Happy birthday, Eric Blair — the dystopian world you conjured is still here year after year

I don’t know about you, but I’ve taken to placing a little sticky note over the camera atop by desktop computer. If former FBI Director James Comey and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg do it, so will I. Big and Little Brothers may be watching.

Happy birthday, Eric Blair.

On this day in 1903, Eric Blair was born in India.

But the year for which he is most noted is 1984, even though he died in 1950.

Under the pen name George Orwell, Blair penned the novels “Nineteen Eighty-four” and “Animal Farm,” as well as several other semi-autobiographical books and numerous essays.

Eric Blair as six weeks old

When Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-four” he wasn’t forecasting a particular date, he simply transposed the last two digits in 1948, when he wrote much of the book. Though a life-long socialist he despised the totalitarian and despotic nature of communism, fascism and Nazism.

He added to the lexicon: Big Brother, thoughtcrime, newspeak, doublethink, Room 101, as well as the painted slogans WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

In “Nineteen Eighty-four” the warring nations kept changing enemies, sort of like today.

If you don’t think freedom is slavery, consider the “Life of Julia” — the Obama campaign video that showed a woman relying on government handouts from cradle to retirement. Julia, by the way, was Winston Smith’s girlfriend.

Ignorance is definitely strength, not for us but for politicians who the ignorant keep electing.

As for newspeak and doublethink, consider the language of both Obama and Trump. Obama said we were not fighting a war against terrorists but trying to prevent man-caused disasters. His Defense Department (They don’t call it the War Department anymore.) sent out a memo saying: “this administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’” And a man standing on a table, firing a gun, shouting Allahu Akbar is merely workplace violence.

Trump was going to attack Iran for downing our drone, then the called it off. He was going to have ICE round-up immigrants who had been ordered deported, then he delayed it. He was going to impose tariffs, then he did not. During the election campaign he took 141 policy positions on 23 issues over the course of 510 days. He changed stances on immigration, ObamaCare, entitlement programs, gay rights, the Middle East and so much more.

How can there be any thoughtcrime if we are not allowed to use certain words. People aren’t in the country illegally, they are merely undocumented. And this too changes over time. Once the word negro was the preferred and the politically correct term, but now it is a slur.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Orwell wrote in “Nineteen Eighty-four.” “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Back in 1975, David Goodman wrote in The Futurist magazine that 100 of 137 Orwell predictions in “Nineteen Eighty-four” had come true. With the advance of computer surveillance and drones, how many more have come true?

In 1983, while working as the city editor of the Shreveport Journal, I penned a soft feature tied to the 35th anniversary of the original publication of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

I observed in that piece that Orwell’s book was about a totalitarian dystopia in which BIG BROTHER WAS WATCHING YOU, suggesting this was like the infrared camera equipped drones or huge network of cybersnooping computers, long before the NSA revelations. 

“George Orwell respected language and railed against its abuse,” I wrote in 1983. “He was particularly offended by the propaganda — some of which he helped to write for the BBC in World War II. He saw firsthand the way the press was tricked and subverted for political purposes in the Spanish Civil War. Battles that never happened. Heroes who became traitors.”

In another piece posted here in 2013, I asked whether Orwell was a satirist or a prophet.

Walter Cronkite in a foreword to the 1983 paperback edition of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” claimed the book has failed as prophecy only because it has served so well as a warning — a warning against manipulation and power grabbing and the loss of privacy in the name of state security.

And Cronkite couldn’t resist adding: “1984 may not arrive on time, but there’s always 1985.”

Orwell himself called his book a satire and took pains to correct those who saw it merely as a denunciation of socialism.

In a letter written shortly after the publication of the book, Orwell wrote, “My novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism.

“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

A Newsweek article in 2018 asked the question: “Is Trump nudging America toward corrupt authoritarianism?” Isn’t corrupt authoritarianism redundant?

Back in 2008, when the Las Vegas Review-Journal launched its blogging section online, I engaged in a bit of self-indulgent navel gazing in a column trying to explain why. I leaned on Orwell like a crutch.

