Friday, December 27, 2013

Supporting free speech is one thing, but “standing with Phil” signals homophobia, sexism & racism

By Marc Jampole

It’s one thing to support Phil Robertson’s constitutional right to free speech. It’s quite another thing to proclaim you “Stand with Phil,” which about 200,000 people have done in signing an electronic petition available at the Faith Driven Consumer website.

What saying that you stand with Phil means is that you agree with his frequently-expressed homophobic, racist and sexist views.  I wonder how many of the 200,000 people who signed the petition understand that they have now insulted and demeaned real people—work associates, people they see in the supermarket, friends of their children. It’s possible that a number of them are like Sarah Palin and didn’t even read the remarks, but still knee-jerked in support of a celebrity they like.

Faith Driven Consumers, by the way, is a membership organization that claims to represent the 15% of the population who it says wants to buy goods and services only from companies that actively support Christianity. The website posts reviews of businesses that analyze their commitment to the Christian faith. Under the fast food category, for example, the organization gives Chick-fil-A 4.5 stars for “leaning towards a Biblical (sic) view of the world” and McDonald’s 1.5 stars for “leaning against a Biblical view of the world.” Backyard Burger, whatever that is, earns 3 stars for a “mixed response.” 

Here is what Faith Driven Consumers says about McDonald’s: “While it is making efforts to encourage healthier eating and to assist families in crisis through its Ronald McDonald House philanthropy, we can’t reconcile its celebration of the homosexual agenda and its promotion of abortion services with a corporate focus on catering to children and families.

The agenda of Faith Driven Consumers sounds vaguely reminiscent of the 1930s, when the Nazis encourage Germans not to shop at Jewish stores. 

Perhaps more frightening than the exclusionary policies is the fact that there is no information about the leadership or backers on the website. I can find nothing on the Internet about the founder and spokesperson, someone named Chris Stone. Faith Driven Consumers is not a nonprofit organization, meaning that it makes money making its recommendations, just like Angie’s List. Joining costs nothing and I see no solicitation for money or place on the website to contribute money, so the website and organization must be getting surreptitious backing, but from where? That’s the scary part.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson made an interesting observation that the Duck Dynasty Dude is worse than the bus driver who hassled Rosa Parks because the driver at least was following state law. 

Phil Robertson thinks he’s following the law, too: his god’s law, which he believes forbids homosexuality and keeps women subservient to men.

Phil Robertson has his religion and Jesse Jackson has his, and in their hearts both believe that religious dictates supersede the laws of man.

But Jackson was talking not about the laws of god, which are subject to interpretation, but about the laws of man. Jackson is a leading figure in the civil disobedience movement, which is based on peacefully disobeying bad and immoral laws. His career has been built on confrontations with people who are just following orders. He understands that the man just has a job to do. 

By contrast, Phil Robertson goes out of his way to say hurtful and insensitive things about minority groups and then tries to hide behind his narrow and harsh version of Christianity. 

NY Times runs another Op/Ed column arguing science should not try to extend human lifespan

By Marc Jampole

The New York Times opinion page seems to be on a full-bore campaign against radical extension of human life.

For the second time in less than a month, the Times has decided that the voices in favor of not pursuing life extending technologies and therapies need to be heard.  Three weeks ago it was so-called bioethicist Daniel Callahan who questioned the value of extending human life much beyond the 78 years that the average American now enjoys.  Now the Times has found room for a column by Roger Cohen—a supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and defender of Rupert Murdoch—to make exactly the same argument that Callahan made.  

Like Callahan, Cohen depicts radical life extension not as a blessing and a sign of success as a species, but as a burden on society because of current limitations on both natural and medical resources and a lack of jobs in society.  Cohen is unable to exercise even an iota of imagination to conjure a world run by renewable resources in which there is fairer distribution of the rewards of work, people have fewer children and everyone regardless of age has access to education, food, medical care and adequate shelter. All he sees are the problems of taking care of the elderly instead of the great joy that life can provide at any age.

Cohen cites statistics that suggest that the 56% of Americans don’t want to undergo medical treatments to live to 120 or more. Of course the question is theoretical.  I know a lot of very active people in their 80’s and 90’s—some with pain or illness, some without, but not one of them is sitting around waiting for or longing for death.

At the end his article, Cohen waxes philosophical about the relationship between death and meaning. Like many before him, he claims that human life has no meaning without death. His exact words: “This resistance to the super-centenarian dream demonstrates good sense. Immortality — how tempting, how appalling! What a suffocating trick on the young! Death is feared, but it is death that makes time a living thing. Without it life becomes a featureless expanse. I fear death, up to a point, but would fear life without end far more.”

That’s fine for him, and I also know that many long for death because they believe in an afterlife that will be a better, happier place.

But for me, human life is the ultimate value and extending it and making it more comfortable is the greatest good. I for one would not be bored with a longer life, even with eternal life: I could study more about human history, human society, evolution and science. I could learn more languages.  I could visit more of the world—at a more leisurely pace than current junkets abroad since I would have more time. I might even travel in space. I love playing games and watching sports, but even more, I get a great sensual pleasure out of preparing food and eating. As for sex—even if I ever became unable to achieve an erection, I would still take immense joy in the many other pleasures we label as sexual.  Cohen says that death gives our lives meaning. I disagree: I think the knowledge we are going to die imbues all pleasure with melancholy or sadness. I’m not the first to express this belief—it was part of the philosophy of the ancient Roman and Greek Epicureans.

I love life and I don’t want anyone to take even a minute away from me.  The thought that humans keep extending our lives through the pursuit of knowledge keeps me from despair. The idea that the human species could survive the destruction of the earth when the sun burns out by transporting large numbers of people to another planet in another solar system sustains my hope.

But I also realize that we have to change our ways for humans to survive as a species and for us to attain radical life extension for all. It will take a more equitable distribution of wealth, a focus on renewable resources, replacement of the accumulation of material things as the ultimate goal of life, an end to expensive and destructive wars, the basing of community decisions on science and not on convenience or the best interests of a few—in short it will take a repudiation of our wasteful, materialistic, war-mongering society. That’s something that those advocating against life extension don’t seem willing to contemplate.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Amazon isn't the only outfit working on new delivery technology

Graphic by Kevin Kreneck

Small problem with Joseph Epstein’s complaint about meritocracy: where is it?

Every once in a while, a white male who has made his living as a “responsible conservative” or a conservative parading as a centrist produces an article bemoaning the fact that we are now ruled by a meritocracy. Through the years, George Will, Irving Kristol and William Buckley Jr. can count themselves among the many so-called public intellectuals who have bemoaned the coming of the meritocracy.

The latest is Joseph Epstein, a long-time equater of civic virtues with the rights of the privileged, in a Wall Street Journal article titled “The Late, Great American WASP.” Like most of predecessors, Epstein contrasts the current meritocracy with the former system in which the most powerful people were likely to be male, Protestant, of British descent, from wealthy and well-established families with many connections to business opportunities and attended an Ivy League school.  Epstein defines WASP as the ruling class that dominated politics, economics (by which I think he means business) and education until it was gradually replaced by a meritocracy starting after World War II. By putting a right-wing slant on carefully-selected anecdotes, Epstein hopes to prove that when WASPs ruled we muddled through pretty well and that now that we have a meritocracy, as witnessed by the Clinton and Obama presidencies, we are pretty much going to hell in a hand basket.

The problem is that we do not have a real meritocracy, and certainly not in politics, business or education. Epstein can’t make his argument without this assumption, which is patently false. 

