Netanyahu uses faulty logic to justify a dangerous & unwise policy

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s reasoning makes as little sense as his overall strategy.

Netanyahu is determined to scuttle the imminent deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries over Iran’s development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. (BTW, P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France—plus Germany.) Netanyahu argues that by signing a 10-year deal, the United States and the other countries are giving Iran de facto permission to construct nuclear weapons when the agreement ends. Netanyahu is convinced that once Iran has a nuclear capability, the first thing it will do is use it on Israel.

There are three major holes in Bibi’s logic:

  1. From what we can tell, the agreement will likely halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons for 10 years, postponing for a generation the possibility of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel.
  2. If, after the agreement ends, Iran begins an active program of nuclear weapons development, the United States and other nations can always renew the severe economic sanctions that have been crippling Iran for years.
  3. Tehran is less than 1,000 miles from Tel Aviv, close enough that any nuclear bomb exploded in Israel would poison the Iranian air and water for decades. Those who wonder whether the ultra-religious Muslims in Iran would care should ask the same question of the ultra-religious Christians in the United States, a supposedly secular nation whose secular leaders did drop the atom bomb—twice!

But as illogical as Netanyahu is thinking, his overall strategy is even more absurd. How will giving a speech in front of the U.S. Congress sink the talks? Most observers note that the speech represents a marriage of convenience between Republicans, who want to embarrass President Obama, and the Israeli Prime Minister, who thinks the speech will win him votes in the upcoming Israeli elections. In the short term, this strategy is risky, and in the long term it is doomed to failure. His planned speech gives the growing number of American Jews uncomfortable with Israel’s actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians another reason to unite, funnel money to Israeli progressives and jawbone their elected officials. It pisses off many in the United States, already uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s support of additional West Bank settlements. And it worsens his relationship with the head of the country that protects Israel and shtups it with $3.1 billion in military aid every year.

President Obama and others have objected to Netanyahu’s speech before Congress because it comes too close to the Israeli elections and therefore goes against the American tradition of not appearing to interfere in foreign elections. In breaking this tradition, with whom has Netanyahu gone to bed? The American right, which before Reagan had a long history of overt anti-Semitism and still has its share of racists and Jew-haters.

Joining with Republicans to embarrass a Democratic president really has to make a lot of Jewish Senators and Representatives who are Democrats pretty unhappy; even the most militaristic of them may now listen a little more carefully to the arguments of those who want to apply more pressure on Israel to stop building more settlements in the West Bank and finally negotiate a two-state solution. Of course Netanyahu’s insult to the president must please all those Jewish Republicans in Congress—oops, there’s only one!

We haven’t come to the big strategic question—how could Israel possibly be against rapprochement with Iran? What could Israel possibly lose by bringing Iran back into the stable of nations dedicated to peace? Who benefits from the current state of affairs in the Middle East? Of course the Israeli and Jewish equivalents of Islamic and Christian extremists get to keep the status quo, which is helpful to their side. And Israeli and American arms manufacturers certainly benefit from continued tensions, as they will be able to sell more guns, bullets, tanks and aircraft. The status quo suits these groups and their political factotum Netanyahu just fine.

Thus the only way to understand Netanyahu’s campaign to upset the negotiations with Iran as reasoned action is to conclude the he is an ardent supporter of the current instability in the Middle East. And that makes him a warmonger. We can only hope that Israeli voters realize Netanyahu’s way leads to more bloodshed and vote him out of office on March 17.

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We need to initiate a massive campaign to make LAWS against the law

Does your spell check program ever frustrate you when it changes the grammatically correct “the person who” to the incorrect “the person that” or misses your mistake when you write the incorrect “the company and their employees” instead of the correct “the company and its employees?”

We can blame these mistakes on the humans who programmed the software.

But who will we blame when computerized robots decide to bomb a village of innocent civilians while searching for an escaped soldier? Or when an autonomous weapon decides on its own to start shooting wildly into a shopping mall?

I’m not talking about drones, which humans operate at a distance. Humans maintain full control over drones.

No, I’m referring to the next advance in weapons of mass destruction: automated weapons that make the decision to shoot, to bomb or to torch without human intervention, based upon the weapon’s completely independent analysis of the situation. They’re called Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) and military contractors all over the world are working furiously to develop them. The United States, Britain, Israel and South Korea already use technologies seen as precursors to fully autonomous weapons systems, according to a New York Times report that’s almost two years old. 

You probably haven’t heard much about LAWS. My Google News search revealed a total of 159 stories about them on the same day that close to eight millions stories appeared about the aftermath of Rudy Giuliani’s absurd accusation that President Barack Obama doesn’t love the United States and almost 4.5 million stories covered the death of a minor actor named Ben Woolf (who?).

