Saturday, July 18, 2015

OpEdge Redux: Why would a science writer go on a campaign to belittle education and celebrate ignorance?

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on August 14, 2012.

Tooling around the Internet, I found two Forbes articles by a science writer named David DiSalvo that denigrate education and knowledge. Both are lists, one of do’s and the other of don’ts. But instead of just titling the articles, “Some stuff, I’ve learned along the way,” DiSalvo prefers to take pot shots at those with degrees and smarts.
The names of the two articles say it all:

The aphorisms on the two lists mostly come down to ways to get along with people: “Don’t talk down to others” and “You can learn something useful from everyone,” although the specific pearls of advice do take occasional snide sideswipes at learning, such as “Learning is good; doing is better” (which turned out not to be true in the case of the atom bomb). Basically, it’s Horatio Alger-Dale Carnegie kind of advice.

So why did DiSalvo tie both lists together with insults to the educated? It is possible that he learned the positive lessons he lists from people who didn’t go to college, just as it’s possible that he saw people he considers brilliant do the dumb things he lists. But that’s his anecdotal experience. Most of the stuff on DeSalvo’s do-this list I learned from people who went to college. His don’t-do list seems to apply equally to people of all intelligence and educational levels in my experience. Those are my anecdotes.

As a science writer, DiSalvo should know that anecdotes don’t prove a thing. If he wants to show some trait that we usually admire, such as brilliance or the discipline to complete college, may be tied to something unadmirable or dangerous, he should cite a study. That’s what a science writer usually does, even when sharing something personal. For example, a recent series of studies gave strong evidence that wealthy people behave less ethically. Of course, no Forbes writer would ever allude to these particular studies, since the Forbes ideology glorifies the wealthy as deserving masters of the universe.

Thus DiSalvo uses a very unscientific approach to make assertions that undercut his profession, since both doing and writing about science require education and a certain modicum of intelligence.

In all of these attacks on intellectualism in the American mass media is a certain smugness, as if to say, we don’t have to read and we don’t have to study. I can understand climate change deniers or those who don’t want to teach evolution in the classroom having such an attitude. But someone who writes about science? You’d think DiSalvo would find another way to unify his lists of disparate homilies. For example, he could have just as easily written, “Ten Smart Things You Don’t Have to Go to College to Learn,” which is less confrontational and not overtly anti-intellectual.

I would be hard pressed to limit to 10 or even 25 the important things that I learned at college and graduate school—important principles of my profession of writing, ways to deal with people especially in big bureaucracies, success strategies for the real world, the scientific method and other ways of thinking. I’m just listing the topic areas, not the lessons.

And don’t get me started about the things I have learned from the many brilliant people among my relatives, professors, clients, colleagues and friends.

I bet DiSalvo’s list of things he learned from brilliant people and things he learned in college would be as long as mine.

Of course, no one would pay him to write an article about a list that praises science, at least not in the current mass marketplace of ideas, which prefers to celebrate ignorance.

Friday, July 17, 2015

OpEdge Redux: One lesson from the Tang Dynasty: the wealthy always find a way to control things

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on December 23, 2010.

I’ve been reading an excellent history of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled most of China from 618-907, during which time China experienced a Renaissance in literature and the arts, especially poetry.  It’s China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty by Mark Edward Lewis.  

Many books pad their pages past the direct subject to one degree or another.  For example, one writer will relate her factual tale with her reaction to it, another will reference the rock music and movie stars popular at the time.  Lewis’s padding adds richness to his story.  He projects the narrative both backward to the dynasties before the Tang and forward to the dynasties afterwards, especially the Song and Ming.  The result is a wonderful encapsulation of all of Chinese history, which of course gives an added level of meaning to the story of the Tang.

What I love about reading history is the many parallels I find to our current society and situation.  I have written before, for example, about the similarities between the United States in the post-War era and Spain in the 16th century under Phillip II.

Here’s the most interesting parallel between Tang and our current society that I’ve come across so far:  It was during the 300-year reign of the Tang that examination replaced coming from a wealthy family as the primary means of attaining a good government job.  We could call it the ascendancy of the meritocracy and it sounds a little like what happened in the United States beginning with establishment of the civil service in the 1880s.  The SAT and other standardized tests have in many ways become a similar gateway to a promising career that the examination system was in Imperial China.