In the days of WASP ascendancy, the most powerful people in most fields did go to an Ivy League or Ivy-type schools, and that’s still the case. If you don’t believe me, pick any field outside sports, even entertainment, and start investigating the backgrounds of the most powerful people in it. In all cases you’ll find an inordinate percentage and often a majority came from wealthy families or went to a top echelon school, be it Harvard, Yale, Duke or Stanford.

In the old days, mostly rich and well-connected kids—kids from the ruling elite—got to go to these handful of schools, and that’s still the case. As many researchers have noted, legacies get bigger breaks in admissions decisions at Ivy League schools than do athletes and minorities.  That’s what got our second president Bush into Yale (and his opponent in the 2000 election, Al Gore, too), a fact that Epstein ignores in substantiating his side argument that Bush II turned himself into a non-WASP.

There is a very good reason that so many kids who get into the top schools are wealthy: they have all the advantages. The latest research shows that kids from the poorest of backgrounds lose from 10-13 IQ points because they have to dedicate too much of their brains to thinking about their next meal. That point spread spans the difference between being a smart kid and a genius. The wealthy have an edge over the middle classes because they can afford to spend more in the ever-escalating race to prepare children: The more money the family makes, the more likely the child will get special classes, travel abroad, summer camps with intellectual enrichment, SAT tutors, SAT prep courses, educational consultants, subject tutors. The wealthy parents are more likely to make large contributions to the university. 

Take a look at the statistics: the U.S. currently has less mobility between the classes and less upward mobility than at any time in more than a century. The social mobility in today’s United States is lower than that of any other westernized industrial or post-industrial nation. Poor people move up to the middle or upper classes less frequently here than in any of the nations that had royalty and a rigid class system for centuries. 

Parts of our American society do operate as a meritocracy. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden all prove that the brightest and most talented do achieve positions of power. Harvard, Yale and Stanford do accept the “best and the brightest” alongside the merely good who come from money. But that was always the case when the WASPs ruled as well.   Even in the days of European royalty, even in the bad old slave days of ancient Rome, if you had a near photographic memory, could compute large sums instantaneously or displayed perfect musical pitch, the rich folk were going to find you and make sure you could help them run their society. That hasn’t changed one bit. But despite what you may have heard from your parents or may think about your own children, those extremely talented people are so rare as to be statistically irrelevant when discussing whether or not we have a meritocracy.

What has changed is that it’s not just the white males anymore in the positions of power. An increasingly ethnically and racially diverse ruling elite has emerged, but it is an elite based more on money and connections than on true merit.  

Epstein’s argument fails both in its logic and in its details. He calls Laura Bush a “middle class librarian.” It’s true that Laura’s profession was/is librarian, but I would not call her background middle class by any means: Her father was a home builder and successful real estate developer, two professions that lead to both wealth and power in the local economy. In his latest book, The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy, William Domhoff documents the enormous political influence that real estate interests have had on local and regional politics.  By the way, Laura’s maiden name was Welch and her mom’s was Hawkins. She was raised as Methodist. Sounds like an upper class (for Midlands, Texas society) WASP to me. 

Later in the article, Epstein claims that the two strongest presidents since 1950 are Truman, who never attended college, and Reagan, who went to the antithesis of Ivy—a small Christian college. Epstein states Truman and Reagan’s greatness matter-of-factly as if it’s common knowledge and readily accepted by most people. In the case of Reagan, believing that he was a great or a detestably awful president is a litmus test for political views: right-wingers and right-wingers-in-centrist-clothing rate him highly; progressives rate him as one of our worst presidents.  Now most people do rate Truman highly, but I personally consider him the worst president in American history by virtue of his having approved dropping two atom bombs on civilian targets. The larger point is that Epstein pretends that his own opinion is evidence that the meritocracy doesn’t work as well as the old WASPocracy did.

Articulate and well-bred conservatives railing against the so-called meritocracy reflect the broader anti-intellectualism that the ruling elite imposes on American society via the mass media.  But whereas the reason for the anti-intellectual message in movies and ads remains hidden, it stands out crystal clear in arguments such as Epstein’s: It’s about power. In a true meritocracy, the most talented are in charge in whatever the field, not the rich and connected. In even the least complex of agrarian societies, talent manifests itself as knowledge and the ability to accumulate and use knowledge.  Conservatives represent traditional society in which the wealthy rule. They fear a society in which the most capable for each job gets that job as opposed to keeping themselves and their offspring in the best and best-paying positions. So when the wealthy aren’t busy buying up the best and the brightest to do their bidding and justify their hold on power, they try to disparage intellectual activity.  

Thumbs up to A&E for suspending “Duck Dynasty” celebrity, thumbs down for ever creating the show

By Marc Jampole

When Sean Hannity, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin and other right-wingers come out in favor of freedom of the speech, you know that someone has just said something false, stupid and insulting about a group routinely demonized by ultra-conservatives.

In this case, these Christian right illuminati are standing up for a bearded and backward backwoodsman’s right to slur gays.  

The latest right-wing freedom fighter to speak his mind and stand up for religious values is Phil Robertson, one of the stars of “Duck Dynasty,” a reality show about a family business that sells duck calls and other duck hunting paraphernalia in the swampy backwoods of Louisiana.  The Robertson family thrives by displaying rural values and wearing their fundamental Christianity on both their overalls and their long, untamed beards.

Robertson’s outrageous views emerged in answer to this question by a GQ interviewer, “What, in your mind, is sinful?” Robertson’s response was not that growing inequality was sinful, not that chemical warfare was sinful, not that cutting food stamp benefits for children was sinful, not that herding people into camps was sinful, not that torture or bombing civilians were sinful, not that paying immigrants less than minimum wage was sinful, not that polluting our atmosphere and waterways was sinful.

No, in answering this softball of a question, none of these horrible sins came top of mind to Robertson. What did was male homosexuality: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men…It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”  Note that women never enter the picture except as preferred receptacle—it’s all about his antipathy to male homosexuality.

There can be no doubt that Robertson has the right to speak these ugly opinions. But shame on the public figures who have decided to select this particular instance to defend the right to free speech.  I suppose it’s easier for them to defend his right to speak than to defend his views, which they may or may not believe but certainly want certain voters to think they believe.

And there can be no doubt that A&E had the right to suspend Robertson. I’m delighted they did, but whether they should have or not is not that interesting a question, certainly not as interesting as considering whether A&E ever should have run the series in the first place. “Duck Dynasty” is the most popular reality TV show ever on cable TV.  Like all reality TV, storylines are scripted, so what we’re seeing is not reality, but a kind of cheaply-produced semi-fiction produced in a quasi-documentary style that lends a mantle of credibility to its insinuation that we are viewing reality. The great invention of reality TV is the divorcing of fame from any kind of standard: these people are not actors, sports stars, born wealthy or royalty. They haven’t even slept with the famous, as the Kardashians have.    Like the Jersey wives, the Robertsons represent the purest form of celebrity—famous for nothing more than being famous. 

A&E and the show’s producers have always sanitized and romanticized the harsh aspects of the Robertsons’ lives even to the point of beeping our “Jesus” from the speech of the bearded boys.  Suspending Robertson is part of the continuing strategy to hone down the rough spots of rural American life. Besides, the network had no choice but to act quickly or risk a boycott of the entire network by sponsors and gay rights groups.