Use of LAWS raises many technical issues. Opponents of LAWS wonder if we can ever program a robot to make the subtle distinctions between an enemy combatant and an innocent civilian, or to understand that the enemy has moved its antiaircraft radar device to the roof of a hospital (an example I borrow from the Times Bill Keller)? Then there is the issue of faulty programming that plagues automated systems meant to check spelling and grammar, analyze loan applications, translate from one language to another, evaluate essays or select products for purchase. And what happens if an electrical surge or scratch in a printed circuit makes an autonomous weapon go haywire? Or if some rogue programmer implants malware into the system?

The moral issues raised by having robots make battle field decisions for humans are even more troubling. Virtually all systems of human morality start with the principle, “Thou Shall Not Kill.” Since the beginning of recorded history thousands of philosophers, historians, soldiers, politicians and creative writers have written many millions of words pondering when killing another human being is justifiable.  We honor those who kill in society’s name and punish those whose murderous deeds society considers as unwarranted.  The issue of the “just war” is one of the most important themes in moral philosophy since at least the fourth century before the Common Era.

From the birth of humans until today, every killing in peacetime and war, condoned and unsanctioned, single deaths and mass murders—all of it has been committed by individual human beings to whom we can assign praise or blame, guilt or innocence. Taking the decision to pull the trigger, drop the bomb or throw the grenade out of the hands of human beings and putting into the hands of software is inherently immoral because it makes it impossible to determine who really is responsible for a wartime atrocity. The generals will blame the robot or hide behind the robot for justification, claiming that the software is infallible.

Some proponents of LAWS argue that automation will lead to more humane wars, since robots are not subject to mistakes in analysis, vengefulness, panic, fear or other emotions that color the decisions made by men and women in battle. That’s my definition of a sick joke—something that is both funny and horrifying at the same time. The lack of emotion in a robot may cause it to decide to level the village for strategic reasons, whereas a human being might recognize that the deaths of innocents or destruction of historic structures would make an attack unthinkable. And consider how much easier it will be to go to war if all a government had to do was send out the robots. The history of recent American wars suggest two dynamics: 1) the more our soldiers die in a war, the more likely people are to turn against the war; and 2) the number of deaths on the other side doesn’t sway most of the population from supporting a war. It seems clear that having an army of autonomous robots that hold within their operating systems the final decision to shoot or not will lead to more and more violent wars. Holding computers up as more virtuous than humans because they analyze dispassionately is the same kind of illogical thought process as the standard rightwing argument that businesses can regulate themselves but that society must carefully watch food stamp and Medicaid recipients for fraud.

Building the atom bomb was a bad idea that many of the scientists involved later regretted. Building lethal autonomous weapons systems is another bad idea.

I’m advising all OpEdge readers to write, phone or email their Congressional representatives, Senators and the President of the United States every three to four months asking them to come out in favor of banning all LAWS research and development in the United States and to work for a global treaty to ban LAWS R&D internationally. The United States should impose the same harsh sanctions on nations developing LAWS that we now impose on the Soviet Union, Iran and North Korea. We should refuse to buy any military armament from any private company doing LAWS R&D.

There’s a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) dedicated to the issue of autonomous weapons on April 13-17. I recommend that all readers email CCW at ccw@unog.ch and tell the organization that it should come out against any further development of LAWS and recommend sanctions against nations and businesses that develop LAWS.

In short we have to make LAWS against the law. Let’s not let this genie get further out of the bottle.

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What did Scott Walker miss by quitting college before he earned a degree?

I have no problem with the fact that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker didn’t finish college. Having a college diploma is not an absolute requirement for serving as assemblyperson, county executive, governor or even president.

Of course our only president without a college degree since the 19th century had a pretty shabby record: He helped to start the cold war. He selected nuclear power over solar as the primary energy source for the government to support. He nationalized steel plants to stop a strike. He let demagogue Joe McCarthy walk all over the country and tacitly approved the red scare. His name was Harry Truman and he also approved the two most barbaric single acts in human history: dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities after Japan had started negotiating its surrender, thereby killing from 150,000 to 200,000 innocent civilians in two fell swoops.

Just because most elected office holders have college degrees doesn’t mean one has to have one to succeed, just as the fact that the overwhelming number of business executives have diplomas doesn’t mean that we can’t see the occasional Bill Gates, Michael Dell or Mark Zuckerberg. That virtually all of these non-degree-bearing business titans (Steve Jobs was the very rare exception) came from wealthy families probably matters the same as the fact that many if not all of our past presidents without degrees came from wealthy families. Of course, some might say that Walker, even if born to a solidly middle class background, has been recently adopted by the ultra-wealthy Koch family.