And yet by the end of the Tang, virtually all the good government jobs were filled by the children of the wealthy.  How did it happen that a meritocracy developed that resulted in rewarding the rich rather than the inherently talented?  Lewis says (pages 203-204) that:
  • The wealthy were more able than others to spend a lot of money preparing their children for the exams. 
  • The exams were given only in the expensive and often faraway capitals, which put a financial burden on the poor students and their families, but not on the wealthy.
  • The little public education that existed in China eroded with the growth of the importance of the examination.  Convenient for the wealthy, who were also starting to pay fewer taxes, we learn elsewhere in the book
  • Many of the examiners knew the families of the wealthy applicants taking the exams.  Let’s call it the Imperial Chinese version of being a legacy at an Ivy League university.
Sounds familiar.  I imagine all the nicely situated but not super-wealthy Tang-era  families churning with anxiety as they tried to keep up with the wealthy in preparing their children for the examinations and ingratiating themselves with the examiners.  Do you think the mothers compared the benefits of the various private tutors over tea at the local Qĭ-Jiă (Star-buck in Chinese according to one online dictionary)? Do you suppose that among the voluminous output of poetry during the Tang there were guides to studying for the examination?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

OpEdge Redux: We should be asking more of business owners and executives than merely creating wealth for themselves

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on October 21, 2010.

I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of business ethics, and specifically about the actions that ethical business owners should and should not take in the course of running their businesses.  I’m not talking about what’s legal, but instead about what’s right, which is something altogether different. For example, we know that it was mostly legal for banks and mortgage brokers to write all those subprime loans, but it turns out that it wasn’t right because it ended up hurting our economy and our society.  In the same way, businesses make all kinds of “business” decisions that are legal, but which may not be helping society.

All the time we read public businesses extolling the fact that their job is to maximize value for their shareholders.  But don’t they have a responsibility to the communities that buy their products and services, build their roads, sewers and infrastructure, and protect their assets and employees? 

Many corporations and businesses talk about their social responsibility, and what they usually mean is contributing to nonprofit organizations, serving on boards and exhorting their employees to do the same.  All good, but what I’m talking about is not what a business does with its excess profits and the executives’ and other employees’ time, but how you run the business.

Those who have been following my blog for even a few weeks know that I take a fairly left-leaning stance on most political and social issues, and that I believe that as a society we need to address the related environmental issues of global warming, pollution and depletion of our natural resources.  So it won’t surprise you to see that a concern for social equity and environmental protection drives the following principles, which I am recommending to all businesses, large and small.

So here is the OpEdge “Pledge to America” that I believe owners of private companies and leaders of public companies should take:
  1. Subsidize mass transit for employees, but do not pay for parking for any employee who does not absolutely require an automobile to do the job. 
  2. Recycle and insist that the buildings in which you have operations or offices be “green,” which means making the facilities more energy efficient, recycling building waste and using recycled and recyclable building materials.  
  3. Pay all of the premiums for the most benefits-rich healthcare plan available for your employees.
  4. Make sure that it is clearly understood that the company will not tolerate any discrimination against employees, prospective employees, vendors or customers because of a person’s race, age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, disability, illness, obesity or lifestyle. By the way, besides being the right thing to do, it’s also the law of the land.
  5. Make sure that all employees, regardless of location across the globe, are paid the same rates for the same work and enjoy the same safety protections and that all facilities hew to the highest environmental standards, even if located in a country with relatively low standards.
  6. Do not mandate overtime as a way of life.  Getting rid of overtime not only helps the employee, but it helps the business as well.  People who work too much get tired and start making mistakes.  Everyone needs to get away from the office or factory floor to refresh and pursue their own interests.  
  7. Do not pay the owner or executives a total compensation package more than 20 times what the average full-time employee makes.  That seems like a lot (and by the way, my share of the take is smaller than 20 times the average of my employees), yet the ratio is much higher than that in the United States.  In fact in the United States, the average CEO makes about 350 times what her or his employee makes; it was about 42 times as great as the average worker in 1960.