I explained that I and other newspaper scriveners were joining the lowing herds browsing the ether — otherwise known as bloggers, those free-range creatures who mostly chew up the intellectual property of others and spit out their cuds online.

In an effort to find a rationale for this otherwise irrational exercise I grabbed Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay from 1946, in which he lists various reasons for writing.

First is sheer egoism: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.,” Orwell explains. “It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. … Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.”

I think that was both a salute and a sully to the profession of journalism.

The second rationale, according to Orwell, is aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. …” Orwell explains. “Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.”

Third is historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

Finally, and probably most importantly, political purpose: “Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Orwell wrote this shortly after he penned “Animal Farm,” but two years before “1984.” He said “Animal Farm” was his first conscious effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

Orwell wrote against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.

Ayn Rand wrote for free-market capitalism.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote for libertarianism.

Others espouse various “isms” and objective journalism attempts to eschew them, not always successfully.

So, what moves one to write?

As our master Orwell said, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

Everybody loves to unravel a good mystery, right?

Happy birthday, Eric Blair.

Video first posted in 2013.

PILT payments land with a thud

Nevada’s U.S. senators both sent out press releases boasting about all the money Nevada counties will be getting from the feds to help cover the expense of having so much non-taxable federal public land within their borders — called Payment in Lieu of Taxes. This year’s payment Nevada checks amount to $27.25 million, an increase of about $250,000 from the previous year.

“I applaud the Department of Interior for providing these payments to the state of Nevada,” said Jacky Rosen’s press release.  “These funds will be used to support essential services — especially in our rural communities — such as law enforcement, education, emergency services, health care, and road maintenance.”

Catherine Cortez Masto’s press release states, ““The Department of the Interior’s PILT program is a vital resource for Nevada’s local governments and helps fund the public safety, housing, transportation and outdoor recreation projects that Nevada’s rural counties need to thrive. I’ll continue to support the long-term stabilization of the PILT program so that local leaders and innovators can invest in development projects right here in our communities in Nevada, and plan for the future with certainty that federal support will be there for them.”

Neither makes any mention of the fact the PILT handout nationally was cut by 7 percent from the previous year. Nor do they mention that the $500 million being doled out this year is a paltry fraction of the $11.9 billion in revenue that federal land generates annually from oil and gas leasing, livestock grazing, timber harvesting, etc.

Nor do they note the impenetrable formula used to calculate the checks, which is based on the number of acres of federal land within each county and on the population of that county.

While 85 percent of Nevada land is federally controlled, its total PILT checks equal 48 cents per acre of federal land, about the same as the prior year, while every other Western state gets at least double that amount, even though their acreage percentage is far less and their populations not that dissimilar, except for California.

And the checks within the Nevada vary wildly. For example, Esmeralda County gets 7 cents an acre, while Douglas gets $2.74; Eureka, 17 cents; Washoe, $1.25; Clark, 75 cents; White Pine, 25 cents; Nye, 39 cents; Elko, 46 cents; Lincoln, 15 cents; Mineral, 39 cents.

Here are this year’s PILT payments per acre for the Western states:



Newspaper column: Lawmakers fail to rein in forfeiture abuse, again

In the past three legislative sessions bills have been pushed to rein in the pernicious practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agencies to seize cash, houses, cars and other property without a criminal conviction and keep the proceeds — a practice dubbed “policing for profit” by the Institute for Justice (IJ).

In 2015 Nevada lawmakers did pass a bill that, as introduced, would have required proof of a criminal conviction or a plea deal before seizure of cash or property. By the time it was sent to the governor, who signed it, the conviction requirement was dropped. The law does say the seized property or money should be returned if charges are dropped or dismissed after a trial, but too often charges are never filed against anyone.

