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.

Posted in Uncategorized

Paterno case raises a broader issue of praise and blame

The Rehabilitation of Paterno, Back at No. 1” read the New York Times  front page headline when the news hit of the settlement of the lawsuit brought against the NCAA for its sanctions of the Penn State football program because it turned its back while an assistant coach was sexually abusing children. This rehabilitation or vindication of Paterno in the eyes of those who never thought he did anything wrong brings up a broader issue of the praise and rewards we heap on some people.

In Praise and Blame, moral philosopher Daniel Robinson asserts that people get too much praise—and by implication too many rewards—for their accomplishments, which are too often the result of factors beyond the control of the individual. Some of those factors include the innate ability one has at birth and does nothing to get, wealth and social position of family, match of skills to what’s in demand, chance meetings with mentors and patrons and timing.

Applying the principles of Praise and Blame, it’s clear that Paterno always received too much credit for those victories, which resulted from a group effort of his football players, coaches, recruiters, alumni and university staff.

His first luck was to be born with high ability in the types of intelligence that leads to success in football—organization, strategy, communications skills, ability to predict change in complex patterns of motion. Like the basketball player Spencer Haywood, who was born with an extra set of knuckles on his enormous hands, or the physics whiz whose math IQ is so high that it’s virtually immeasurable, Paterno did nothing except be born to have his natural genius.

Paterno was also lucky that a rich guy agreed to pay his tuition to an Ivy League college, a place where he could get connected to a powerful network of contacts.

He was lucky to have a mentor who hired him to be an assistant coach at Penn State, lucky to have an alumni support system that helped to identify players and raise funds for state-of-the-art facilities, lucky that Penn State football is the big sports team for miles around, which it wouldn’t be if the university were located in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or New York.

That Paterno stayed in the same place that offered him his first real job may have stemmed from a personality trait, not the fact that he kept getting promoted. Lots of successful people flit around. Think of Larry Brown or Urban Meyer. If Paterno’s nature was to stay in one place, how lucky he was that place was Penn State. If his mentor took a job at Bowdoin or Grinnell, would Paterno have remained loyal to his first university job and had a long, but mediocre career?

Paterno was the commanding general and not the field general in the 111 victories returned to Penn State by the NCAA. The field generals were a succession of quarterbacks. Paterno not only taught, selected and advised the players, but he managed the other coaches, the medical staff, the weight trainers, the tutors, the recruiters, the statisticians, the caterers and the liaisons to the alumni and public. All these people—an ever changing cast of characters over decades—contributed to his success. Without them, he would have been nothing.

Let’s still admit that Joe Paterno was a genius football coach of mostly legitimate students. Probably most other people given the same set of breaks would not have done as well as JoePa.

But the luck part of it mitigates the position that every one of us holds in life, be it high, low or somewhere in the middle: what you accomplish should not really be used to judge the essence of any of us because so much of it results from circumstances beyond our control. Joe Paterno is a perfect example of the preponderance of factors beyond our own efforts that determine our lot in life.

What we’re left with then is not money, championships, fame or respect by which to judge a person, but those things which he or she can control. And in 1999, Joe Paterno had absolute control over how he was going to act after hearing from an assistant that Jerry Sandusky molested a young boy in the shower.  He was in control when he passed on a cursory report to the administration, and he was in control when he didn’t follow up to see what the administration was doing. He was in control when he didn’t make it an important issue, didn’t insist on getting the results of a real investigation. He was in control when he didn’t ponder the implication of the accusation against Sandusky, what it meant to the children in the programs the monster controlled. He was in control when he swept it under the rug like yesterday’s dust bunnies.

Thus while we can readily hold back the praise of Paterno’s successes, shaped as they were by luck, there is no way we can mitigate the blame he holds for the repeated rapes of young boys for more than 10 years because he failed to speak up aggressively to follow-through on a horrifying accusation.

Posted in Uncategorized

What took Obama so long to address our unfair tax system? And why is his plan so complicated?

Barack Obama started with majorities in both the House and Senate. Six years later the opposition holds both.

Why did the president wait until he was in the overwhelming minority to push for higher taxes for the wealthy and lower taxes on the middle class?

True, a few years back Democrats and Republicans kind of negotiated an agreement that raised taxes slightly on the top 1%, but it was accompanied with Draconian cuts to federal programs.  And it is true that the richer you are, the more you have to pay in taxes related to the Affordable Care Act. But neither of those moves had attached to them the grandiose notion of taking from the wealthy to give to the middle class.