I am guessing that many of my readers, including most of the business owners in the audience, are going to get angry at me for making these recommendations, especially the last one.  On the surface, it seems to be patently un-American to limit one’s pay, and almost all of these recommendations take money out of the pockets of owners and operators.   After all, isn’t it the owner who invests in the business, takes the risk, knows the most, has created the product or service and has to take responsibility for what the organization does?  Doesn’t the owner therefore deserve all she or he can get?

But how much is the business owner’s position based on nothing more than luck. I’ve gone over this line of thinking before. Business owners work hard, but so do most other people.  The business owner, though, has usually had a lot of luck.  Here are some of the luck factors that make some people wealthy and others not so well off:
  • Having a wealthy or prominent family.
  • Being born with a special skill or more intelligence than the average person.  No matter how hard a 5’0’’ male athlete works on his game, he’s not going to be able to keep up with the 7-foot Shaquille O’Neal. No matter how much a person of average intelligence studies, he or she won’t be able to keep up with someone with a photographic memory.
  • Marrying into a wealthy or prominent family.
  • Growing up in a family that has not been devastated by substance abuse, criminality or mental illness.
  • Being in the right place at the right time.
  • Meeting a mentor or someone connected who will take a special interest.
  • Not having an accident or dying young in a war.

In other words, as the philosopher Daniel Robinson points out in Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application, very successful people typically deserve much less credit for their success than we give them.  Much of their success is based on factors beyond their control. 

I’m really just asking the question that many ask all the time when hearing that Alex Rodriguez is making $25 million a year to play baseball or that Lady Gaga made tens of millions from a concert tour.  Does he, or she, deserve it?  And my answer is, yes, but only to a certain point.  After that, it’s a matter of the luck of the draw or the social conditions.

Another argument against my recommendations is that it will raise business costs so much that the owner or executive will have to lay off employees or even close down the business.   My answer to that is that in theory there may be some businesses that could be threatened if they implemented all my recommendations, and in those cases, I suggest that you start by limiting your income and then see what else you can do.  Remember: if your average employee is making $50,000 a year, I’m asking you to limit your total compensation to a maximum of $1.0 million a year.  I think that’s quite enough for anyone, even if the spouse isn’t working.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

OpEdge Redux: Day after day, news and entertainment media make unstated assumptions which define the American ideology

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on August 11, 2010

Of the several definitions of ideology in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, one is relevant to a discussion of communications and propaganda: “a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.”

What I call the ideological subtext of communications, be it in a TV ad, a news article, a billboard, a website or a movie, are the unspoken “content of thinking” assumed to be true in these media.  We can also call them the basic beliefs and values that the mainstream media share and advocate.  These assumptions color the selection of details of virtually all the media that we experience.  They are hammered into us from childhood to the point of brainwashing.

Over my first year of blogging, I have uncovered eight ideological principles that writers, advertisers and other “media workers” want us to take for granted.  Often asserting one or more of these tenets is the true purpose of a story; for example, all those articles a few months ago advocating that people with money walk away from underwater mortgages were really thinly veiled attempts to uphold several of these core assumptions.

I’m not pretending that these eight core tenets represent the entire American ideology.  These are just the ones that I have discovered time and again in the news and entertainment media and have discussed at length in my blog entries over the past year.  If anyone knows some others, please send them along to me, either as a response to the blog or to the OpEdge page on Facebook.

And just in case it does not go without saying, I want to be clear that I in fact disagree with all of these core tenets, which may be the reason I have identified them so easily.

Eight Core Tenets of the American Ideology:
  1.  The market solution is always good, whereas solutions to social problems involving the government are always bad.
  2. The best solution always is acting selfishly in one’s own best interest, whether it’s telling your kids to pay for their own college or walking away from a mortgage when you can make the payments; often called “the politics of selfishness.”
  3. The commercial transaction, that is, buying something, is the basis of all relationships, celebrations, manifestations of love, respect or all other emotional states, and every other emotional component of life.
  4. All values reduce to money—if it makes money it’s good and the only measure of value is how much money you have or earn.
  5. Learning and school are bad and all intellectual activity is to be despised or mocked.
  6. The most admirable people and most worthy of emulation are celebrities, especially movie, Internet and television entertainers.
  7. Suburbs are good and cities are bad.
  8. As a nation, we need the guidance of experts before making virtually all decisions, but only those experts whose advice is always the same: to buy something.
The fact that most of these core tenets have to do with money probably results from the source material: the news and entertainment media which to a large degree have dedicated themselves to selling the products and services of their advertisers and sponsors.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

OpEdge Redux: Again a writer uses accurate facts to propose something that isn’t true

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on July 27, 2010.

