The Cornerstone of Government Government in any society is a complicated thing. In the United States, with our system of checks of balances between three powerful wings of central government layered on top of fifty individual state governments, each of which handles their checks and balances in an individual ways, our government which is summarized as "of the people, by the people and for the people" has become a phenomenally complex thing. After over two hundred years of history, it's amazing to see that this government that rules the current America is still very much the product of those cornerstone documents that were written by the founding fathers, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and especially the Declaration of Independence. The national sense of self and that distinctively "American" personality is very much interwoven with the bold statements in these documents. For one thing, Americans have an intrinsic sense of their own rights and their ability to function separate from government. As such, government is never outside of the critical scrutiny of the people that it rules. While this seems perfectly normal to the citizens of this country, it is uncommon historically where government ruled with virtual absolute authority and the people were subservient to their leaders. To an American, the ones they elect to serve work for the public. And if they ever forget that or appear to be attempting to gather more power than they are allowed, it isn't long before the leadership of the country is replaced. This ability of the people to peaceably "throw the bums out" has kept government in check and constantly on edge for two centuries. And that is a good thing. The Declaration of Independence would have to be considered a cornerstone of how our system of government works because along with independence from England, that document created a spirit of independence and pride in the American psyche that has influenced virtually every aspect of both public and private life. When America declared itself independent from England, it firmly entrenched into the soul of every American to never be dependent on any other country, government or ruler ever again. To an outsider, the fierce dedication to freedom and self determination that is so deeply entrenched in American culture seems peculiar. But that fundamental conviction that we are a free people, not just of tyranny from without but free of oppression from within as well affects every aspect of American life. That sense of self will and self awareness is what makes American music, movies, cultural life and art to exciting and addictive around the world. There was something buried in that bold declaration to the royalty of England that we would be an independent and free people that changed the personality of America forever. We did not just break away to be adrift from our point of origin, in this case The United Kingdom. Rather when we declared freedom, it was not just freedom FROM oppression and the dominance of government, it was freedom TO greatness that rose up out of the people, not from a government that was the keeper of the people. The Declaration of Independence accomplished it's short term goal of changing the culture of what was happening on the American mainland from a bold act of colonization into an even bolder building of a new nation. But accomplished so much more by putting a determination in the heart and soul of every American to never again be subjects of a government. Instead government in this new country would forever be the subject of the people, their servant and answerable to them. So Americans keep their government on a short leash, not the other way around. This is a revolutionary concept and one that has been working well for over 200 years becoming the envy of nations all around the world. Every Citizen Gets a Vote One of the founding principles of our system of government is "one man, one vote." The implication is that every citizen gets one vote in each election and that each vote will have the same potential impact on the outcome of the election as any other person's vote. The implication is also that, in a perfect world, no citizen will ever be denied his or her right to that vote and that all will be able to and will willingly engage in the privilege of voting for their elected officials freely, openly and eagerly. Now, right away we can think of exceptions to how this principle works out in reality that might cause us to doubt the validity of the "one man, one vote" system. But we should not let that happen. Because despite these kinks in the system, the democracy of the election system is still fundamentally intact. When this thing that has often been called "The Great American Experiment" got underway, our system of voting, elections and the rule of the people was virtually untried at a national scale such as it was envisioned by the founding fathers. Much of the language that is so poetic in our cornerstone documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence read like philosophical treatises rather than documents grounded in a hard fought awareness of reality. But in a way, that's a good thing. Yes, the authors of these documents were philosophers of their time. And yes, what they were describing in their vision of how this great new country would function was theoretical and based on political theory drawn from historical sources rather than immediate historical precedent. But we only have to look at the outcome to admire that it's a good thing that the founding fathers were wiser than they were practical. We as a people were not too small to live up to the high expectations of our founding fathers. Over the decades, amendments to the constitution were put in place, legal precedents were made and social attitudes changed so that more and more of the nation's citizenry gained the same rights that all should have, to be able to vote in the elections of their country. Some of those landmark moments in history included: * The fifteenth amendment which granted voting rights to African Americans. * The fourteenth amendment which guaranteed equal protection of all citizens under the law. * The nineteenth amendment which guaranteed voting rights for women. * The civil rights act of 1964 which put further enforcement around these previous laws and amendments to assure equal treatment of all so access to the government is truly a right of all citizens. Since these improvements to the original founding documents were put in place, phenomenal changes have taken place that provide concrete proof that the vision of the founding fathers was indeed something that could be a reality and not just the philosophical musings of an educated few. One of the most noticeable social changes that has come along with the legal recognition of the rights of minorities and women to participate in the system is that the composition of the government has changed dramatically and that for the better. The three branches of government today would be virtually unrecognizable in the narrow world view that prevailed when the nation was born. But today it is common in any state in the union to see black mayors, women in congressional seats or in the governor's mansions handling those responsibilities with the same wisdom and good judgment that male leaders tried to exhibit in previous decades. These changes have had a positive effect not only on the fairness of how the government works but in the sense of enfranchisement all peoples feel for the affairs of the nation. Indeed, because we now see women, Hispanics, African Americans and people of all color and persuasion serving honorably in leadership, our policies are more equitable and we are much closer to having a government that really does represent the population of the nation. Now we stand at a time when we could easily see a woman or an African American in the highest office in the land, the Presidency of the United States. And if that happens, we will see one more institution conform to the vision of the founding fathers where every citizen can participate at any level just as every citizen gets one vote. Consumer Rights and Protection The news stories in the last few months have included some pretty alarming stories about bad products that have come to us from China. And we in the west do look with disgust at failures of a government to assure that products produced by merchants are safe for consumers. This is because our government maintains a high level of control, testing, and monitoring of products to assure that the consumers of these products are protected and consumers can buy them with confidence. Of course, this is not to say that problems with consumer protection have been eliminated. But when a product is found to be unsafe, we have a sophisticated system of recalls and alerts that go out over our media. In this way, that the damage and danger from inferior product is vastly minimized from what it might have been. Consumer rights and protection are an important area of focus for manufacturers and merchants. These laws have a high level of importance for merchants and that drives up quality control and inspection even before the government or legal systems get involved. That is because the outcome of a recall or product failure, especially if that failure leads to injury or death of a consumer, can be devastating both to the individual merchant or company involved and to the market it serves that placing a high priority on quality is as much about market survival as it is about ethical behavior by companies. What can we as consumers expect in the way of our rights and the protections we deserve as being part of this economy? It breaks down to what we consider to be the basics of the contract that is implied when we give someone money for a product or service: * We expect to be able to use the goods safely with no possibility of immediate harm or long term illness as result of using the product. * We expect the product to perform according to reasonable expectations based on what the product was promoted to do both on the package and in advertisements. * We expect to pay what the product is advertised to cost. We do not accept changes in price after that price is advertised or surprise costs to be added on that we weren't expecting. * If a product fails to deliver the service it was advertised to deliver, or is found to be flawed in any way, we expect the merchant to refund or replace the product promptly and courteously. * In the case of food, medicines or other consumables, we expect the product to be made of the highest levels of quality and to be reasonably fresh and usable. * We expect the merchants involved in the sale of the product to stand behind the product with guarantees from the retail merchant all the way to the manufacturer. We have not come up with this list of rights and protections on our own. These are the minimum standards prescribed by our laws to assure that the consuming public can trade with merchant in any kind of product and