Gladiator shows distracted Romans from political corruption. The National Football League does the same.
  • Gladiator shows distracted Romans from political corruption. The National Football League does the same.
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Bread and circuses. Back in the Roman Empire, those were the keys to diverting the public’s attention from political greed and corruption — and, particularly, from the massive gap between the rich and the poor.

Julius Caesar: “Give them bread and circuses.”

Julius Caesar: “Give them bread and circuses.”

Rome won so many wars that it was overrun with captured slaves, and they performed the physical labor. Idle, unemployed Romans were restive. Julius Caesar perfected the ideal appeasement: give them wheat to eat and violent entertainment to savor — or, bread and circuses (panem et circenses).

It worked. Generally, the plebeians neither starved nor rioted. Salivating, they would watch gladiators slaughter animals and each other. Those gladiators were mainly slaves, but as they won laurels, they could win their freedom and rake in donations from the crowd.

In short, violence in the sporting world could be their ticket to riches. Or mutilation. It was a gamble.

Can you see any parallels with our society? (Julius Caesar had never heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.)

Dean Spanos: “Give them mediocre football…give me a stadium.”

Dean Spanos: “Give them mediocre football…give me a stadium.”

You have to wonder if the same political strategy — bread and circuses — is at work in the United States to keep the people from reacting to ugly truths, such as 95 percent of the economic gains in this recovery have gone to the richest 1 percent, and the majority of National Football League owners are billionaires but get taxpayers to plunk down 70 to 80 percent of the cost of new stadiums.

The professional sports leagues are joined at the hip with federal, state, and local governments. Do you suppose today’s bread and circuses constitute a covert politician/pro-league plan to pacify the proletariat?

Is the United States as bloodthirsty as ancient Rome? The Minnesota Orchestra, one of the nation’s best, was silenced for 15 months in a lockout, and its internationally celebrated music director resigned, although there is hope he will return. In negotiating a settlement, the players took an average annual salary cut from $135,000 to $118,000.

The orchestra’s deficit was $6 million. Over the lockout period, the Minnesota Vikings football team managed to wangle $500 million in taxpayer money for a stadium. Some civilized people spoke up. Former governor Arne Carlson said that if the state could come up with hundreds of millions for the football team, couldn’t it scrape up $6 million to help the orchestra? “The orchestra is a vital state asset that should receive the same attention as the stadium,” said Carlson. Current governor Mark Dayton agreed with Carlson. But the two were lonely voices.

Consider Detroit. Right around the time it became the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, the state okayed a $650 million hockey arena for the Detroit Red Wings. Roughly half the money will come from taxpayers. The team owner is the Ilitch family of Little Caesars Pizza renown, which also owns the Detroit Tigers and a big chunk of a downtown gambling casino. Forbes magazine says the Ilitch clan is worth $3.2 billion.

Early in the Detroit bankruptcy, there erupted a battle that might have made even Julius Caesar gulp. The Detroit Institute of Arts houses city-owned art worth $421 million to $805 million. (It also holds many other pieces owned by individuals.) These city-owned pieces are works by great artists: Bruegel the Elder, Degas, Van Gogh, Matisse. The city’s emergency manager hired Christie’s to appraise the art, with the idea it could be sold to help rescue the city. (The institute and several foundations are attempting to raise hundreds of millions to rescue this art museum.)

But this is still a long shot. Creditors claim the art is undervalued. Other hurdles remain.

But there are no hurdles for the hockey arena and the gladiators who will slug and slash their opponents therein. That huge subsidy is going forward.

Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati’s home), whacked $24 million over two years from its health and human services budget and $119 million from schools, partly to cover $33 million in debt service it owes on heavily subsidized stadiums in which the Bengals (football) and Reds (baseball) play.

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Thousands of people were stranded; almost 2000 died. What was one of the first orders of business? The Superdome, where the New Orleans Saints play, was completely refurbished. The cost was $336 million — $156 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $121 million from the state. The 2013 Super Bowl was played there. It is hailed as a great rescue operation while neighborhoods continue to wither and die. The indoor stadium is now called the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints’ owner is a billionaire.

