Thursday, March 29, 2012

Take a look around and everywhere you’ll see the benefits of government to businesses and people

By Marc Jampole

Yesterday I took a local Metro North train from White Plains, where I had been meeting with a client, back to Manhattan, where we’re staying for a few days. The train was crowded and along the way I saw people get on and off, riding from one Westchester County suburb to another. At the Fordham stop in the city, a bunch of college students boarded. I saw many like me carrying briefcases and dressed for the business world. Others were clearly bound for a cultural attraction or to do some shopping.

What I also saw was government providing low-cost transportation to people of all social classes and helping to address both traffic and environmental problems.

Along the way, we went over bridges and saw other bridges, filled with automobiles. We saw roads and when we could see streets, they were mostly clean. Government built those roads and bridges and maintains them.

In the evening, we took the government owned and operated clean and safe subway to Carnegie Hall to see Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony do a magnificent concert of 20th century classical music. In the program notes I discovered that Carnegie Hall presents a wide range of music and other cultural activities, something for everyone. The program also lists all the donors that have contributed at least $2,500 in the past year to what is perhaps America’s most famous concert hall. But it also tells us who owns and operates Carnegie Hall. Guess what! It’s the City of New York.

At the concert, we spoke briefly with an older woman whose clothing and jewelry told us that she is fairly well-off. This very pleasant and enthusiastic woman most assuredly receives her medical services at low cost through Medicare. She likely collects Social Security, as well.

Earlier that day I had lunch with a cousin who lives in the tiny Scarsdale suburb about one of her children who has a learning disability. The boy goes to a public school and gets special attention and classes. I also spoke on the phone and made plans to see another cousin, who is a magnificent school librarian, a real pro with a special charisma who knows how to engage children of all levels of development. And yes, she works at a New York City public school. And then I remembered what a great education I received from the New York City schools (until my family left in 10th grade), highlighted by the opportunity to attend Stuyvesant High School, a high school for the gifted with wonderful laboratories and other facilities.

Everywhere I looked I saw government making our lives better: protecting us, keeping our streets maintained and clean, taking us places, educating our children, making it possible for businesses to exist, keeping us healthy, providing a stable retirement program for all workers.

And it’s all threatened by more than 30 years of low taxes and cuts to government services, fueled by the political mentality that I call Reaganism. The two central beliefs of this mentality propose that individuals should only care about their own selfish interests and that the government is always bad (except for fighting wars). This regime of tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy and ultra-wealthy and underinvest in our civilization has led to a dire situation:
  • School budgets are being cut in New York and everywhere else. In many schools, art lessons, music education and other non-core classes have been slashed and classes are too large.
  • State governments are retreating from their long-term commitment to state supported universities and colleges. In the late 60s and early 70s, my tuition (paid for by a state of Wisconsin “Leadership and Need” scholarship) was $175 a semester to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus and learn from many inspiring scholars such as Davy Carozza, Corliss Philabaum and Ihab Hussan. Enough said there.
  • More than 30 years of inadequate investment and maintenance have left our infrastructure of roads and bridges in a sorry state. We’ve seen bridges crumble and potholes seemingly multiply like rabbits. Of course, when we let roads deteriorate because taxes are too low, individuals end up paying more on tires, brakes, gas and realignments.
  • In New York, mass transit cuts appear to be an irritant only, but in many other places such as Pittsburgh, transit cuts are hurting many people.

It’s no coincidence that residents of the New York City metropolitan area pay some of the highest tax rates in the country. They enjoy so many services.

Government is not perfect. Government comprises people, and people make mistakes. Large groups are sometimes slow to identify and react to new challenges, which can lead to an inefficient use of funds. Bureaucracies can be infuriating. Leaders can sometimes lead government entities down the wrong path, as with the Bush II wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or Truman’s decision to pursue nuclear-generated electricity instead of solar power in the early 50s.

It sounds just like every company for which I ever worked, all of my clients and my own small business.

And don’t believe the nonsense that raising taxes hurts the economy and leads to layoffs. As the estimable Eduardo Porter pointed out in The New York Times earlier this week, “a growing body of research suggests not only that the government could raise much more revenue by sharply raising the top tax rates paid by the richest Americans, but it could do so without slowing economic growth. Top tax rates could go as high as 80 percent or more.”

So the next time you consider voting for anyone who wants to maintain taxes or lower them still further, look around you and see what government does for you and the community in which you live and the economy that provides your income. Think about how much better things could be if government had the money to improve these services. And remember that the more money you make, the more valuable to you are the government services that make it possible. Now in my mind, when you get more, you pay more.

