Monday, April 21, 2014

WSJ opinion page is the hot spot for intellectuals who sell out to right-wing money

By Marc Jampole

Michael A. Carvin, Yaakov M. Roth and Michael Saltsman have a lot in common.  All three are highly educated and learned white males who work for professional services firms as knowledge workers dedicated to both written and unwritten sets of ethics and professional conduct. All three generally serve corporate clients with right-wing interests.  All have written articles that appeared on the same opinion page on the same day in the Wall Street Journal. Both of their articles (Carvin and Roth work as a team) propose public policies that while, disastrous for the country, would help their clients.

One more thing they have in common: Their articles depend upon fallacious reasoning.

Saltsman is no newcomer to the opinion pages of right-wing media. He is rapidly becoming notorious for his specious reasoning and empty rhetoric in a slew of articles arguing against the minimum wage. He identifies himself as research director at the Employment Policies Institute, but an on-line biography lists him as an employee of Richard Berman, whose public relations agency specializes in creating pseudo think tanks to spew out white papers favorable to his clients—generally large businesses.  But Carvin and Roth, both lawyers at the mega-enormous international law firm Jones Day, are new to the game of misrepresenting facts and using fallacious reasoning in the news media to support their client’s position. They may do it in the court room and during negotiations all the time—I’m not in a position to comment.

Let’s take a look at what these intellectual sell-outs are proposing:

In “Courts Should Stay Out of Political Fact-Checking,” Carvin and Roth want to declare unconstitutional all state laws that prohibit lying in political advertising; currently there are 15 states that make it a crime. Carvin and Roth, by the way, are part of the legal team that Jones Day has put together to represent the plaintiffs in the case before the Supreme Court that is considering the matter.  The client wants to invalidate laws prohibiting lying in political ads. 

Here’s the reason Carvin and Roth give for not wanting laws against lying in political ads: the voters and not judges should decide what is and is not a lie.  By letting the people decide, they of course mean by voting on Election Day.

There are three problems with this view:
·         The voters have no standing and are incapable of deciding if a commercial has told an out-and-out lie. They aren’t experts in gathering and weighing evidence.
·         People vote for certain candidates for a variety of reasons. A vote is not a mandate for whether an ad contained an overt lie. It is an endorsement of one candidate over another. I can imagine many scenarios in which someone might vote for someone whose campaign was caught is a lie.
·         There is no recourse, i.e., punishment when there is no law with penalties.

To Carvin and Roth every statement made in a political campaign is both true and untrue, depending upon what candidate you are supporting. But in the real world, many statements are incontrovertibly true and false. And when a candidate delivers provable falsities in an ad, that ad should be taken off the air and the campaign penalized. 

Right below the Carvin and Roth article on the printed page sits “Why Subway Doesn’t Serve a $14 Reuben Sandwich, “another hyperventilating screed from Saltsman against raising the minimum wage.  He thinks the economy will plummet if the minimum wage is raised so that it has the purchasing power that it once had. Over the past few decades, minimum wage workers have lost 40% of their purchasing power, while most goods and services had felt the effects of inflation.  The 40% rise in the minimum wage that President Obama is advocating is Saltsman’s “bĂȘte noire.” 

Near the end of the article he notes that a double cheeseburger at Shake Shack, which starts employees at more than the minimum wage, costs in excess of 40% more than a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder. He goes on to postulate that McDonald’s would lose a ton of customers if a higher minimum wage raised its starting salaries by 40%. 

There are two problems with this conflation of the Shake Shack and the McDonald’s version of the double cheese burger:

First of all, the two food products aren’t the same thing: Shake Shack uses hormone- and antibiotic-free meat which costs much more than the fatty, chemical-infused stuff McDonald’s processes. Other Shake Shack ingredients also cost more than those at McDonald’s, plus the preparation process is more staff-intensive. Finally, not only do people pay for the higher quality ingredients at Shake Shack, they also pay for the perception of quality, which is integral to the Shake Shack brand, just as the perception of cheapness is integral to the McDonald’s brand.  So you can’t compare the Shake Shack and McDonald’s products and say the only reason that one is so much more expensive than the other is because the workers make more money.

The second fallacious part of Saltsman’s reasoning is that he assumes that if the minimum wage went up 40%, MacDonald’s costs would go up 40%. Wages are only one part of cost to operate a McDonald’s franchise, which also includes rent, utilities, raw materials, payments to the corporation and marketing. Let’s not forget, too, that the price also includes profit to the franchisee. We know that labor constitutes 20% of franchisees’ cost of operation.  Even assuming that the franchisees make no profit, figuring in all these factors means that if labor costs went up 40%, the price of the double cheese burger would have to go from $3.99 to $4.31, which is 8%, not the 40% upon which Saltsman based his argument.

