Thursday, February 16, 2012

New York Fashion Week and Westminster Dogs: lots of prancing in NYC this week

By Marc Jampole

It is one of those rare poetic coincidences that both the Westminster Dog Show and New York Fashion Week unfolded in the same week this year. Some might even call it proof of an intelligent, if satirical, design behind cultural history.

Imagine: while pedigree dogs bred and trained to an arbitrary standard are parading around one floor in Manhattan at the same time mostly overly thin and mostly female models with who knows what surgeries, maquillage and other enhancements applied to imitate another arbitrary standard are parading around another Manhattan floor.

The news media and television entertainment programming have dedicated extensive space and time to both these shows. Fashion plays into the greater universe of celebrity culture, since celebrities are often the ones who wear the newest fashions or sell fashions to the consumer. As celebrity culture has grown, so has interest in these fashion shows.

In the same way, the growth of interest in the Westminster Dog Show mirrors the growth in America’s interest in dogs and other pets, as witnessed by the growing number of new products for dogs that come out each year, the growth of spending on dogs, the growth of advertising of pet products and the growth in the use of dogs as a cultural icon in other commercials. Consider, for example, the TV ad in which someone is walking a dog when his button bursts from overeating. Or the one in which a dog drinks beer with his master. The one in which a woman tells her dog that she reacts to eating a cereal the way the pooch reacts to having its belly scratched. The list of dogs popping up in commercials for other products in recent years is endless.

What’s most interesting is that in the case of both the animals and the models , these living embodiments of perfect form prance gracefully in front of the adoring crowds not just for themselves, but to glorify a third party. In the case of the dogs, it’s their owners and trainers. In the case of the models, it’s the designers whose clothes adorn their bodies.

At least the dogs get to do tricks and demonstrate their intelligence. The models could readily be replaced by a future generation of robots that looked and moved as humans do.

In the real world, most people like seeing an attractive person in interesting or provocative dress in the street, even if they would never go to a fashion show. We don’t always feel so positively about dogs, which can be big and mean-looking, howling or whimpering viragos, dangerously left to wander without leash or not cleaned up after by the master.

It’s ironic then that in the world of shows, it’s the models who are getting into trouble with the neighbors. Like its Parisian version, the New York Fashion Show is a tent affair, erected in front of Lincoln Center in Damrosch Park. Residents are complaining that between setting up, operating and taking apart two Fashion Shows and a circus, the park is out of commission for 10 months out of every year. The New York Times reported yesterday that a group of residents and a group called NYC Park Advocates announced that they had sent a “cease and desist” letter to the city and to Lincoln Center demanding that Damrosch Park be returned to its proper use as a city park.

We could break every week down to a series of three to five cultural stories that represent the playing out of long-term trends in ideological indoctrination. This week, for example, to Fashion Week and the Westminster Dog Show we might add the death of Whitney Houston, the excitement created because a devoutly Christian professional basketball player of Chinese descent played six good games and the Republicans relenting on offsets to the continuation of the temporary cut in the Social Security tax.

Beneath these immediate stories lurk ideological imperatives: the culture of celebrity; the commoditization of emotion; the idea that the private sector solves all economic problems and government none. That two of these stories are shows that take place in New York merely suggests how much the mass culture of consumption now dominates the public marketplace of ideas.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

There are too many ways that employers can raid pension plans of workers

By Marc Jampole

An article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week depicted the various ways that employers can legally raid the pension fund of their employees and retirees.

The premise of the article, titled “Signs Your Pension Plan Is in Trouble,” was that even healthy pensions plans that are adequately funded can be in trouble.

The article doesn’t admit it, but all of the risks to healthy pension plans described in it come down to permitted but nefarious actions by employers, including:

  • The employer selects financial assumptions that make the plan look like a bigger burden than it really is and uses that as an excuse to freeze payouts or commitments.

  • The employer offers incentives for early retirement using the assets of the pension plan, which depletes the pension plan of funds to pay retirees.

  • If the employer either sells or spins off the operation, the new owner uses the assets of the plan to pay off its own underfunded obligations to its plans, thus putting the strong plan in trouble.