Pro sports, particularly football, are closely tied to the gambling industry. However, the pro leagues keep denying that they sanction gambling, even though owners are notorious high rollers. Las Vegas is home to no professional teams, but it has been batting around plans for a $900 million football stadium, a $390 million arena, and a number of similar proposals. If a stadium or arena is actually built, but no team shows up, owners trying to hoodwink taxpayers in other cities can always threaten to move to Vegas.

San Diego has a $2.3 billion pension deficit and a $1 billion (or more) infrastructure deficit, and plunks $275 million a year into the pension fund. Yet the family that owns the Chargers is pushing for a stadium that will probably drain the city of $700 million or more. That’s money San Diego simply does not have — unless citizens are willing to put up with pothole-pockmarked streets, ancient sewer and storm-drain pipes, sewer backups, water shortages, higher taxes, and run-down neighborhoods as a tradeoff to subsidize a football team owned by out-of-town billionaires. Local politicians and the daily newspaper enthusiastically back a massive giveaway. Tragically, that is no surprise.

Bottom line: team owners and federal, state, and local governments work together to provide the violence-sated circuses. Stadium subsidies generally involve tax breaks for the team, and the NFL’s administration is considered a nonprofit that is not taxed, thanks to an obsequious Congress.

Hail Caesar!

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Brian_T_Peterson_DVM Feb. 12, 2014 @ 9:40 a.m.

As long as we are using the analogy of violent cultures from the past...

For San Diego, I have often thought of the analogy of pre-war Nazi Germany. Fascism is the concept of business, labor and government, including military, all wrapped into one bundle. Business likes this, because government provides income; labor likes it, because it provides jobs; and government likes it, because business keeps them in power. This certainly sounds like San Diego City Hall. To pacify the populace, the Nazis took the extra step of providing diversions—vacations, cruises and even automobiles, like the KDF Wagen (Kraft durch Freude Wagen, or Strength through Joy Car, or Volkswagen). Business, labor and government seeking a new stadium for the Chargers seems like the logical step in this progression. Now, if they put a Chargers stadium on the ballot, and if I can get a car out of the deal, maybe…

And, by the way, this is why the outcome of the mayor’s election is not that big of a deal. Both sides are essentially of the same fascio.

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Don Bauder Feb. 12, 2014 @ 10:19 a.m.

Brian: I avoid the use of the word Fascism (or fascism) because people associate it with Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, etc. Thus, the word becomes another use of guilt by association, which I deplore.

It is true that under Fascism, corporate power is essential, and labor is suppressed. We are seeing that in the U.S. now. Similarly, cronyism, corruption, military buildups are endemic under Fascism, and we are seeing too much of that in the U.S. today.

However, there are many Fascism characteristics that we do NOT have: Rampant nationalism, centrally controlled mass media, linkage between government and religion, jingoism (arguably), and government dictatorship, among other things.

That said, I oppose use of government to build billionaires' stadiums because it is against the basic concepts of capitalism. Back when I was on the U-T, the editorial page would endlessly quote the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation. But the U-T would NOT reveal that the Heritage Foundation opposed corporate welfare and use of taxpayer money to pay for sports palaces. I used to tease the editorial writers about that. Subsidization of sports palaces, hotels, shopping centers, auto dealerships and the like is antithetical to every principle of free enterprise. Best, Don Bauder

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Anon92107 Feb. 12, 2014 @ 12:24 p.m.

Excellent history lesson Don, indeed, it keeps repeating over and over and we never, never learn even with the best education in history. Like Will and Ariel Durant documented in their History of Civilization, it's the politicians and intellectuals who fail to protect civilization from failing every time.

The Roman "Us" also pissed off their military retirees "Them" by cutting their benefits so that they joined up with the barbarians to kick them out of Rome.

There are also Ancient Athenians who created the first democracies that failed, and back then they made Socrates drink hemlock (he could have walked away from the sentence but while starring at the goblet he probably said to himself - What the Hell, No One Really Cares, which is still a problem today) when he pissed off the tyrants (think Koch Bros.) and oligarchs with annoying philosophy lessons on Truth and Morality.

Sadly, if not tragically, we have republicans who are attacking American Democracy while democrats watch and do nothing to stop them in spite of the return of the culture of Roman and Greek tyrants.