Thus, while I would advise a young person who wants to go into politics to get a degree or acquire a wealthy family, I am not opposed to Scott Walker merely because he dropped out of college when he still had between one and two years worth of credits left to earn a degree.

I do, however, wonder what courses Walker missed by leaving Marquette University early?

He obviously missed some economics classes. He buys into the Reagan program of lowering taxes on the wealthy, cutting basic government services, killing unions and reducing regulations—all the policies that have led to the greatest non-violent transfer of wealth in world history over the past 35 years, taking wealth and income from the poor and middle class and giving it to the wealthy.  Study after study disputes the economic premises of the rightwing, and yet they persist in proposing lowering taxes, cutting money for public education, ignoring our crumbling infrastructure of mass transit, roads and bridges, passing laws that discourage unionization and opposing regulations that protect our environment and create jobs in new earth-friendly technologies. We could cynically conclude that these right-wingers are supporting a program that helps their major constituency, the ultra-wealthy, but in Walker’s case, might it be that he missed the econ classes that would help him through some of the more arduous number-crunching of mainstream (read: Keynesian) economics?

Walker probably missed some science courses, too. He has signaled many times that he doesn’t believe in human-caused global warming. He promised not to support any legislation that would raise taxes to combat climate change, and has spoken at the climate-denying Heartland Institute. He is also on record as disliking resource recycling.  No one knows Walker’s views on evolution, because he keeps dodging the question. But his comment “Both science and my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God,” seems to suggest that he really doesn’t understand science, since science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a deity. Science investigates how things work, not why they do. Walker’s current attempt to turn the University of Wisconsin, one of the world’s leading research institutions, into a glorified trade school certainly shows a lack of understanding of the importance of new scientific discoveries for the continued well-being and improvement of society.

Another class Walker probably didn’t have a chance to take—or maybe he just didn’t attend the lectures—is Ethics.  His reign as Milwaukee County Executive was as full of scandals involving his friends and cronies as has been the political career of Republican Governor Chris Christie, and that’s not a good thing. Walker has been investigated for illegally coordinating contributions from a super PAC.  His latest illegal and unethical shenanigan has been to refuse to pay the annual Wisconsin state contribution to state pension programs, another Christie trick.  Finally, one has to question the ethics of any candidate who takes millions of dollars from the Koch money machine, since the Kochs are known for injecting false notions into our national discussions about the environment, global warming, taxes and industrial policy.

My question, then, is whether Scott Walker would hold and promote so many false ideas if he had finished college. Judging from the large numbers of diploma-holding Republicans who say they share his beliefs, the answer is probably no. If we want to look for the reason Walker proclaims such ignorant views, we would probably be on firmer ground just following the money—right to the front doors of the Kochs, Adelson, Anschutz, Waltons, Scaifes and other American oligarchs who seek to distort our political discourse by flooding the marketplace of ideas with lies.

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Our latest irrelevant distraction: Whose fault if Congress doesn’t fund Homeland Security?

If and when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) loses its funding, will we, the American people, blame the Republicans as we usually do when the federal government or parts of it shut down because of a funding stand-off?

Or will we blame Senate Democrats for not passing the House-approved DHS bill, which contains measures to roll back President Obama’s executive orders regarding immigration?

Will we blame the GOP for trying to link Homeland Security money to keeping the immigration status quo?

Or will we blame the President for announcing new immigration regulations which committed the cardinal capitalist sin of helping average people and not corporations? Or maybe blame him just because he’s Obama and we like to blame our nation’s first Black president whenever possible?

These questions are roiling around the capital as the clock inexorably ticks down towards another imminent deadline for shuttering—at least temporarily—part of the federal government.

You have to hand it to Speaker of the House John Boehner for his ability to breathe new life into the increasingly tiresome shutdown Passion Play that our elected officials have performed these past four years in repertory with that theatre of the absurd that is the House’s Sisyphisian effort to roll back the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act. It is sheer brilliance to construct a potential government shutdown that right-wingers are also 100% against.

In fact everyone seems to be against closing DHS. No one is arguing over the contents of the Homeland Security Bill. The tug-of-war between House Republicans and the Senate has been a tight-bristled broom that has swept away any discussion of DHS’s excessive bureaucracy, waste and lack of transparency. There has been no broader discussion of the DHS role in curtailing civil rights, militarizing local police and creating a surveillance state.

Ironically, DHS is probably the federal department that can weather a funding crisis the best. Many of its parts such as the Border Patrol, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration will continue to operate because they provide “essential services.” Much of the rest of the department such as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will be able to continue operating because they receive at least partial funding through the fees they charge.