service and be treated with the same minimum levels of professionalism and quality assurance. From the merchant's point of view, you might think these high standards of consumer rights and protections would be a burden. But in fact, these laws protect both the consumer and the merchant. That is because these laws make it possible for the buying public to engage in commerce with any merchant that is authorized to do business with confidence. Consumer protection laws make an active marketplace possible which benefits both consumers and merchants equally. So complying with consumer protection laws is not just essential from a legal point of view. It makes good sense for merchants to comply fully and perform above expectations in terms of their ability to deliver quality product to their customers. It just makes good business sense. Can You Keep a Secret? "Transparency" is a term that gets used on television a lot as something desirable, particularly in government terms to require that that our elected officials are being open and honest.. What transparency means is that there is nothing hidden and the people "employing" the elected official have complete knowledge of what is going on at all times. Sometimes we think that even in the world of business, "transparency" would be a good policy as well. Very often the consumer world gets suspicious that businesses are not doing business in an honest and forthright fashion. But it is not uncommon for a business to have a need to sustain a certain level of secrecy about their products, their marketing and their business plans. This is not always because the business is crooked. It is just a fact of life in the business world and one that has given us a legal framework for trade secrets and confidentiality agreements of various sorts. What would be the circumstances that you would want to take advantage of the legal status of trade secrets to keep the internal operations of your business a secret? Well, the most common rational for utilizing legal trade secret protection is to retain the marketing advantage that you might have to stay one step ahead of your competition. The world of business can be a cut throat environment to be sure. If one competitor learns of the secrets of how the competition makes a better product, utilizes a superior distribution or marketing plan or has a organizational philosophy that gives them the edge, the competition is more than happy to exploit that knowledge to capture business away. So it's in the best interest of any business to protect their advantages from becoming well known to make sure they can capitalize on their hard earned edge in a competitive market as they deserve to do. Trade secrets generally fall into either the "technical" or "business" related categories. Technical trade secrets, as the name implies, are discoveries or new ways of doing things to create something new. This would include the technical plans or specifications for a protected product or new design, the methods you have designed for manufacturing a breakthrough technology, notes and insider design documentation on failures in testing that would tip off competition on how you innovated this new product. Business trade secrets are just as valuable because they include exclusive management and organizational methods that make you more profitable, marketing plans that would give your competition a heads up on "where you are going to hit them", information about your customers and details about your employees and specialized talent that you retain to make your business run better than the competition. There is a lot of "corporate espionage" between companies to crack the secrecy of another company to gain a competitive advantage. But as a new business just putting together plans for security, there are a few things you can do to legally protect yourself. A common practice for businesses in need of trade secret protection is to have their business partners all sign what is called a "Nondisclosure Agreement" which basically requires that anything your partners learn about your business will remain a trade secret even if the partner relationship does not continue. This is a legally binding document you can use if that partner uses or leaks your trade secrets and you lose business or market advantage from it. Many companies require similar kinds of documents from employees and even add a "Non-compete" agreement to make sure an employee or partner doesn't use trade secret information to compete for business from them. Your lawyer can help you decide what is the best way to protect your business and how to use these documents wisely. Bank Charges that are a Crime If you did a survey of the top ten most distrusted professions, right up there next to lawyers and politicians would be bankers. It's amazing that we have such a negative view of the banks in light of the fact that almost everyone uses a bank. Have you ever wondered how banks make money? In the last few years, it seems that every bank in town advertises "totally free checking". Offering these fees for free is so common that most of us have probably forgotten when we paid a little fee each month for these services. Competition has driven banks to give away checking. So you would think that has hurt their bottom lines. But it hasn't. Banks of all the business institutions are doing great, even in a day and age of exploding costs and dwindling personal savings. So how do they do it? Well, banks do make money off of our money. When you put $1000 in the bank, we might like the idea that our money is in a vault waiting until we start using it. But the reality is that the bank immediately loans that money out and makes interest on those loans. That is one way that banks make money and it's completely legal as well. But despite the demise of checking fees, banks make a ton of money off of bank charges that they can still legally charge. One of those fees is the cost of printing checks. If you have ever ordered checks from your bank, you will see a pretty impressive charge for those checks show up on your next bank statement. But one thing they don't tell you is that they don't have a monopoly on printing checks. There are plenty of perfectly good services in the world that will print up checks for your checking account for a much reduced fee. As long as those blank numbers along the bottom are readable by a machine and are correct, the check is legal. So save yourself some money and don't order checks from the bank. But one charge that always seems over the top is the overdraft charge the bank imposes each time one of your checks bounces. It seems that these fees are extraordinarily excessive. Many times the bank will charge you as much as $35 or more for each bounced check. Amazingly, these charges are perfectly legal. The law says they are allowed to charge you enough to cover their costs for covering and processing the returned check. So that might include notifying you, returning the check to the person you wrote it to and the necessary account management. How do we know that the huge tab they charge is not more than they need for their costs? We don't. And as consumers there isn't any way to fight back, short of not using the bank at all which isn't realistic. So how can we protect ourselves against excessive bank charges? One way is to find a bank that will set up a line of credit that will kick in and put the funds in your account from a bank loan if you overdraw. It's all done by computers so the costs of notification are eliminated. And generally the charge is much less for this service, perhaps $5-$10 for as many checks they have to cover in a day rather than $35 per check. Your checks don't bounce so you don't have problems with who you are trying to pay. And it's a much easier way to protect your bank account than letting the banks hit you for those out of control overdraft charges just when you need extra fees the least. When a Bar is not for Drinking "Passing the Bar" in the legal profession means something different from walking by a drinking establishment. The Bar Association is the central regulating body by which we can be assured that the legal profession is living up to the highest of ethical and legal standards. For those of us on the outside of the legal profession, the word "lawyer" often evokes a series of the latest lawyer jokes we got off the internet. The legal profession has taken it on the chin with such low jokes and under the breath implications that lawyers are unethical or greedy. This is strange because of all of the professions, the legal world is one that is held to a high standard of education and continuous performance of service and that is held in continuous scrutiny by their own internal police known as the Bar Association. For a new law student, the Bar Association lies ahead as a daunting challenge that lies between them and a lucrative career as a lawyer. The Bar Exam is renowned for being exacting, difficult and taxing on a prospective lawyer. It is such a huge accomplishment to pass "The Bar" that it is very common for the prospective lawyer to take a few months or a year off to prepare for the exam and/or to have to take it several times before finally passing the test. Once the student passes The Bar and has achieved that status of being able to conduct law legally, there is a lot that the Bar Association does for its membership. It isn't easy to get a practice stated so the Bar Association can provide valuable advice, contacts in the legal world and even contacts for financing so a lawyer just out of law school can "hang out their shingle" and get their practice going. The national Bar Association is responsible for the larger issues of certification, relationships with the government and what it means to be a "Bar certified" lawyer in this country. But on top of those services, there are local Bar Associations that lawyers in every community can join that offer many valuable services to their members. Sometimes lawyers look at the local Bar Association with distain. This might be because the idea of associating with a lot of other lawyers doesn't seem to make much sense. After all, they will not be your prospective customers. Moreover, that is the competition and you don't want to spill your guts to the competition. However, in practice is a brotherhood in the local legal professions that benefits everyone. By associating with other lawyers, legal firms and professionals associated with the legal world, there is a lot of value you can get just from attending the local Bar Association meetings. Probably the greatest advantage to becoming an active member of your local Bar Association is the networking you will get done. On any given evening, you might find yourself networking with some of the judges you may be working with in court this year, with partners in your firm or competition firms who may have some valuable tips on upcoming cases or who may be looking for a bright attorney like yourself to recruit. One the best ways to build your practice is to begin to