You might want to also compare notes with Robert Reich relative to his "Inequality for All" motion picture and blog:

http://robertreich.org/

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Don Bauder Feb. 12, 2014 @ 12:59 p.m.

Anon92107: I read Reich's blog avidly. He understands and articulates why gross wealth and income disparity can destroy our economy. Reich has read history and learned from it. Best, Don Bauder

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Anon92107 Feb. 12, 2014 @ 1:29 p.m.

I agree Don, Bob is one of the most informative and outgoing professors there is, but he needs to get his academy colleagues to join with him on an international website to openly discuss problems and solutions that can actually be implemented in spite of politicians and those who control them. We really need to reestablish American Democracy controlled by We The People again, which seems to be too much to wish for.

Unfortunately, most academics want to maintain their purity and don't want to risk exposing their ignorance by discussing anything with the unwashed general public.

It's time for We The People around the world to take the lead in making changes that can protect the long-term quality of life for future generations, and we keep failing at that today even though we have instant, worldwide web communications that have never been available before.

We must find a better way soon because the Global Warming clock is ticking.

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Don Bauder Feb. 12, 2014 @ 2:03 p.m.

Anon92107: Global warming is a critical problem that is not being addressed sufficiently. There is another problem: water. Even with California in a very serious long-term drought, the politicians and media are not sufficiently discussing how crucial this problem is. When we confront a technology like fracking, we must ask ourselves: which is more important -- water or oil? I say it's the former.

There are some good signs. I have been writing for decades about the danger of the vast wealth and income disparity, and how the middle class is essential to a surviving economy -- but is disappearing. Finally, that question is being addressed. Reich can take a bow for popularizing this issue. The fact that President Obama has made it a high priority is heartening. Best, Don Bauder

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Anon92107 Feb. 12, 2014 @ 2:33 p.m.

Don the best solution to energy and water is a combined fusion generation and desalination power plant, but Ike warned us in his Farewell Address:

"The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded."

So Berkeley still fails to find a way to achieve Teller's promise of fusion generation by the end of the 20th century because it is far more lucrative for academic scientists to suck up to "the power of money" than to actually make the right things happen before global warming gets out of control (we were not supposed to reach 400 ppm CO2 atmospheric concentration before 2030 or so but we did it last year so it is already out of control. Exceeding 350 ppm has been considered "out of control" by many).

Freeman Dyson documented the consequences of our failures to heed Ike's warning in his book "Imagined Worlds" chapter on ethics:

"The main social benefit provided by pure science in esoteric fields is to serve as a welfare program for scientists and engineers" which also explains Berkeley's failures to give a damn about the mundane needs of humanity.

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Don Bauder Feb. 12, 2014 @ 5:29 p.m.

Anon92107: You have cogently complained before about pure scientists not wanting to get their hands dirty -- that is, getting involved in controversy. I agree this is a problem. I wish more academics would push openly for reforms in a number of areas. Best, Don Bauder

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Anon92107 Feb. 13, 2014 @ 3:02 a.m.

As you well know Don, the local worst case scenario occurred when UCSD and the UC Board of Regents marginalized Linus Pauling for daring to speak out for Peace after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, forcing him to leave UC even though there are several UCSD molecular biology buildings because he is the Father of Molecular Biology which resulted in his other Nobel Prize.

But the UCSD Powers That Be also tried to defund Charles Keeling's seminal research into atmospheric CO2 because many of his brain-dead colleagues wanted his research funding for themselves.

The bottom line, as one of Bob Reich's colleagues told me, is that getting academics to push openly for (social and political) reforms is like herding cats, because they refuse to follow in the footsteps of giants like Pauling and Keeling since failure can be far easier and much more lucrative.

That's why we have out of control global warming and inequality problems today, our current intellectual establishment is failing once again to protect civilization from the power of money that controls our political establishment.

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Don Bauder Feb. 13, 2014 @ 8:16 a.m.

Anon92107: A blot on San Diego's history was the case of Herbert Marcuse, a brilliant Marxist scholar and anti-war activist professor at UCSD. The San Diego Union utterly savaged him, basically driving him out of UCSD. Best, Don Bauder

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Anon92107 Feb. 13, 2014 @ 11:56 a.m.