In other words, it’s a classic sideshow that our elected politicians and the mainstream news media use to keep our minds off what really matters. Instead of debating issues of civil liberties, security abuses and crony capitalism on the one hand and real immigration reform on the other, we can enjoy a pissing match between two sides that both pretty much like the DHS just fine the way it is. The blame game between political celebrities has once again replaced a rational discussion of the issues.

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Media covers up transgressions by Williams, Cosby & others, until it doesn’t

Today’s New York Times contains four articles on Brian Williams’ propensity to lie about his personal involvement in ongoing news stories such as the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina: two in the business section, one in the science pages and an opinion column by David Brooks. The Times covers multiple aspects of the story: the potential financial impact on NBC, the plunge in Williams’ “trustworthiness” rating, the easy corruption of memory by lies and Brooks’ opinion that Williams should not be forced to resign (BTW, Brooks proffered no such defense for Dan Rather after Rather’s producer forgot to fact-check a forged document in 2004).

The Times represents a microcosm of what’s happening in media land: a full-scale feeding frenzy that includes some 53.6 million stories about Williams’ mendacity identified by Google News. Compare that total to the mere 116,000 stories about the attempt by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to destroy public sector unions or the just under 6 million stories about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s peevish and counterproductive plans to give a speech about Iran to the U.S. Congress. The Williams lies are attracting more coverage than even Alabama’s almost statewide defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court order to allow people of the same sex to marry in a civil ceremony, which racks up some 43 million stories on Google News. Note dear readers that when you do a Google News search on these topics you may come up with different figures, since the counts are not static.

I note these numbers not to make the point that celebrity news tends to trump real news. Anyone who peruses Internet news portals knows that already. I am merely demonstrating how big the news of Williams’ lies has become—and yet it’s a very old story. Suspicions that the NBC anchor didn’t encounter enemy fire and did not really find a body floating past his 5-star hotel in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have been around for a long time, but the news media chose not to cover them.

Just like the media determined for years that Bill Cosby’s predilection for drugging and raping women was not of interest to the American public. At the peak of the feeding frenzy a few months back, when it seemed as if every day a different woman was coming forth (heroically, since it stirred up bad memories in each, plus Cosby has a lot of money and clout to discredit the victims), several journalists admitted that they participated in a cover-up of decades-long rumors and accusations against Cosby. The media, perhaps too enamored by this folk hero, collectively refused to follow the story.

Until they did.

The Jerry Sandusky scandal unfolded in a similar way. The only way to describe the media coverage of an aborted investigation of Sandusky for pederasty more than 10 years before the big story broke is “media blackout.”

We know why the news media finally picks up on these scandals. The story becomes too big to ignore or the discussion on social media sites becomes too intense. The big question is why does it take so long for the media to get around to reporting these scandals?

I think we get an inkling of an answer when we contrast the media’s slowness to cover Williams, Cosby and Sandusky with the way it jumped into the fray when it came to accusations against Hillary Clinton—all false—in the Benghazi debacle or accusations—again, false—that John Kerry did not display heroism under fire during the Viet Nam War.

Let’s face it: the mainstream news media operates from a slightly right of center position and looks rightward. It defends those who reflect this point of view, and surely Williams, Cosby and Sandusky all do so in their own right: Williams delivers a right-of-center version of the news. Cosby’s character of Cliff Huxtable represents the American ideal of upper middle class consumerism, and Cosby himself has tended to blame his fellow African-Americans for their lack of social mobility. And what could be more American than Penn State football—except maybe an image of SUVs packed with unneeded purchases tooling home from a mall.

Some will question my examples, since Clinton and Kerry are both political figures, whereas Williams, Cosby and Sandusky are not, but consider these arguments:

The mass media—controlled by the wealthy and ultra-wealthy—tend to look rightward, and are therefore more likely to publish unsubstantiated rumors about left-looking centrists than about conservatives. For example, for years no one published the rumors that Bush I had a love nest; and the media positively buried the incredible amount of evidence that Bush II shirked his National Guard duty. The politician most protected by the mainstream news media today may be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is tied to a long series of scandals involving self-dealing and cronyism, and yet is routinely touted as having presidential timber. I predict that a waterfall of reporting of Christie scandals—let’s call it the Christie moment—will begin just as soon as he starts to represent a serious challenge to Jeb Bush, the mainstream media’s choice for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

To current practitioners of mainstream journalism, there is absolutely no difference between an elected official, a news anchor or a football coach. They’re all celebrities and are all treated like celebrities. The media pump up the celebrities they like and tear down those they don’t like. And behind the reasons for liking and not liking are always subtle ideological reasons.