pull in a roster of solid clients that can be the source of your long-term success as a lawyer. While we do see lawyers going on television to advertise for customers, the best way to find new clients is through pro bono work and through networking. Your local Bar Association offers a lot of community services to new businesses just getting started and to the local small business association. There is a method to this madness. These are the organizations future clients will come to with legal questions and problems. So if you are well known to your local Bar Association officers and members and they know what you can do for clients, they can give you as a reference, which can mean new customers for your practice. You can make a lot of contacts this way and eventually connect with that "core client" who may be the ticket to your long-term success. These breakthroughs won't happen by sitting in your office waiting for the phone to ring. Get out there and network and the best place in town to do that is at your local Bar Association meetings. Using Our Legal Rights for Estate Planning "I know my rights!" That is one of those phrases we all like to have in our arsenal if we get into a struggle, particularly with the government or a financial institution. But another phrase that is just as appropriate, especially when it comes to the rights that the legal system gives us is, "Use it or lose it." As much as we malign lawyers and hold the government up for ridicule, there are a lot of laws on the books that are here to protect ordinary citizens like you and I. The real crime then is when we don't make ourselves aware of those rights or fail to take advantage of them. Nowhere is the problem more glaring then when it comes to the laws concerning estate planning, wills, trusts and inheritance. Any estate planning lawyer can guide us through the steps of setting up legally binding documents to make sure that whatever is ours when we do pass on to the next life through death will go to the ones we want to have it. Amazingly, many people just do not take advantage of estate planning laws and their heirs find themselves trying to take care of their loved ones wishes with no will in place to protect their property. Maybe it would help to learn more about probate which is the way the state dispenses with your property if there is no will in place. Well, the news there is not good. Not only will the government dispense with your property by its rules without any regard or guidance from you how you want your property divided when you die, there are heavy taxes that they are happy to take for the privilege. There very idea that the government can take as much as ten percent of your estate during probate should send us all running to our estate planning lawyers to get the documents in place to make sure this does not happen. There are lots of reasons people don't like to plan for how their property will be distributed after they pass away. No doubt the biggest one is procrastination. If you ask most people who have significant holdings that should be protected by a will why they don't go through that exercise, the answer is often, "I will take care of that when I am older." The implication is that if you are not elderly, you are certainly not close enough to the moment of death to worry about it. This is an amazing assumption when anyone who rationally knows how the world works knows that people just like you and me die in car wrecks, plane crashes or even just have sudden heart attacks at young ages and leave their loved ones to sort out the estate. So confronting that potential is the first step toward developing a mature approach to estate planning. The heart of this procrastination lies in a dread of thinking about death. Most of us would like to believe we will never die when all evidence proves the opposite. On top of that, we don't like dealing with lawyers, we don't like thinking about our own mortality and we fear the expense of setting up a will. None of these are rational excuses for not putting these important documents in place. Few of us would own a car without insurance. And we buy all kinds of insurance to cover our health, our home our life and our business. If we can just think of a will in that same light, we might be motivated to insure that our estate is properly distributed when we pass on. It's just as important as any insurance, especially to your family and loved ones. The Most Feared Government Institution To even mention the name of this government institution can set off waves of anxiety and stories of abuse and persecution that is unheard of for virtually any other governmental body in this country. It's really amazing the ability of three little words to instill fear in the hearts of an American citizen when those three little words are -- Internal Revenue Service. When we look a little closer at the mission of the IRS and their actual record of how they handle most of their cases, the level of hysteria we get ourselves into is really pretty silly. For the most part, the abuses and draconian methods that we think of when we talk about the IRS are urban myth. You would think that the IRS existed solely to imprison the American people, take all of their property and make our lives miserable either through audits that resemble the Spanish Inquisition or by keeping us all in constant terror. This is not to say that over the decades there have not been some abuses that have earned the IRS as least some of the reputation it is still working to live down. Yes, you can dig back and find some pretty awful abuses that the IRS has committed against citizens in the name of tax collection. But to be fair, we can find abuses in many governmental bodies, particularly those with a mission to carry out that is undercover or violent. We can think of phenomenal stories of violence and unethical behavior by the ATF, The FBI, The CIA and all branches of the military. But we don't as a population cringe in terror in talking about those governmental bodies the way we do when the subject of the IRS comes up in conversation. You have to wonder why the IRS strikes such fear into our hearts. Part of it is the influence of the media, Hollywood and television. The IRS makes a big target and many times the role of an IRS agent is depicted in movies as a heartless mercenary out to take away everything you own. The specter of an IRS audit is feared with the same loathing of a root canal or torture by foreign spies. But much of it may come from just a plain and simple distain for paying taxes. We just don't like the idea of the government taking our money. The cure for this is to step back and examine why taxes are necessary and understand that paying for the operation of a governmental system is the responsibility of all of us. It is not only the patriotic thing to do but it is part of what being a citizen of a great nation does. The IRS are just the clerks assigned with the difficult task of making sure everybody pays their taxes. And, after all, the system is only fair if everybody pays their share. The truth is that the IRS does all it can not to have to resort to drastic measures to help each citizen participate in the support of the government equally. Many times even the dreaded IRS audit is really no more painful or difficult than getting a bill from your electric company. It really isn't the IRS's fault that the tax laws are complicated and hard to figure out. If we want to fix that, we should go to our congressmen and elected officials. The IRS is really in the same boat we are in. They have to figure out the tax laws and then see to it that we live within them. Blaming the IRS because we don't like the tax laws or paying taxes in general is the old "bad news, kill the messenger" syndrome. If we take a more reasonable view of what the IRS is and that they are doing their best, as we all are, to get a job done that not very many people like, we might not only stop fearing and despising them, we might see them as just another governmental body that has to be there just like the military at the federal level and the garbage man or the school board chairman at the local level. These are just good honest Americans doing their best to make the system work. And if we work together, it can work and we can find ways to make it better. The Legal Status of Identity Theft Cases The law is not a stagnant thing. It is constantly changing, evolving and adapting to new situations and new crimes that must be identified and understood so appropriate laws can be passed to protect honest people from the dishonest ones. This can be a tricky process, especially in this age when crimes using the internet make detection and evidence so difficult. Identity theft is a perfect example of a crime that should be aggressively attacked from the legal community. But because it is a crime that is always changing and adapting, it is sometimes difficult for the legal community to get a firm definition of what identity theft is and particularly how to codify it into a system of laws that can be used to effectively stop it. Probably the biggest problem with enforcing laws that will lead to the conviction of identity thieves is to develop ways to keep the evidence long enough to seek a conviction. Until we can give law enforcement sufficient tools both to identify and capture identity theft criminals and then to gather sufficient evidence to get a conviction, identity theft will continue to be an allusive enemy. Unlike a murder where there is a weapon and a corpse or bank robbery where there are physical forms of evidence, much of the footprint of identity theft occurs in cyberspace where there are few fingerprints and tracing the path of the criminal is difficult at best. In that way, tracking down identity thieves resembles the problems legal experts have in defining and then tracking down cyber stalkers or pornography merchants who can be so elusive in an online world. Consumers who are hit with identity theft face two challenges. One is to stop the continued stealing by thieves who can continue to do their damage even after the crime has been identified. The other is to find the criminals and make it stop. Consumers are frustrated because law enforcement hits roadblocks in their investigations of identity theft cases. But law enforcement professionals are also frustrated because those who might have the evidence they need to capture, prosecute and convict identity thieves often no longer have that evidence that is desperately needed to stop this unique 21st century crime. In order to give law enforcement what they need, companies that sell consumer data must be regulated more closely. One big "hole" in the legal system which favors identity thieves and puts consumers at a disadvantage is that businesses that resell consumer data do not have to notify consumers when their data is being passed along to another agency. Therefore, once a consumer provides his or her private data to a company, that data can be packaged and resold without restriction