In 2017, as pointed out by Daniel Honchariw of the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) in an op-ed in the Las Vegas newspaper, another bill that would have required a criminal conviction or plea deal, as well as directing proceeds go to education rather than the law enforcement agency died in the Senate Judiciary Committee where state Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro was vice chair. Cannizzaro is a deputy district attorney in Clark County.

Honchariw noted that Nevada district attorney offices earned more than $250,000 through civil forfeiture in 2016 alone, and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department pulled in $1.9 million. That police department had awarded Cannizzaro a “Commendation and Certificate of Appreciation.”

In the session just ended, still another bill was introduced to curb civil asset forfeiture abuse. It passed the Assembly on a vote of 34-6, but, you guessed it, it died in Cannizzaro’s committee without a vote.

Such a conflict of interest is precisely why the Nevada Constitution clearly states, “The powers of the Government of the State of Nevada shall be divided into three separate departments, — the Legislative, — the Executive and the Judicial; and no persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others …”

It is a provision that has been roundly ignored to the detriment of Nevadans.

This past week the Institute for Justice released a comprehensive study showing that civil asset forfeiture programs do little to actually deter crime. “Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue? Testing Opposing Views of Forfeiture” looks at local crime, drug use and economic data from a variety of federal sources.

The study finds more forfeiture proceeds do not translate into more crimes solved, despite claims that forfeiture gives law enforcement more resources to fight crime.

It also found that “when local economies suffer, forfeiture activity increases, suggesting police make greater use of forfeiture when local budgets are tight. A 1 percentage point increase in local unemployment — a standard proxy for fiscal stress — is associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.”

As IJ points out in an e-mail, Nevada police and prosecutors confiscated $11.8 million worth of property from 2015 to 2018.

One of the chief problems with civil asset forfeiture is the fact the proceedings take place in civil court, where the person whose property is being taken is not entitled to a public defender. An analysis by NPRI found that more than half of all forfeiture cases brought by the Las Vegas police involved property worth less than $1,000, well below the cost of hiring an attorney. The majority of property owners were unable to afford to contest the confiscation in court.

In fact a Humboldt County deputy once taunted a motorist from whom he’d just seized $50,000 in cash by saying, “You can try to get it back but you’re not,” later adding, “You’ll burn it up in attorney fees before we give it back to you.”

Civil asset forfeiture tortures the intent of the Fourth Amendment’s right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures and the Fifth’s right to due process.

“The Institute for Justice’s new study shows Nevada policymakers can undertake serious and much-needed forfeiture reforms without jeopardizing police effectiveness,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s senior legislative counsel, in a press release. “This study also confirms what experienced legislators in Nevada have long known — the state’s forfeiture laws encourage the pursuit of revenue over the pursuit of public safety and justice. Next session, the Nevada Legislature should enact comprehensive forfeiture reform and end policing for profit by sending all forfeiture revenue to the School Fund.”

The governor does have the power to call a special session.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: File suit to uphold two-thirds vote requirement for taxes

So, the governor is confident that the extension of the modified business tax rate will withstand a legal challenge, according to the Las Vegas newspaper.

“We’ve got legal opinion from LCB (Legislative Counsel Bureau) that, you know, a simple majority is what’s needed,” Gov. Steve Sisolak was quoted as saying this past week. “I’ve been in government for 20 some-odd years, and if you don’t trust your attorneys, you’ve got a problem. So I’m confident that the attorneys gave us a good opinion. We’ll move forward from there.”

Be prepared to move back, governor, by nearly $100 million in your budget for the next two years — the budget that promises 5 percent raises for teachers.

Republicans have promised a legal challenge if the business tax were extended without a two-thirds majority of both houses as prescribed by the Constitution. The tax extension passed the Senate on a party line vote of 13-8, one vote shy of two-thirds.

Voters in 1994 and 1996 amended the Nevada Constitution to state “an affirmative vote of not fewer than two-thirds of the members elected to each House is necessary to pass a bill or joint resolution which creates, generates, or increases any public revenue in any form, including but not limited to taxes, fees, assessments and rates, or changes in the computation bases for taxes, fees, assessments and rates.”