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If NBC uses the Dan Rather standard, it’ll force Brian Williams to resign

If NBC follows the Dan Rather standard, it will either force Brian Williams to resign or fire him. Williams is the NBC news anchor who for years has said he rode a helicopter that underwent enemy fire during the ill-fated and disastrous Iraqi war. He has made the claim so many times that no apology or explanation can leave his reputation unstained.

Rather, most will remember, was the long-time CBS anchor who lost his job (excuse me—retired early!) because one of his producers failed to confirm a source. At the time Rather was the most well-known and well-respected television anchor in America. He fronted a report prepared by experienced and well-respected TV news producer Mary Mapes in a show called “60 Minutes Wednesday.” The topic: some memos purported to be written by a Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian that proved once and for all that Bush II shirked his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War era.

Too bad the memos were forgeries. After defending Rather and Mapes for about two weeks, CBS admitted that the news team had inadequately investigated the memos. Mapes was fired almost immediately, and Dan Rather, who was set to retire anyway, went more quickly and less elegantly than previously planned.

The contrasts with the Brian Williams case are striking: Rather did not lie, whereas Williams did. Rather’s report was accurate in the whole, which is to say, a lot of evidence points to the conclusion that George Jr. shrugged off his National Guard duties. Williams, by contrast, was trying to pretend that he was a soldier instead of avoiding being one.

Of course, NBC could follow the Fox News standard, which is much looser regarding the factual content of stories and the punishment reporters get for reporting false information, consciously or by accident. Take the Shirley Sherrod scandal, for example.  Now deceased Andrew Breitbart, an RWRBB (right-wing rich-boy blogger), edited a video copy of a speech of Sherrod, an African-American employee of the Federal Department of Agriculture, to make her sound like a “Black racist” and posted it on his website. Fox ran the clip numerous times. We soon learned that the RWRBB doctored the clip. Fox never checked the accuracy; it probably could have easily seen the edits that Breitbart made to twist Sherrod’s words. But no one was fired at Fox. Not the anchor, not the producer, not a research assistant who might be responsible for fact-checking or sourcing video. Now why is that? Is it because journalistic ethics have declined in the decade since the Rather firing or because Fox doesn’t really care about the accuracy of its stories?

We should give NBC time to assimilate and process the Williams admission of a long-time lie and the public’s reaction to it. But at the end, if it keeps Williams, it puts itself in the same league as Fox News.

Mainstream national news stations distort the political scene in many ways: they select the experts and the issues from a narrow political spectrum that is centrist looking rightward; reduce everything to personalities; truncate coverage of real news in favor of following celebrities; accept the Republican’s definition of the issues; argue by anecdote instead of presenting the facts; stud their stories with hidden messages supporting consumerism and belittling intellectual achievement; and give the wrong side of long-settled issues like vaccination and global warming equal opportunity to spread their ignorance.

But the national mainstream news media rarely tell an out-and-out lie that they know is a lie. Fox does, which makes the NBC decision to fire or not to fire Brian Williams so interesting to observe.

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“Liberal” cultural psychologist foregoes science to accept the premises of the right wing

Several progressive friends of mine were raving about Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, which is about three years old, so I read it. In it, Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, extends a very important theory about morality in humans that is emerging among anthropologists and primatologists. But then he uses false reasoning and what looks like shoddy research to twist the theory into a wild assertion that people inherently respond more enthusiastically to rightwing arguments.

In the first part of The Righteous Mind, Haidt explores the idea that morality is hardwired into humans, a theory that has gained much ground over the past few decades. Haidt combines studies by cultural anthropologists and some primatologists to postulate that there exist five distinct foundations to morality and moral thought inherent in humans, all traceable to primates and other mammals. Haidt expresses each of the five as a dichotomy of good and bad behavior:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

Haidt shows how each of these foundations of morality evolved in response to an adaptive challenge, e.g., care/harm evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for the vulnerable young; sanctity evolved as a response to the need to avoid contaminants in food and elsewhere. This first part of the book extends research conducted by Frans de Waal, Jane Goodall and others that pretty much establishes that primates have morality, which means that morality is hardwired into humans, part of our essential nature.

Unfortunately Haidt uses the second half of The Righteous Mind to explicate a bloated theory that liberals concern themselves with only two of these moral foundations, care and fairness, whereas conservatives are concerned with all five. Haidt sees this so-called difference in moral emphasis as the reason conservative arguments resonate so emotionally with the electorate.

Haidt’s premise is that Republicans speak to all five moral foundations, whereas Democrats since 1960 offer a narrow moral vision, based only on the care and fairness moral foundations. We don’t even have to question his assumption that Democrats serve as stand-ins for liberals to see how Haidt jury-rigs his argument. The premise is false, because it posits that only Republicans talk about loyalty, authority and sanctity. What Haidt is really doing is accepting the Republican’s definition of these terms. Haidt contrasts how the Democrats and Republicans talk about fairness—the Dems focus on equal opportunity while the GOP focuses on the unfairness of taking money from taxpayers and giving it to the poor.