to as many buyers who care to line up to buy it and the consumer has no idea this is going on. So this is a level of consumer protection that can be addressed legally by requiring any company that collects buyer information must be required to notify consumers when that data is being sold and who they are selling it to. If every consumer can retain a complete trail of who is getting their private information, that would empower the private sector to partner with the legal community to put a stop to this level of crime. If further laws could be improved to require longer retention of transactions of this nature and open access of those records to law enforcement, we would be giving our legal system the weapons they need to stop this crime. And that would be a step forward for all of society to make the world, the cyber world included, a safer place for all of us. The Legal Rights of Musicians Creative people of all types all come back to one legal touchstone and that is copyright law. It is often sited in all kinds of cases involving literature, film, publishing and certainly in music. Within the music industry, the ability of copyright to protect an artist's work has come under new challenges in the last ten years. The rise of peer-to-peer file sharing, online music downloading and other internet related ways that music gets passed around has presented some real challenges to musicians to collect what is due them as owners of music under copyright. There are numerous royalty rights associated with the writing, publication, performance and distribution of music that have to be sorted out by a complicated infrastructure that the music industry maintains to protect its own. But when you get back to the basics, the copyright of a piece of music works in music the same way it does in any literary field. That copyright, at least at first, belongs to the songwriter. That is where the simplicity of the situation ends. For most songwriters, complete ownership of a song rarely remains the exclusive property of that author of the song. Most songwriters work with a publishing house to get their music out on the market. Even if the songwriter is writing songs for their own band, the publishing house provides the valuable service of not only publishing the song or songs but getting them out on the market to be covered or produced by others as well, if that is how the songwriter wants. So this is a valuable service that is provided by the publishing house. In exchange for handling all of the promotion of the music, the publishing house takes over 50% of the copyright. This may seem like a lot to give up but there is a hidden side to sharing copyright that benefits the songwriter maybe even more than the promotional help the publishing house provides. Because the publishing house now has a vested interest in that creative work, they also have a vested interest in protecting it. A copyright over a piece of music, at least on paper, is a pretty strong legal right. It covers all aspects of how that song can be used. If the song is used on a recording, obviously the songwriter has some rights to the proceeds of that release. But even if the song is just covered in a performance, technically the copyright owner has some rights to payment for the use of that exclusive creative intellectual material. The issue is as much one of enforcement as it is whether the rights are there or not. This is a judgment call to be made by the songwriter, the publishing house and the legal representation of all involved. Sometimes seeing your creative material used has such a positive marketing value that to start a legal battle for the monetary rights could hurt your music career as much as it might help you. These are decisions that musicians and owners of copyright or royalty rights are making every day in the music industry. The debate over the value of fighting for copyright versus allowing small infractions in exchange the marketing value of your music being heard is one that is held more and more as music sharing has become more common with the spread of internet services. While a strict copyright lawyer might argue that once you stop defending your ownership, you loose it forever, the truth of the marketplace is not always that black and white. The rights are there, to be sure. But the wisdom of how to let your music make you more successful calls for the use of judgment and a savvy that comes from your extensive knowledge of how the music industry really works. The FCC and Free Speech When you think about it for very long, you wonder if there is a good reason that the United States even has a Federal Communications Commission. But with a closer look at the value this important government department adds to our public life, we can get a good perspective on the reasons we need the FCC to be there to provide some guidance for how the public airwaves are used. The FCC grew out of a need in the early thirties to have a regulatory body to assist with issues relative to the growing radio industry in regards to monopolies on the airwaves and how radio conglomerates were handling relationships with affiliates and employees. So in 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act which expanded the Federal Radio Commission that was already in existence and gave it a wider jurisdiction. The agency that came out of this reorganization and expansion became what we now know as the Federal Communications Commission. Much of the work of the early FCC was to work to diversify ownership of radio stations and impose some control on the powerful communications conglomerates of NBC and CBS. So the early regulatory activity of the FCC accomplished three improvements in the radio industry: * In a document issued in 1940 called Report on Chain Broadcasting, the FCC began the work of limiting the growth of conglomerate ownership of telecommunications facilities. It was believed then that diversification of ownership would foster competition and greater creative opportunity in the radio industry. * The FCC introduced some limits on the extent that the large radio conglomerates could demand time of their affiliates. This control was necessary to establish a cooperative relationship between affiliates and the large networks and cut down on affiliate abuse which was harmful to local markets. * Finally the FCC stepped in to put significant control over "artist bureaus" by which networks were able to function as both the agents and employers of artists they had under contract. Obviously this was not a situation that resulted in the best interests of the artists. Notice that in none of these original goals of the FCC was there any jurisdiction over content or public decency implied in its powers or responsibilities. This doesn't mean that taking an administrative role in the content of what goes out over the nation's airwaves not a proper use of the FCC. But it is a change from the original charge that was given to the FCC to justify its creation. The change in focus began in the Reagan administration. It was during this time in our history that much of the oversight of the large media conglomerates were removed. As a result the door was opened for large corporations to own a variety of media outlets and to take possession of a large possession of a majority of a particular media's outlets which narrowed competition. The outcome was the concentration of ownership of radio stations in the hands of a few large corporations which has lead to a homogenization of that media. But the lifting of tight regulations also has resulted in the explosion of cable television the expansion of options for consumers and the proliferation of talk radio. It was in the new century when the FCC began to shift its focus toward taking a greater control over content in broadcasting. Many say that it was the super bowl fiasco with Janet Jackson that set off the changes. But leading up to that event, there had already been some notable crackdowns such as greater fines for particularly offensive programs such as the Howard Stern radio broadcast. It remains to be seen if the FCC will continue to serve as a moderator of content and obscenity in years to come. If that is the direction, there will be some very public discussion over the role of government versus the rights of people under the free speech protection provided by the constitution. But such dialog is healthy in a free society as we continue to redefine how far we will allow the agencies of our government to protect us while using the power of these agencies for the greatest public good. The FBI Protecting Our Safety Our federal government has literally dozens of bureaus, departments, and commissions. But of all of those agencies, there is probably none who are as "notorious" as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the FBI. This is an agency who's reason for being and daily challenges are so dangerous and exotic that we often see the FBI portrayed in movies and TV shows, and almost always heroically. It is really amazing when you think about it that the FBI is actually a very old agency. And yet in its long history, the FBI has maintained a high public approval and regard for honesty and their single-minded focus on their purpose, which is to protect the American people. That is why when we think of the FBI we think of the words of their motto which is, "Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity". The actual history of the beginnings of the FBI date back to the turn of last century with a descendent of the French general Napoleon. The President at that time was Teddy Roosevelt and it was under his Attorney General that an agency known as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) was established in 1908, almost 100 years ago. That Attorney General was Charles Joseph Bonaparte whose grandfather was Jerome Bonaparte, the brother of the famous Napoleon. The name of the FBI went through several changes before settling in to what we know it as today. In 1932 it was renamed the United States Bureau of Investigation. Then in 1933, it was again renamed the Division of Investigation (DOI) because it had become part of the Bureau of Prohibition. Finally in 1935 it took on the name we know it as today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Just as the name of the FBI has gone through some changes, so has the focus of its mission. But this does not reflect a lack of vision on the part of the leadership of the FBI as much as it shows that the agency has continued to adapt and refocus as America's enemies have changed. Over the years, the FBI has had some phenomenal successes in its war against those who would undermine the American way of life including: * The most notorious and longest standing director of the FBI, J Edger Hoover lead a war on crime when gangsters and organized crime threatened the rule of law in this country. During his administration, the FBI killed or arrested such notorious mobsters as "Baby Face" Nelson, John Dillinger, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and "Ma" Barker. * The FBI implemented a strategy to attack and slowly stop the infamous Klu Klux Klan from continuing their murderous and illegal activities across the south. * In the 1920's, the FBI arrested an entire army of Mexican revolutionaries who were massing on the nation's border in California eliminating another threat to the American homeland. * During World War II, the FBI had a pivotal role in that conflict when it broke up a cell of eight nazis where were working inside the borders of the United States planning acts of sabotage to reduce our ability to battle Hitler. Six of those Nazis were eventually put to death. But the FBI has never rested on its successes. The mission of the agency has continued to grow and change even in the new century as the focus of our enemies has changed to the internet and the war on terror. That new focus has such a high priority that the top three official investigative priorities of the FBI are: * To protect the United States from terrorist attack. * To protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage. * To protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes. Since the September 11th 2001 attacks, there have been dozens of instances where the FBI working with international and other US intelligence agencies stopped our terrorists from causing further loss of life and property in our nation. So whenever you hear of a great breakthrough in the war on terror or an arrest of one of our nation's enemies, you can be sure that at the heart of that investigation was this hard working group of men and women, the FBI.