Moreover, A&E had everything to gain and nothing to lose by suspending Robertson. Those offended by Robertson’s views will never tune in or ceased watching a long time ago, but perhaps there are still those out there who haven’t watched yet and share Phil Robertson’s views. After all, even the premiere of the fourth season—the most watched nonfiction program in cable history—only drew 11.8 million. That’s a drop in the bucket of the 45% of the population who believe homosexuality is a sin (or so reports a recent Pew study).

(Having lived only within the borders of large cities for more than 40 years I find these numbers shocking, but in many ways, we have two societies now: blue and red, urban and suburban, multicultural and religious fundamentalist.  I’m a resident of the blue, urban, multicultural world and tend to interact only with others who share my views on social and political issues.)

The gay-bashing controversy also serves as this week’s “Duck Dynasty” media story. Only the Kardashians seem to get more stories about them than the Robertsons.

I won’t blame A&E for developing shows for the rural market, but I do blame it for developing these particular shows. Reality TV is the end game of the Warhol aesthetic—the apotheosis of branding elements into human deities called celebrities through a medium that has ostensibly avoided the distortions created by the artist’s mediation. But it’s only apparent, since it is not reality we see but an imitation of reality made to seem real by the suppression of most artistic craft.

Suburbanites, denizens of new cities, rural hunters—every major demographic group gets its own lineup of reality TV in post-modern America. In all cases, the producers varnish reality and give it a dramatic shape that at the end of the day feeds on commercial activity and conspicuous consumption. You wouldn’t catch Snooki squatting in a duck blind, nor Phil Robertson clubbing in South Beach.  But they represent the same value of undeserved celebrity selling mindless consumption.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

NY Times uses anecdotal thinking to create feeling food stamp fraud is rampant in article saying it’s minor

By Marc Jampole

News features often use examples or anecdotes to highlight a trend that is the subject of the story. Sometimes all the writer has as proof of his or her thesis are the examples, so the article strings together a couple of anecdotes to demonstrate that a new trend is unfolding; such as people eating strange foods in expensive restaurants or craving limited edition cosmetics.  Quite often, though, the anecdote depicts the reality of a real trend; for example, more families in homeless shelters or the problems signing up for health insurance on an exchange 

In the case of either a real or false trend or idea, it is common that the article starts with an anecdote that shows us the trend or idea at work. Instead of saying, “people are eating ants,” we get a description of a dish or a pleased gourmand crunching away. Beginning inside an anecdote brings the story alive and makes the reader react emotionally before the mind engages with the facts of the matter. An early advocate of starting inside a case history instead of with a statement of thesis was the Roman poet Horace, when he suggested in Ars Poetica about two thousand years ago that the writer “begin in the middle” (in media res). Horace, like most great writers, understood that showing something was much more powerful than merely telling people about it.

How strange, then, that the New York Times would publish an article that reports a fact, but only provides case histories that go counter to that fact. Moreover, the article begins with a case history counter to the facts under report, which means that by the time most readers get to the facts, the anecdote has convinced them of the very opposite of what the facts prove.

What isn’t surprising is that the article disproves a long-held right-wing belief and that the anecdotes in the article support the disproved belief.

The issue is food stamp fraud, people illegally using food stamps to buy liquor, gasoline or other forbidden items. In “Food Stamp Fraud, Rare but Troubling,”  Kim Severson correctly reports that food stamp fraud is practically non-existent, a mere 1.3% of the total of food stamp aid given, down from more than 4% in the 1990s before debit cards replaced paper food stamps. Compare this paltry 1.3% to 10%, the current figure for Medicare and Medicaid fraud (typically by physicians, as the Severson’s article does not mention). Or compare the $3 billion lost to food stamp fraud, overpayments and government audits combined to the estimated $100 billion a year that insurance fraud costs insurers and their customers.

I’m not denying that the anecdotes occurred. Certainly, a relatively small number of people try to defraud the government by misusing food stamps, but the statistics suggest that the problem is practically non-existent and not worth mentioning or worrying about.  The demagogues stating that food stamp fraud is an enormous problem are trying to promote antipathy toward recipients of social benefits, the so-called “welfare queens” accusation.  The facts of the article demolish this view as it concerns food stamps.

We can only speculate on how this story developed: Did the editor assign the writer an article that would support the right-wing view that food stamp fraud is rampant, a reason they want to cut the program (and let hundreds of thousands face food insecurity) and did the facts turn the article a different way, leaving the writer with nothing but anecdotes to support the editor’s goal? Or was it the opposite: a conservative reporter trying to put a right-wing face on the facts through anecdotes that go counter to those facts?

Or did the writer pit anecdotes against facts as a way to present a “fair and balanced” story? If so, the writer forgot that anecdotes are as much like facts as apples are like oranges.

Unless of course, the writer has read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, in which the eminent social scientist uses numerous controlled experiments to prove that people will believe a single anecdote that conforms to their ideas over multiple facts that disprove them.  In other words, the writer could have cleverly constructed a story to influence the reader to believe the very thing that the article disproves through providing random anecdotes that go counter to the underlying facts.  The facts say, “No food stamp fraud,” but the richly detailed case histories may convince us otherwise.

“Food Stamp Fraud, Rare but Troubling” is thus a masterpiece in deniable deception. The article claims to prove one thing—and it does, except for those internal heart strings plucked so expertly by the anecdotes that sing to right-wingers that they were right all along.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Detroit’s bankruptcy latest attempt of wealthy to steal from poor

By Marc Jampole

Kudos to Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute for rejecting the notion that overly generous pensions led to Detroit’s bankruptcy. 

Instead of pensions, Eisenbrey cites several reasons for Detroit’s financial problems:
  • A depleted revenue stream as wealthy people moved to nearby municipalities, taking advantage of the city as an economic driver while destroying the city’s tax base.
  • Bad financial deals with banks, including interest rate swaps, which are contracts in which two parties agree to exchange interest rate cash flows, based on a specified amount from a fixed rate to a floating rate, from a floating to a fixed, or from one floating rate to another floating rate. Each side is betting that a certain set of economic conditions will prevail, so that they come out ahead on the swap. As Eisenbrey details, these swaps were profitable for Wall Street banks and exposed Detroit to financial risks that ended up costing the city $600 million in additional interest.
  • Corporate subsidies and tax loopholes for businesses that did not create enough jobs to justify these gifts to private sector companies.

Unmentioned by Eisenbrey is the fact that all three of these forces represent the same theme: rich folk squeezing a city dry of its wealth and then leaving it to flounder. Wealthy suburbanites benefited from living near Detroit without paying taxes to the city. Wealthy banks essentially benefited from selling Detroit’s politicians a bill of goods. Wealthy company owners lowered their operating costs without giving back enough in new jobs.

As Eisenbrey advocates, the burden of solving Detroit’s financial problems should not fall on the Motor City’s middle class and working class people who have worked long years for pensions that they negotiated and upon which they depend to survive. Funny isn’t it: while it’s not okay to break the financing contract with the banks, politicians think nothing of breaking the contracts they signed years ago with the city's workers. Eisenbrey wants Detroit to say “enough is enough” to the banks and walk away from the onerous interest rate swaps and other financing gimmicks. The banks have made enough money on the Motor City already.

Eisenbrey also wants to end the loopholes and special deals to corporations and have the state of Michigan chip in more money to pay Detroit’s bills. I would add a special regional tax based on income (or as in France, on wealth) that the state would collect for the city from Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Point, Birmingham, Franklin and the other nearby and distant Detroit suburbs.