The big picture of Obama’s current proposal sounds great.  But the details are not exciting, as Obama prefers to tinker with the tax code instead of just raising marginal tax rates. The New York Times said that Obama proposes eliminating a federal tax provision regarding inherited assets that shields hundreds of billions of dollars from taxation each year. The plan also raises the top capital gains tax rate to 28% for couples with incomes above $500,000 annually and places a new fee on banks with assets over $50 billion.

What the middle class gets is equally as complicated as what the rich pay: tax breaks for middle-income earners; a $500 credit for families in which both spouses work; increased child care and education credits; and incentives to save for retirement.

It’s interesting how many of the tax breaks Obama is proposing for the middle class facilitate and perpetuate the new world economy wrought by Reaganism.  It used to be that a family could afford to have only one spouse work, but now two incomes are absolutely necessary to maintain middle class status for tens of millions of families. $500 isn’t much, but it does help to some degree to keep the second spouse in the workforce, thereby keeping a lid on wages that would surely increase if fewer people wanted to work. Incentives for retirement are only necessary because defined benefit pensions are gone and people are on their own, sink or swim, except for Social Security, a program that many Republicans would love to dismantle. The increased education credit also responds to the new world reality of college costs made prohibitive to the middle class and poor because of the steady decline in federal and state support of higher education.

Obama’s noble gesture—calling for some fine-tuning of the system that has led to the greatest inequality of wealth in the United States since the Gilded Age—comes only after his only hope for controlling the direction of the government has become the veto and executive order.  It’s so much sound and fury, so much rhetoric meant to paint the Republicans into a corner, meant to draw a contrast between the Republican and Democrats for the 2016 election cycle.

Politics seems to enter into the decisions of all contemporary politicians. But politics aside, Obama’s decision to resume friendly relations with Cuba, his decision to grant papers to about 5 million illegal immigrants and his climate change accord with China all moved the country in the direction it needs to head, even if in the case of the environmental accord, it was only a nudge.  The decision to seek support for community colleges takes a realistic approach to giving more poor kids access to higher education.

But calling on Congress to end some tax breaks for the wealthy and give others to the middle class is nothing but grandstanding, given it will never pass.  I call it grandstanding because it creates a minimal distance between where he and other Democrats stand and where Republicans stand. This small distance is supposed to make the 99% want to vote Democratic, because the Democrats are going to reverse the 35-year flow of wealth and income up the ladder to the wealthy and ultra-wealthy. But what Obama is calling for isn’t even a start. It’s a quarter turn of a screw.

I would feel differently if Obama were calling for a large increase in the capital gains tax or lifting the cap on income assessed the Social Security tax.  Congress wouldn’t go for it, but at least Obama would be making a point.

Instead, he’s trying to further redefine the definition of what it means to be left in this country, moving it further to the right.

Posted in Uncategorized

NCAA doesn’t exonerate Joe Paterno, it cuts a business deal to end a lawsuit

Some Penn State football fans are acting as if they won the national championship.

That’s the reaction I read in the quotes I’ve culled from news articles about the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) settlement of the lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania State Senator Jake Corman to overturn the heavy fines the NCAA placed on Penn State University for looking the other way while assistant coach and pervert Jerry Sandusky sexually abused a large number of boys.

Here is a sprinkling of what is being said (names omitted):

  • “Today is a victory for the people of Pennsylvania….The NCAA has surrendered.”
  • “This is significant.…This was a beat down on the NCAA, it really was.”
  • [Mr. Paterno’s reputation has been restored] “to a large degree.”
  • “I’m happy this wrong has been righted.”
  • “Vindication is Penn State’s. Vindication is Joe Paterno’s.  And the bullying NCAA walks away from its worst hour in utter disgrace.”

Except that’s not what happened. No matter what the extreme Penn State fans and sports pundits may want to think, the NCAA did not capitulate. It has not been disgraced It did not suffer a beat down.

What the NCAA did was settle an expensive lawsuit that could have dragged on for years. By settling, the NCAA makes sure that the $60 million it collected as a fine for Penn State’s role in facilitating Sandusky’s crimes goes to fight child abuse victims in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Otherwise, a lot of the money would have been spent on lawyers. In the news release the NCAA issued about the deal, Harris Pastides, University of South Carolina president and member of the NCAA Board of Governors put it well, “While others will focus on the return of wins, our top priority is on protecting, educating and nurturing young people.” As well it should be.