When a Name is More Than a Name Launching a new business is both an exciting and scary adventure for even a seasoned business veteran. But there is something about the spirit of the entrepreneur that drives us to strike out on our own and do something new, despite the risks. You will have a lot to think about but if you get good help, you have a good shot at success. Of course you need financing, good accounting and legal help and a solid business plan. You need a product that serves a documented market need and a marketing plan that gets that product into the hands of that needy market efficiently and quickly so you can cash in on your business concept. The legal side of things is probably the most intimidating aspect of a new business venture. Of the numerous issues that we need to be concerned out, one that often escapes notice is the simple act of choosing a business name. This side of creating a new business is often the most exciting for the novice entrepreneur. By creating a name that is short but still does a good job of getting across the mission of the business is a challenge. But it is a labor of love for the owner or owners of the business to be. Often integrating the names of the owners or names of loved ones serves the business well. Certainly that can be said of McDonalds, Wendy's and Denny's. But there are some legal issues to be considered when picking that name that is going to become your corporate identity to the world. That business name is going to show up on your business card, your web page, at your corporate headquarters, in your advertising if that is appropriate and many other places. It will be how the world references your business. You want to be proud of it for sure. But even more than that, it is important that name belongs to you. The legal arena covering business names falls under the category of trademark law. The problem comes up if you happen to pick a business name that could possibly be the same name of a competitor in your field. This is not just a concern for your local community. If you are using the same name as someone on the other side of the country or even on the other side of the world, technically you can run into problems if that business decides to call you out about it. Stories abound of how a big powerful company took issue with some small mom and pop business who happened to have the same name and used all of their mighty legal muscle to force someone to change their business name, maybe even abandoning their own family name because it was covered by the trademark claims of the larger firm. While these stories are sad to be sure, the fact remains, the law is the law. So it's a good idea to make sure that this name you are about to create will be yours day one, in five years and even down the road when and if your business becomes a large international success. So even though going through yet another legal process and employing yet another lawyer to run up yet another legal bill seems to be a burden, its necessary to make sure your business name belongs to you. The good thing is that trademark lawyers know their stuff and should be able to do a trademark search fairly easily to let you know if there is any reason for concern. Once you get that green light from your legal help, then you can proudly launch that name as your business knowing you covered your bases. The Controversial Punishment of the Death Penalty In the day in day out creation and enforcement of laws by our government and law enforcement officials, it is a common occurrence for an issue to come up that is layered with emotional and moral questions. At the legislative level even today, our government is wrestling with issues involving cloning and stem cell research and trying to find a middle ground between the ethical, moral and religious issues versus the scientific benefit that might come from the practice. One of the great debates has been ongoing in American society over it's history has been over whether it is moral and right to use the death penalty as a punishment for heinous crimes. Whether one is for abolishing this form of punishment or on the side of using it as a just outcome for a criminal, there is no question that the issue itself is a difficult one to decide. The arguments for or against the death penalty are often not offered from a legal point of view. The positions taken by those both for and against the law fall under a few general classifications: * The argument from morality against the death penalty. That it is immoral for a just society to take a life, even if it is of a criminal who themselves have taken life. * The argument from morality for the death penalty. That it is just for the life of one convicted of a heinous crime to lose their lives as a proper outcome of that crime. That certain crimes should always be defined as so grievous that the one committing this crime must not continue to live and that it is the responsibility of the legal system to remove such individuals from society via the death penalty. * The argument that the death penalty does or does not constitute cruel or unusual punishment. * The argument that God calls for the death of the murderer under the "and eye for an eye" statute from the Hebrew Old Testament. * The argument that God calls for the forgiveness of even the murderer as part of the theology of the Christian New Testament. * The argument from economy that it costs less to execute a criminal than to keep him or her in prison for life. * The argument that the most heinous criminal could be rehabilitated to become a productive member of society. * The argument from revenge, that the family of victims of heinous crimes deserve to see the killers of their loved ones executed. * The argument from closure that for those same families and for society, seeing the death of a heinous criminal aids in the grief process by providing closure when we see the guilty properly punished. It is easy to see why this issue is so emotionally charged and continues to be one of debate and dialog both at the governmental level and in political and religious circles. It really isn't rational to consider a law or the attempt by lawmakers to frame this issue into legislation as moral or immoral. In our representative form of government, those who would make laws have clear cut guidelines on how they will decide what will or will not become the law of the land. The top level criteria for what becomes a law in this country is the will of the people. This can be difficult to determine especially in an issue that has fervent believers on both sides. The will of the people is not the sole criteria for a law as the electorate may not be aware of the legal grounds for a law or of the precedent in legal systems that were the background for our system of government. Again, reasons can be found in legal precedent that could be used to justify the legalization of the death penalty or the banning of it. Finally law makers will turn to the consideration of the efficiency of a system of justice and in doing so try to determine if the death penalty is effective. There are almost as many studies to show that the death penalty does not reduce crime as show the opposite. It is similarly difficult to prove the executing criminals saves money compared to life in prison. But no matter what side of the issue we come down on, there is no question that this will be an ongoing debate in society for decades to come. That Puzzle They Call Medicare Law We depend on the government to pass laws that are good for the people of this great country. And many laws that get passed do a great job of that. But one requirement of a law to be of any benefit to people is that we, the people, must be able to understand it. When it comes to this vast legal system called "Medicare", the best way we can compliment the work of our government in making it understandable is, "Well, their hearts are in the right place." Medicare is a system that was designed to help the elderly with their medical bills at a time of life when that help is needed the most. So, all cynicism aside, it is a system of laws that obeys that edit of seeing the government try to do the best for the people it serves. But many of us find Medicare confusing. And when laws are confusing, it is easy to think that this was done on purpose to keep people from taking advantage of the system. In the case of Medicare, it is more likely that the system become complex because the medical system is itself complex due to the large amount of needs people have, especially in their senior years and the vast amount of options that the medical community puts at their disposal. One good innovation that the government made standard in Medicare is that every citizen is automatically eligible as soon as they reach retirement age. There is no questioning on who qualifies because if you meet the requirement of citizenship, you have a chance to participate in the program. If we are seeking to simplify Medicare, we would have to first divide into three parts so we can separate what each part does and how it benefits the people it serves. The first part of Medicare kicks in to cover hospital expenses in case there is need for that level of care. Medicare covers a wide range of services that you might need during hospitalization including room and meals, nursing and other hospital services that are needed during your time in the hospital. But the hospitalization benefit