UC's history of selling out academic integrity to the Power of Money is one of the most depressing facts of life over the last 50 years.

Their failures to protect quality of life for the long-term future leaves nothing for future generations to look forward to, our legacy sucks more every day and I am totally ashamed of having been associated with UC, but I still communicate with some of them with the never-ending hope that they will change in time.

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Don Bauder Feb. 15, 2014 @ 8:44 a.m.

Anon92107: It's not just the UC faculty that is to blame for quietude in the face of corruption. The students aren't raising hell, either. Best, Don Bauder

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Burwell Feb. 13, 2014 @ 12:57 p.m.

When Marcuse died his estate included over $10 million in stock. Some Marxist. His stock holdings included General Dynamics, Dow Chemical (manufacturer of napalm and agent orange) and many other defense stocks. He attacked the Vietnam war in public all the while he privately profited from it. Marcuse was a fraud and a phony.

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Don Bauder Feb. 15, 2014 @ 8:56 a.m.

Burwell: I had no idea he held such stocks. I think Marxists have as much right to get rich as Austrian School economists. I did read up on Marcuse before I posted that item and didn't notice anything about his estate. Possibly those stocks were in mutual funds or retirement accounts over which he had little or no control.

But maybe not. You could be absolutely right. However, I confess that I own stocks of companies whose activities I deplore. I will name a few: Exxon, Diebold, Duke Energy. I believe in compound interest. So I buy stocks with good yields. Thus, I buy a lot of utilities, pharmaceuticals, oils, etc. whose activities often embarrass me. (Duke is the latest example.)

One can buy socially progressive stocks -- that is a wing of investing, often through mutual funds that won't put tobacco, alcohol, oil, gun maker, defense stocks, etc. stocks in their portfolios. Or, one could buy green energy stocks. But they are very speculative. Best, Don Bauder

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shirleyberan Feb. 12, 2014 @ 6:17 p.m.

Don - yesterday an author named Elizabeth Kolbert (writes for The New Yorker) talked about her new book, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" on the Daily Show with you know who. She also has a book on global warming and a couple of others. No I have not read any yet. She says there have been 5 extinctions so far (1st was giant cold snap, somewhere in there a giant asteroid, you get the picture). She presents scientific data how we are destroying the planet, ourselves. Ocean pollution acidifying the water, petrifying reefs... Same day Dr. Oz says on his show (yes I watch too much TV) that Fukishima nuke is still leaking and that the fish on their way to San Diego have been exposed, (of course they tell you it's safe to eat, he said salmon, cod and haddock better, something about shrimp worth checking into though). Your article reminds me of drugs being dealt in poor neighborhoods where police turn a blind eye, making deals with dealers. That may have been more so in the 80's, and drug programs were not made available instead of jail time for those that really have been set up to fail, you mentioned the privately owned prisons. Liquor adds, and liquor store strategy, Who is going to do anything about inequality? People with means and a conscience, whenever they get over their fear. Did you know that Canada has only 20 species of trees? I think I heard right and South American rain forests are at about 700, for now. Might even be too late to reverse our own extinction; is that why so much $ spent on space exploration?

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Don Bauder Feb. 12, 2014 @ 7:21 p.m.

shirleyberan: I read a story about that book. Her thesis is quite interesting and difficult to challenge. I was just talking to a close friend who said, "Ninety-nine percent of people can't think long-term." He was alluding to climate change (particularly CO2) and threatening economic trends that we as a society just can't get a handle on.

There are many wonderful things about having grandchildren and one of them is it might lead one to try, at least, to think long-term. Best, Don Bauder

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shirleyberan Feb. 12, 2014 @ 6:33 p.m.

My mistake - 200 kinds of trees in Canada (not 20, that'd be nuts).

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Don Bauder Feb. 12, 2014 @ 7:22 p.m.

shirleyberan: Noted. Best, Don Bauder

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Emory_Kendrick Feb. 13, 2014 @ 5:51 p.m.