Over the weekend, Yahoo’s home page linked to an article titled “The Middle Class in America is Radically Shrinking. Here Are the Stats to Prove It.” on Yahoo! Finance. 

The article originally appeared in “The Business Insider,” and was written by Michael Snyder, editor of a website called, which builds a case for a coming economic meltdown while selling survivalist paraphernalia.  The menu bar selections on Snyder’s website include Gold Coins, Silver Coins, Emergency Food and Water Filters, all leading to portals with links to articles and a display of products for sale, gold at Gold Coins, silver at Silver Coins, et. al.

The article lists 22 statistics that demonstrate that the middle class is shrinking.  While none of the stats cited references, I am fairly confident that all 22 are correct, as I have seen many of these facts before, for example at the Who Rules America website.

Some of Snyder’s stats:
  • 82 percent of U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
  • The top 1% of U.S. households owns nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
  • Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.

All well and good, until we come to Snyder’s conclusion, which is to blame the growing inequities in wealth in the United States on globalization and free trade.  For example, Snyder writes that “It turns out that they didn't tell us that the ’global economy’ would mean that middle class American workers would eventually have to directly compete for jobs with people on the other side of the world where there is no minimum wage and very few regulations. The big global corporations have greatly benefited by exploiting third world labor pools over the last several decades, but middle class American workers have increasingly found things to be very tough.”

There’s one big problem, though: other Western-style industrialized nations have not seen the same growing inequality.  The economies in Germany, France and the other EU democracies are saddled with the same high labor costs and safety regulations, yet there has not been the same pulling apart of incomes, not the same gutting of the middle classes, not the same transfer of wealth upwards that we have seen over the past 30 years in the United States.  Even Japan, which has suffered through two decades of stagflation, still has less wealth concentrated at the top than the United States does.

Why is that?

Unlike these other democracies, the United States has been on an active program to redistribute wealth upwards over the past 30 years.  I’ve written about this trend before, but here are some examples of actions that our nation has taken that move money upwards:
  • A series of tax cuts, the most substantial of which being those of Bush II, have significantly decreased what the wealthy pay while giving only token cuts to the middle class and poor.
  • The outsourcing of government functions to private sector companies, whose executives tend to make more money than public-sector executives and whose lower level employees tend to make less money than public workers.
  • The gutting of our safety net for the poor.
  • The uptick in anti-union activity, such as the hammering of the air traffic controllers union, the reshaping of the National Labor Relations Board, the charter school movement (which seeks to substitute low-paid nonunion teachers for higher-paid unionized ones), and the current war on the salaries of public sector employees.  Remember that unionization creates middle class jobs, especially for blue and pink collar workers.

None of these things have happened in Japan or Western Europe.  Looking at the pay of CEOs you can see clearly why there is a greater inequality of wealth in the United States than in any other industrialized nation.  These particular numbers come from a PBS special of a few years:

CEO Pay Compared To Average Worker
11 times as great
12  “              “
15 “              “
20  “              “
20  “              “
22  “              “
United States
475!!  “          “

By the way, in 1960, the average CEO in the United States made a mere 45 times what the average worker did.

All of these other nations are among the wealthiest in the world.  All have willingly globalized their economies.  All pay higher wages and have higher safety standards than third-world competitors.  But it is only in the United States that there has been a significant redistribution of wealth upwards from the middle class and the poor.

Snyder got his facts right about the U.S. becoming a nation of rich and poor, but his explanation that globalization is the sole cause does not hold water.

FYI, the first time I wrote about the U.S. becoming a nation of rich and poor was in five-part TV news miniseries called “To Have and Have Not,” which I did while a television news reporter in 1982 for “Business Today,”  a now-defunct national business news show.  