No class warfare here, just the realization that we’re all in this thing called the United States together and that everyone should give their fair share so that our society and all of us can thrive.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Anti-global warming professor may or may not know physics, but he sure knows propaganda

By Marc Jampole

William Happer, a physicist at Princeton who specializes in optics and spectroscopy (study of wavelengths), authored an anti-global warming screed in this morning’s Wall Street Journal which could serve as a primer for propaganda techniques. The article pretends to prove the veracity of its title “Global Warming Models are Wrong Again,” but careful analysis reveals his arguments are built more on rhetorical tricks than on facts.

Whatever the quality of Happer’s scientific research, he is a superb propagandist. But when we pick apart some of the statements and assertions that Happer makes in this hapless article, we find he primarily uses propaganda techniques and not facts or logic to make his case. In the bullets below, Happer’s quotes are in italics:
  • “What is happening to global temperatures in reality? The answer is: almost nothing for more than 10 years.” What Happer does is take a meaningless slice of time for climate change. If he looked at 200 years of data, he would see that the world is getting warmer. Making the last 10 years as the length of time in which to measure global warming uses a technique I call FRAMING, which occurs when you define a problem to get the answer you want.
  • “CO2 is not a pollutant. Life on earth flourished for hundreds of millions of years at much higher CO2 levels than we see today. Increasing CO2 levels will be a net benefit because cultivated plants grow better and are more resistant to drought at higher CO2 levels, and because warming and other supposedly harmful effects of CO2 have been greatly exaggerated. Nations with affordable energy from fossil fuels are more prosperous and healthy than those without.” Let’s forget the fact that the life that existed on earth with much higher levels of CO2 than today didn’t include humans or other large mammals. Let’s focus instead on the end of this paragraph, which is a NON SEQUITUR (which loosely means that it makes no sense or that A doesn’t really prove B): Although fossil fuels release CO2, that does not mean that you can disprove the theory that too much CO2 harms the Earth; it only means that cheap energy is necessary for nations to thrive.
  • “The direct warming due to doubling CO2 levels in the atmosphere can be calculated to cause a warming of about one degree Celsius. The IPCC computer models predict a much larger warming, three degrees Celsius or even more, because they assume changes in water vapor or clouds that supposedly amplify the direct warming from CO2. Many lines of observational evidence suggest that this "positive feedback" also has been greatly exaggerated. Note that Happer gives attribution for a computer model that predicts global warming, but does not tell which studies or computer simulations disproves it. He uses the passive construction to AVOID ATTRIBUTION. If he changed the passive “can be calculated to cause…” to an active tense, “XYZ calculates,” grammar would force him to tell us who did the calculations. “Many lines of observational evidence…,” begs the question, “Which lines?” and also avoids telling us who is following, making or observing these “lines.” If you believe in this research, sir, tell us who did it? But if Happer told us who did this so-called research he cites, we might find that it’s shoddy, has already been discounted, makes framing mistakes, was done by non-scientists or isn’t really research. We don’t really know unless Happer offers the citations.
  • “But there is no hard evidence this is true. After an unusually cold winter in 2011 (December 2010-February 2011) the winter of 2012 was unusually warm in the continental United States. But the winter of 2012 was bitter in Europe, Asia and Alaska.” Happer is ARGUING BY ANECDOTE. The argument by anecdote provides examples and assumes that we will extrapolate from those examples to the conclusion the writer or speaker wants us to draw. Happer talks about what has happened over the course of two years, when global warming is a process that has occurred over many decades; in this context, two years are only anecdotes, not statistically valid data.
  • “Nightly television pictures of the tragic destruction from tornadoes over the past months might make one wonder if the frequency of tornadoes is increasing, perhaps due to the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. But as one can read at Andrew Revkin's New York Times blog, dotearth, ‘There is no evidence of any trend in the number of potent tornadoes (category F2 and up) over the past 50 years in the United States, even as global temperatures have risen markedly.’” The sentences I quote are the beginning of a multi-paragraph argument in which Happer proves without a doubt that the number of tornadoes have not increased in the United States (he never mentions the rest of the world). He really takes apart those who believe that global warming has led to more tornadoes. But who is saying it? I googled “tornadoes global warming” and could only come up with articles in which experts say that there has not been an increase in tornadoes. I could come up with no article in which a scientist or a group has said that tornadoes have increased (except for a speculating weather personality or two trying to spice up coverage of a tornado). What Happer has done is set up a STRAW MAN, which means he creates an argument which is easy to destroy and then destroys it. And once again, he bases his argument on a NON SEQUITUR. He wants us to believe that just because there has not been an increase in tornadoes that there has been no global warming, nor damage from same. His reasoning is absurd, even if it builds on the idea that global warming will create more extreme weather. Extreme weather includes a lot more than tornadoes. I sense (but don’t know for a fact) that he selects tornadoes to discuss for precisely this reason, another example of FRAMING the argument to get the conclusion you want. Reduced to rhetorical principles, Happer frames the argument, then destroys a straw man, all so he can make a statement that’s a non sequitur.

