Corporations don’t have to break laws as Volkswagen did to manipulate & cheat the public

Volkswagen’s use of manipulative software to conceal that its diesel engines couldn’t pass emissions inspections is far from the first time that a large corporation has broken the law to cheat the public, not even the first time this year. Cheating can show up in any industry, as demonstrated by the Peanut Corporation of America executives who knowingly sold the public peanut butter tainted with salmonella.

These companies knowingly broke laws that regulate the marketplace. Weakened as government oversight has been by the general starvation of all non-military government functions over the past 35 years, the American public is indeed fortunate we caught both Volkswagen and the peanut-mongers.

Most Americans, regardless of their political views, are appalled by Volkswagen’s treachery, although I have yet to see or hear anyone come up with a proposal to prevent these acts of corporate manipulation from repeating. The answer, of course, is obvious: spend more money inspecting products and facilities and more aggressively prosecute companies that break the law and their executives and directors. But common sense will often ruffle the feathers of large industries and their elected factotums.

Extremist supporters of the unfettered free market always assume that corporations will uphold the highest standards of ethical behavior and those that don’t will soon be unmasked and ultimately fail. This overarching theory gives no thought to what happens to the innocent people killed and hurt during the period in which the “marketplace” “naturally” removes these bad apples.

The more reasonable among free market advocates admit the need for regulations, but insist that the regulated industry must develop the regulations. It’s this approach that leads to phone tariffs and securities regulations that limit damages and emissions requirements that always go into effect years after the laws are passed.

In fact, industry has so many ways to manipulate individuals and communities that it’s surprising that a company ever feels it has to break the law to make a profit.

Industry has a great say on the overall policy and economic strategies that the federal government and the states formulate and implement. Reading Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars by leading transportation engineer Samuel I. Schwartz, reminded me of how much sway corporations and industries have over government. Take our spending on infrastructure improvement: Almost 80% of it goes to highways and only 20% of it goes to mass transit. Highway spending has established and now reinforces a way of life that is leading to resource shortages and human-induced global warming. Not good for the public, but a car-centric lifestyle helps the automobile industry, the oil industry and suburban developers.

By the way, Schwartz demonstrates that this enormous decades-long financial support of car-and-mall culture has not been enough to make living in car-centric areas less expensive. While people complain that cities with mass transit are the most expensive in which to live, as of 2010 the average person in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston all spent less of their household budget on housing and transportation combined than the average person did in Riverside, Miami, Jacksonville, San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta or Columbus, all of which have lower housing costs but much higher costs to travel from home to work, school and recreation. (Of course, San Francisco and New York have seen real estate booms over the past five years that may change the numbers somewhat). See p. 111 of Schwartz’s book for a chart with details.

Schwartz’s main interest in Street Smart is to advocate for a series of innovations that will help move people from place to place more quickly and create more mixed-use neighborhoods in which people can walk to retail stores, restaurants and other amenities. But along the way, Schwartz reminds us of other ways that large corporations manipulate the public for their own ends.

Let’s start with suppressing the competition. Schwartz is far from the first to write about the two companies formed by General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil of California and other large companies in 1936 that bought electric train and trolley systems in at least 45 cities, including Los Angeles, St. Louis, Baltimore and Newark, and then shut them down in favor of oil-burning buses. The federal government finally realized that the series of ostensibly legal actions like forming a company, buying other companies and reallocating assets constituted a conspiracy to restrain trade and indicted one of the shell companies in 1947. The corporations were convicted of some crimes, but not others, and had to pay fines of $5,000 per company and $1 per chief executive officer.

Schwartz also alludes to companies putting out false propaganda and supporting phony research. His examples, all financed by the Koch brothers, are climate change (a term I have come to despise, because it is so squeamishly euphemistic), healthcare reform and the United Nation’s nonbinding blueprint for sustainable development called Agenda 21. Without consulting sources, we can quickly add Coca Cola, the tobacco companies, pharmaceutical companies and automobile companies to the list of companies supporting false research, on such topics as the benefits of exercise versus calorie-counting in losing weight; the health hazards of smoking; the efficacy of a number of prescription drugs; and the real cost to install safety measures in vehicles or meet emission standards.

Perhaps the most disturbing way that corporations manipulate the public, individuals and the government to make more profit is to write legislation and spend money to defeat or pass laws. We know generally that the American Legislative Exchange Council routinely produces model bills which are introduced in state legislatures by the elected officials they control. This legislation generally hurts the public, and includes new laws to reduce corporate regulation and taxation, loosen environmental regulations, make it harder to vote, weaken labor unions and promote gun rights. In Street Smart, Schwartz gives some disgusting examples of what Americans for Prosperity and the Reason Foundation—two Koch Brothers-financed organizations—and their millions did in one year alone, 2014: undermined a Nashville plan for dedicated transit lines; forbade Indianapolis from studying a light rail system; killed Florida’s plans for a high-speed rail system which voters had overwhelmingly approved; and unsuccessfully opposed the expansion of the Washington DC Metro and the LA Exposition Line rail system.

We haven’t even mentioned how corporations control the political process with political contributions and influence over the news media through advertising and ownership.

With all these legal ways to fix the game in their favor, it strikes me that only the most venal and stupid of corporate executives ever explicitly break the law the way Volkswagen and Peanut Corporation honchos did.

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10 more innocent victims sacrificed to a misreading of the 2nd amendment

As of this writing, the unanswered question is how Chris Harper Mercer obtained the gun he used to kill 10 people at Umpqua Community College.