Seeing these two articles on the same page made me think of Julian Benda’s important 1927 essay, The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (Le Trahison des clercs in the original French) Benda argues that European intellectuals of the preceding hundred years often ceased to follow their professional dictates to reason dispassionately about political, economic and military matters, instead becoming apologists for nationalism, warmongering and racism. In going to any lengths to support the interests of their clients, Saltsman, Carvin and Roth have abandoned the principles of good reasoning, clear thought and factually based arguments that stand as the foundation stones of their professions. They are intellectuals who have betrayed the public. They have sold out to right-wing money.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sometimes a TV commercial is more entertaining than TV

By Marc Jampole

The latest version of the monster movie, Godzilla, will hit the screens sometime next month.

As a child, I used to love the cheesy Japanese Godzilla movies, but I gave up Godzilla about the same time that I picked up Catcher in the Rye and The Red and the Black.  I never go to monster, horror or sci fi movies, never read the books and channel surf away from a TV station as soon as I realize it’s playing programs of any of these related genres. I didn’t see the 2004 opus about the fantasy giant lizard that destroys Tokyo and I have no intention of seeing the latest retelling of the myth.

But I know it’s coming, thanks to perhaps the most creative and entertaining television commercial in years.

No, the commercial is not for the movie. It’s for the candy bar, Snickers. Mars, the company that manufactures Snickers, has entered into a marketing agreement to be the official candy bar of the movie.

Who knew that Godzilla ate candy?

The commercial starts with a montage of Godzilla having fun with his friends, all active and attractive twentysomething males. Godzilla flirts with a beautiful woman on the beach, it drives an all-terrain vehicle along the sand dunes, it hits a hard smash in a game of ping pong, it dances with a few girls at a house party. Godzilla is clearly the alpha male among his bunch of cool dudes.

The commercial cuts to two of Godzilla’s best buds, who hold the following conversation while gripping plastic cups of beer: First guy: “Godzilla’s actually pretty cool.”  Second guy: “Except when he’s hungry. Suddenly, we cut to scenes of Godzilla destroying a city. Someone unwraps a Snickers and tosses it to the giant lizard, who snatches the candy bar in its enormous jaws and smiles in appreciation. The action now cuts to Godzilla on jet skis, impressing all his buds with his form. We see Godzilla balanced gracefully on the jet skis, moving towards the camera, his left hand curled into a “thumbs up.”

You’d think the sugar high from eating a candy bar on an empty stomach would send the giant lizard into a hyperactive frenzy that would level not just Tokyo, but Yokohama, Osaka, Sapporo, Kobe and Kyoto as well. But not in a TV spot for a food product that its maker is shilling as the perfect way to keep up your energy. 

The final scene of jet-ski Godzilla as the hippest guy around dissolves into the sell lines:  “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry. Snickers satisfies,” followed by a reminder that the new Godzilla will be in the theaters soon.

The idea that Godzilla is a cool chick-magnet is hilarious. Also funny is the paradox of language that the commercial creates: Mars is saying that Godzilla is not himself when he’s hungry, but in fact he is himself when he’s hungry and destroying buildings with paw swipes; he transforms into a softer, nicer, different creature when fed something good and substantial, like Snickers. 
 
The pleasure derived from this very funny TV spot comes through the reference not just to the fictional character of Godzilla, but to the series of commercials that Mars has been airing for Snickers since 2010.  The series, unified by the slogan “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” shows men turning into different, less attractive people because they’re hungry. By gnawing on a Snickers, the men return to their true selves.  

So for example, a determined and focused football coach turns into Robin Williams doing one his crazy routines in which he imitates three or four characters within a few seconds, throwing off absurd statements in rapid fire succession. A Snickers turns him into a calm and focused coach again. In another spot, a guy at a party trying to connect with some girls turns into an angry, sadistic and out-of-control Joe Pesci (playing on his roles in Casino and Goodfellas).  Once he has a Snickers, he’s a charming guy, but one of the girls is now Don Rickles.  In another spot, a touch football player becomes Betty White. In England, it’s a guy in a locker room transformed into Joan Collins.  

These spots have one target market: young men. All the characters are men in groups. The situations are typically play times, like sports, parties or clubs. The solution to what’s ailing the main character—whether it’s prissiness, overly feminine behavior, confusion, incoherence or anger—comes from a male friend.  The point of view is male, and a little sexist, as several of the scenes objectify women into sex objects and in none are the women anything more than goals for conquest.