Monday, July 13, 2015

OpEdge Redux: What is missing in the new movie version of Robin Hood other than the original myth and lead character?

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on May 14, 2010.

I won’t be seeing the new Robin Hood until I can get it on Netflix, but people are talking about it now and I do want to get my three cents worth in.  I will refrain from comment on the quality of this new Robin Hood, except to note that for my money, the Errol Flynn version is the greatest adventure film of all time.  But I do want to comment on its historical place, and I mean beyond movies but in the history of myths.

Before anything else, Robin Hood is a myth.

Generations and societies reanimate specific myths when the myth reflects its current ideology and concerns.  Some myths are so powerful that all societies expropriate them, sometimes changing them completely.  The longer a myth is around the more likely it will mutate beyond recognition. 

But every myth will have a classic retelling.  For example, the classic retelling of the Trojan War is Homer.  In the variation by Stesichorus of Sicily, the gods secretly transfer Helen to Egypt and send a dream version to Paris at Troy.  But in every version, a woman causes a war. 

Let’s enumerate the central elements of the Robin Hood myth:
  • Steals from the rich and gives to the poor
  • Revolt against oppression
  • Loyal to the King, but not to the King’s ministers  
  • Involves an interesting group of fighters, each of whom represents a different class in society, and in most retellings, different archetypal caricatures, e.g., the strong man or the man of the cloth who takes to action  

Before moving on, I want to note that in one way or another, this enumeration of themes reveals how myths borrow from each other.  These four elements are central to the Chinese classic novel—and my nominee as the greatest novel of all time—Outlaws of the Marsh (also known as The Water Margin, Marsh Chronicles and All Men are Brothers.  In it, there are 108 finely etched Robin, Little John and Friar Tuck type characters.  Under their charismatic leader, Song Jiang, this ragtag gang remains loyal always to the Emperor while waging ruthless (and brilliant) war against his armies, which are controlled by corrupt and oppressing ministers.  Remember that Robin Hood and his men never waiver in their loyalty to King Richard the Lion Hearted.  The myths of Song Jiang and his bandits and of Robin Hood and his merry men emerged roughly around the same time, 1,000-1,400 of the common era. 

Now some might say that another element of the Robin Hood myth (again shared with the myth of the Chinese outlaws of the marsh) are the episodes that define its episodic quality—it is told as a series of “set pieces,” each one elaborating a different lesson or personality: Robin meets the Friar; Robin meets Little John; Robin wins the archery competition in disguise; Robin feeds the poor; Robin demonstrates allegiance to the King.  Another aside: demonstration of allegiance to the King is what makes the story palatable to the ruling elites: it’s not the system that’s corrupt, just a couple of bad apples.

I’m not sure if these set pieces are inherent to the myth or not.  What after all do we remember about Oedipus except that he killed his father and slept with his mother? What do we remember about Prometheus or Sisyphus other than their punishments?  Over time, most myths lose the messy details of the first or classic tellings and reduce, like a fine sauce, to one or a few symbolic themes.  The fact that any given retelling of Robin Hood does not hew to the episodes of the classic Errol Flynn version doesn’t  mean that the creators are not being true to the myth.

But it does do a great violence to the original myth by turning Robin Hood from proto-socialist to libertarian as the current Russell Crowe version does according to virtually every review (New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews).  It makes you wonder why they bother to deface the Robin Hood myth instead of selecting another myth more in keeping with the ideology of the creators and financial backers?  Or why not create a brand new story of a rag-tag group of citizens rebelling against steep taxation? 

I think the answer is in the commercial need to keep cranking out new narrative art that can serve as a platform for selling a multitude of ancillary products.  The economics of the entertainment system return more to investors through creating a new Robin Hood—even one in which the character does not resemble the myth—than in rereleasing the Errol Flynn version.

The myth machine in our post-Industrial leisure society is voracious and takes everything, but remakes it into its own image.  The myth is sent through the Hollywood homogenization machine which involves:
  • Updating the ideology, which in this case Reaganizing it—the demons are not corrupt officials of the King who steal from the poor but an unfair taxation system
  • Expanding the market by using techniques of other genres, e.g., adding a strong woman warrior
  • Showing more explicit violence
  • Creating sequences that resemble video games.