Happer ends by invoking the sainted Richard Feynman on scientific research in general. He then closes with, “The most important component of climate science is careful, long-term observations of climate-related phenomena, from space, from land, and in the oceans. If observations do not support code predictions—like more extreme weather, or rapidly rising global temperatures—Feynman has told us what conclusions to draw about the theory.” If you only skim these last two paragraphs, you might come to the conclusion that Feynman, one of the most important physicists since Einstein, is against global warming. But all Feynman is saying is that science is based on facts.

Note that in this last paragraph, all Happer is really stating is that we should judge the theory of global warming on facts and if the facts aren’t there, the theory is wrong. His rhetoric avoids a direct statement about global warming. Some might call is a rhetorical flourish: the writer puts down the facts and we make the conclusion, a kind of 1+1=2 (or in the case of the implication that Happer wants us to draw, 1+1=3!).

But I think Happer is using this rhetorical device to avoid speaking directly, because he knows that the facts are against him.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Atheist march reminds that in our secular society there shouldn’t be polarization between believers and nonbelievers

By Marc Jampole

Yesterday’s rally of atheists, agnostics and others who don’t believe in religion had a flavor of liberation politics. The tone of the language reported across the country and around the world resembled the kind of pleas for recognition that people of color, gays, women, Hispanics, people with disabilities, Moslems and other groups seeking their rights in society have issued through the years.

Sample these comments by speakers:
  • “There are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists, secularists or agnostics,” said Richard Dawkins, the British scientist whose ventures into pop science have unfortunately led to his misleading anthropomorphizing of chemicals in the body (i.e., he attributes emotions and goals to genetic material).
  • “These are battles that homosexuals have won, people of color have won, women have won,” said Jamila Bey, who claims to have once lost a job when her boss learned she was an atheist.
  • “We have the numbers to be taken seriously,” said Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry, which promotes the scientific method and reasoning and helped organize the rally.
  • “Coming here makes me feel less alone,” said 13-year-old Catherine Williams, who attends a small conservative private school and is reported to have said that it can be uncomfortable because many of her classmates are vocal about their religious beliefs.

While discrimination against atheists for their beliefs may exist, lumping non-believers together as just another interest group may ultimately have a negative impact on achieving the goals that brought together the 20 groups and 15,000 people who rallied yesterday.

Here’s why: The social right-wing always pose religious issues as a battle between good and evil and the rest of the country hears it as a battle between two competing special interest groups, for example, women versus the Catholic Church. For both the right and the mainstream, religiously-tinged issues—contraception, abortion, gay marriage, crèches in public, religious groups in public schools and the teaching of evolution—are characterized as battles between two sides. Identifying a new special interest group—nonbelievers—intensifies this tendency towards polarization.

And yet the Constitution is clear: there should be an absolute separation of church and state and all individuals should have the right to practice his or her own religion, assuming it doesn’t break the basic laws of the land, e.g., mutilation of children or marrying more than one wife. By presenting themselves as an oppressed group, nonbelievers buy into the “us versus them” mentality created by the opposition of special interests. The media and society then both take it upon themselves to “balance the needs” of the competing groups, when in fact there should not be a competition or a balancing at all, since we are officially a secular country.

In short, by assuming the mantle of a special interest group, nonbelievers turn the story into a battle between atheists and the God-fearing. That plays right into the hands of social conservatives. The issue transforms from right-wingers against the Constitution into believers versus nonbelievers.

Instead of pleading for recognition as a group, the rally should have focused more on the key issues which I believe unite all those who don’t believe in religion:

  • National science standards that would insure that we teach science in science classes, while leaving religious theories such as intelligent design for elective comparative religion courses in high school.
  • National environmental, energy and other policies that are determined and implemented based on scientific studies.
  • Standards of conduct that would ensure that proselytization of one religion never again becomes the unofficial policy of a branch of the armed services as it did to a certain extent in the Air Force for years.

These policy issues, by the way, should unite atheists, agnostics and secularists with most Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Animists, Pantheists, Wiccans and all brands of Christians. In an open society all religious groups can thrive, as none are either oppressed or treated with any special deference. Let’s focus our efforts on keeping our society as open as it is and opening it more. We don’t do it by conceptualizing oppressed groups. That only helps the right-wing legitimize itself and feeds the news media’s predilection to polarize instead of analyze. Instead, I urge nonbelievers to put their energies into the issues.

I’m not saying that nonbelievers shouldn’t organize, only that they should organize around issues and thus avoid becoming the “counter-balance” to believers.