The police easily reconstructed a profile of Mercer, and it’s a chillingly familiar one: Young male, antisocial, withdrawn, without real relationships, mental problems that his family and others recognized.

So how did he get his guns? Did he buy them legally? Did his mother get them for him?  The New York Times reports that when a reporter asked a neighbor whether he ever saw Mercer with a gun, the reply was “I’d rather not say,” which sounds like he was thinking “Yes, I saw him with a gun and I knew he was crazy and now I feel like dog meat.”

“I’ve been waiting to do this for years,” Mercer told a professor before gunning him down, according to a CNN report.  Combine this statement with the ease at which he operated his firearms and the fact that he had three with him: two handguns and a long gun, which is a gun with an extra-long barrel. Consider all these facts and we can only conclude that someone who knew he was unbalanced also knew he liked to pack. It defies reason to believe that none of the people who suspected this kid was mentally ill knew he liked guns and had a few.

We cannot, however, blame mental illness for what Mercer did. Nor can we blame his parents, do-nothing neighbors or guidance counselors at whatever schools he attended. We shouldn’t even blame the gun dealers who sold the weapons, assuming that they followed all existing laws at the time.

The blame falls fully on the laws themselves—correction, the lack of laws regulating the sale, ownership and use of guns in the United States.

Even though the federal government banned the use of tax dollars to study gun safety years ago, enough research exists to state unequivocally that the more guns there are in a society, the more people will die and be wounded by guns. Nations in which there are few guns have lower rates of gun deaths. The United States with the highest number of guns in the hands of its citizens has the highest number of gun deaths per capita a year.

It’s true that criminals will get guns no matter how few guns there are afloat in society. It’s also true that no one can stop the psychopath or spurned lover who wants to take out a dozen or more people with a spray of bullets

But if we had fewer guns, we would have fewer deaths, fewer mass murders and fewer crimes committed with firearms. That’s tragically clear from the available research.

We need to act on virtually every front on the local, state and federal levels to control the distribution and use of firearms. Here is what I would propose:

  • Increase the wait time for firearms purchases to a month and make the application process more rigorous.
  • Require gun owners to get a license with testing requirements at least as rigorous as those required to drive a car; include a psychological test as one the requirements.
  • Ban the sale and use of all automatic weapons and ammunition.
  • Make all states participate in a national gun registry and implement an active campaign to improve the information in that registry.
  • Ban private citizens carrying firearms on all college campuses and in all public buildings, modes of public transportation, arenas, movie theatres, other entertainment venues, restaurants, malls and retail outlets.
  • Ban carrying firearms by employees in their places of employment or their employer’s parking lots, unless as a requirement of the job.
  • Repeal all “stand your ground” laws.

Evoking the Second Amendment has always been a canard. The National Rifle Association and others opposed to gun control laws make two mistakes: 1) They wrongly infer that infringe means “can’t regulate”; 2) They misunderstand that the stipulated purpose of private ownership of firearms in the Constitution was to allow participation in a militia (volunteer army).

Despite what the gun lobby says, the gun control issue is not a matter of personal freedom, unless you propose that people should have absolute freedom to do whatever they like with no constraints regardless of the impact on others. No, gun control is a matter of safety and the social contract by which we all agree to follow certain rules for the good of all of us.

As it turns out, only about one third of American households own guns, down from more than 50% in 1978. Almost 90% of all Americans and three-quarters of NRA member support stiffer gun control laws. Thus, less than one third of the country is bullying the rest of us to accept guns and the death and destruction they bring.

It’s time for the voters in the two-thirds of all households without guns to let their elected officials and the candidates know that if they want the vote, they better support implementing tough gun control laws.

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Pope is right to hate cap-and-trade, which is akin to the Church selling indulgences

Yale economist William Nordhaus writes as if he wants to address human-induced global warming—euphemistically called “climate change” even by the most ardent environmentalists—but I think he loves what he calls “the market” more than he does the environment.

You can see him grasping for straws to balance his love or humankind and other living things and his greater love for the “market” in his recent New York Review of Books critique of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment and capitalism. While he applauds the Pope’s concern for the environment, he essentially condemns the Pope for specifically rejecting the use of carbon credits. To do so, he has to take a leap of faith similar to the one taken by Pascal and Kierkegaard. But instead of leaping towards a silent, hidden god, Nordhaus leaps towards the infallibility of “markets.”

Nordhaus does a good job of describing how the carbon credit system, also called cap-and-trade, operates, so I’ll repeat his brief explanation: Cap-and-trade begins with actions by which a country, through its government, caps or limits its carbon dioxide emissions. The country then auctions or issues a limited number of ‘emissions permits.’ These convey the right to emit a given quantity of emissions. Firms that own the permits can use them or sell them on carbon markets, while firms who need them can purchase permits. The advantage of establishing a market in permits is that it ensures that emissions are used in the most productive manner.”

The Pope rightly asserts that the trading of carbon credits can lead to speculation and enables countries and industrial sectors to buy the right to pump excessive pollution into the environment. The Pope doesn’t mention another problem with trading carbon credits: it give these dirty industrial companies and utilities absolutely no incentive to clean up their acts.

It makes sense that the Pope condemns markets. Markets by their nature are brutal, because they reduce everything to money, and not to the well-being of a community and its members. The market assumes that all market players are individuals, responsible for their own selves. Market theory further assumes that the mostly unguided action of all these individual players will lead to the greatest good for all. This basic premise strikes me to be as much based on faith as is the idea that a half god-half man born of a virgin died for our sins and came back to life three days later. I have a feeling that Pope Francis would rate the absurdity of the invisible hand much lower.

