Much could be done if women all over the globe, and particularly in developing countries, were given choices they don’t currently have: access to birth control devices and methods, information about family planning, freedom to choose how many children to have, abortion rights, plus education and the ability to be something other than mothers.  But much of the world (and numerous major religions) are very opposed to this, and many countries would be outraged at such interference with the status quo.  It is, alas, politically impossible to mandate the sort of changes that are so desperately needed.

What is going on is a major international effort by scientists and businesses to extend the human lifespan dramatically.  Yikes!  If this succeeds—as it very well might—then in addition to a population explosion we can’t handle, the too many people already here will live longer, continuing to consume resources and take up needed space. 
We think of growth as a good thing.  When we had room to grow and resources to support growth that was true.  But today the carbon footprint of someone in Bangladesh is 1 compared to 147 for a person in the United States.  If all people on the planet lived like those in the United States we’d need a planet twelve times the size of this one to support them.  We are running out of fuel for this engine, and there’s no gas station large enough to sell us more.  So, to hell with worrying about silly things like zombies: human beings are a plague infesting their own planet.  Any more growth is at the expense of what remains of earth’s resources, creating more pollution in the sky and the oceans, destroying other species, spoiling everything.  But—damn it—there’s no way to stop growing even if we had the will to do so.  We will just keep doing it until the collapse of civilization pulls the plug.


Could it really all just go away?  In his book “Sapiens” mentioned above Yuval Noah Harari draws a distinction between “facts” and “myths.”  A tree is a fact, but when I say I live in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States of America, that is, in his words, a myth.  Columbus is just a story the people who live around here tell ourselves and which we believe, but if we quit believing in the City of Columbus, it would disappear.  This is equally true of the State of Ohio and the country called the United States of America.  I think Harari’s choice of “myth” is unfortunate because the word has the connotation of “false.”  The United States certainly does exist as long as we all believe it, but the myth of Santa Claus is not in the same category.  However his concept is correct, so let’s rephrase it.

I’m a teacher of contracts, and that’s what he’s really getting at.  All of civilization is a contract at heart.  We “agree” to certain understandings with our neighbors: we will watch out for each other, report suspicious persons, alert each other to fires and other disasters.  We have an implied contract to call our surroundings “Columbus, Ohio” and “United States of America.”  Harari makes much of the idea that a corporation only exists in the collective imagination of those who believe in it.  Certainly the idea of a corporation is not obvious, and is even counterintuitive.  When corporations were first proposed—the idea that a group of investors would enter into contracts with others but not be personally liable if things went south—there was skepticism.  In Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Utopia, Ltd” the ruler of a South Sea kingdom, on hearing an English corporation described, reacts by saying, “Well, at first sight it strikes us as dishonest.”  But now no one thinks there’s anything odd about non-physical entities running the commerce of the entire world.  Our “contractual” understanding allows for this fiction to exist.

But (long sigh) contracts can be broken.  If my neighbor suddenly attacks me one day, all deals are off and we must renegotiate, avoid each other, or battle.  All of civilization suffers from that difficulty. 

In David Mitchell’s novel “The Bone Clocks” we follow characters from 1984 until the mid-21st century.  In 2043 our heroine is caring for two children in a world that is falling apart.  The kids ask her if it’s true that when she was a girl electricity was on all the time and not just at set periods during the day, and are amazed when she tells them yes, and no one thought it extraordinary—“we all took electricity for granted.”  Then come the bad days when she and her little family must deal with the disappearance of the internet, the end of government protection, and a gang of thugs who show up in her village to systematically loot homes and kill protesting inhabitants.  That chilling scenario is coming to venues all over the globe by 2050; some estimates are that a “perfect storm” combining too many people with too few resources (food, water, fuel, space, employment, government services, air) will begin gathering gale force by 2030.

We’re not likely to go the way of the dinosaurs (who ruled the planet for millions of years) to complete extinction, but chaos will undoubtedly rumble for a long time (a hundred years?) before electricity reappears.  Will the next human civilization be smarter?  More solicitous of long-term interests? 

We are now facing what playwright Tony Kushner [“Angels in America”] in his latest play calls “every horror that was anticipated when money becomes truth.”  In a world in which the rich can buy governments and then dictate what “facts” we believe, climate change will be merely debatable, population catastrophes ignored, poverty blamed on the impoverished, women and minorities pooh-poohed, and we’ll stroll off the cliff together to the sound of cash registers ringing.

Optimism?  Bill Gates is pouring major money into alternative fuel plans, but he himself admits that what we need is to find a miraculous new source of clean energy: current technology simply isn’t up to solving our environmental problems in time to prevent catastrophe.  President Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan this month, but even if it worked (and it won’t because political opposition and lawsuits will kill it) it still wouldn’t be enough to bring the United States into a control of its own carbon footprint, and the rest of the world (particularly India and China) is not on board.  There is a major U.N. summit on the climate control planned for later this year, but talk and talk alone won’t help, and many scientists think it’s simply too late no matter what we do.  This is the stuff of nightmares.  As Obama commented, “We only have one Planet Earth.  There is no Plan B.”  Most of us just shrug and think of other things.  Surely someone will do something. 

And maybe that’s the case, but unless we pull our heads from the sand and do drastic things immediately this doomsday scenario will follow.  There are people trying to find solutions and we need more of them.  One step is to sound the alarm, and this blog post is my small attempt at doing that.  If you think I’m in error, do some reading.  That Free Inquiry Magazine issue (volume 35, issue 4) is eye-opening, and is available online at

“Homo sapiens,” is the title we’ve given to our own species.  “Homo” means “man,” but what about “sapiens”?  It’s a word meaning “wise.”  That’s what we’ve named ourselves; if only it were true.

This huge disconnect between what’s inevitably going to happen and our unwillingness to address the problem presents us with a Ponzi scheme that is about to implode in a spectacular way.  In every Ponzi scheme those who get in early and recoup their investment before the collapse are the lucky ones, leaving the roiling mass at the bottom of the pyramid with nothing but despair as their comfortable dream turns black.  I believe I’m part of the lucky crowd.  I’ve commented in this blog before (see “Related Posts” below) that I’ve been dealt lucky cards in life, and this trend is continuing.  I was born in 1943 and by 2050 will certainly be gone. 

For those reading this who will live at least 35 more years, I can only hope that everything I’ve said above is flat wrong.

Related Posts: 

“On Being Lucky: The Second Anniversary of My Heart Transplant,” November 23, 2011;
“If Humans Are Descended From Apes Why Are There Still Apes?” January 27, 2014;
 “A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;