doesn't end when you drive away from the building. Medicare also covers home health services you might need during recuperation as well as equipment such as wheelchairs and in home needs of the disabled and hospice services for care during end of life situations. Millions have benefited from this part of Medicare's coverage so by itself it may justify the existence of Medicare. You may have noticed that the first part of Medicare did not cover the actual medical costs of the care you receive. Part B of Medicare kicks in to help out with those costs. Under this second area of Medicare, doctors bills are covered as well medical procedures needed during your hospital stay, medicine, ambulance care if that is needed and even physical therapy the doctor may prescribe to aid in your recovery. Again, this aspect of Medicare has benefited millions of the citizens and it often very much needed for the elderly struggling with health issues. For a long time all Medicare coverage fit into one of these two categories. But there has been significant work done on Medicare law of late. So in 2006, a third category was introduced to deal with the cost of prescription drugs. This is a good step forward giving Medicare recipients more choices in what drugs they need and who they will get them from. There is little doubt that Medicare will continue to be updated and improved to serve the needs of the elderly population. Hopefully we will always be able to say that lawmakers have their hearts in the right place and that they are making laws that we can use and that we can understand as well. Term Limits Pro and Con When America young, if we could have put any sign on the shores of the country for any foreign government to read, it might have said "No Kings Allowed!" The conviction was strong that this new country would never be a place where royalty dominated the people and were held up for worship as was the abuse in so many countries our forefathers came here to escape. So many of the protections that were put in place in our founding documents were put there to assure that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to become king in this country. No matter how much power a politician or legislative body were able to amass, our system of government made sure that no one party, person or special interest group would be able to hold power forever and that no one could take over the government, stage a coup and change America into a tyrannical monarchy like we had left behind in Europe. The separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judicial is one of the protections we have in place to make sure no single part of the government can arrest total power from the other two. And while this separation has lead to plenty of friction and battles between the branches of government, that is exactly the way it should be. Better to fight it out and have a government of shared power than to have one branch make all the decisions and rule like a king. Just as important to the preservation of our unique governmental system is the use of term limits to restrict the extent to which a politician can "take up residence" in a political office. We are most aware of term limits at the presidential level where we do not allow any one president to serve more than two terms. To some, that should be cut back to one term per president. But the term limit system will probably remain as it is for a long time to come. This issue can generate a considerable amount of emotional debate. And of course, in a free society political debate is healthy too. How you feel about presidential term limits may have more to do with how much you do or don't like the current president. If you like him (or her) a great deal, you would probably cheer for the abolition of term limits entirely. And if you oppose the current occupant of the white house, just one term is probably too much. There are some compelling reasons on both side of the argument. We do trade away a certain amount of experience when we require by law that our current leadership retire after eight years. Each time a new president settles in to the white house, there is a time of learning while that new leadership gets organized and learns how to do this unusual job. Some would argue that forcing leadership from office may be undemocratic because it denies the people the right to return a president to office if he (or she) is doing a good job and should continue in leadership. One visible downside of term limits is that when a politician is in their last term, there is a time of "lame duck" leadership because that leader no longer has to work hard to win another election. That leader could become reckless and not provide the quality of service to the country that we expect from our leadership. But our founding fathers wisely believed in the concept of citizen leadership. Their original vision for the presidency would be that a citizen would go to Washington and serve in the office for a season and then quietly return to private practice to let another citizen lead for a while. While our approach to ex-presidents doesn't exactly fit that mold, our system is faithful to that vision. Term limits keeps a constant flow of fresh leadership coming in. Some would say we should tighten term limits at the congressional and maybe even the judicial level. And there are merits to arguments on both sides of that issue. But we can say with assurance that term limits and the other provisions the founding founders put in place have kept our approach to government true to their vision of how this country would be run. And that means "No Kings Allowed!" Tapping a Vast Resource through National Service In 1994 there was a government agency created that didn't create a lot of scandal and to a large extent went unnoticed. But this government agency has made a huge contribution to the quality of life for all who get involved with it. It is the agency called Americorps created by the Clinton Administration to replicate the success of the Peace Corps to tap the power of national service to aid those in need across America. There has been a lot of talk in the last decade about whether the current generation of young people are as "great" as the generation who fought valiantly in World War II. What the Americorps experiment set out to learn was whether the current generation was as lazy and unpatriotic as was being said in the tabloids or if the current generation, given the chance, could themselves be the "greatest generation" for our times. The results have been phenomenal. Hundreds of thousands of young people have come forward to volunteer to serve their country and their fellow citizens through national service. National service is a concept that at one time was a core value to all Americans. At one time, children were taught that upon graduation from High School, every young person owed it to their country to serve at least two years of national service before starting family or their new careers. What the Americorps experiment found out is that this value has not vanished from the American consciousness. Thousands of young people have flooded to Americorps in such numbers that there is a waiting list to get the chance to be of service. President Clinton's vision to create an agency that would attempt to replicate the success of the Peace Corps of the sixties set a high standard for quality for Americorps to reach. The Peace Corps has become a standard that we all look to of an agency devoted singularly to contributing to the well being of our fellow man around the world and tapping the energy and good will of youth to accomplish this high goal. The stories of lives that have been changed of both those being helped and of volunteers to the Peace Corps are legionary. What few know is that since 1961, 160,000 people have served in the Peace Corps. By comparison, since its inception in 1996, more than 200,000 have served in Americorps in hundreds of different capacities. Americorps has surpassed the model for a great example of national service and it has done so quietly, without fanfare and without the recognition that it deserves. It is easy to recognize the good being done by a service based on the tapping the power of volunteerism in the nation's youth. We have seen some dramatic examples of how Americans will pour out their service, their hard work, their physical resources and even their money to help their fellow Americans in times of need. Out of some of the most devastating events of our nation's history such as the 911 attacks and the horror of Hurricane Katrina, we have witnessed some of the most touching moments of human compassion and social consciousness as neighbor reached out to neighbor to help those affected by terrible tragedy. But it isn't just the victims that are helped by services such as Americorps. Maybe the ones more blessed are the volunteers. They say that you get back far more than you give when you volunteer. The testimonies of those who have given some of their time to national service are solid proof of that theory. Young people in their late teens and early twenties are just beginning to define who they are and what they will become. By having some months or a few years where their lives are dedicated to helping others will instill a long-term commitment to service, to thinking of others rather than themselves and to patriotism. The patriotism that takes root in our young people form their time in national service is not just the flag waving, song singing kind we see on display on July 4th. It is a patriotism that we saw in World War II in our soldiers and in our forefathers that gave all to make the country great. If national service can instill that kind of patriotism in our youth, we have no worries that America will not continue to be great for many decades to come. Protecting Our Kids Online The internet has sometimes been compared to the wild, wild west. Part of the reason for that is because in those early days of the frontier, the law was in place to protect citizens of the land but in many cases, it was hard to enforce and criminals ran free to defy laws without fear of being stopped. When it comes to protecting our kids who go online, in a lot of ways it is the wild west out there. Are there laws on the books to protect our children from being assaulted by internet criminals who would do them harm? Of course there are. But enforcing those laws and catching every bad person who your child might encounter out there in cyberspace is a task that law enforcement is working hard to conquer. But they have not conquered it yet. So cyberspace is in many ways, an untamed frontier. While we don't want to go to the days of the wild west where vigilantes roamed the land enforcing brutal justice on criminals, we have to do something. The stories we hear on television and read in the newspapers about children being seduced and abducted right out from under the noses of parents are deeply frightening. This may be the most troubling thing about cyber criminals who would harm