I’m uncertain why Nordhaus has so much faith in markets, when it is the market economy that has helped to create the environmental mess in which we find ourselves in several ways: 1) The market hides the social cost of pollution by reducing the value and cost of producing goods and services to dollars and cents; 2) The market mentality has contributed to the rampant consumerism that has infected all western-style economies, thereby driving the rapid rise of greenhouse gases, resource shortages and other environmental challenges.

Like all those who believe in the religion of free markets, Nordhaus has to construct an overly complicated argument for why the current market does not work to benefit the environment. Basically, he (and others) say that environmental degradation results from “distorted market signals” that put too low a price on environmental effects. The good professor uses as his examples the water shortage in California and people dying before their time because of small sulfur particles in the air. In both cases, he blames underpricing—if people paid more for water or air pollution, they would use less. That argument ignores the fact that the wealthy won’t care what they pay, which will engender an inequality in resource access similar to the gapping inequality in wealth that currently exists throughout the planet. It also ignores the fact that water and some of the products made in processes that emit sulfur particles are necessities for human life.

Nordhaus is talking in convoluted euphemisms. What he means to say is that the market isn’t working because it’s leading to the carbon-loading of the atmosphere and oceans.

And his solution for something that isn’t working? Create another thing just like it. A market for the right to pollute.

Wouldn’t it be much simpler just to set limits for each industry and make companies pay huge fines and shut facilities if they can’t meet the standards? Sure prices will go up, but I assert that instead of raising prices, corporations could absorb some of the costs to pay for pollution controls, more fuel-efficient processes and alternative energy. All they have to do is shrink the profit before paying executive salaries, bonuses and benefits. In other words, executives could choose to pay themselves and shareholders less.  That certainly won’t happen with cap-and-trade.

The essence of cap-and-trade is a dirty company paying a clean company so that it can keep polluting. The immorality of this market solution will leap into focus when you think about rich folk paying people to serve in the military in their place during the Civil War. What about someone who paid the Catholic Church money to receive absolution for sins or a church office for a ne’er-do-well nephew in the 15th and 16th centuries?  These situations rightly offend us. Cap-and-trade is the very same thing. Nordhaus’ argument that cap-and-trade enables society to use its carbon emissions most productively would apply to the wealthy draft dodger or church manipulator. Why get the wealthy banker’s son shot up when he could be making lots of money that he will use to build an art collection to donate to a museum for a tax write-off?

In both the analogies I gave, an informal market was created: Buying and selling humans for slaughter. Buying and selling church favors. Buying and selling the pollutants that are rapidly degrading our planet. Do you see a difference?  I don’t, nor does Pope Francis. Only a true believer in markets blinded by the invisible hand would.

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Resignation of Boehner gives Obama opportunity to spread mainstream Big Lie that he & other Democrats are leftwing

In commenting about John Boehner’s resignation from Speaker of the House and Congress, President Obama told the Big Lie in American politics. It’s a lie that virtually all mainstream politicians tell and that’s presented positively by most Democrats and negatively by all Republicans.

The lie is that Boehner and Obama are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Now the President didn’t spell it out in detail, but what he communicated to everyone when he said he and Boehner are on opposite ends of the political spectrum is that Obama is on the left and Boehner is on the right. To be sure, Boehner is to the right of Obama, although there are many such as Ted Cruz and Kevin McCarthy who are much farther right than the retiring Boehner.

But Barack Obama, like so many in the Democratic Party, are centrists looking left. Certainly Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are left of Obama, but that doesn’t even begin to cover the possible ground to the left of our president. Think of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or FDR’s best VP, Henry Wallace.  If we expand to all the legitimate stable democracies of the world, the right-centrists in countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian countries are to the left of Barack Obama. And then we come to Willie Brandt and Helmut Schmidt and the golden age of democratic socialism.

If we were to analyze the positions advocated in the work of legitimate sociologists, political scientists and historians in the English speaking world—those who don’t depend on think tanks for funding, we would find that Obama would at best be a centrist.

And let’s not forget that Obama typically follows the hawkish right-looking American foreign policy of the last 70 years. He is not as hawkish as the Republicans who want to bomb everything that moves in the Middle East outside of Israel, but Obama is in favor of using drones, developing automated weapons, wholesale NSA spying on citizens, using foreign policy to help large U.S. multinational corporations grow their businesses and projecting a strong U.S. military presence throughout the world. Of course, no person can be elected president who does not accept the basic premises of the military-industrial complex.

It is only in the bizarre world of 21st American mainstream politics, truncated by big money and a rightwing news media, that Barack Obama can imply that he is a the left end of the spectrum with a straight face and not have a dozen journalists call him on it.

The news media has always kept the American public firmly focused on maintaining the myth that a narrow part of the political spectrum represents all possibilities. And since 1980, that narrow part of the spectrum has moved considerably rightward, to the point that on all but the very basic social issues such as gay marriage, Barack Obama and the Clintons are about where Dwight Eisenhower was in the 1950s.