The reviews tell us that the new version of Robin Hood has gone through this homogenization process.  The result of course is that the details of all these contemporary sci fi and adventure movies tend to resemble each other, just as the menus at Outback, Damon’s, Chili’s and other casual upscale dining chains tend to look alike despite the fact that one is vaguely Australian in its visual presentation, one Mexican, one “classic ribs,” etc.  The brand is nothing more than a name that conjures weak associations with myths that people associate with one sentence or one theme, or in the case of the restaurants, an ethnic cuisine. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

OpEdge Redux: In Stouffer’s post-modern America, you don’t eat because you’re hungry, but to have a relationship with your spouse

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on April 8, 2010.

My entry into frozen food giant Stouffer’s “Let’s Fix Dinner” marketing campaign came via a two-page, full-color ad in  AARP Magazine, the bimonthly slick lifestyle magazine of the American Association of Retired People, which claims to have the largest circulation of any magazine in the entire world.  So before taking a look at why "Let's Fix Dinner" is a  prime example of the commercialization of relationships in contemporary society, I want to first describe the ad, which is the sizzle to the sizzle, that is, the whistle-buzzer that makes us notice the twisted messaging that is supposed to entice us to buy the product.

The right page of this two-page ad is a sexy pose of an overweight couple in their 40s, fully dressed in front of an abstract aquamarine background, but looking like they’re about to take off their clothes and do it, except she’s wearing an oven mitt.  The “VH1 pop-up video” style headline is “Are oven mitts the key to a successful relationship?” followed by a smaller headline in another typeface and different pop-up balloon, “Dinner is a great time for couples to reconnect, and catch up with each other face to face.”  At the bottom of the page is a short paragraph that starts “Amazing the difference a real meal can make,” then proceeds to sell Stouffer’s frozen “Mac & Cheese.”  The most striking thing about the ad is the carnality in the expressions of these two truly chunky people.

In the left hand ad, Stouffer’s takes a more conventional approach to advertising prepared food:  It’s a very copy-heavy ad with a photo in the top third of another middle-aged couple—very fit, light-skinned African-Americans—in the kitchen embracing while she handles pair of tongs.  The rest of the ad is brimming with words, including four paragraphs about the four steps to connecting with your partner.  Here are the headlines for each step:
  1. Slow down to reconnect
  2. Make conversation
  3. Keep it simple, sweetheart
  4. Join the Stouffer’s challenge

“Keep it simple,” of course, means buy Stouffer’s “solutions for delicious, nutritious meals without the fuss.”  The challenge is to make a personal commitment to have dinner with your spouse more often.  For help in meeting this commitment, Stouffer’s sends you to  This left-side full-page ad also crowds in small photos of the frozen lasagna and the ever-popular, ever-chic macaroni & cheese.  As the ad says, “Add a little candlelight and you’ve got a romantic meal for two.”

While the two-page ad focuses on the romantic needs of the empty-nester, the website really is for families with children.  It is a very infotaining website, i.e., it mixes information and entertainment in a light-hearted, happy kind of way.  Among the whistles and buzzers are pages of factoids; features on real families in a kind of “reality” webcasting; a survey to take; and of course product information.  There is also a page to sign-up for the Stouffer’s “Let’s Fix Dinner” Challenge.  Once you’re signed up, you get points and entries into a sweepstakes every time you record another dinner that the entire family had together.  Last time I was on the website, it stated on the homepage that people in the challenge have reported making 98,974 family dinners.

The home page is very easy on the eyes:  the centerpiece is a rotating wide-screen box that consists of a happy image of a family or family member and three pop-up balloons, in which there are three pieces of highly structured copy, as we will see in this example:
  • Balloon #1/A provocative statement: “Can placemats keep your kids off drugs?”
  • Balloon #2/A factoid: “Studies show that teens in families that have dinner together five times a week are 45% less likely to drink and 66% less likely to take drugs.”
  • Balloon #3/A squib of real-life conversation from one of the “real” families featured on the website: “‘Okay, I’m resolving to clear all my stuff off the dining room table so we can actually use it!’  Sarah, San Diego, CA”

There are five of these billboards that rotate onto the home page, one after the other. Four of them focus on families with children.  The empty nester one features a photo of the chubby but horny couple from the AARP Magazine ad.