our children. Because the internet is in our homes and even now spreading to the phones and electronic devices of our children, the access of strangers to our kids is virtually unlimited. Kids can get into chat rooms, use social networking services like MySpace and view all kinds of filth online all while mom and dad are just a few yards away watching the news. Because of this unprecedented access, new strategies have to be developed for law enforcement to protect our kids but also so we can partner with them to stop these evil people who would use this wonderful tool of the internet for evil purposes. At a public level, we want to give our police and law enforcement officials all the help we can to crack down on cyber stalkers so the word goes out to such criminals that it is possible to be caught stalking children and if you are caught, it will be a harsh penalty for this kind of crime. Some have even called for the death penalty for people who stalk children online. How severe we as a society wish to treat crimes of this nature is something for our leaders to help us work through. But our first line of defense is enabling those we trust to protect us to find and lock up these criminals so these crimes can be stopped. But at this time, we cannot expect law enforcement to be able to stop anyone from approach our children online. So we as parents share in the responsibility of making sure our homes are secure. Just as we put locks on the doors even though police are there to stop intruders, we must secure the internet so the chances of our kids becoming victims is minimized. The three strongest locks we can use to protect our families online are: * Software. We can put software on our computers that will keep our kids out of web sites where these criminals may lurk. These "Net Nanny" programs are inexpensive and effective. * Knowledge. We must teach our children not to talk to strangers online any more than they would in a public place. Cyber stalkers are clever so we must be sure our children understand the risk and do not engage anyone they don't know and trust online. * Communication. Keeping the lines of communication open with our kids will assure that if they suspect they are being approached by a cyber stalker, they can come to their parents who can then alert the authorities. It's a shared effort to stop these criminals from having access to our children. But by working together with law enforcement and keeping those lines of communication open with our own kids, we can shut down their access to our children and so frustrate their ability to commit crimes against those we love the most. Is It Worth it to File a Malpractice Claim? When you are injured, getting a legal claim filed is not always the first thing on your mind. But this is one area that it seems the lawyers descend like vultures on anyone who is injured in any way at all. This is one way that the legal profession gets such a bad reputation. Seeing all of those "ambulance chasers" and lawyers trying to talk us into filing malpractice claims on television is not a dignified way to portray any profession. This whole area of malpractice can be pretty confusing to those of us outside of both the legal and the medical professions. But in a strict sense of the word, it may be something looking into if there is a clear case where a doctor either did not do their job or did it so poorly that it caused you additional pain and suffering or injury. In that kind of situation, you may incur lots of additional medical expenses getting qualified help from an injury caused by a doctor who just didn't do his or her job right. So it seems only right that the malpractice laws would be there to protect us from being victimized by doctors who were not doing their best to make you better. The problem is, when it comes to using the malpractice laws to seek some satisfaction for a bad medical situation, it can get quite confusing. The first thing that might help get some definition of what constitutes malpractice is to understand the categories. There are five general types of medical error or "malfeasance" that can throw your case into the category of malpractice. It might be malpractice: * If the doctor is not able to diagnose your illness or does so incorrectly. * If the doctor or medical facility is too slow in providing medical care resulting in further medical problems for you. * If the doctor fails to perform a medical procedure that is what you need to recover from injury or illness. * If mistakes were made in prescribing the right medication or prescribing medication that is harmful to you. * If the doctor fails to explain what needs to be done or is negligent in warning you of negative side effects of your treatment. If you have suffered any kind of negative outcome that is directly related to your medical treatment on top of your original problem, it's not too hard to fit what happened to you into this category. If you are a genuine victim of medical malpractice, identifying that is not always the most difficult part of the problem though. The most difficult part may be deciding what to do about it. This is where that "ambulance chaser" aspect of the legal profession can be as much trouble as they can be of help. To make a decision about whether the potential outcome of a malpractice suit is worth the effort, you need a nonbiased viewpoint and advice based on the extent of your grievance and injury and how much you need the resolution to continue your recovery. When a lawyer or law firm pursues you so relentlessly to get a malpractice lawsuit going or they advertise to get that kind of business, you get the idea they are not looking after your best interest but their own. Whatever they try to tell you, malpractice legal actions are not as easy to win as they might seem. There is a lot of burden or proof. So if you feel you have a case, the best thing is to work with legal advisors whom you trust and know they are not going to guide you to an action that is not in your best interest. Sometimes just using that lawyer to negotiate a resolution with the doctor is the best way to go. Government Records at our Fingertips Few know that the internet was actually started as a government project. It was created by the department of defense as a way of protecting our government's infrastructure by decentralizing the computing power to many computers rather than one. But there is no question that the government has benefited from the move toward electronic records. Over the last decade, the government has made great strides in putting virtually all of our public records into electronic data bases. While not all of them can be accessed freely due to privacy issues, many of them can be searched by citizens which has introduced an era of open access to public documents that was unimaginable before. The variety of types of public records that are either fully available or are in the process of being converted to online access is amazing including: * Marriage records * Birth records * Death records * Sex offender records * Court records * Bankruptcy records * Missing persons records * Census records * Credit information These extensive databases provide a tremendous resource to the public for a large variety of information needs. For a business, it speeds up the process of validating information about a potential employees. Before we had online access, just confirming that a prospective employee is a legal resident, that his or her background information check out and to confirm that they don't have a criminal record took an excessive amount of time and effort. It was so cumbersome that most employers didn't take those steps which could easily lead to an employment mistake. The government record that has gotten the most public attention of late is the National Sex Offender Registry. Because sex offenders live under restrictions as to where they can live, work and socialize even after they have served prison time, many people watch these records closely to assure that they don't expose their children to risks if a sex offender were allowed to move into their neighborhood or into an apartment complex near the school. The balance of the public's right to safety and the individual's right to privacy come into direct conflict with the public release of this kind of information that is on file with government records. While it will take some wise leadership for us to sort that one out, the availability of this much detailed data does make it possible for the public to stay better informed. The census is a rich source of information, particularly to businesses looking to expand or for a new venture that is writing a business plan. The census provides detailed information about population shifts, concentration of population in certain cities and even in zones of particular cities that can be invaluable to a business looking to locate a service or retail outlet where the potential customer base has convenient access to those services. Census data can provide a framework for evaluating the wisdom of a potential business strategy. The first step in making this vast data resource part of your research tools is to educate yourself in both what is available from the government records and how to access such records. There are commercial internet resources that will provide search tools to sifting through the huge amount of data available from the government such as http://www.government-records.com/. While these sources charge for the help they provide, that help may be just the thing you need to make the chore of learning how to use government records less difficult. Google also provides a good search tool for finding information from government records. To access it, just click on "Advanced Search" from the main Google home page. Scroll down to the bottom of that next page and you will see a link titled U.S. Government. That link will provide you with a search engine, driven by Google's powerful search capabilities that will help you find what you need. We can expect to see this resource expanded and made even more accessible in the years to come as the government's drive to become automated continues. It is economical for the government, which saves tax dollars. Moreover, it places the vast information the government gathers at the fingertips of the public. And this is appropriate as it is the public that pays for government data gathering in the first place. Free Money from the Government There is a humorous commercial that is shown from time to time in which a rather funny character does his pitch wearing a suit that is covered with question marks and dollar signs. The man is pretty funny looking in his own right. But the upshot of the pitch is that you can buy a book from him that will tell you how to get "free money from the government". Of course, the book itself is not free and the chances are that the business and/or the pitchman make their living from selling that book and not from free money from anyone. But the reason that advertisement is appealing is that