But to construct his argument, Haidt must ignore their differences in the areas of loyalty, authority and sanctity and instead state unequivocally that Democratic candidates don’t care about these moral foundations. It’s really utter nonsense. For example, Democrats often speak of the sanctity of life as the reason to have strong social welfare programs; they evoke “law and order” themes as much as Republicans do (see Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop for the sorry details). Haidt gives no example of Republicans’ so-called appeal to the loyalty foundation. Thus, Haidt uses rightwing definitions of two of the three moral centers Democrats supposedly lack and gives no example of the third.

Haidt never considers the other factors that have led to Republican election success in recent decades: He ignores the greater preponderance of cash that Republicans tend to have at their disposal. He ignores the fact that the mainstream news media—owned as they are by the wealthy—tend to pay more attention to Republican races and define political and economic issues using Republican terms. He displays every sign of not having read the works of C. Wright Mills, William Domhoff or Frances Fox Piven/Richard Cloward on how the ruling elite exercises control over elections and the electorate. He never considers the impact of racism, which makes people consider certain groups less than human and therefore not subject to the moral considerations reserved for those considered legitimately humans. Instead, Haidt reduces all the complexity of politics to the Democrats not appealing to three of five moral foundations, as defined by the semantics that Haidt borrows from the rightwing.

Ostensibly substantiating Haidt’s political theory are surveys he and associates have administered. These surveys supposedly show that those who call themselves liberal care much more about the care and fairness foundations than about the other moral foundations, whereas conservatives care equally about all five. But the surveys are full of ambiguous questions that can derive the same answer from both liberals and conservatives.

For example, the basic moral foundations test asks the question, “When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking?” What follows are a number of factors, each of which the respondent must rate as very important to not very important as a consideration. Here are some of the factors, with brief comments on why these answers could misguide researchers:

  • Whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency: Liberals will think it pure and decent for marriage to sanctify gay relationships, whereas conservatives will understand “purity and decency” as standards that regulate the behavior of individuals.
  • Whether or not someone did something to betray his or her group. Whether or not someone showed a lack of loyalty: What’s true betrayal or true loyalty?—to blow the whistle on unethical behavior by group leaders or to protect the group by concealing evidence it did something that transgressed its ideology or ethics.
  • Whether or not someone was denied his or her rights: Which right? The right to be served or the right not to engage in business transactions with someone whose race or way of life you disapprove of?
  • Whether or not someone’s action showed love for his or her country: Some believe Dick Cheney loves his country most; others would say it’s Edward Snowden.

I could spend another 20 pages analyzing the flaws and logical inconsistencies in Haidt’s absurd claim that liberals care about only two of the five moral foundations he and others have identified in primates. Before his flight of fancy into political theory, however, Haidt does establish that the five major strands of moral thinking are innate to humans, which argues against revealed religion as necessary for morality to exist. Anyone who reads The Righteous Mind should stop after the first eight chapters or be prepared to wade through some of the most manipulative and misleading nonsense written in recent years.

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New Yorker & Times writers use verbal selfies to communicate myth that science & math are hard & not fun

The epidemic of verbal selfies used to begin feature articles continues unabated. It seems as if every other feature article begins with something about the writer—personal struggles with the problem under discussion, an anecdote from childhood, a favorite professor’s lecture on the topic years ago, how the topic reminds the writer of another subject, the writer’s enthusiasm in broaching the topic, the means by which the writer travelled to meet someone in the article.

These verbal selfies are often laughable, but none more so than Alex Wilkinson’s first few sentences in “The Pursuit of Beauty” in the New Yorker. In sharing his attitude towards and experience with the subject matter, Wilkinson disqualifies himself from writing the article at the same time revealing he is a dishonorable person not to be trusted. 

The article is about a math professor who solved a math problem open for more than 150 years. To entice us to continue reading, which is the function of the first paragraph of a prose piece, Wilkinson writes:

“I don’t see what difference it can make now to reveal that I passed high-school math only because I cheated. I could add and subtract and multiply and divide, but I entered the wilderness when words became equations and x’s and y’s. On test days, I sat next to Bob Isner or Bruce Gelfand or Ted Chapman or Donny Chamberlain—smart boys whose handwriting I could read—and divided my attention between his desk and the teacher’s eyes. Having skipped me, the talent for math concentrated extravagantly in one of my nieces…”

The article is about advanced math. To write it will require the writer to understand some fairly complicated ideas, at least conceptually, and to understand them well enough to be able to translate them into journalistic English for the reader. Wilkinson disqualifies himself because he admits that he couldn’t even do simple algebra. What’s more, he admits he cheated to pass his math classes. How do we know he hasn’t fudged some of the facts in the article? How do we know his explanation of the problem the mathematician solved doesn’t smooth over with rhetorical lies those concepts Wilkinson failed to understand?

