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Notes From The Editor

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 16, Number 2.


The Decline Of Small Business

Much has been written about the effect of downsizing on the many employees who have been squeezed out of middle-management positions and are unable to find employment or are forced to take lower-paying jobs. The negative impact of this phenomenon on individual careers, families, and communities is incalculable. AT&T has announced a cut-back of 40,000 employees throughout its system as computer technology improves productivity and renders many employees redundant. This action is repeated daily as still other companies restructure in order to maximize profit.

Not much has been written about another profoundly disturbing change occurring in virtually every community. I am here referring to the increasing disappearance of small business entrepreneurs and professionals. Local pharmacists have been forced out of business by drugstore chains; similarly for owners of independent gas stations, restaurants, grocery and clothing stores. A friend of mine whose family owned a thriving linoleum floor-covering company in Newark, New Jersey, for seventy-two years reports that Home Depot has opened a large store down the street and sells floor covering more cheaply than he can buy it. He feels that his days are numbered. This trend is repeated in every industry nationwide. Family farms have been overpowered by huge commercial-agricultural conglomerates. Individual physicians in private practice are replaced by health maintenance organizations; ditto for small legal practitioners, insurance agents, and accountants. When WalMart invades a town, many or most of the local businesses are driven out, changing the entire character of Main Street.

This trend toward concentration no doubt has always been with us. In a radically changing marketplace shaped by technological innovations, businesses need to adapt if they are to survive. Unfortunately, small businesses often lack the capital and market share to do so. I have already written (see "The Beginning of the End of the Age of Books," Free Inquiry, Winter 1993/94) about this trend in the publishing industry, where I think it is especially dangerous, because it threatens to limit the expression of diversity of opinion, so vital to a flourishing democratic society. Even magazines like Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer, which have attempted to present alternative viewpoints, are threatened by the media giants, who have greater clout with newsstand distributors.

A bill recently enacted in Congress with very little dissent and signed by the president allows media companies to increase their nationwide market shares of television ownership from 25 to 35 percent. It removes virtually all restrictions in local markets on the combined ownership of radio, television stations, and newspapers, enabling a very few companies to dominate.

Judge Harold H. Green, who was responsible less than a decade ago for the break-up of AT&T and the creation of the seven Baby Bells, all in an effort to ensure competition, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal (February 12, 1996), as being "concerned [whether] there are sufficient safeguards against the kinds of mergers and acquisitions that might give some small group of companies or individuals a stranglehold" over the U.S. telecommunications market. "I'd hate to see the AT&T monopoly be reconstituted in some form," he said. This trend becomes all the more threatening as the lines between media companies - television, radio, cable, telephone, film, and publishing - become blurred, and the means of delivering information increasingly comes under the control of powerful conglomerates. A worrisome negative fallout of the disappearance of small business is its effect on local communities. Small entrepreneurs and professionals contribute vitality and innovation. They practice the civic virtues so essential to the health, prosperity, and cultural enhancement of a local community. Regrettably, the trend toward homogenization is engulfing local diversity, and absentee owners and their branch-office managers do not have the same sense of devotion and responsibility to local interests.

What will be the long-range consequences of this trend toward acquisitions and mergers and the decline of the "bourgeoisie" in public life? It is difficult to say - surely lower prices in chain stores - but also lower-paying jobs and a loss of an entire cadre of hard-working and enterprising individuals who have helped build American society. It is small businesses that generate new jobs in America, not the megacorporations. I fear that what is emerging is a corporate society in which a limited number of giant firms, most of them global in scope, control decision-making. These criticisms are not written from a left-wing perspective; and one can make a good case for the restoration of competition and the preservation of small-businesses on purely free-market and libertarian principles.

There are some possible solutions: lower tax rates for small business, easier access to the capital markets, the preservation of small family businesses for second and third generations, better enforcement of the antitrust laws, etc. Are there other creative remedies? It would be interesting to hear from our readers on this problem. It is surely time to open a national debate.