In his very perceptive article, Eisenbrey also suggests that Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and other civic leaders are mischaracterizing Detroit’s problems by focusing on the $18 billion in long-term debt the city owes. It’s another example of right-wing politicians defining the issue in terms that benefit their constituencies. Let’s set aside the possibility that $18 billion may be a grossly overstated estimate. Eisenbrey correctly reasons that municipalities cannot liquidate the way private companies can, so the size of the debt is not the issue. All that matters is the cash flow—how much money Detroit needs to pay its bills each month. Right now Detroit faces a $198 million cash flow shortage.

Cash flow is easy for municipalities to deal with, at least in theory—raise taxes or lower costs. The city has already cut costs not only to the bone, but to the marrow. Now it’s time to raise taxes, but on a regional level.  Too long wealthy suburbanites have sucked Detroit dry. It’s now time for them to give something back.

But that’s not going to happen. More likely is that Detroit will become a model for the latest way for the rich to continue their 30+ year war on the rest of us: declare a city in financial trouble and use that excuse to gut pensions and worker’s salaries, thus putting even more downward pressure on the wages of private sector workers and insuring the continuation of the low-tax regime that has a financial chokehold on most families.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Editorial: No ‘Fast Track’ for Secret Trade Deal

The Obama administration, its corporate partners and a dozen Pacific nations have been negotiating behind closed doors on a massive trade agreement that, among other things, would allow corporations to challenge national, state and local laws if they believe regulations put profits at risk. Congress hasn’t seen the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which hasn’t been finished yet, but the White House has requested that Congress proceed with granting “fast track” authority that would commit to an up-or-down vote on the deal with limited review and no possibility of amendment.

Congress should not approve fast track review for a trade deal that has been negotiated in secret. Dave Johnson noted at Campaign for America’s Future ( that the agreement itself is also about getting democracy and government power out of the way of the big corporations. “It actually sets (certain) corporate (‘investor’) interests above the law of any country. For example, word has leaked that TPP negotiators are arguing over whether to prevent countries from running anti-smoking campaigns, because this interferes with tobacco-company profits. One side says this is going too far and they should “carve out” tobacco from the agreement, the other side says carving out tobacco sets a precedent of allowing governments to protect their citizens from other things corporations might want to profit from. This should tell you all you need to know about why Fast Track must not pass, enabling them to push TPP through with no changes.”

Talks on the TPP will resume in January, after the 12 prospective members in December gave up on meeting Washington’s year-end deadline for a deal, Agence France-Presse reported Dec. 10. The TPP is being negotiated by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam. They make up 40% of the global economy and other countries may join the pact later.

One of the sticking points has been the US negotiators’ insistence, backed by the powerful pharmaceuticals industry, that drug companies get longer patent protection for a new class of drugs called “biologics” which are developed from living tissue, AFP reported.

Drug firms say this is necessary to allow them to recoup investments and continue research into fresh cures. But critics such as the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders say such patent protection would restrict access to cheaper generic drugs for millions of poor people.

Documents leaked to the Huffington Post suggest that concerns about the Obama administration’s push for corporate power to challenge regulations are shared by some of those who are negotiating across the table from the US. HuffPost’s Zach Carter quoted a memo from another country charging the US had “shown no flexibility on its proposal” for investor dispute tribunals; Carter reported that with such language, “companies could challenge an even broader array of rules” than under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the deal that allowed companies like Exxon Mobil and Dow to fight Canadian rules on issues from drilling to drug patents. The same memo said the US “shows zero flexibility” on its push for restrictions on bank regulation, and had reintroduced a widely-opposed proposal to restrict governments’ negotiations to push down drug prices. A USTR spokesperson told Carter that “some elements” in those documents were “outdated, others totally inaccurate,” but did not specify which.

The Teamsters set out key fair-trade objectives three years ago that the proposed trade deal had to meet to earn the union’s support. They are:

If the Tea Party Republicans really were a populist movement, as many of their advocates claim, progressive Democrats would be able to make a coalition with them to stop these trade deals that interfere with American and local sovereignty. But we don’t expect the teabaggers to provide the sort of obstruction to “free trade” that they did against extension of jobless benefits. After all, the Tea Party has never showed much concern for workers’ rights, environmental protection or sustainable agriculture — indeed, the original call for action in January 2009 was not a reaction against the banks that abused the mortgage financing system, but instead focused anger on homebuyers — particularly minorities — who bought homes but were unable to keep up their mortgage payments. And one of the main sponsors of the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, run a petrochemical refining and distribution empire that would be a beneficiary of the dismantling of environmental rules by special trade tribunals, so they don’t have to get approval of the EPA or other state and federal agencies to pollute the air, water or other natural resources. Certainly Democrats in Congress should have no part of this chicanery.

Skinflint Budget Deal Accomplishes Little

Congress’ top two budget chiefs on Dec. 10 produced a bipartisan agreement that would set spending levels for two years and fix some spending cuts required by the sequester.

The deal announced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) would establish spending at $1.012 trillion in 2014 and $1.014 trillion in 2015 — up from the $967 billion required by the across-the-board sequester cuts. It provides for about $63 billion in sequester relief, divided equally among defense and non-defense programs.

The deal offsets the sequester relief with a mix of targeted spending cuts and non-tax revenues via higher government fees and sales, totaling $85 billion over 10 years. That means it would reduce the deficit by about $23 billion. The revenue raisers include higher federal worker contributions to pensions and higher airline ticket fees. In an effort to secure conservative support, none of the revenues come from the tax code. The budget deal doesn’t resolve the impasse over the farm bill and the House’s $40 billion cut in food assistance that would drop as many as six million poor Americans from the anti-hunger rolls.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called the budget deal a “very modest proposal that will prevent a disastrous government shutdown. On the other hand, it goes nowhere close to addressing the enormous crises facing this country, including the expiration of unemployment benefits, rebuilding infrastructure, creating millions of jobs, investing in clean energy and early childhood education.”

The biggest win in the budget deal, Sanders said, was that progressives rallied the American people to stop the proposal to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. But the deal still leaves 1.3 million Americans losing their long-term unemployment benefits three days after Christmas, expected to scrounge for work despite an official unemployment rate of 7% and an underemployment rate of 13.2%.

Democrats said they would continue to push for an extension of unemployment benefits in a separate bill — but that initiative has little chance of passage when many Republicans, including House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), think aid to the unemployed encourages the jobless to stop looking for work. (Extension of jobless benefits would cost $26 billion next year — or about the same amount that the Republican government shutdown cost in October.)

The budget deal likely will be one of the last bills to clear Congress before it adjourns for the year. That leaves those 1.3 million long-term unemployed on their own. And this skinflint budget is the entirely foreseeable result of giving Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives. Until Republicans fear the electoral backlash of the unemployed, and the other working classes that the GOP trashes, the least among us will continue to be cast adrift in favor of the corporate sponsors masquerading as “job creators.” — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2014
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Selections from the January 1-15, 2014 issue

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why did the FDA make its new antibiotic restrictions voluntary instead of mandatory?

By Marc Jampole

Were you as delighted as I was when I read the headline that the Food and Drug Administration has a new policy prohibiting the use of antibiotics to speed the growth of pigs and other animals cultivated for human consumption? Trace antibiotics in the animals we eat have contributed to the increasing resistance of bacteria to the antibiotics we use to treat infections.  The new policy forbids use of antibiotics as growth stimulants and also requires farmers to get prescriptions each and every time they want to treat a sick animal with antibiotics.