In short, Wilkinson embarrasses and disqualifies himself within the first three sentences. And an editor approved his copy!

Charles Blow tries but fails to pull the same anti-science crap in his article, “A Future Segregated by Science,” in the New York Times. He starts the article, “Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy.” But then Blow quickly admits he loves science (he just likes the arts more!) and even won a high school science fair with a research project. Blow continues his disquisition about his personal relationship with “science” with a shaggy dog story about an airline losing the winning project, preventing him from competing in an international science fair. All this personal stuff comes before a very good article on the racial and gender gap that currently exists in science and technology (STEM) careers.

At least Blow doesn’t disqualify himself from writing the article, since 1) he admits he’s actually pretty good at science and 2) the article is about analyzing statistics—his area of expertise as a writer—and not about science itself.

It’s rare for Blow to start an article with a personal anecdote, except for when the piece concerned Yale campus police stopping his son, a Yalie, without cause. He’s one of the most legitimately creative and interesting journalists with a regular column in a daily newspaper, one who rarely resorts to cheap, overused rhetorical devices.

Why then did Blow feel compelled to start the article by assuring us he’s “Not a science guy”? The article bemoans the fact that science work has become segregated and that few minorities have science and technology careers. He blames both schools for not producing enough STEM graduates and corporations for not hiring recent Hispanic and Black science graduates at the rate at which they do graduate. Blow ends his article with a call for more gender and racial equality in STEM careers.

Blow doesn’t realize that his beginning—“Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy”—is a small part of the problem. Week after week journalists interject snide asides about science and math: Science and math are hard subjects. They’re not fun. Those who like them are socially maladroit and unathletic. Science careers aren’t glamorous. Add to these articles the extensive coverage given to the truly small number of global warming deniers, those who would deny their children vaccines and opponents to evolution. No wonder so many kids don’t want to pursue science careers!

One weapon in this decades-long media war against science and math is for writers to distance themselves from the subject by saying they find it hard or they don’t like it. Some might say that the writers who express dislike or fear of STEM subjects are trying to establish rapport with their readers, who might not be adept at science or might be intimidated by it. But this hypothetical rapport is firmly based in the ideological premise that science and math are difficult and not enjoyable and thereby merely contributes to the anti-science mythology, which is part of the mass media’s larger anti-intellectualism.

Both the cheating poor student Wilkinson and the honorable good student Blow use this rhetorical device and put it at the very beginning of the article. In Wilkinson’s case, it disqualifies him from even writing the article. In Blow’s case, it merely postpones what turns out to be a fine discussion of a crisis.

The two writers are unified by their employment of the most overused rhetorical device in contemporary non-fiction to make a statement that contributes to the anti-science attitudes pervasive in the mass media. How American: narcissism in pursuit of anti-intellectualism.

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The American approach to helping middle class always seems to help the rich more

When the Obama Administration announced plans to begin taxing future withdrawals from 529 college savings plans, those in favor played up the fact that 70% of all tax savings benefits from 529 plans go to families with more than $200,000 a year in income. The opponents of taking away this tax benefit to pay for other proposed educational reforms quickly pointed out that 70% of all 529 accounts belong to households with income under $150,000. Those opposed to reducing the tax benefit won the battle.

No one was asking why 529 plans are even necessary. The answer to that question is that the cost of going to college has risen precipitously over the past 25 years to the point that, without some assistance, large numbers of families can’t afford to send their children to college. The overwhelmingly most important reason for this rise in the cost of a college education is the withdrawal of federal and state support of higher education, starting in the Reagan years.

It’s a familiar pattern: A benefit meant to help the middle class address a financial challenge ends up helping the wealthy more. Most IRA money is in the accounts of people with the highest incomes. Remember that IRAs first came into existence under Reagan in 1981 as an alternative to traditional defined benefit pensions plans. In this case, it was the private sector retreating from its support of the middle class and poor—who primarily work for others—that led to the new need.

We see a similar pattern with the mortgage deduction. It used to be that all personal interest was deductible, but when Congress limited the interest deduction to home mortgages in 1986, again under Reagan, our leaders said it was to help keep home-owning more affordable. Again, even though affordability is not an issue to the wealthy, they are the ones to have benefited because they have larger mortgages. Politicians and pundits now associate the mortgage deduction with the middle class, but it’s the wealthy who benefit more.