  • A religious or other nonprofit organization changes the status of its plan to a “church” plan, which exempts it from federal pension rules including the requirement to fund the plan.

The common theme in all these scenarios is that the employer legally takes money earmarked for paying the pensions of retirees and uses it for something else. It sounds a lot like what the rightwing wants to do with public pensions: cut them to pay for tax cuts.

The article basically mongers fear, but anyone reading the article who cares about fairness should feel outrage instead.

Every single one of these tricks should be illegal. Whether unionized or not, the employee accepts pension benefits in lieu of current salary. The money in the pension plans should be sealed off from other funds into which the employer dips to meet expenses, just like Social Security is sealed off from the rest of the federal government, with its own trust. Despite recent reform, pension laws still provide too little protection to both private and public employees.

When the mainstream media chatters about the retirement crisis in America, it usually points a finger at the profligate Baby Boomers, who spent most their earnings (and thus shored up the U.S. and world economies) and now don’t have enough saved for retirement. Perhaps more should be said about the profligate company executives who treated and continue to treat the assets of pension plans as their company’s private piggy bank.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In GOP’s alternative world, Social Security is part of overall budget and not in a special trust

By Marc Jampole

The banter between Republicans and Democrats on extending the temporary cut on the Social Security tax continues to take place in an alternative universe.

In the real world, cutting a program that is part of the budget doesn’t offset a temporary decrease in the Social Security tax, since Social Security is administered by a special trust which loans money to the federal government. A cut in the budget only cuts the amount of money the federal government has to borrow from Social Security. The government will eventually have to pay it all back, no matter what. That is, unless the rightwing has its way and the U.S. defaults on its financial obligation to repay the Social Security Trust Fund.

The original beauty of putting more money into consumers’ hands by cutting the Social Security tax rate temporarily was that as long as the federal government pays back what it owes the Social Security Administration, Social Security is safely financed for a long time, with no real problem until 2037 if current trends continue. The Obama Administration thus was able to pump money into the economy to fight the recession without hurting government finances because the money was coming from the fiscally strongest part of the government’s financial structure.

But in the Republican’s alternative world, Social Security is part of the budget and the Social Security taxes part of the revenues that the government collects to pay for its expenditures. This fiction, supported to a large degree by imprecision in the mainstream media, plays into two basic principles of the current right-wing:

  1. Make the tax system more regressive. Unlike income taxes, everyone pays the same rate for Social Security and there is a cap on the income assessed that rate, so treating it as just another tax makes the overall tax system more regressive.

  2. Destroy Social Security and replace it with a risky private pension system. If Social Security is considered part of the overall budget, then the program is in trouble, since the United States has been spending more than it takes in for years, thanks to Bush II’s decade-old “temporary” cuts for the wealthy and our senseless, costly and bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House Republicans have now retreated from their intransigent insistence that spending cuts in the budget must make up for the lost revenue to the Social Security Trust Fund from continuation of these temporary cuts through year’s end. They have clearly lost face with the Tea Party element, but to block the continuation of this temporary tax cut for virtually all workers would have lost them the election and taxing the wealthy to “compensate” for the extension would have angered their financial backers.

The Republicans may have lost the battle, but by no means did they lose the war. The months-long bickering over “funding the temporary Social Security tax cuts” did establish the false idea in the news media that Social Security is part of the overall budget. And while still strong, Social Security is financially weaker than it would be if it had the additional revenues represented by the temporary tax cut.

Another, more progressive, way to kick-start the stalled economy might have been to pump money into infrastructure improvements, alternative energy development and other job-creating programs and finance it by ending Bush II’s temporary income tax cuts to the wealthy. The Republicans have still prevented this option, despite the fact that surveys keep showing that voters wanted to raise taxes on the wealthy. So the loss of the one battle has enabled the Republicans to keep winning the war.

I want to close this post by recommending a blog called Stochastic Scientist, upon which I stumbled while responding to a tweet from the writer, Kathy Orlinsky. Stochastic Scientist covers scientific developments and offers a very pleasing and well-written mix of science news.