On the surface it looks like a great victory for every American because it is going to make all of us safer and less likely to die in an illness. The New York Times version of the announcement points out that two million people fall sick and 23,000 die every year from antibiotic-resistant infections.  CNN reports that in April the FDA said that 81% of all the raw ground turkey the agency tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Currently every hospital patient encounters the danger of opportunistic infections that don’t respond to antibiotics.

Every one of the 15 news reports I read hail it as big news: “major new policy,” ”broad measures” and “sweeping plan” are some of the descriptions of the FDA action.

But before we break out the champagne, let’s read the fine print: It’s all voluntary.

Virtually all the news stories bury this fact or downplay it.  For example, the Times says that, based on comments made during the discussion period that proceeds all federal regulation, rules and advisories, the FDA was confident that drug companies would comply (which I suppose means refusing to sell antibiotics to farmers without prescriptions for specific animals). 

Then there’s the matter of a three-year phase-in period. No one has bothered to explain why anyone would need three years to implement this plan: just stop doing it, right away.

As some reports have noted, health officials have warned about the overuse of antibiotics leading to increased resistance since the 1970s. In other words after 40 years of warnings, studies, discussions and negotiations regarding a major public health challenge, the best we can come up with is a voluntary plan.

Have no doubts about it: Some drug company somewhere in the world will continue to sell this stuff to farmers and farmers will still use it. 

If the federal government were really serious about lowering the amount of antibiotics humans ingest in their food and water, it would have set mandatory regulations that took effect within 30 days. But such an action would take a cash stream from drug manufacturers and raise the cost of raising domesticated animals. Farmers and meat processors would make less money and consumers would likely pay a little more for their ground round and chicken nuggets.  It’s worth it, though, as the eradication of the use of antibiotics will make everyone in the United States (and the world) safer from the threat of contracting a life-threatening infection every time they have an operation and safer from the risk of an epidemic of virulent and untreatable infections.

Industry pressures most assuredly caused the wishy-washy action of asking drug makers to resist the urge to make more money. The news behind the news then is that once again, our government has compromised the health, safety and economic well-being of its citizens to enable a small group of companies to continue making money. The additional illnesses and deaths are paid for by all of society, bringing down the costs or raising the profits for a small segment of society.  It’s another example of shifting of the costs from companies to society at large, and it demonstrates once again that unfettered free market capitalism does not lead to the greatest good for the most people.       

Monday, December 9, 2013

Serious economists must be laughing at Wall Street Journal attempt to use Laffer Curve to support tax cuts

By Marc Jampole

Wall Street Journal editorials often twist facts, leave out key facts, make incorrect inferences from facts or just plain get the facts wrong.  But the editorial titled “Britain’s Laffer Curve” shows that sometimes the editorial writers simply have no idea what the facts are saying.

In this editorial, the Journal wants to show that cutting taxes leads to increased tax revenues and invokes the notorious Laffer curve to do so. Laffer Curve theory has been around for ages but is associated with right-wing economist Arthur Laffer who supposedly drew it on a paper cocktail napkin for some government luminaries during the 1970s.  When I interviewed Laffer in 1981 for a television news report, he denied the myth.

What the Laffer Curve postulates is that as taxes are raised, less money circulates in the economy and rich folk are less likely to invest to make more money, since they are keeping so little of it. Research suggests that neither of these statements are true, but by assuming that they are true, one could imagine a situation in which taxes are so high that by lowering them, you raise the amount of revenue that is raised by the government.  Laffer Curve theory proposes that there is a theoretical point at which the tax rate is at a level that produces the most revenues possible from an economy. Laffer Curve theory also predicts that there are occasions when raising taxes will indeed raise significantly more revenue and lowering taxes will indeed lower revenues—it depends on whether we are on the upward or downward slope of the imaginary Laffer Curve.

President Ronald Reagan and a slew of right-wingers since him have used the theory of the Laffer Curve to justify cutting taxes. They assume that no matter what the conditions are, we are always on the side of the imaginary Laffer Curve on which a cut in taxes always leads to an increase in revenues.

The Journal of course takes it for granted that taxes are always too high, especially on businesses, even though they are currently still much lower than during most of the last hundred years and certainly far lower than when Laffer supposedly took Mont Blanc to napkin.    

The editorial in question proudly states that since Great Britain cut its corporate tax rate from 28% to 22% in 2010 that the British Treasury has gained from 45 cents to 60 cents in additional taxes for every one dollar of revenues lost by cutting the tax rate. In other words, economic growth (or more people paying all their taxes) compensated for 45%-60% of the revenues lost through the tax cut.

Now that may or may not prove the existence of a Laffer Curve that can describe the relationship between tax revenues and taxes collected. But it does prove that you cannot use Laffer Curve economics to justify a tax break.   Even after the Laffer Curve effects, the British government is still 55%-40% in the hole, meaning it must find other sources of revenues or cut government spending by that amount. 

And where did the shortfall go? To businesses and their owners, AKA rich folk, who history suggests will invest their additional wealth in the secondary stock market and luxury goods, neither of which really help the economy to grow.

The Journal wants us to believe that the experience of Britain should make us want to cut taxes to raise government revenues. But what the example shows is that cutting taxes leads to a loss of government revenue and a net transfer of an enormous amount of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy. It’s as if the editorial writers have looked at a blue sky and declared, “Look at that blue sky. It proves that the sky is always yellow.” They see the facts, but that doesn’t persuade them from believing what they want to believe is true.

Real economists the world over must be laughing at the Journal and its editorial board’s gross misinterpretation of the facts. Except, of course, those economists in the pay of right-wing think tanks.

Increase in adults reading juvenile fiction another sign of infantilization of Americans

By Marc Jampole

The title of Alexandra Alter’s Wall Street Journal article on adults reading fiction written for middle-schoolers describes the situation perfectly. “See Grown-ups Read. Read, Grown-ups, Read” suggests not middle school, but an elementary school reading level.  Alter’s story describes one of the many ways that our mass culture is infantilizing adults, turning them into oversized children.

Alter finds several reasons why adults like reading fiction written at the reading, intellectual and maturity level of 12- to 15-year-olds:
  1. The Harry Potter series of books continues to influence reading choices.
  2. There is less of a difference in tastes between generations today than in the past.
  3. There is less of a stigma in adults reading children’s books for pleasure.
  4. The quality of literature for middle-school children has increased and the themes have become more mature.
The first three reasons are euphemistic ways to say that many adults now maintain the interests of childhood or pursue childhood interests. Of course, Alter avoids the negative judgment implied—and meant—by my expression, “the infantilization of adults.”  As one of the several experts Alter quotes puts it, “It used to be kids would emulate what their parents were reading, and now it’s the reverse.”

The fourth reason is worth analyzing further. Let’s accept the premise that the quality of the writing in books for the middle school audience has improved and the themes and situations are more complex than in the past. The easy rhetorical response is that these books are still for children and not for adults. There is no stream of consciousness writing, no shifting of perspectives without signaling the shift (known as free indirect discourse), no long elegant Proustian sentences, and no modernistic imagery. Even today’s new and improved middle school fiction falls short of the best of fictional writing for adults. In addition, the themes covered are those of interest to the middle schooler and thus inherently less complicated than what should be of interest to adults.

Alter peppers the article with quotes from experts, but all of them are authors, editors or publishers of juvenile fiction. No place does she have room for the views of a sociologist, psychologist or philosopher, who might fear, as I do, that adults are losing their capacity for complex thought by reverting to their childhood joys and activities, be it juvenile fiction, theme parks or shoot-shoot-bang-bang video games. In fine Wall Street Journal free-market tradition, the article is about a growing market. In the Journal’s view, all free markets are good and the results of free market growth are always good.  The editorial slant of the newspaper reflects a modern version of Voltaire’s buffoonish professor, Dr. Pangloss. He’s the one who keeps repeating in Candide that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. For the Journal, everything is for the best when the free market is operating.