The news media defines the terms of the debate in many ways, including:

  • Defining the issues in terms of rightwing language and predilections, e.g., assuming we have to cut the deficit and discussing spending cuts but not tax increases to eliminate the deficit.
  • Allowing the ultra-right to have their views aired in the public forum, while ignoring anyone left of mainstream Democrats.
  • Selection of Op/Ed experts and academic studies they publish. My favorite example in recent years was the extensive coverage that the media gave to a study that showed that an enormous number of TV weather personalities—half of whom are talking heads and none of whom are experts in climatology—have doubts about global warming, while completely ignoring a study that demonstrated how the world could produce twice the electricity it needs using clean wind energy.
  • Using the so-called fairness doctrine to let rightwing lies gain or maintain credence, for example quoting both sides in debates that have already been settled such as human-created global warming and the safety of vaccines. In both instances, a story will quote the one expert who doubts global warming or thinks that vaccines cause autism and one of the 99+% of all the experts who rightfully think that humans are causing global warming or that vaccines are safe.
  • Letting rightwing lies stand. The media is willing to go after politicians who lie about their own accomplishments like Carly Fiorina or behave hypocritically (e.g., gay politicians who condemn other gays, such as ex-Senator Larry Craig). But they are much more reluctant to highlight policy lies, such as the lie that raising the minimum wage destroys jobs or that we are undergoing a crime wave.
  • Selective coverage, for example, covering right-wing politicians but not progressives; focusing on Republican primaries in which to right-wingers are battling it out, but not Democratic primaries. To see what I mean, try looking up the instances when the “liberal” New York Times calls a Democratic politician “brave” in a feature story over the past five years. In virtually all instance, that politician is fighting unions.

When compared to the corporate factotums who are most of the current crop of American politicians, Obama looks very good to progressives. But compared to the possibilities that exist out there, he is a centrist. A true progressive would favor a wealth tax—a tax that people pay annually on all assets over a certain amount, say $5 million. A true progressive would never favor any movement such as charter schools that hurts unions. A true progressive would clamor for single-payer nationalized health insurance. A true progressive would advocate the unilateral dismantling of all nuclear weapons.

Thus, while we could label Barack Obama a 21st century mainstream progressive, that far from puts him on the opposite end of the spectrum from John Boehner. There is much more to the left of Barack Obama than the mainstream news media and the two major parties would like us to know about.

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Statistics show police safer than ever, but it doesn’t stop liars from saying protests lead to more cop killings

A recent National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast put the lie to the Big Lie that protests in the wake of police killings of black citizens in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere have led to a significant uptick in violence against police across the country. The reasoning is a bit absurd. It goes like this: all the negative publicity regarding police activities has led to a decline in respect and fear of the police throughout the country. The protests have in a sense given permission for an “open season” on cops, according to this line of reasoning. Police departments around the country have joined right-wing politicians in bemoaning the so-called slaughter of cops instigated by the protesters, liberal politicians and the news media.

The argument doesn’t work, of course, unless there really has been a significant increase in violence against police, and as NPR has demonstrated, no such increase has occurred unless you put blinders on your eyes and ignore all but one set of statistics, the comparison between the number of police officers murdered in 2014 and 2013. It is true that cop killings surged from 27 in 2013 to 51 in 2014, but 2013 was the safest year for the police across the United States since the government started keeping records of these things. There were just as many cop killings in 2012 as in 2014, and far fewer in both those years than 2011. As Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina, points out, the rate of cop killings has gone down dramatically in every decade since the 1970s and now stands at less than 40% of the 1975 total.

The statistics just do not support the assertion that cop killings are on the rise. With the facts gone, how can anyone blame protest movements for something that isn’t even happening?

Those making the false case that protest causes violence typically aver that the protests are an overreaction to a “few bad apples.” I would love to believe the “few bad apples” argument, because that makes the problem easy—just get rid of the bad actors in police departments, as right-wingers want to get rid of bad teachers.

But the “bad apple” excuse doesn’t wash once we examine the facts, all of which suggest that the protest against minority killings is helping to change how America and American police departments think about institutional racism. For example, in most cases, the “bad apples” receive no punishment for killing minorities. They are exonerated by friendly district attorneys and those few who go to trial often get off scot free. The wholesale absolution of police officers who use violence in situations in which none is required is changing, with some now getting charged, but only since the protests started.

The “bad apple” excuse melts away for anyone who views the types of advertising that many police departments now place to attract new officers. The ads focus on how cool it is to be part of a SWAT team incursion and to use the sophisticated armament supplied over the past 30 years by the Department of Defense. These advertisements are certainly appropriate for the military, which has a need to attract individuals prone to violence and attracted to killing. But the job of the police is not to fight a foreign army, but to protect the citizens. Police officers do not walk among the enemy, as soldiers often do.  By advertising to attract soldiers, not police officers, police departments over the past decade or so have filled their ranks with potential “bad apples.”

The Department of Justice is finding racial bias in the administration of justice in municipalities all over the country. The racial bias extends from stopping suspects, through arrests, treatment while incarcerated, likelihood of being tried and harshness in punishment. In all these areas, minorities get the short end of the stick almost everywhere—stops, arrests, inappropriate violence, formal charges, convictions, bail, fines, incarceration rate and years. The various investigations launched by DOJ and others virtually always result from a high-visibility incident such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson or Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

In other words, what the protests have done is to embarrass white America into admitting that minorities are frequently the subject of violent mistreatment by police across the country and into taking some baby steps to do something about it.

But we need to do more. In fact, the entire criminal justice system needs an overhaul, and that’s why organizations such as “Black Lives Matter” are absolutely essential.

Many of the protests against unnecessary police violence against African-Americans loosely affiliate with the unstructured “Black Lives Matter” movement, which began after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmermann, who murdered Trayvon Martin.  Thus it makes perfect sense that the right-wing would go after “Black Lives Matter.” They do it in two ways.