The Flat Tax vs. Progressivity

The more things change the more they remain the same. It was only a century ago that the arguments in favor of a progressive income tax system won the day. And they made some sense: those who were able to most afford it should contribute more to the revenues necessary to run the state. The disadvantaged in the community would thus be helped, and there would be some reduction in inequalities in income and wealth.

The opponents of the progressive income tax are now making headway, and they now seem to have a receptive audience. A bevy of conservative candidates complain about affluent individuals and corporations having to pay what they consider to be excessive taxes. Some partisans even wish to exclude from taxation all interest and dividend income derived from investments, and to eliminate the inheritance tax. Only so-called earned income would be taxed. This is the basic thrust of the flat tax, which, beyond a minimum income threshold, rejects arguments for progressivity.

One can debate the case for or against the flat tax on purely economic grounds. Will reduced taxation stimulate economic growth, and will the rising tide raise all ships, as Jack Kemp, Richard Armey, Steve Forbes, and others have claimed? Instead of dividing up the same pie, they say, let's expand what we produce so that everyone will benefit. Surely, we need to stimulate economic growth; and this may be one of the ways of doing so. But one can also argue that by increasing income in the hands of average consumers, who can purchase the products that are produced, growth will likewise be stimulated. Unfortunately, the disciples of the flat tax do not say whether it will contribute to the deficit. Reaganomic tax cuts in the 1980s fueled an expanded economy, but it also quadrupled the national debt. At a time when corporate profits are soaring, disparities in income are increasing, and the real wages of average workers are declining, to call for a flat tax seems to many to be unfair.

The underlying issue in this debate is not simply economic but ethical. Should the increasing trend toward concentration and the widening disparities in income and wealth be allowed to continue, or should not some effort be made to redress gross imbalances by encouraging some degree of redistribution? Surely, we need to stimulate growth and to reward entrepreneurial risk capital, and perhaps some forms of taxation are excessively high and hence self-defeating. But do we not also need to mitigate the reduced income of workers and dispossessed businessmen and professionals? One may ask, Why should the sons and daughters of inherited wealth have inordinate advantages in life? It makes some sense in a democratic society that appreciates the principle of equality of opportunity to provide a more nearly level playing field on which young people, rich and poor, can compete. Thus one can argue on ethical grounds for a progressive system of taxation and against the complete exemption of income from interests and dividends or the abandonment of the inheritance tax. I find no contradiction in defending both the libertarian idea of a free market where individual effort is rewarded, and some principles of fairness. Some consideration of the common good seems to me to be essential in a democracy.

Jack Kevorkian On Trial

Prometheus Books, the leading secular humanist and freethought publisher in the world, is no doubt familiar to most readers of Free Inquiry. Prometheus was recently subpoenaed to appear at the Oakland County, Michigan, criminal prosecution trial of Jack Kevorkian. Dr. Kevorkian has helped twenty-seven people to die - people who were terminally ill and/or suffered great pain and requested the right to commit suicide. He has thus far been acquitted of all efforts to convict him.

The Oakland County prosecutor's office has scheduled two trials. The first, which began in February 1996, involves the deaths of Merian Frederick and Dr. Ali Khalili, who died a month apart in 1993 by breathing carbon monoxide gas supplied by Dr. Kevorkian. He is being tried ex post facto under a now-expired law that banned assisted suicide. A second trial is scheduled to begin in April 1996. Dr. Kevorkian is being prosecuted for the deaths of Marjorie Wendt and Sherry Miller, which occurred in 1991. Prometheus Books was subpoenaed to appear in the first trial because it has published Dr. Kevorkian's book, Prescription Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death (hardcover 1991, paperback 1994).