Besides, infantilization of adults is good for Journal advertisers and the American consumer economy is general. Infantilization makes people less able to understand the fine print, less able to understand if what is for sale is really of value. It leaves people less in control of their emotions and more insecure and susceptible to manipulation, just as children and teens are when compared to mature adults. In short, it’s easier to sell products and services—especially useless ones—to the less mature mind.

Friday, December 6, 2013

While celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, let’s not forget that segregation still exists

By Marc Jampole

Segregation is the separation or isolation of individuals or groups from a larger group or from society. Segregation has taken many forms throughout history: refugee camps, work camps, concentration camps, castes, class systems, quarantines, slave quarters, homelands, ghettos, pales, redlined districts, housing development covenants, mass transit seating and classrooms, to name some of the more prevalent means of denying people the right to enter or leave.

Except for medical quarantines, not one of the myriad means to segregate are fair, moral, ethical, humanistic, righteous or tolerable to the fair, moral, ethical, humanistic, righteous and tolerant person. While it enriches a pluralistic society when individuals of a group—say Jews or Pakistanis—move to the same neighborhood and open specialty stores catering to their cultural predilections, to restrict these or other groups to areas undermines any society or nation. The same is true if a group tries to keep others out, either everyone or another specific group. A free society demands free access to everyone to all areas that offer free access to anyone, except of course for private property not engaged in civic affairs, commerce or other public ends.

Nelson Mandela defeated a particularly pernicious form of segregation called apartheid.  He resolutely withstood years of jail to lead a movement that eventually negotiated with the defenders of apartheid and defeated them in a democratic election. He fulfilled the vision of Gandhi, the dream of Martin Luther King.  That he began his public career supporting violence only makes more poignant the story of his achieving the good he sought peacefully. It also demonstrates the caliber of the man—always growing, always improving, always questioning.

In celebrating Mandela’s long life, however, let us not forget the many forms of segregation that still exist today throughout the world, including the abominable irony of an apartheid-like system in a nation controlled by a national group that suffered one of the most horrifying examples of segregation in recorded history.

In the United States, our most harmful form of segregation is the separation of rich from poor in access to education. Educational segregation—enforced by expensive private schools, private lessons and gerrymandered public school districts, has unleveled the playing field, helping to create what is the least socially mobile country in the western world. In the United States, it is harder for people to leave the lowest fifth in income and wealth and easier for someone in the highest fifth to remain there than in any other industrialized country. It makes a mockery of our democratic ideals for it to be so hard to climb the economic ladder. Education has usually been the way that the poor have become rich in open societies; thus the connection between educational segregation and growing inequality of wealth and opportunity.

But educational segregation is merely one form of this pox on society that we need to address. The situation in Israel and the occupied lands is morally intolerable.  The Wikipedia article titled Racial Segregation details legal and de facto segregation in Bahrain, Canada, Fiji, India, Malaysia, Mauritania, the United Kingdom and Yemen. This list doesn’t include prisoner and refugee camps.

The mass media is already trying to homogenize Nelson Mandela, as they have successfully done for Martin Luther King, turning the day of remembering King’s life into a general day of service to the community, which whitewashes that he dedicated his life to one particular kind of service: peaceful disobedience to oppose racial discrimination.  In the same way, the mass media is already focusing on Mandela the peaceful fighter for democratic elections and freedom. But freedom for South African Blacks involved much more than getting the right to vote.  Mandela’s fight was to create a pluralistic post-racial society of equal access, equal treatment, equal rights and equal opportunity.

The only way to appropriately honor Nelson Mandela is to continue the fight—the peaceful fight—against segregation of every kind, wherever it is.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What current media fascination is most like AIDS news coverage in the 1990s? Hint: Lots of K’s involved

By Marc Jampole

To those old enough to remember the 1990s, the phrase “AIDS story of the day” will resonate, because in fact there was a new story about some aspect of AIDS virtually every day of the week in the mass media: research into its origin or cure, its spread, measures to prevent it, art and literature about AIDS or by artists with AIDS, changing cultural patterns, types of condoms, famous people outed because they contracted AIDS, protests by AIDS victims, the impact of AIDS on communities and cities, the spread to the heterosexual community, vignettes of sufferers and their families, the overcoming of prejudices, funding challenges, studies and reports from other countries. Every day it was something new as reporters, magazines, newspapers and TV programs tried to top each other with the new or unusual related to this dreaded plague.

That there was a constant onslaught of news stories over pretty much an entire decade was understandable. It was a worldwide epidemic of a horrible disease that was related to sexual practices or intravenous drug use with an unknown cause. The story of the world’s reaction to AIDS—finding its cause and then the means to ameliorate if not prevent it, while gaining a new respect and tolerance for its victims—represents humanity at its best.

How ironic then that the contemporary news phenomenon that most resembles the AIDS story in its longevity and number of story angles is not a monumental medical epic involving millions, but the private bantering and peccadilloes of a family of rich but garish narcissists.

Only those who ignore the mass media don’t know to whom I’m referring: It’s the Kardashians.

Every day, a story about one or more Kardashians appears on the Yahoo! home page, Google News, the news pages of popular email portals such as Verizon’s and Time Warner’s, many of our finest tabloid newspapers like The Daily News and gossip-based televisions shows like Entertainment Tonight and The Wendy Williams Show. More staid and serious news media such as Wall Street Journal and New York Times cover the family with some frequency.

Their loves, flirtations and breakups, frustrations, life events and parties, purchases, vacations, clothes, cars and other toys, family relationships, faux pas and ignorant statements, rumors, popularity and the very fact that they are a phenomenon are all grist for the Kardashian mill. Even the Kennedy family at its height did not command so much constant attention, partially because they flourished before the age of 24/7 Internet and television media.

And why so much news coverage for a pack of uneducated conspicuous consumers of luxury products?
  1. Their parents are rich.
  2. They tend to couple with famous people, mostly second rate professional athletes.
  3. They have starred in a succession of reality TV programs in which they inelegantly portray garishly ostentatious lives of conspicuous consumption and family bickering.
In short they are pure celebrities, famous for being famous, or more bluntly, famous for sleeping with famous people.  The fact that much of the detail of their lives and adventures may be created by a stable of reality show and public relations writers matters little. The post-modern blending of reality and fantasy is accepted as gospel by so much of the news media that the Kardashian world has become the fulfillment of the Karl Rove dream of replacing a reality-based world with an ideologically determined one.

The Kardashian ideology, embraced by the show’s sponsors and the owners of the many media outlets that cover their antics, is worship of the commercial transaction. Peruse the stories (but not too many) and you will find that virtually all them involve buying or giving/taking something someone has bought. Their many complex but frangible relations all boil down to shopping. What Lamar got Khlo√©, where Kourtney shopped, what designer jewelry Kris was wearing.

There is not a day that goes by when the sheer volume of Kardashian stories overwhelms coverage of more important matters. Just now, for example, I found 69.7 million stories about the Kardashians in Google News, but only 140,000 on the car bomb attack in Yemen and a mere 6,000 about the Illinois pension overhaul. Several months ago I reported a study by some Stanford scientists which demonstrated how to provide enough electricity for the entire world through wind power, which garnered exactly one news story throughout the Googlesphere.