First is the direct attack: Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are among the right-wingers who labeled “Black Lives Matter” a hate group, which is like calling Mother Teresa a sadist. I mean, really? These folks are trying to protect their community, and in particular their male children, and that sounds like love to me. The pursuit of justice never involves hate.

The second attack against “Black Lives Matter” is the insidious slogan “All Lives Matter,” perhaps the most code-loaded phrase since “Support Our Troops” graced bumper stickers as soon as the disastrous war in Iraq began in 2003. I used to yell at the many cars sporting the “Support Our Troops” regalia, “Yes, support them by bringing them home.” It pissed me off because I knew—and so did everyone else—that what the slogan really meant was “support the war, because if you don’t, you’re not supporting our soldiers, and that’s treason.”

In a similar way, the slogan “All Lives Matter” carries substantial meaning beyond the words. Let’s imagine if “All Lives Matter” came first and was not a reaction to “Black Lives Matter.” My response might be, “Of course, all lives matter. Let’s make sure of it.”

But it didn’t come first. “All Lives Matter” is a reaction by people who don’t ‘like “Black Lives Matter.” The people who sing out “All Lives Matter” typically either blindly support the police or are used to speaking in racial code to conceal their virulent racism. When they say “All Lives Matter” as a rejoinder to “Black Lives Matter,” it can only have one of two possible meanings: 1) Black lives are already being taken care of since all lives are being taken care of, which is a whitewash, since we know that in the criminal justice system, black lives don’t matter; OR 2) They don’t believe black lives matter. Both these positions are odious, the one based on a lie that enables racism, the other naked racism.

The leaders of the “Black Lives Matter” movement have displayed great strategic thinking to go after Bernie Sanders. None of the Republicans are going to be receptive to being associated with the “Black Lives Matter” program. Many do support criminal justice system reform to get people released from prison and into our shrinking workforce, but their base would not like them in bed with a “hate group.” I assume that Hillary Clinton is already with the program, as she is a long-time vocal supporter of minorities (and, BTW, is proving to be as left-wing as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren when it comes to most social, consumer, social service issues, taxation and economic issues). If it was to have a chance to matter after 2016, it was important for “Black Lives Matter” to get the ear of Sanders and now it looks as if they are going to have it. Well played.

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Someone should turn the Republican debates into a reality series called “Politicians say the stupidest things”

CNN structured the second Republican debate to maximize the amount of time the candidates spent sparring with their opponents, as opposed to stating their position on issues. The moderators were looking for zingers that could serve as sound bites and for contentiousness that could animate headlines. They seemed to care more about churning personal disagreements among the candidates than guiding the candidates to explicate their positions.

The CNN strategy relied solely on one rhetorical device: the phrasing of questions. Many if not most of the questions asked candidate A what he or she thought of comments that candidate B had made in the past either about candidate A’s position, experience or character/personality, or sometimes about an issue. Thus every answer started with a defense that almost by definition required the candidate to go after one of the other candidates. This form of questioning tended to fragment the debate. It also enabled Donald Trump to get the most face time, since he has uttered the highest number and the most obnoxious statements about other candidates. The moderators made sure to stoke a number of personal feuds, just as they might do if they were writing—excuse me, scripting—a reality show. Instead of seeing the Kardashian or Braxton sisters bickering, we saw Donald and Carly, Donald and Jeb, Chris and Dr. Ben, Donald and Rand, Donald and Chris, Carly and Scott, Johnny-boy and Ted and various other combinations go at it.

Thus the debate between 11 contenders devolved into a series of often petty duets, or pas de deux. These various twosomes hid the fact that the candidates agreed on almost everything; see yesterday’s OpEdge blog entry for details.

The Donald and Jeb songs were particularly amusing, as they insisted on talking over and interrupting each other. For the most part, both these candidates were polite to everyone else, but when they became involved together in one of the endless twosomes CNN set up, they were like two dogs with a bone, except the bone was the sound system. Except for the “he-said-he-said” squabble about building a gambling casino in Florida, both remained true to form as they spoke at the same time: Jeb stuck mostly to his version of the facts, whereas Trump made outrageous or unsubstantiated statements and hurled insults.

Perhaps the best line of the day came from Scott Walker, who as part of his answer to whether he would feel safe with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button, said “Just because he said it, doesn’t make it true.” Unfortunately for the country, Walker’s comment could have applied to any of the candidates, since all told at least one fib.

Some would say that lying is part of the job description for any politician, but some of the whoppers were also hilarious, if absurd.

For example, Fiorina said she would not talk to Putin. Hey Carly, you can’t freeze out a foreign leader like he’s a husband who forgot to take out the garbage.

Ben Carson said that the progressive income tax is socialism, even though socialism is typically defined as an economic system in which the government is the primary or sole employer.

Trump looked like a clown when he said he strengthened the four companies he took into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He forgot to mention that the shareholders and bondholders got screwed because they lost all or part of their investment in the bankruptcies.

Ted Cruz’s zealous attack on Planned Parenthood and the Iran nuclear deal resembled a spoiled and self-centered child in an Our Gang short. If a known comedian had said exactly the same words with the same sky-is-falling tone in a skit, most people would convulse with laughter.  But spoken by a serious candidate with tens of millions of dollars in backing, Cruz’s temper tantrum was scary. His peak of stupidity came when he stridently asserted that the Iran nuclear deal would accelerate the time it would take to build a viable nuclear weapon. Cruz’s math skills are so low that he thinks 15+ years is a shorter length of time than 18 months.