The NCAA made a business deal that was in the best interest of the organization and society. It did not admit that it made a mistake to vacate victories, nor that it overreached in its punishment.  “Today’s agreement with Penn State reaffirms our authority to act,” said Kirk Schulz, Kansas State University president and member of the NCAA Board of Governors, who also spoke for the organization.  The NCAA news release about the settlement went out of its way to mention that Penn State had cleaned up its act and thus deserved reconsideration. The implication is that the NCAA is still in charge.

The news reporting has focused on the fact that the NCAA gave Joe Paterno back the 111 Penn State victories the NCAA had vacated because they came after Paterno first learned that a key assistant was sexually assaulting young boys.

Also untrue.

The victories were not given back to Joe Paterno, but to Penn State. While the punishment was appropriate at the time, it also took something of real value away from hundreds of Penn State football players, who were innocent victims of the fallout from the mess. The NCAA does not even mention the former coach in its news release, although it does state firmly that it intends to continue its defense of the lawsuit from the Paterno family.

As a negotiating point, to give back those Penn State wins in return for keeping the $60 million looks like a complete victory to me.  If anyone put the beat down on the other side it was the NCAA and its executive committee who can walk tall today (for a change, as its record in administering sports for college students is execrable).

As for those grotesquely strutting peacocks spiking an imaginary football and declaring victory for Penn State and Joe Paterno, I would like to suggest that they conduct a thought experiment. Imagine what it’s like to be a 10-year-old in the process of being sexually violated. Think about the touching, the being touched, the insertion of various body parts, the uneasy feeling, the guilt that young children typically feel because they tend to blame themselves, the nightmares, the fear that it won’t be the last time.

Imagine yourself not as one boy, but as every single one of the many children Sandusky was able to violate over the more than 10 years that went by after Paterno first learned that Sandusky was taking boys in the shower.

No, Joe Paterno’s reputation has not been rehabilitated.  And yes, Penn State still has a lot of dues to pay.

Posted in Uncategorized

Contrast in coverage shows how mainstream media trivializes big issues

This week both the New York Times and Nation magazine covered the continued ill will that the New York police department has been directing at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio since His Honor joined most New Yorkers in questioning police tactics and procedures after the deaths of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner.

The Times article details the missteps that it believes de Blasio has made in his interactions with the police department and police unions. For example, the Times claims that the rank-and-file felt that de Blasio displayed disrespect towards them by embracing the Reverend Al Sharpton, a critic of the police. Then they got pissed when de Blasio hired Sharpton’s former spokesperson as an aide; the cops supposedly didn’t like that her significant other (whom the Times chooses to label as a “live-in boyfriend”) was convicted of murder.

By contrast, Nation takes the long view, recounting the bad blood that the New York police had with past New York mayors going all the way back to Fiorello La Guardia, and including Robert Wagner, John Lindsay, David Dinkins and rightwing idol Rudy Guiliani. The Nation also demonstrates with solid numbers that none of these mayors suffered any vote loss in elections after having public spats with the NYPD rank and file. Nation examines the broader issue of the relationship between the police and the rest of government as a minor dynamic in New York City history

In the Times article, de Blasio comes across as stunned and dismayed by the rift. Nation decides not to characterize the mayor’s current state of mind, instead reminding both the mayor and all of us that New Yorkers appreciate and re-elect strong New York mayors who stick to their principles.

The Times reduces the story to personalities to inflate its significance. Nation places it into the broader context of history to demonstrate its inherent triviality. Both approaches to journalism and history go back a long way. Thucydides used the great man idea—this notion that the actions of a few individuals determines history—when depicting the Peloponnesian War in ancient times, and Victorian Thomas Carlyle proposed it as the explanation of all of history. Karl Marx and the Annales school of historians led by Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and others took a broader look at long-lasting trends and the movement, beliefs and actions of groups more than individuals.

Maybe it’s my leftwing bias, but I’m inclined to side with the Nation on this issue, both in its conclusions and the way it covered the story.