Even the most ostensibly high-minded mainstream news media are prisoners of the need to make money by appealing to advertisers. And advertisers like stories that exhort readers to buy expensive toys. And even more do they like stories which advocate the idea that every emotion and human expression must manifest itself in a commercial transaction—buying something.  And most of all they like stories which glorify the shopper as the person to be most admired and honored.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

So-called bioethicist would rather see people die than change society

By Marc Jampole

In a New York Times Op/Ed column, Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institution, questions the wisdom of extending human life. 
Callahan rightfully calls aging “a public issue with social consequences” and mentions two of the ramifications of more people living into old age: 1) More medical costs for society; 2) Fewer jobs for the young, as the old extend their working lives.

But instead of seeing health care and the workforce as challenges to overcome as we extend the amount of time people can live, he sees them instead as reasons not to extend life. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but his underlying argument essentially throws people under the bus when their usefulness to the economy appears to end.

The increase in medical costs to treat the elderly should not be seen as society’s burden, but rather as our joyous reward for having created a world in which people can live longer and continue to thrive. That so many people live longer is a sign of success, not a reason to stop the advance of medical research. We expanded educational institutions to meet the large increase in the population of children when the Baby Boomers started popping out. What is so different about expanding medical and social programs for our increasing population of the elderly?

The jobs issue is a little more complicated, primarily because our automated economy does not create enough jobs for everyone willing and able to work. But instead of artificially creating job openings by kicking out people at a certain age, we could fix what’s wrong with our economic system. Here are some thoughts:
  • As more people live to 90, 100 and beyond, they will need more caregivers, which creates jobs for younger people.
  • Local organic farming requires more human labor. If we created an agricultural system that relied on a mix of industrial and older techniques, it would create many more jobs for the young. The key, of course, is to make certain that these jobs pay a decent wage.
  • Unless there is a pressing financial reason, those in their 60s, 70s and beyond typically don’t want to work 40-hour weeks. Job-sharing, especially between the old experienced hand and the young go-getter, makes a lot of sense.
  • We are currently not spending enough on many job-creating enterprises, such as fixing our roads and bridges, hiring enough teachers to decrease class sizes, exploring out-of-space and developing renewable energy sources and systems.
To make any of these ideas work requires two actions that give conservatives the willies: 1) More government management of the economy; and 2) A more equitable distribution of the wealth.

When people use economic arguments to justify denying people basics such as nutrition, healthcare or education, I always wonder if they include themselves. Evidently the 83-year-old Callahan does not, as he admits to having received a seven-hour heart operation and to using oxygen at night for his emphysema.  In our current world, the rich—and I include Callahan—can afford to keep themselves alive and have nice cushy jobs from which they can keep drawing income for decades after turning 65.

Callahan’s sole concern is that as currently constructed, our society and economy cannot afford to extend such privileges to everyone.  While he seems to care about the social good, he argues explicitly from the point of view of someone who doesn’t believe or want society to improve or change. He is happy living in a world dominated by the politics of selfishness, the idea that “I got mine, who cares about anyone else.” He sees an increase in the very old as a threat to that world, as opposed to being a sign that we are making progress towards a better one.

We all know people whose lives are so filled with pain and suffering that to the outsider it seems as if they would be better off dead. Focus on these poor souls (and don’t ask if they want to remain alive in their pain) and Callahan’s argument that life extension may not be an absolute good makes a tad of sense.

But instead, try focusing on the many vibrant 80 and 90 year olds around. Even those who are not so active can still enjoy their friends, their favorite foods, music, outings and games, sports teams, reading, the changing of the seasons, the chirping of birds, the affection of pets, the delight in seeing the flowers pop up in the spring, in short the sheer joy of existence.  We should be doing as much as possible to extend that joy for all people.

Monday, December 2, 2013

What is the biggest cause in the drop in crime rates?

By Marc Jampole

The latest statistics demonstrate that New York City’s Draconian stop-and-frisk policy has not been the cause for a precipitous drop in the rate of violent crime in the five boroughs. Even after NYC’s finest curtailed stop-and-frisk without cause, crime rates continued to plummet.

I’ve been meaning for some time to analyze why crime rates have dropped and continue to drop across the United States, but especially in urban areas outside of Chicago.  Despite the right’s wails and lamentations about unsafe communities, most of us live in far safer places than we did a decade or two ago. Interestingly enough, the crime rate is down most precipitously in that modern Sodom or Gomorrah, the Big Not-So-Rotten Apple.

Why has crime decreased?

First, I want to discount the idea that crime fell as a result of increased incarceration of individuals, victims to the many 3-strikes-you’re-out and anti-crack laws passed in the late '70s and '80s. We have filled our prisons with a bunch of people—black males to a large extent—who don’t deserve to be incarcerated. All they have done is minor kid’s stuff or drugs. We have the highest incarceration rate in the western world and yet we still have the highest rate of violent crimes. No doubt, some small percentage of those locked up for years for tooting crack might have committed future crimes, but some percentage of those locked up learned criminal ways in prison and became lost to society.  I’m thinking the net effect disproves the idea that locking more people up than any other industrialized nation led to a drop in crimes rates.

One of the gun lobby’s many fantasies is that the increase in open carry and other gun rights leads to a decrease in crime, because the criminals won’t want to run into someone who would shoot back. This absurd claim crumbles to lies as soon as we look at the facts: Forget that the incidents of citizens stopping criminals by pulling out their gun are extremely rare. Consider that the higher the prevalence of guns in any country in the world, the higher the rate of deaths and injuries from guns in that country. More guns equal more violent deaths. Also consider the fact that while there are more guns out there now, fewer households own guns today than 20 years ago, continuing a trend that is more than 50 years old now.  Fewer people own more guns. I think it’s likely that the decline in gun owners may have led to a drop in crime.

So far, I’ve consider some bogus arguments conservatives make about the drop in crime. Now let’s take a look at three legitimate arguments which I think have been factors in the continued drop in crime, but not any as the primary cause.

Let’s start with the end of the use of lead paint: This theory goes that crime increased soon after we started using lead-based paint in apartment buildings, because children would eat the paint chips and suffer one or more of the side effects, which include learning disabilities resulting in decreased intelligence, attention deficit disorder and behavior issues, all predictors of criminal behavior. Once we stopped using lead paint, the crime rate went down (even thought the rate of diagnosing ADD continues to soar). It’s a very believable theory backed by evidence that suggests but does not prove causality. Not enough research has done on the affect of lead paint on human adherence to social norms, but the explanation does sound plausible.

We can also look at the growth of dispute resolution programs in the schools as another factor in lowering the rate of crime. I think it was some time in the '80s when these programs began, first in urban areas. Having sixth grade kids mentor first-graders, throwing middle school kids in with high schoolers, bringing together groups of students from different schools to talk about race, religion and other hate issues, the growth in organized sports leagues—all of this additional socialization had to turn many marginal children away from crime.

My own pet theory is that the growth of video game play helped to lower the crime rate.  The idea is that people work out their anger and anti-social urges playing Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty: Black Ops.  So while I despair that most video games tend to infantilize young men, preventing their ideas and thought processes to mature, I do think that the games have kept many young men busy and out of trouble.

I do reject one non-conservative theory: A professor has postulated that the legalization of abortion has resulted in fewer unwanted children born and that unwanted children commit more crimes. The problem with this theory is that the introduction of birth control pills assuredly prevented the birth of more children than did the legalization of abortion. But the introduction of the pill paralleled the increase in the crime rate in the 1960s and early '70s, at least at first.