Jeb compared himself to a battery brand when asked what his Secret Service code name might be. Trump thought it was such a great line, he tried to high-five Bush, a moment that revealed that on a certain level, Trump considers the debates to be more entertainment than civic affairs.

More revealing of Trump’s mentality was his contention that he could negotiate better deals for the United States than Barack Obama, and by implication both Bushes and Clinton, too. But his assertion that he is the superior negotiator revealed an almost fascist mentality: He assumes that he, Putin, Xi and other world leaders have 100% control of the countries they rule and are free to do whatever they want with their respective country’s assets. He’d negotiate like a chief executive officer in the commercial real estate industry, not like a president.

So much of the stupidity expressed by the Republicans had to do with foreign affairs. Jeb tried to convince us that the Iraq War was won and that country was well under control until Obama pulled out the troops, creating a vacuum for ISIS. It’s a rewriting of history that ignores the thousands of killed and injured Americans, the hundreds of thousands of killed, injured and displaced Iraqis, the trillions of dollars wasted, the decline in America’s stature in the eyes of other nations and the destruction of a natural counterweight to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Whenever a country cobbled together from disparate parts loses its strongman, years of civil war always ensue. Don’t blame Obama for extracting us from the process that we single-handedly created by toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Was Chris Christie being stupid or merely rewriting history when he defended President Bush II’s action after the 9/11 attacks? Bush never caught Osama bin Laden, Obama did. Bush linked Saddam to 9/11, which was wrong, and most certainly a lie. Bush’s Afghanistan expeditions got nowhere.  Has Christie forgotten about the torture gulag Bush built?

I’m beginning to think that the candidates had a side bet as to who would make the stupidest statement. My money would always be on Cruz, but really, there were many contenders. It seems, however, as if Donald Trump was lying in the weeds until well into the last third of the debate to drop the ultimate stupid bomb, which was also assuredly a lie. I’m referring to Trump’s statement after moderator Jake Tapper brought up that Trump believes that vaccinations cause autism and Ben Carson, the physician who doesn’t believe in evolution, explained that there is absolutely no link between autism and vaccination. Carson continued with a great explanation of the benefits of vaccination. It was the first time I have ever seen the good doctor express a point using facts.

Trump’s answer: “I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.” As if Trump has any standing to voice an opinion on a technical matter. We’re not talking about whether or not we build an airplane, but how the exhaust system should be designed. The ultimate in stupid is overruling trained experts on technical matters.

Trump went on to say that he knew a healthy baby who was vaccinated and soon after was diagnosed with autism. It must be a lie, and we know it’s a lie. Polls and voters punished Michele Bachmann for telling the same fib in 2012. But it might just roll off Trump’s back, like rain off a duck’s feathers. Because after all, it did make for a very entertaining moment.

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The longer GOP candidates debated, the more they agreed with each other, except on Iran & taxes

We won’t know for a few days—and maybe weeks—who won last night’s debate between 11 Republican candidates for president.

What we did learn is that they overwhelmingly agree with each other on most issues, including:

  • Build a wall on the Mexican border, and then get tough with illegal immigrants, but not legal ones.
  • Reverse Obamacare.
  • Defund Planned Parenthood, but give its funds to women’s health organizations that do not do abortions. That not all of them thought it worth threatening a government shutdown to achieve this goal seems to me to be trivial in the vast scheme of things. Those interested in shutting down the government over three-tenths of one percent of the budget would find another reason to make the threat even if Planned Parenthood were not an issue.
  • Build a stronger military, although none talk about how to fund the increase in military spending.
  • Restore respect for the United States abroad by throwing our weight around unilaterally. They also all believe the absurd notion that the world does not respect the United States under President Obama and that Obama is to blame for our current slow-growth economy.

On all of these issue, at least eight and sometimes all of the candidates were in agreement. In many cases, candidates had to back down or rewrite their positions to get to this consensus Republican platform. For example, by the middle of the debate, Trump was agreeing with Bush that many of the illegals kicked out should be in the country and that he would let them back in. Bush ignored a reference to his recent questioning of the amount of money spent by the federal government on women’s health and talked about the great things for women he wants to do with the money.

The two major areas of disagreement among the candidates were what to do about the Iran nuclear deal and taxation policy. The adults in the room like Bush and Kasich essentially said that they would honor the agreement with Iran and five other nations that postpones Iranian efforts to build a nuclear bomb for 15 years, although they avoided doing so explicitly, instead preferring to say that they would keep a careful eye on Iran and slam it hard if it did anything against the agreement. The crazies in the room like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz said they would rip up the agreement on the first day in office.

On the surface, it seems as if the tax proposals were all across the board—flat taxes of varying rates, replacement of taxes on income with taxes on consumption, simplification of the current system, new taxes on hedge fund managers. But when you take a look at the net effect of each of the Republican’s tax proposals, they break into two groups:

  • Those, like Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, who want to increase taxes on some of the wealthy and reduce taxes on the rest of the wealthy.
  • Those who want to reduce taxes on all of the wealthy.

Along the way, the 11 candidates all told a number of lies. Either Trump or Bush were lying when Bush said as governor he kept Trump and Casino gambling out of Florida and Trump denied it; I’m inclined to agree with Jeb on this one. Carson lied when he said that a progressive tax is “socialism.” Christie, Fiorina and Trump all mischaracterized their repeated failures as successes, in Christie’s case a particularly enormous lie. They all lied about the status of America in the eyes of the world.