Stouffer’s and its advertising mavens and mavessess put a lot of work into creating a marketing campaign and website in which every detail down to the last factoid and image focuses on making the message.

And what’s the message?  That Stouffer’s frozen dinners are delicious? No.

That Stouffer’s meals are nutritious? No. 

That these food products can contribute to a healthy weight-loss program? No. 

That Stouffer’s gives you a way to feed a family cheaply? Again, no.

That Stouffer’s is a fast way to chow down? Not exactly.

No, in fact, the central message is not about food at all.  It’s about the benefits of the family eating dinner together (something that my always busy family did about six nights a week, both when I was a child and a father).  The way that Stouffer’s facilitates this togetherness is pretty much unexplained.  It’s taken for granted that the post-modern 21st century consumer knows the product-related benefits of frozen dinners, (which in the old days used to be called TV dinners because they were used to bring the family together for the Ed Sullivan  and Dinah Shore shows).

Once again, the U.S. people face an urgent social problem, or in this case a knot of related social problems that include the transmission of basic middle class values, school performance, teenaged substance abuse and conjugal sex.  And once again, U.S. industry and commerce come up with an answer. 

And it’s always the same answer: Buy something.

Beneath Stouffer’s sophisticated attempt to attach the values of family life and interfamilial relationships to its frozen dinners is the basic ideological subtext that a commercial transaction will solve your problem, whatever it is.  And it’s so simple!  You don’t have to spend any time together chopping meat or sautéing vegetables.  No need to even boil water.  Just pop it in the microwave and serve, with candles or hip-hop music or maybe both.   

And therein lies the significance of featuring macaroni and cheese so prominently.  Mac & cheese represents the epitome of comfort food that makes us feel nice and warm inside about family life.  It is also about the easiest meal there is to make from scratch.   But it does require boiling water, chopping cheese and measuring out some milk.  And those things can be great distractions when you’re trying to work on a family relationship.  But Stouffer’s makes it even easier than making mac & cheese from scratch.  All you do is pop it in the microwave.  And now you’ve got food preparation out of the way, that’s the hard part.  The rest of building strong family relationships will be easy, because you’ve done all the hard work already – you’ve bought something.   

Editorial: Court’s Still No Friend

Progressives heaved a sigh of relief when the Supreme Court ended its term the last week of June with two major decisions — the first that saved subsidies for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and the second that recognized that gay Americans deserve the same consideration under the law as heterosexual Americans when it comes to marriage. But two good decisions do not make a moderate court — not when liberals depend on the swing vote of conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Justice Kennedy deserves credit for joining the four liberal justices on King v. Burwell (the Obamacare subsidies) and Obergefell v. Hodges (the constitutional right to gay marriage). Chief Justice John Roberts gets an “attaboy” for joining Kennedy and the libs on King v. Burwell, but he lapsed back with the right wingers in condemning the majority’s decision to order the states to allow gay marriages.

Kennedy also helped the liberals uphold the authority of independent redistricting commissions — usually set up by voter initiatives — to strip legislators of their ability to gerrymander their own district lines. Had the Court ruled in favor of the Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, other independent redistricting commissions, including California’s, would have been imperiled.

And Kennedy helped the liberals uphold the use of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to prove discrimination using statistics to show that a challenged practice had produced a “disparate impact.” The plaintiffs had tried to find housing for low-income clients, who are mostly black families, in white suburbs but many landlords did not accept the housing vouchers. Landlords receiving federal low-income tax credits are required to accept the vouchers, but the fair housing group argued that state officials had violated the Fair Housing Act by giving a disproportionate share of tax credits to landlords in minority neighborhoods.

But Kennedy returned to the right wing in awarding polluters a victory over the EPA on June 29 when the Court on a 5-4 vote stopped the Environmental Protection Agency from setting limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from power plants. The right wingers ruled that the EPA violated the Clean Air Act when it failed to undertake a cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether to set limits on the pollutants.