The modified business tax passed in 2015 by a two-thirds vote of lawmakers contained specific language saying the rates would be reduced in 2019 if tax revenues exceeded a certain level, which they have.

But the compliant LCB told the majority Democratic lawmakers and the Democratic governor, “It is the opinion of this office that Nevada’s two-thirds majority requirement does not apply to a bill which extends until a later date or revises or eliminates a future decrease in or future expiration of existing state taxes when that future decrease or expiration is not legally operative and binding yet, because such a bill does not change but maintains the existing computation bases currently in effect for the existing state taxes.”

The bill clearly “generates” revenue that two-thirds of the lawmakers in 2015 said would decrease as of July 1, 2019.

The state Constitution is not something to tamper with. Republicans should take it to court and make the Democrats abide by the rules, even if it means a special session would have to called. In fact, the GOP lawmakers should go directly to the state Supreme Court for an opinion that would be binding, unlike the LCB opinion “that future decrease or expiration is not legally operative and binding yet …”

Asked nearly the same question in 2011, 2013 and 2015, the LCB said a two-thirds vote was necessary. So, governor, when do you trust your attorneys? Now or then?

Republican lawmakers should join forces with those who will be paying the tax — Nevada businesses — and sue at the earliest possible convenience to defend the state Constitution. Randi Thompson, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, has told the Las Vegas newspaper the organization is looking at the option of filing suit. Perhaps, the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute can join the fray. The more the merrier.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Gov. State Sisolak, right, talks to reporters. (R-J pix)

Newspaper column: Book offers historic perspective on the press

The premise of conservative commentator Mark Levin’s new book, “Unfreedom of the Press,” is that modern journalism has devolved into an opinionated, group-think pack of politically partisan propagandists who oppose President Trump at every turn and think he is a danger to freedom of the press.

While we don’t think that conclusion is totally valid, the book does offer a worthy historic perspective on the behaviors of the press and our presidents.

Levin notes that for more than a century the American press was unabashedly partisan, often surviving on printing contracts from the party in power when the newspapers were able to put them there. He seems to accept the notion that sometime early in the 19th Century journalists altruistically embraced the concept of objectivity.

Actually the conversion was mostly profit-motivated. It was borne of the penny press.

The newspaper business model changed from being dependent on government printing contracts and political party handouts to one of being supported by advertisers, whose customers paid the same for a pair of shoes no matter which party they embraced. So why alienate half of your potential customers with partisanship? The newspaper that delivered the highest readership fetched the highest advertising dollar.

Levin’s book does point out correctly that Trump’s often repeated and tweeted animus for the press is benign compared to past presidents.

With the ink still damp on the First Amendment President John Adams pushed through the Federal Congress a series of Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These acts made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute …” The penalty was a fine or imprisonment for up to two years.

Under those laws more than 20 Republican newspaper editors were arrested and some were imprisoned. Among those was newspaperman James Callender who called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” These details are not in the book, by the way.

Levin notes Abraham Lincoln enforced censorship during the Civil War and jailed several reporters, editors and publishers.

Where are all the newspapers going? To graveyards every one …

As I wrote back in 2012, newspapers’ raison d’etre, the news, is being spidered and copied, repurposed and regurgitated by thousands of aggregators and bloggers, Tweeters, Googlers and Yahooers and the like, until the original source is irrelevant — as a brand and as a financially going concern.

I quoted Alan Mutter’s Newsosaur blog that warned that newspapers are being outsmarted in the bid for mobile advertising. He noted Apple and Google have increased their efforts to grab a bigger share of the local advertising market via smart phones.

This week Congress apparently is taking notice.

The Associated Press is reporting that the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel heard from news media associations that accused big tech companies of jeopardizing the industry’s economic survival by putting news content on their platforms without fairly compensating those who created the news. (Sort of like this blog is doing right now.)

Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat and the subcommittee chairman, was quoted as saying Congress must determine whether the antitrust laws “are equipped for the competition problems of our modern economy.”