Monday, February 13, 2012

There are two types of right-wing extremists and both base their actions on faith, not reason

By Marc Jampole

“Tell me what you think makes a person right wing extremist.”

That’s the question posed to me on a personal tweet I received yesterday from someone names Silly Girl. Silly Girl describes herself as “pro-life” and a “Tea Party Patriot.”

Responding to Silly Girl’s question takes far more characters than Twitter’s limit. Twitter is great for sloganeering and enticing followers to link elsewhere. But it’s not a great venue for deep thought. So here’s my answer, for Silly Girl and the rest of the world:

There are currently two kinds of extreme right-wingers currently participating in the American marketplace of ideas:

  1. Social extremists

  2. Economic-political (econ-pol) extremists

Interesting enough, both types of right-wing extremist base their ideas on a faith that they believe overrides the lessons of science, history and rational thinking:

  • Social extremists have faith in religion, primarily Christianity, and refuse to believe the truth of science.

  • Econ-pol extremists have faith in the unencumbered free market to solve all problems and sort out wealth in a fair manner, even though both history and economic analysis reveal that the free market often works against the best interests of society.

By contrast, social and econ-pol extremists differ in their approach to social control. This difference is striking when we consider that many people such as Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and John Boehner are both social and economic conservatives:

  • Social extremists want to control actions of individuals, e.g., preventing abortions, birth control and gay marriage and forcing religion into the school and other public places.

  • Econ-pol extremists want to take all limitations from the actions of institutions, specifically businesses, so they can operate free of constraints such as labor, safety and environmental laws and regulations.

We can see this difference in the approach to control when we take a look at the major positions held by the two types of right-wing extremist. I think I have them all, but if I missed some of the major ideas of right-wing extremists, please let me know.

Basic beliefs of social right-wing extremists:

  1. Global warming is not occurring and the theory of evolution is wrong.

  2. Religion should be taught in the schools.

  3. Abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage and birth control are wrong.

  4. Homosexuality is a sin and a failing, not a natural occurrence in the population.

  5. It’s okay to discriminate against practitioners of Islam and/or religions other than Christianity.

Basic beliefs of econ-pol right-wing extremists:

  1. There should be no constraints on businesses, including constraints to promote fair wages, workplace or consumer safety or a clean environmental.

  2. The private sector can solve all problems and deliver all goods and services better than government.

  3. Private institutions should replace public ones, e.g. schools, roads, prisons and military services.

  4. Labor organizations should be made illegal and there should be no minimum wage or other employer mandates to compensate employees fairly.

  5. Taxes should not only be low but also regressive, meaning that the richer one is the less one’s relative tax burden should be.

  6. The military should engage to protect the private interests of large American multinational companies.

I label as extremists those who subscribe to either of these sets of beliefs for several reasons:

  • To believe in all of these ideas (as opposed to just one or two) defines extremism on the right.

  • Unwillingness to compromise characterizes both types of extremists, and is a trait associated with extremists of all varieties.

  • For the most part, these ideas are rejected by mainstream America. Most Americans support keeping abortion legal, although sometimes with limits. Most Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy. People overwhelmingly support birth control, the minimum wage and safety regulations.

  • Those views of the extreme rightwing that large amounts of other Americans share usually firmly contradict all scientific evidence, such as not believing in Darwinism or doubting the occurrence of global warming. Failure to believe truth is a sure sign of extremism, all else notwithstanding.

These two kinds of extremists really have nothing in common, except that they both tend to support views formed before the 18th century and both must exercise a great deal of faith to uphold their beliefs in light of sometimes overwhelming contradictory evidence. Social extremists tend to be less educated and live in the South or in rural communities; while some have money, as a group they are not wealthy. Econ-pol extremists tend to be wealthier than the average American and are not as defined by geography. In a sense, two unrelated groups have formed a partnership out of political convenience.

What is so odd about the current coalition of social and economic-political right-wingers constituting the Republican Party is that the policies of the econ-pols hurt a large majority of the social true believers, many of whom are poor, near poor or in the struggling, some would say drowning, middle class. And yet the social right-wingers continue to support the econ-pols. It’s a deal with the devil that is keeping much of America poor and driving much of middle class America towards poverty.