Lead paint, growth in socialization programs and video games all played a role in the decrease in crime, without being the main cause. Sociologists and historians who calculate crime rates in many cultures through centuries report that the rate of crime is primarily a function of the number of 16-29 year old males in the population. Most crime is committed by young men, so the higher percentage of young males in the population, the higher the crime rate.

The facts certainly match this theory until about 2003. When the Baby Boom turned 16, crime rates started to soar. Males aged 16-29 represented the largest percentage of our population in our nation’s history.  When Generation X—otherwise known as the Baby Bust—started to turn 16 and Baby Boomers started turning middle-aged, crime rates started dropping. Now the birth rate increased again with the Millennial generation (AKA Generation Y, although judging from the high achievements of its female members, maybe Generation Non-Y is a better moniker!). But when the Millennials started turning 16, the crime rate did not pick up again.

My thought is that the impact of the Millennials on the overall population is far less than that of the truly outsized Baby Boom generation. So while we have more 16-29 year old males, this demographic segment is not as great a percentage of the whole as it was at the height of Boomer young adulthood.  The end of lead paint, greater socialization, the growth of video games, a decline in gun ownership and other factors still unidentified all combined to keep the crime rate going down.  By this theory, if the Millennials were as large a factor as the Baby Boom generation had been, the crime rate might still not have risen, but not to Boomer levels because of these additional factors. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ayn Rand Institute factotum tries to convince us Wal-Mart pays its employees enough

By Marc Jampole

Right-wing factotum Doug Altner, an analyst with the Ayn Rand Institute, poses a provocative question in a Forbes article: If Wal-Mart is such a crappy place to work, why do 1.4 million Americans work there and many more want to? 

It’s the type of question that extreme free-marketers love to ask, because it assumes that we really have a free market in which every market participant has equal rights and equal clout. 

Altner forgets that the poor and the uneducated have very few options.  That 10,000 people apply for 300 openings when a new Wal-Mart opens says less about the attractiveness of the company and more about the lack of jobs, especially for young people who don’t have diplomas from one of the top 300 or so colleges. In many rural areas, Wal-Mart’s entrance into the marketplace destroyed many local and regional retailers who paid their employees more in wages and benefits. Wal-Mart does pay marginally more money than burger-flipping, but that does not mean that it pays a decent wage.

Altner gives three reasons why he thinks people clamor to work for Wal-Mart:

1.  The work is not physically straining. 
What Altner writes is that “Many entry-level Walmart jobs consist of comparatively safe and non-strenuous work such as stocking shelves, working cash registers, and changing price labels.” Altner goes on to mention that these jobs pay more than other entry-level jobs that require few skills. What he doesn’t say is that other non-strenuous jobs pay much more money. I can’t remember the last time I worked up a sweat writing an article or meeting with a client. I do remember that an attorney and a company president with whom I recently met both looked absolutely exhausted—they had just come from a racquetball game at 10:00 a.m. on a week day! Sarcasm aside, the fact that work is not physically exhausting shouldn’t justify paying less than a living wage.

2.  Wal-Mart provides entry to myriad career opportunities. 
Altner points out that Wal-Mart tends to promote from within and that three-quarters of its store managers started as hourly workers (Altner uses the Wal-Mart euphemism and calls them “associates.”). I’m not sure how Altner earned a PhD in industrial engineering, because he certainly forgot to do the math. Counting 1.3 million employees and about 5,000 Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs across the 50 states, a new hire at Wal-Mart has less than three-tenths of one percent chance of becoming a store manager.  But the 1.3 million number is the wrong one to use, since 70% of all Wal-Mart employees quit within a year, a stunning indicator of employee dissatisfaction which Altner neglects to mention.  If we consider the competition for 75% of store manager jobs to be everyone hired in a 12-month period, then the statistical probability of becoming a store manager is significantly less than two-tenths of a percent. But the real odds of getting a job are assuredly even less than this number, since the company does not turn over all store manager jobs within a year. Maybe the competition for store manager jobs includes everyone hired by Wal-Mart in a six-year period (less than 6/100ths of a percent) or even a 10 year period (less than 4/100ths of a percent).  I’m guessing that if you consider everyone who draws a salary playing for all the major and minor leagues of baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, race car driving, golf, tennis and every other professional sport, the chance of becoming a professional athlete is probably as great as starting as a Wal-Mart entry level employee and becoming a store manager. In other words, the opportunity is there, but it’s far-off and very unlikely.

The article does not miss a beat in defending Wal-Mart. For example, the one example of an hourly worker who made it to the top is a woman named by Fortune Magazine as one of the 50 most powerful women of 2006. I’m sure that offers consolation and hope to the many Wal-Mart female employees who are suing the company for wage discrimination and a hostile work environment. He doesn’t say it, but Altner selects this woman as his example to fight the negative publicity Wal-Mart continues to get for its treatment of women.

3.  Others are waiting for the Wal-Mart jobs.
Altner declares that Wal-Mart can get away with paying low wages, so why should it pay higher wages. He complains that critics think Wal-Mart should pay more, “regardless of whether he has the skills or experience to justify such a wage, regardless of whether he is a model employee or a slouch, regardless of how many other individuals are willing and able to do his job for less, regardless of whether raising wages will be good for the company’s bottom line. In effect, their premise is that $12+ per hour wages shouldn’t have to be earned or justified; they should be dispensed like handouts.”  He forgets that it is Wal-Mart that is getting a handout because so many of its employees rely on government assistance programs to supplement their low wages.

Altner is really making a case for no minimum wage and, in fact, no government regulation.  He can’t really believe that Wal-Mart offers a great deal if 70% of employees quit within a year, unless he postulates that all 70% are “slouches.”  The fact that others are waiting in line to take the jobs is no excuse for paying less. Many attorneys are clamoring for high-priced jobs at corporate law firms. I get dozens of resumes a month from people clamoring for a job at a public relations agency. These are high-paying jobs that stay high-paying despite the fact that lots of people want them.

For decades, Wal-Mart has taken advantage of the economic climate. It thrives by exploiting the fact that the minimum wage has lost its buying power through inflation and is much lower than it should be; the fact that the current laws allow corporations to play games with part-time work to limit benefits; the fact that there are far fewer jobs than there are people seeking them.  In this sense, they are bottom feeders who take advantage of the poor and uneducated.

The heart of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is selfishness. In its discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the Ayn Rand Institute website writes, “Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

I disagree entirely. All of our sustenance and pleasure—our necessities like food and shelter and our joys like music and sports—come through our interactions with society.  We owe society—for roads and bridges, our electrical grids, our safety, our markets, our cultural norms and standards, our base of knowledge and all our goods and services. No one can live outside society or without other people. As a society, we owe everyone, and in this I mean everyone in the world, food, shelter, education, health care and a chance to better themselves.

As individuals, we manifest what we owe society by following its rules and regulations. For the good of the whole, we impede people’s rights to adulterate food or use inaccurate weights and measures. And we also impede people’s right to take advantage of the downtrodden. That’s what the minimum wage is all about.

If Wal-Mart (and many other employers) did not operate always and only on the principles of pure selfishness, there would be no need to unionize or to raise the minimum wage. But they don’t, so society and its members have every right to foster unionization and to set a minimum wage. 

We are living in a particularly harsh time now, mainly because for too long we have let those like Doug Altner and other Randers set the tone of the political debate. We hear too much about the rights and prerogatives of corporations and rich folk and too little about the family of humans and how interconnected we all are.