The message that the ads are trying to make is particularly pernicious:  that you can curb your hunger and return to normal by eating a candy bar with peanuts. The peanuts are good for you, to be sure, but the sugar sure isn’t. Most people would be better off having a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts or raisins, some raw vegetables or a piece of bread with chickpea spread for a snack. As the commercial suggests, it’s true that Snickers is convenient. You can carry one in your pocket or buy one almost anywhere that young men congregate. But it’s not healthy, which is the inference in returning to oneself or remaining one’s self.

But the fact that the commercial is built on a lie doesn’t prevent us from enjoying it. After all, how often do we enjoy plays or novels that glorify gangsters or, worse yet, kings and queens? (who represent the principle that some people are better than others and deserve more than others by virtue of their birth.)

So by all means, chuckle or snigger when you see Godzilla munching on a chocolate bar. Just don’t believe the message.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Obama fumbles opportunity to improve relations with Iran

By Marc Jampole

The Obama Administration made a big mistake denying a visa to Iran’s new ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi. The United States should be seeking to improve our relations with Iran so that they will cease development of nuclear weapons and help us seek peaceful ways to clean up the messes in Iraq, Syria and Israeli-occupied territories. Easing tensions throughout the Middle East would free U.S. military and economic resources to address the eroding situation in Ukraine.

But beyond these considerations of what Henry Kissinger would call “Realpolitik,” there’s the simple fact that the U.S. government is wrong to interfere in the affairs of another nation.

And for what? Who is Hamid Aboutalebi? Did he engage in acts of terror funded by Mafia-like shakedowns of merchants as Menachem Begin did? Did he work with Nazis during World War II as Anwar Sadat did?

What was the horrible thing that Aboutalebi did?

As a 22-year old, he served as translator for the group of students who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year before representatives of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan went behind the back of the duly-elected U.S. government to negotiate the illegal arms-for-hostages deal called the Iran-Contra Affair. All existing evidence points to the conclusion that Aboutalebi wasn’t even one of the core cadre of students who engineered the takeover, but was called in afterwards to provide a technical service—translation. Wikipedia reports that Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who helped to organize and lead the embassy takeover, has said  that Aboutalebi's involvement was peripheral. In Asghararzadeh’s words, “Calling him a hostage-taker is simply wrong.”  

Now put yourself in the shoes of an idealistic and highly educated 22-year-old who has conservative religious beliefs that shape your concept of democracy and representational government. Years before, a foreign power had helped this dictator overthrow your legally elected government. The dictator then installed a decades-long violent reign of terror against all citizens, but especially religious dissidents.  For decades, the foreign power provided financial and military support to prop up this dictator. Now that your country has finally overthrown this anti-religious monster, the foreign country is harboring him and not allowing your country to extradite him. It would be as if a foreign country refused to extradite Hitler to Germany or Israel.  You did not participate in the violent takeover but you are sympathetic to the cause of the hostage-takers. And they are not asking you to carry a gun, pistol whip someone, hold a hostage’s head under water or make them crawl naked through excrement—no, none of the real torture that took place in the Bush II torture gulag. No, all you have to do is use your extensive knowledge to communicate with the other side.

Now, I’m not condoning the 1979 hostage-taking, but I do understand why a group of Iranian young people thought they were justified in storming the U.S. embassy. 

The 444-day hostage ordeal embarrassed the United States and made us a bit of a laughing stock. But it did not harm the United States the way three decades of autocratic rule by Shah Mohammad Rezi Pahlavi ruined Iranian civil life.  In the vast scheme of things, it rates far below the 9/11 attacks, the illegal bombing of Cambodia,  the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians known as the Holodomor or the dropping of the atomic bomb on civilian targets.

We are currently engaged in a process of negotiations to reduce tensions with Iran. When two enemy countries become friends, each side must in a sense, “forgive and forget” the transgressions of the other side. We of course should never forget, nor should we really “forgive” bad behavior. But what we should and often do is to put the bad stuff aside and move on. Israel and Germany are allies. We are allies with Britain, Germany and Japan, all former enemies.  Part of the process of dissolving tensions is to let “bygones be bygones.” The idea is for Iran to deal with us in a friendly manner despite the fact that we helped to suppress the country for three decades and for us to deal with Iran in a friendly manner despite the fact they embarrassed us so many years ago.

But instead of letting the sleeping dog lie, instead of moving on, the United States prefers to put additional strain on our fragile relationship with Iran by making a big deal about something non-violent that Iran’s choice for UN ambassador did more than 30 years ago when he was a young man.

It makes no sense.