The prosecutor's office first called Steven Mitchell, CEO of Prometheus, in late January 1996, requesting the attendance of a representative of the company at the trial as a witness for the prosecution. Steven Mitchell replied that Prometheus Books did not wish to become a party to the prosecution of one of its authors, particularly since it agreed with Dr. Kevorkian's general position. The Michigan prosecutor then served papers on Prometheus Books in an Erie County, New York, court to show cause why a representative of Prometheus should not be present at the trial. As chairman of Prometheus, I appeared at the hearing along with Mr. Mitchell. The Michigan subpoena stated that a representative of Prometheus "is a material and necessary witness whose presence is required at said criminal prosecution." Prometheus was required "to testify as to the proper foundation for admission into evidence" of Dr. Kevorkian's book. Our lawyers argued that we did not wish to appear. First, Prometheus surely did not deny that it was the publisher of Dr. Kevorkian's book, nor did Dr. Kevorkian; and the prosecution did not demonstrate in any sense that Prometheus was a necessary "material witness." Second, and more important, we thought that to compel a publisher at this trial would have a chilling effect on freedom of the press. The First Amendment states, "The Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press." Since Prometheus is perhaps the leading publisher of books on euthanasia in the United States, we felt that this was likely to be a form of intimidation.

New York Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns issued such a summons on February 2, 1996, maintaining that he would allow the Michigan prosecutors's request so long as the Michigan Court believed that Prometheus was a material witness. Prometheus was granted a temporary stay of this decision by the New York Chief Judge Dolores Denman of the Fourth District Appeals Court shortly thereafter. Our attorney argued that the Michigan prosecution had not specified why the testimony of the publisher of a book published five years ago was a material witness. It is the responsibility of those compelling a witness to provide an explanation as to why presence is necessary. To compel an out-of-state witness who is accused of no wrong-doing to appear is drastic and burdensome - this is particularly the case where the First Amendment is at stake. However, an appeals court meeting in Rochester, New York, denied our request for a further stay; and ordered a representative of Prometheus to appear pending our appeal, which would be delayed until after the trial.

Fortunately, however, as we were preparing to send a representative to the trial, the Michigan prosecutor decided to quash our subpoena, saying that our appearance "was no longer necessary." One can speculate as to his motives. Our protests about the undermining of the First Amendment were widely covered in the press - in Booksellers Today, Publishers Weekly, and newspapers in upstate New York and Detroit. So perhaps the prosecutor thought that it was the better part of prudence not to call us. As I write this viewpoint, we do not know whether Dr. Kevorkian will be convicted. But it is clear that the movement for active euthanasia has moved to the center of public debate. Referenda permitting active euthanasia have been introduced in several states, notably Oregon, Washington, California, and Michigan. The public recognizes that with the advance of scientific medicine people can be kept alive far beyond the time that they would normally have died, and there is much unnecessary suffering as a consequence. We believe that a person who is suffering a terminal illness, is in extreme pain, and who voluntarily asks for assistance in terminating his or her suffering ought to have this right respected. There should be safeguards, of course, that this not be abused. For example, two doctors shall attest to the medical condition and the patient should be competent and not undergoing depression.

The Michigan prosecution argues that Dr. Kevorkian should not take the law into his own hands. Some defenders of assisted suicide may disagree with the methods that Dr. Kevorkian has used in assisting people to end their suffering and die. For others intent on changing the law, Kevorkian is a moral symbol for a growing medical-social problem that needs addressing. Virtually everyone knows friends or relatives who have died painfully, pleading for assistance to hasten the process. According to opinion polls, 56 percent of doctors in Michigan and 60 percent of the general public support Dr. Kevorkian.

Both sides of this important debate need to be heard. The effort to compel Prometheus Books is a tangential issue, but it does enter into the question of freedom of expression, and the possible muting of those who wish to defend active euthanasia, particularly in a context where pro-life militants oppose the right to die and are intent on inflaming public opinion, even though they have no direct stake in the private suffering of patients who wish to die.

Interestingly, those who are most adamant about getting the government off our backs are most persistent in intervening in the private lives of individuals. One can argue that active euthanasia, even if not legalized, should be decriminalized, and left as a private matter, like abortion and other forms of medical care. The decision of whether or not to assist a person who wishes to end his or her suffering and to die should be left in the hands of the patient, and his or her doctors, and family.


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