The EPA has said the economic benefits of reducing mercury from power plants would be between $4 and $9 billion. But the EPA also has estimated that the total health and related benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxins Standards regulation were estimated to reach $89 billion annually, Kamil Ahsan noted at

Walter Dellinger, the Clinton administration’s advocate to the Supreme Court, told NPR’s Nina Totenberg the split among the conservatives is between “ideological, professorial conservatives” — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia — and Roberts and Kennedy, “who are more economic conservatives, which makes them more pragmatic and more realistic about what works.”

Dellinger adds that 3-2 split “in some ways reflects the split within the larger Republican Party politically.”

The court’s right wing has systematically dismantled limits on plutocrats and even corporations exerting control over politicians, and in 2013 struck down the key provision of the Voting Rights Act that Congress had enacted and re-enacted by overwhelming votes.

Chief Justice Roberts might be getting that right-wing team back together for a lawsuit that aims to gut public employees unions. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Assn., attacks agency-shop provisions that are standard in public-employee union contracts nationwide.

Agency-shop provisions stem from the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which addressed the “free-rider” problem of public employee unions—workers who declined to join up but benefited from union bargaining on wages and working conditions.

The unions were required by law to represent all employees in negotiations, so the court held that the nonmembers could be assessed a fee tied to union expenses in negotiating and enforcing their contracts. But they couldn’t be charged for that portion of union dues associated with political activities.

The court set the case for argument sometime in its next term, which begins in October.

Crocodile Tears on Healthcare Mergers

Republican misleaders were disappointed on June 25 when Obamacare survived another right-wing challenge, as the Supreme Court on a 6-3 vote ruled that an apparent drafting error in a reference to the statewide health exchanges did not invalidate the subsidies the Affordable Care Act provides to help 6.4 million lower middle-class Americans buy health insurance.

But Republicans, unwilling to make peace with Obamacare, now blame the health reforms for a series of healthcare mergers, saying that new regulations make it tougher for smaller companies to survive.

The biggest proposed merger is a $35 billion deal announced by Aetna and Humana on July 3. The new company would include 33 million members, or roughly 13% of people with health insurance in the US.

The turn toward consolidation is also worrying smaller providers, which fear they might lose leverage to the larger insurance companies, Sarah Ferris noted at (July 8).

Aetna and Humana are two of the nation’s five biggest health insurers, a group that includes UnitedHealth Group, Cigna and Anthem. Each of the companies have been eying the others for months, exploring potential takeover bids as they navigate the new rules and markets under the Affordable Care Act, Ferris reported.

In June, Anthem Inc. announced a massive $47 billion offer to buy Cigna, which so far has rejected the buyout. July 2, a $6.3 billion deal was struck between two smaller insurers, Centene Corp. and Health Net Inc., which would leave the new company with 10 million members and $37 billion in revenues.
The merger activity is fueling new attacks from Republicans, who believe it supports their longtime claim that the healthcare law would drive up premiums.

Senate Majority Misleader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted the proposed takeover of Louisville-based Humana as “the inevitable result of Obamacare’s push toward consolidation as doctors, hospitals, and insurers merge in response to an ever-growing government.”

Still, Edmund Haislmaier, a senior health research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, urged caution when pointing to Obamacare as the sole cause of consolidation.

“You have to be careful not to over interpret it. A lot have other factors involved,” he told The Hill, adding that companies have been looking to trim costs and expand their footprint long before the Affordable Care Act.

The mergers should be fully examined by the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, and health insurance premiums still are regulated under the ACA. But if Republicans really are concerned that consolidation might harm consumers, there is a simple fix: Allow individuals and businesses to buy into the Medicare system as a public option.

The Congressional Budget Office in November 2013 found that a public option based on Medicare would reduce the deficit by $158 billion through reduced spending and increased revenue—and it would lower premiums for millions of regular Americans and businesses by 7 to 8 percent during the 2016-2023 period, compared with premiums for private plans. CBO estimated that 35% of the people who would get insurance through the exchanges—either individually or through an employer—would enroll in the public plan.

It’s so easy, and makes so much sense that Republicans will never let it happen. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2015

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Selections from the August 1, 2015 issue