I could go on for pages analyzing the falsehoods uttered in the second debate, but I want to focus on the two worst lies, which were the same lie. Carly Fiorina said that only in American could a woman like her rise from secretary to CEO. Marco Rubio repackaged the lie when he said that only in America could the son of a bartender and a housekeeper become a Senator.

The lie in these statements is to aver that it could “only happen in America,” when at the current time it is harder to rise in socioeconomic class in the land of the free and the home of the brave than in virtually any other industrialized country of the world: Someone born of humble circumstances—as Fiorina and Rubio say they were—is less likely to become rich, or even to make it to the middle class, in the United States than in France, Germany, the Scandinavian nations, Japan, Spain, Pakistan, Canada and many other countries. Of industrialized countries, in only the United Kingdom and Italy is it harder than in the United States to make and have more than your parents did.

Behind the statement, “only in America” are two concepts that are equally pernicious: First is the idea that there is something exceptional about the United States that makes it inherently better than other nations in all areas. We constantly use American exceptionalism to excuse imperialist actions abroad or to take attention away from those areas in which we lag such as healthcare, mortality rates, education and social mobility.

The second hidden message when Republicans say “only in America” is the idea that government should focus always on creating opportunities as opposed to protecting the weak, old and poor. None of the Republicans believe in giving people a helping hand—lifting them up. They all want to make it easier for the wealthy—nouveau or established—to make and keep more money. All ignore the growing inequality of wealth and income in the United States.

Tomorrow I’m going to look at the style of the candidates in the second debate.

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Reevaluating Barack Obama: one of the best presidents since WWII

A few years back, I rated Barack Obama as the sixth best president of the twelve we have had since World War II, behind Johnson, Clinton, Eisenhower, Nixon and Carter, in descending order. At the time, I wrote, “Obama is basically a pro-business, anti-union liberal who shares the consensus view that the United States should have special rights in world affairs.”

But since the defeat of his party in the 2014 mid-term elections, still less than a year ago, Obama has soared in rank, thanks to a series of unilateral executive actions that he could have taken for years, but chose instead to try to work with the recalcitrant and openly disrespectful Republicans.

In the past year, Obama has advanced an immigration plan that doesn’t require the approval of Congress, restored relations with Cuba, established new regulations to cut our dependence on burning fossil fuels and negotiated the historic deal that keeps nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranians and may pave the way to a rapprochement with Iran.  His administration has begun to prosecute executives and pass regulations favorable to unions. When you add all that to the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), his ending of American torture and the efficient and compassionate response to Superstorm Sandy, it makes for a pretty good record.  I still don’t like drones, the development of other automated weaponry and government snooping into electronic records, but realistically, every president would support these security state lunacies.

I would therefore like to amend my rankings and say that Obama ties with Clinton as the second best president since World War II.

What we’ve seen is a complete turnabout of traditional American politics. Traditionally, during the last two years of any president’s second term, he is considered a “lame duck,” unable to fly or get anything accomplished because he has essentially lost his clout, since he’s on his way out. Obama should have been even less effective than the usual lame ducks, because he faced Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. But the modern imperial presidency has accumulated so much power that all the last year or two means is that the commander-in-chief can’t call on the cooperation of Congress. Of course, Obama never had that cooperation after his first two years, which were dominated extraordinarily by the tortuous process of passing the ACA.

Over the next four years, Obama showed a lot of weakness, outside of engineering Sandy efforts. Obama backed down and agreed to link raising the debt ceiling to making spending cuts. He folded the tent instead of standing up to the Republicans and letting them defund the government; luckily he learned from that mistake and has not let the Republicans blackmail the budgetary process again. His decision to wait to start building the national healthcare exchange website until the Supreme Court blessed the ACA was political cowardice of the highest order. That makes it something of shock to see him proceeding so boldly and confidently over the past year. By contrast, George Bush, Jr., goaded by his vice president, began asserting the prerogatives of the imperial presidency from day one of his administration.

Why Obama waited so long to begin throwing the weight of the presidency around is a mystery to me. I contend that if he had taken his stands on immigration and human-caused global warming before the November election that it might have energized Democratic voters and prevented the debacle that was the 2014 mid-term elections. Be that as it may, his aggressiveness since then will help the country.

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Conservative factotum proposes socialist alternative to minimum wage, but it’s socialism for the wealthy

When is a government payment to someone poor really a handout to someone rich?

It happens when the government gives money to the working poor because they earn so little that they qualify for food stamps, medical assistance or other aid to the poor.

Wal-Mart has perfected this scam. Wal-Mart workers collectively receive $2.66 billion a year, or $420,000 per Wal-Mart store in food stamps. Year after year, low Wal-Mart wages lead to the government providing food stamps and other assistance to their workers and thus indirectly subsidizing Wal-Mart’s profit.

Now another in the horde of modern Sophists hired by conservative think tanks is proposing to help Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and other low-wage employers continue to suppress wages and grow profits.  It’s Oren Cass, formerly the domestic policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and now a senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute.

Cass’s idea is to replace earned income credits and other government unmentioned poverty programs with a subsidy that the government pays directly to workers who don’t make living wage. His plan, presented in a New York Times opinion piece titled “A Smarter Way to Raise Paychecks,” is nothing more than a subsidy to big businesses. In total, he proposes to reallocate $150 billion in aid to the poor from current programs to direct payments to workers.