we have an urban myth that the government is overflowing with money that it is looking to give away if we can just know how to punch the right buttons. This is the mystique of the system more formally known as government grants. When you do your homework, it turns out that the truth about government grants reveals a much different situation than the windfall of funds that they funny man in the question mark suit might lead us to believe. Now, it's true that the federal government does issue dozens and dozens of grants for research and other community related causes each year. Many of these grants are used to help small businesses get off the ground that might otherwise flounder. This is one of our government's methods of leveling the playing field in the business world to give the little guy a chance to get started. But it is also a way for the government to get funds to worthy nonprofit efforts that have a mission statement that benefits the community or the culture at large. Another insider's trick that the man in the question mark suit doesn't want you to know is that you can find out all you could ever want to know about government grants for free. The government wants you to know about these funds so they can find the most qualified businesses or nonprofit charities to help out. You can go directly to the government web site on grants and use their search engine. Use the .gov domain search tool on Google and you will find ample resources to guide you. Another great resource on the web is the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance which has the tools to find grants by topic and by your area of expertise, The misconception that we get in our heads is that because these are "grants", there is no work to getting or using this governmental money. The process of applying for and competing to win a government grant can be just as much work as any job and perhaps even more frustrating because you are in competition with others for limited resources. Just as some people win at getting government grants, other people are not granted the money they seek. This is a part of the gamble of going after a government grant that you must reconcile yourself to before even you start the process. Be prepared to be patient, learn about the steps and give each stage in the development of your application for the grant plenty of time and tender loving care. You will have to gain a good comprehension of the myriad of government agencies to find the one who would be most likely to look at you for a grant. The process of filling out the grant paperwork and submitting your proposal is a discipline in its own right that you may even have to seek professional help to do well. But if you do well, use plenty of patience and your project is worthwhile, there is government out there to help you. You just have to take the time to learn how to go after it. The TVA We live in a time when there is a lot of debate on how the government might take measures to assure reliable and affordable resources of power, particularly in light of our ongoing gas crisis. We also live in a time when we are trying to find our way as to our role in conservation and the proper way to handle the natural world so we can live "green" and not damage the environment. Thirdly, we live in a time of remarkable natural disasters such as devastating hurricanes, fires and floods. All of these symptoms remind us of another time in our history when a certain area of the country was clearly a candidate for some form of government program to address all of these problems. This area is called the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama. The area that was under particular study was known as Muscle Shoals because of a dramatic drop in elevation of the Tennessee river drops 140 feet in just under 30 miles which creates a series of dramatic and violent rapids and waterfalls that locals came to refer to as the "Muscle Shoals". It is an area so well known that it was celebrated in the well known song Sweet Home Alabama with the verse: "Now Muscle Shoals has got the swampers. And they've been known to pick a song or two. Lord they get me off so much. They pick me up when I'm feeling blue. Now how about you?" As beautiful and exciting as the shoals were, they did create a number of problems that was causing disruption to the local population and holding back progress. This was an area that was highly susceptible to flooding due to the shoals. Moreover, the uncontrolled water flow made navigation of this segment of the Tennessee River virtually impossible which hindered commerce. So the federal government organized a project to place strategic dams along the Tennessee River and implement other improvements to tame the shoals and create economic opportunity. The project that was named the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA was highly controversial because then, as now, people were highly resistant to government interference and big government projects, particularly those that altered the lifestyle of an entire region of the country. The project was launched with the purchase of the land in 1913. However, because of the opposition to allowing the federal government in to deal with local issues, the project floundered for decades. Finally President Roosevelt got the program moving with the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933. This was a remarkably well rounded piece of legislation that addressed environmental, economic, conservation and even defense concerns, all of which would be incorporated into the TVA plan. What was unique in the Tennessee Valley Act that was uncommon in most government legislation was the directive that the TVA would set a high priority on improving both the economic life and the quality of life of residents of all areas affected by the project. But the transition that was necessary to achieve the goals of the TVA program was traumatic to the area. In some areas residents had to be relocated as lands were flooded during dam construction. The image of big brother coming in and destroying the lifestyle of regular Americans was a haunting concept that brought tremendous backlash against the project. But in an unusual demonstration of determination and courage, program administrators persevered. The result is that today the Tennessee Valley is prosperous and vibrant. The TVA program of reforestation and conservation has resulted in the integration of hydroelectric and nuclear power plants with the local environment. The floods have stopped and the area economy has gone through a boom because the TVA program has become one of the largest electricity generation projects in history. The story of the TVA is a success story for a government program that was unusual because its whole purpose was to improve the lives of Americans and to put an end to devastating natural disasters before they occurred. It showed foresight, planning, concern for citizenry, an awareness of conservation issues and the courage of conviction that is absent in government in modern times. As such the TVA stands as an example we should look back on as a time when government stood for something and followed through when the going got tough. It is a lesson to us all on how things should work when our political system works correctly. The Quiet Heroes -- The Corps of Engineers Many governmental agencies and organizations get a lot of notice, both positive and negative. When the tragedy at Waco occurred several years ago in which the ATF worked to save the lives of so many innocents trapped in the Branch Dividian compound, the ATF took a lot of criticism when that episode ended badly. And yet it is the ATF that works so tirelessly to assure that we can be a nation that enjoys the rights we do but do so safely and within the laws. FEMA the FBI, CIA, The IRS, Congress, The Supreme Court and of course, the Presidency all get lots of public attention, both bad and good because what they do touch the lives of all Americans routinely. But one small agency that works under the Department of the Army has a tremendous influence on the quality of life for all Americans. And yet it goes about its good business quietly as quiet heroes. That agency is the Corps of Engineers. Most of us think of the Corps of Engineers in regard to the phenomenal works that were accomplished In the building of the many massive dam projects and other public works that do so much to control natural resources both to protect communities against natural disaster such as flooding or hurricanes and to exploit the natural environment such the drawing of energy from the natural elements such as the waters with dams. But few of us know the details about how much the Corps of Engineers do for the citizens of this country. The Corps of Engineers is actually known as The United States Army Corps of Engineers or the USACE for short. The USACE employs over 34,000 civilians and approximately 650 from military personnel to pursue a three-pronged mission which is to: * Plan, build, operate, maintain and upgrade dams and other civil engineering projects for the public good. * Build and take care of all military instillations for the Army and the Air Force. * Be of service to all defense and other federal agencies when there is a need for design or management of construction projects. You probably associate the Corps of Engineers with some of the big public works projects that were done during the great depression or the building of such huge dams as the Hoover Dam. But the Corps of Engineers actually dates back to the early days of the life of this country. In 1775, the first congressional order that evolved into the Corps of Engineers came when the Continental Congress gave authorization for the building of the Bunker Hill fortifications near Boston. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson formally created the Corps of Engineers when they were given the assignment of building the nation's first military academy at West Point which the Corps of Engineers also operated and headquartered out of until 1866. In addition to West Point and the dam projects we already know the Corps of Engineers for, some of its other notable achievements are: * The original fortification of New Orleans after the war of 1812. * The planning and building of the Washington Monument in Washington DC in 1888. * The planning and building of the Pentagon. * Assistance with The Manhattan Project which did so much to bring World War II to an end. These quiet heroes have actually had a major role to play in virtually every important event or development in the history of the country. And to this day, we all depend on the Corps of Engineers to assist the government at the federal, state and local level to assure that construction projects are carried out correctly. They may not be the most dramatic agency we have, but they have been steady servants of the country for centuries and will continue to serve in that role for centuries to come.
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