It’s not just that the wealthy can deduct more from income because of these “middle class” deductions. It’s also the case that every dollar a wealthy person deducts is worth more in real money that isn’t taken away in taxes because the wealthy pay at a higher rate. These deductions may also drive other income below the threshold at which a higher taxation rate takes effect, thereby putting even more money in the pockets of the wealthy.

There are only three ways that government can address the lost revenue from a tax deduction:

  • Increase the deficit
  • Cut programs
  • Increase taxes on someone else

For most of the past 35 years, the federal government has preferred to increase the debt and cut programs. The net effect has been one more way of shifting income from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.

Thus we see time and time again over the past 35 years an institutional propensity to increase inequality of wealth in the United States, similar to the institutional racism that used to exist for decades throughout the country and still exists in the criminal justice system. Take something away from the middle class and poor, then give them a way to finance their new costs that ends up providing even greater benefits to the wealthy, who don’t really need the additional help. It’s a complicated shell game that has made a contribution to the dramatic increase in inequality of wealth and income in the United States over the past 35 years.

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You can count on Wall Street Journal to deliver all the bogus facts rightwingers need to create an alternative reality

Conservative think tanks and business associations know that they can always plant a bogus survey or an opinion piece by a bought-and-sold expert in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. That is, as long as the study supports unregulated growth based on fossil fuels and giving the biggest rewards to large corporate and banking interests.

The latest proof that the Journal prints all the news that fits with its rightwing ideology is “Many Millennials Yearn for Suburban Homes,” which touts a shoddy survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) claiming to prove that 66% of the Millennial generation wants to live in the suburbs. The study results go counter to the common belief, backed by a myriad of attitudinal studies, that a large number of Millennials prefer city life, in part because they are rejecting private ownership of cars as environmentally incorrect.

This preference for the urban experience is one of the major ways that experts say Millennials differ from their predecessors, Generation X and the Baby Boomers. The Journal article holds up the survey as proof that Millennials really want more room and therefore pine for the car-and-mall-focused suburban life.

But as it turns out, the NAHB survey does nothing more than exemplify that—as either Mark Twain or Samuel Butler once said—“figures never lie, but liars figure.”

The NAHB mendacious use of numbers comes in how it defines the Millennial generation. It takes responses from 1,506 people born since 1977. The main reason to be suspicious that NAHB cooked the books is that it is impossible to find anybody who says the Millennial generation started in 1977. Most citations I found on the Internet identify 1982 as the start year for Millennial births. A Newsweek article of a few years back used 1989 as the start date and Pew Research generally goes with 1981. But virtually everyone else says it’s 1982. My own analysis of a line chart of total births against the average growth rate concludes that we should start counting Millennials in 1984 or 1986. But no expert I could find uses 1977.

The time between 1977 and 1982 is five years, or one quarter of the approximately 20 years that sociologists and demographers tend to view as defining Boomers, Gen X-ers and Millennials. We have no idea how many of the 1,506 surveyed were born before 1982 and therefore should probably not be counted as Millennials.

The other problem with the study is that the NAHB only asked about city versus suburbs to people who had first answered that they had either purchased a home in the last three years or intend to within the next three years. Eliminating everyone else almost by definition front-loads the age of the respondents, which in this case means that most of them were born too early to really be called Millennials. According to U.S. Census figures, for each of the past 25 years many more people aged 35-39 own homes than those aged 30-34; those aged 25-29—the heart of the Millennial generation—are almost half as likely to own a home than the 35-39-year-olds. In others words, adding five years worth of Gen X-ers to the study universe has a dramatic effect on the results, overestimating the desire of Millennials to live in the suburbs. Moreover, rejecting anyone who doesn’t own or plan to own a home in all likelihood skews the universe of respondents even further.

The Journal never addresses the issue of what years constitute Millennial births, but it does finally admit that selecting only those who own or will soon buy a home makes the survey unreliable. But the writer waits until the tenth paragraph to do so, in effect burying the information.

We know why NAHB would construct and distribute such a transparently invalid survey. It’s less expensive to build homes in the suburbs, and that’s where most new homes are built.

But why would the Journal publish such dreck?

The answer is that the survey fits into it’s the Journal ideology in several ways: The Wall Street Journal believes that local economic policy should benefit developers, banks and corporations, and the study certainly shores up those interests.

But just as important, the Journal hates cities and what cities stand for. The Journal is a proponent of private property, private space and private solutions to social problems. The essence of the urban environment is the public space. Major cities need viable public transportation, whereas the Journal worships car culture and hates anything public. Cities thrive on cultural diversity, and the Journal loves the white bread, the middle brow and the middle of the road when it comes to cultural experiences. City voters are much more liberal than suburban voters. In short, cities such as New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Chicago represent everything that The Wall Street Journal and its owner Rupert Murdoch despise.

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