David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance which represents about 2,000 news organizations, was quoted as saying, “There’s a real urgency in the industry. We’re at crisis point now.”

But Google’s vice president of news Richard Gringas said in a statement Google drives billions of clicks to publishers’ websites, which creates revenue.

But too often online sites just plagiarize the costly and exclusive news content, denying newspapers customers. Of course, newspapers are also guilty of giving away their own content, often posting news stories online days before they are published in print for paying customers and paying advertisers.

Back in 2012 a Moody’s analysis warned, “At this point, there is no evidence digital strategies are returning most daily newspapers to positive growth. It is merely a way to moderate revenue declines.”

Newspapers keep cutting jobs — jobs that produce the content their customers are seeking. It is death spiral.

Matt Schruers, vice president of law and policy with the Computer and Communications Industry Association, left, David Pitofsky, general counsel of News Corp, center, and Kevin Riley, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, right, are sworn-in before testifying before the House Judiciary Antitrust subcommittee hearing. (AP pix)

Editorial: Public employee pensions now shrouded in secrecy

Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed into law a bill that will make it impossible for the public and even elected officials to act as a watchdogs and catch abuses in the taxpayer-funded Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS).

Senate Bill 224, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti, declares much of the information about state and local government retirees confidential. Only the names of pensioners and pension amounts would be public records. Such vital information as the last employer, years of service credit, the retirement date and whether the benefit is a disability or retirement benefit are all confidential.

The bill passed both the state Senate and Assembly largely along party lines, with only a handful of Democrats voting in opposition.

Ironically, when Democratic Gov. Sisolak was a Clark County commissioner, he used public records to expose abuse of county firefighter overtime pay and sick leave. According to the Las Vegas newspaper, Sisolak spearheaded reforms that resulted in an 80 percent drop in sick leave among fire department battalion chiefs.

Without the ability to analyze the information made secret by SB224 the public will not be able to tell whether government retirees are drawing excessive pensions.

PERS costs $2 billion a year and the taxpayers are on the hook for $40 billion in unfunded liabilities.

According to an analysis by American Enterprise Institute, the average Nevada public employee pension is $64,000 a year, the highest in the nation, while the average Social Security annual benefit is $16,000. Currently more than 1,500 Nevada public employee pensioners are drawing more than $100,000 a year.

The law that set up PERS states: “It is the policy of this State to provide, through the Public Employees’ Retirement System: A reasonable base income to qualified employees who have been employed by a public employer and whose earning capacity has been removed or has been substantially reduced by age or disability.”

Yet, in a court case seeking PERS records, Nevada Policy Research Institute’s (NPRI) attorney Joseph Becker observed that there are retirees in their 40’s collecting six-figure disbursements from PERS, while still earning income from other sources. “Only through the publication of name, pension payout and related data can the public better understand how the system works and the legislative purpose be effectuated,” Becker wrote.

During hearings on SB224, NPRI’s policy director, Robert Fellner, noted that a tip to California’s fraud hotline resulted in the system recovering more than $200,000, causing CalPERS to release a statement praising “the great value of the public’s assistance in CalPERS’ efforts to protect the state pension system from fraud, waste, and abuse.”

Fellner also noted the importance of disclosing whether PERS payments are for disability or retirement. A Los Angeles television station, using public records, discovered that a police officer who was drawing a disability pension from one city was working full-time as a police officer for another agency.

SB224’s backers argue revealing the names of pensioners might expose them to identity theft and fraud. The Nevada Supreme Court dismissed that claim in a 2013 ruling, saying, “Because PERS failed to present evidence to support its position that disclosure of the requested information would actually cause harm to retired employees or even increase the risk of harm, the record indicates that their concerns were merely hypothetical and speculative. Therefore, because the government’s interests in nondisclosure in this instance do not clearly outweigh the public’s presumed right to access, we conclude that the district court did not err in balancing the interests involved in favor of disclosure.”

Now, the secrecy is embedded in law and the public is blindered.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.