ShirleyBeran - You were correct the first time. She said there are only 20 species of trees in all of Canada's landmass, whereas near the Equator, the rainforest in a country like Belize, there are 700 species. She was making the point that the public is misinformed when they use Polar bears to link climate change to disaster. That what we need to learn is the rapid rate of species extinction near the equator because that ecosystem is teaming with much more diversity and we're eliminating species near the equator at an alarming rate. Her point was that while Polar bears are important and vital and must be conserved, we need to better educate people using the biodiversity rate of loss near the equator. Therefore, U. Where. Not. Nuts! You were correct ;)

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Don Bauder Feb. 13, 2014 @ 8:10 p.m.

Emory_Kendrick: I agree -- speaking as one who observed various fascinating species for two weeks in Galapagos. We must preserve species everywhere. Best, Don Bauder

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tomp Feb. 19, 2014 @ 4:19 p.m.

Emory-- Shirley was a bit low even on the Canadian Species. Even excluding shrubs and non-native species, Canada has few more than 200 species of trees. This list is easily accessible: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_...

Yes Belize has roughly 800-1000 known species of trees, but its a small country. One current estimate for the tropical rainforests in the Amazonian basin (roughly the size of Canada) is ~16000 species of trees: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/1243092.abstract The records are on the order of 350 tree species in a 100m*100m forest plot, but I don't have my copy of the Ricklefs & Schlueter 1992 Biodiversity book handy..

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Don Bauder Feb. 19, 2014 @ 4:56 p.m.

tomp: Good information. On our trip to Galapagos in 1988, some in the group went on to the Amazons. Most were scientists. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 12, 2014 @ 10:43 p.m.

CHARGERS WANT FAULCONER BACKING FOR NEW STADIUM. The Associated Press is reporting that the San Diego Chargers will seek the backing of the new mayor, Kevin Faulconer, who will be sworn in March 3. Mark Fabiani, spokesman for the team, says he hopes to meet with Faulconer once he is in office and has assembled a staff, says the A.P. Fabiani says the team is looking for a city-wide special election in June 2015 to get its stadium. Best, Don Bauder

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aardvark Feb. 13, 2014 @ 1:09 p.m.

Don: I know part of the alleged Chargers plan for a new stadium is to use the ruse of selling the Qualcomm property and Sports Arena property to generate revenue to help pay for a new stadium, as this will keep general fund revenues from having to be used, thereby saving the city hundreds of millions of dollars. Which, of course, is utter B.S., as money from the sale of those properties would have gone into the general fund to begin with. So the team wants that money to go directly into the monies needed to build Spanosworld. Not to mention the sale of those properties is supposed to go to a vote of the people. I wouldn't mind seeing a ballot measure--maybe the citizens would finally get to see the actual Chargers proposal regarding actual cost, who would pay what, and an actual artist's rendering of what the stadium would look like and how many seats it would have. And I am SURE it would be written in a VERY impartial way. And then I could vote NO. The next move would be up to the Chargers.

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Don Bauder Feb. 13, 2014 @ 2:02 p.m.

aardvark: Astute observations. When a team and friendly politicians say a stadium will pay for itself, it is always a lie. The trouble with having the public voting on a new stadium is that the team will outspend any opposition by 100 to 1 or even more. The airwaves and print media will be filled with false come-ons that opponents won't have the money to expose. Also, the local media will be biased in favor of the project. Best, Don Bauder

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shirleyberan Feb. 12, 2014 @ 10:56 p.m.

People prioritize this way. I doubt you could campaign to convince them that the rich can better afford to build a coliseum for their precious sports. Brainwashed from birth.

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Don Bauder Feb. 13, 2014 @ 8:19 a.m.

shirleyberan: Football stadiums are not good investments. That's why NFL owners want the public to pick up the tab for 70% to 80% of the costs. It's a case of Other People's Money (OPM), and in this case it's the taxpayers' money. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 13, 2014 @ 12:54 p.m.

Response to David L. Reinke: Thanks for the suggestions to read up on Roman history. The column was really about our own society, and the connection between governments and billionaire football team owners as they appease the masses. I didn't have room or time to do deep research on Rome. But I did do some research and I will stand by the facts.