All of these right-wing diatribes against the minimum wage start with the notion that raising the minimum wage forces employers to hire fewer workers and leads to higher prices. The first assertion—that raising the minimum wage leads to staff reductions—goes against common sense. Virtually all employers only hire employees they need and routinely analyze their workforce to see whether reductions or increases in employees are in order. There is always some inefficiency in the system—friction is what Milton Friedman called it—and raising the minimum wage will likely make employers find and eliminate that friction sooner than they usually would have. Right-wing economists like to ignore the “friction factor” and blame higher minimum wages for job losses, but the jobs were going to go as soon as the employer found out he didn’t need the employees. Last year, the Congressional Budget Office computed that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour might reduce total jobs by three-tenths of one percent of all jobs. In a world in which 4%, 5% and sometimes 6% unemployment is considered full employment, these jobs losses certainly seem more like “friction” than a real shrinkage of total jobs.

The second assertion—that raising the minimum wage leads to higher prices, which will hurt other poor people—is also ridiculous because it overemphasizes labor as a cost factor and ignores the other choice an employer has: to take less profit.  I’m not disputing the law of price elasticity, which says that when you raise prices, fewer people buy. What I am disputing is the idea that companies must always expand the profit they make, no matter what. I’ve routinely eaten raises to my employees rather than charge clients more. And I still make a pretty good living, as do the owners and executives of just about all thriving businesses.

Cass accepts these false notions about raising the minimum wage at the very beginning of the article, freeing him to use most of his column inches talking about the benefits to workers and taxpayers of direct payments to low-wage employees. He never mentions the benefit to employers: that they don’t have to pay their workers any more money, since the government is doing it for them. Yet when we follow the cash flow of Cass’s proposal, we find that all the $150 billion he intends to pull from other government programs will end up in the pockets of the wealthy, because it’s money they don’t have to pay out to their workers. Since Cass is proposing to reallocate money that already goes to the poor, they will make nothing additional from his plan.

One particularly odious comment Cass makes is to claim that since rich folk pay most of the taxes, it is the rich that will finance giving workers direct cash payments. With all seriousness, Cass writes Taxpayers, meaning disproportionately higher-income households, pay for the subsidy. This is a key advantage over the minimum-wage increase, whose cost must be borne by some combination of the employers, other employees and customers.“  Cass ignores the fact that taxes are too low on the wealthy and have been since the Reagan years. He ignores the fact that while the minimum wage and wages to all employees have stagnated for 30 years, the wealthy have been taking more of both the income and the wealth pie. Prices have gone up, but wages haven’t. Employees and customers have both suffered, while the wealthy keep doing better and better.

Raising the minimum wage will put pressure on all wage levels, so eventually all employee salaries will go up. Those employees are most of the customers about whom Cass expresses concern.  Keeping the minimum wage below a living wage results in no pressure on other wage levels, thus helping companies continue to suppress wages to other, higher-paid employees. In other words, the benefits he believes will magically appear if the government pays part of the salaries of millions of low-wage workers will not come about.

If Cass really wanted to help the working stiff and the economy, he would call for a higher minimum wage, much higher taxes on the wealthy and a tax on wealth like France has. But Cass is not really interested in helping any employees. He just wants to see the wealthy continue to ride the gravy train.

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Contrast between “Officer & Gentleman” and “The Brink” demonstrates how middle class income has lagged

Cultural imperatives can transform slowly and subtly without anyone being aware of the change. But sometimes we see something in an old movie or TV show that depicts attitudes or conditions that have changed so much that it makes us realize how different things are from “the good old days,” “our salad days” and “back in the day.”

The other day I had one such epiphany of change while channel surfing for something to watch while exercising. I chanced upon the 1982 Taylor Hackford melodrama, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” which dissects the lives and loves of Naval pilots in training. At the beginning, Lou Gossett Jr. chews up the scenery for what seems like an eternity as a sergeant who is abusing the new recruits, who are all lined up in front of him. In his diatribe, he throws every invective and emotion at them, each a reason why he will make sure they fail.  The anger rises in his throat when he tells them how pissed off he is that they’ll get out of military in six years and make big bucks flying for the airlines.

That reference stopped me in my tracks.

Just a few weeks earlier I had seen an episode of HBO’s very funny “The Brink,” in which two fighter pilots in trouble for a variety of reasons bemoan that they may have to leave the Navy and get a job making some puny amount, $30,000 I think, working terrible hours. FYI, these guys will later save the world from nuclear holocaust by dive-bombing their jet into a rogue Pakistani refueling jet loaded with nuclear devices headed to downtown Tel Aviv. It being fiction, they are able to eject from the plane seconds before impact.

Think about it. In 30 years, the cultural reference to commercial pilots went from they have a great-paying glamorous job to they mill a grindstone for peanuts.

Back in 1982, commercial pilots—primarily unionized—were considered to be at the top of the middle class. Today, the question is, what middle class?

The change in pilot status implicit in these two references in works of art 30 years apart indeed symbolizes what has happened to the American middle class over the past three decades. The Reagan program of suppressing unions, cutting taxes on the wealthy, cutting government spending on education and social programs and privatizing government services to for-profit, mostly non-unionized companies has laid waste to the incomes and wealth of the middle class and poor.  The wealthy now take a far greater share of the wealth and income pie than they have since the Gilded Age of the 19th century. That piggish slice of the pie came at the expense of all others.

The difference between the America with a strong middle class and shrinking poverty that existed before Ronald Reagan took office and the nation of rich and poor we have today is so obvious that it comes across in minor details of the extended dramatic exhortations of popular culture. The reality then and now was and is baked into the popular art of the times.

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