People will say that journalism is "a little thin," and that's often true for space limitations. We leave the footnoted essays to academics. Best, Don Bauder

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ImJustABill Feb. 13, 2014 @ 10:29 p.m.

There seems to be more talk lately (at least on the sports talk shows) about having an NFL team in London.

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Don Bauder Feb. 14, 2014 @ 12:57 p.m.

ImJustABill: The head of the National Football League says L.A. and London are two high priorities for stadiums. Best, Don Bauder

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danfogel Feb. 14, 2014 @ 4:44 p.m.

Let me correct one thing in your statement. The head of the National Football League has said the league wants teams in Los Angeles and London. Obviously, a stadium will have to be built for a Los Angeles team. But when a team begins playing in London, it will be not be in a new stadium, it will be at Wembley.

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Don Bauder Feb. 14, 2014 @ 7:06 p.m.

danfogel: I suppose you are right on that. I shouldn't have mentioned a new stadium for London --- maybe. But how long will it be before London and the NFL will want a new stadium? Best, Don Bauder

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shirleyberan Feb. 13, 2014 @ 11:01 p.m.

Emory_Kendrick - doesn't make me feel a bit better but thanks for saying I'm not nuts.

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Don Bauder Feb. 14, 2014 @ 12:58 p.m.

shirleyberan: Nobody here thinks you are nuts. Best, Don Bauder

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ImJustABill Feb. 14, 2014 @ 7:37 a.m.

Interesting article linking empires with using violent shows to distract from real issues.

However I would say in my opinion, this is done on a much bigger level with the use of military force. While I have great respect for all of the brave and hard working men and women making sacrifices for the U.S. service, I must question whether the use of U.S. Military Force has been done for the right reasons.

I'm not a dove. If use of military force is justified and in the best interests of America then I'm all for it. If American freedom is threatened than I'm all for annihilating our opponents. But I think any use of U.S. military force should only been done when it is morally justified (at least by some argument) and when it's in the best interests of the American people.

To me, many (maybe even most) U.S. military actions in recent decades don't meet these criteria. I think the use of military action is sometimes motivated by political reasons similar to what you describe about Roman gladiator shows or American football distracting people from the real issues. Presidential approval ratings tend to go up sharply in wartime. Patriotic Americans rally around the country. By itself, this is a good thing. But I think this has been exploited by many U.S. leaders. War (at least in the initial stages) is good for approval ratings. And it diverts focus from domestic issues to international issues.

Again, I have great respect for the brave and hard working men and women in our services. I just question the motivations of some of the upper, upper leadership.

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Don Bauder Feb. 14, 2014 @ 3:28 p.m.

ImJustABill: I agree with you. The last several wars we have fought -- Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan -- were ill-conceived wars. Aerospace-defense has become too large a percentage of the economy, with too many lobbyists paying off legislators.

Look what happened in San Diego when Bill Clinton cut back military spending in the 1990s. It was disastrous for the local economy -- for L.A.'s, too. Politicians see that. Economic/political considerations become a factor in governments going to war. In his outgoing speech, former President Eisenhower warned of this. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 14, 2014 @ 2:30 p.m.

NFL COMMISSIONER RAKED IN $44.2 MILLION LAST YEAR. The New York Times has a story today (Feb. 14) indicating that Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, raked in pay of $44.2 million last year, up 50% from the previous year.

By contrast, chief executives of companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 averaged $9.7 million compensation last year, less than one-fourth of Goodell's pay. The chief executive of Walmart, the nation's biggest private sector employer, was paid $20 million. And, in general, private sector chief executive pay is obscenely high. So Goodell's pay would be multi-obscenely high.

It is almost a certainty that Goodell raked in more than any head of a nonprofit enterprise. And why should the NFL be nonprofit? Its profits are obscene. But in 1966, the federal government gave the league nonprofit status, as well as antitrust exemptions. One of Goodell's main jobs is strong-arming state and local governments to pay 70% to 80% of the cost of new stadiums for teams owned by billionaires.

Note: San Diego just elected a mayor who favors building a stadium for the billionaire Spanos family. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 14, 2014 @ 3:30 p.m.

shirleyberan: Do you think any big university will preach against spending on athletics? Of course, it's only a few universities that actually make money on football. Best, Don Bauder

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