Unfortunately, the Times circulation is more than 1.8 million, approximately 14 times the 125,500 readership of Nation, plus Times articles are routinely published ubiquitously in hard copy and over the Internet, whereas mainstream media aggregators and reprinters assiduously avoid Nation’s articles. Thus many more people will read the Times sensationalized version of the relationship between the mayor and the police than the Nation’s studied analysis.

In a coda to this tale of dueling points of views—the personal versus the historical—Mayor de Blasio has subsequently said that he would veto a City Council law criminalizing the police use of chokeholds. It doesn’t mean that de Blasio is now capitulating to the police to curry their favor. De Blasio’s point is that chokeholds are already against NYPD regulations, so a law is not needed. Instead of seeking to wreak vengeance on a police department that has shown him uncalled-for disrespect, de Blasio is behaving like an adult and expecting the police department to behave in the same way. New York City doesn’t need a law if the department enforces regulations.

The key, of course, is to enforce the regulation and go after any offenders.

Posted in Uncategorized

Warrior cops continue to destroy civil liberties and the lives of innocent people

I’ve been suffering a slight case of cognitive dissonance lately, a disorientation that stems from residing in two worlds at once. One world is the TV show “The Wire.” I’ve been streaming and watching all the episodes from beginning to end and just completed the second season. I love the show, which is more about the foibles of institutions than people—definitely one of the four or five best TV series of the past 50 years.

But I only watch the TV screen about two hours a day and during some of my other waking hours, I’m reading Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko. Both “The Wire” and Balko’s book spend a lot of time detailing anecdotes of police raids on homes, but the differences are so stark that it’s sending my head into a deep and befuddling spin.

In “The Wire” and most other urban cop dramas, the drug dealers always have guns and are often ready to shoot. The cops never raid the wrong place, always respect the rights of the drug dealers, shoot to wound when possible and often take a bullet from the bad guys. The weapons the police bring seem appropriate to the dangerous situation, especially when you consider that the drug dealers are always packing major heat. The cops are heroes.

In Rise of the Warrior Cop, which traces the gradual militarization of American police departments since the Nixon Administration, the cops seem always to hit the wrong location, often kill or injure innocent people, trample on basic constitutional rights and behave offensively even after they know someone is innocent.

When I think of 20 years worth of “Law and Order” episodes in which prosecutors have gone after bad cops, my cognitive dissonance grows even larger. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, prosecutors always defend the actions of the police, no matter how violently inappropriate they were, and both prosecutors and judges rubber-stamp “no-knock” entries with SWAT teams whenever the police ask for them, no matter how tenuous or incomplete the evidence.

The difference between the TV shows and Balko’s book is that Balko backs up his litany of horrifying anecdotes with statistics that suggest that police departments are out of control—they have too many weapons not appropriate for use in civilian situations, they call in SWAT teams way too often and they injure and kill too many innocent people.

Balko traces the growing militarization of the police since the Nixon Administration used the war on drugs to justify “no-knock” warrants and the arming of local police with military-grade weapons. Balko cites statistics that show the inexorable turning of the police from a community resource that keeps us safe to a military operation that often treats the homes and neighborhoods like an army of occupation treats the region it has conquered:

  • Every decade more cities have SWAT teams, which are military-style units that assault urban locations, to the point that 77% of all cities with more than 25,000 has one.
  • Every decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of SWAT raids conducted in the United States. For example the number of SWAT deployments grew by more than 937% from 1980 to 1995!
  • Every decade the Supreme Court has eroded the “castle doctrine” (which prevents the police from storming a domicile without due cause) by redefining exigent circumstances, expanding the proper use of “no-knock” warrants and diminishing the time police have to wait between giving notice and breaking down the doors and barging in guns roaring.
  • Every decade, the number of incidents of police raids of innocent people has increased, a natural function of the increase in SWAT raids and the shoddy handling of police raid requests by judges.
  • Every decade, the U.S. Department of Defense has dumped more tanks, weaponry and other military equipment on police departments.
  • Balko also follows the development of the shoot-to-kill mentality among police officers, the “us-and-them” thinking that may be appropriate to a war situation but doesn’t belong on the streets of a free society.

Before 9/11, the war on drugs was used to justify arming the police with military-grade equipment and playing fast-and-fancy with the Third and Fourth Amendments. But even after 9/11 and the rise of the specter of terrorism, virtually all uses of this equipment across the country have been to raid homes suspected of harboring drugs and drug dealers.

Democrats and Republicans have tripped over each other to see who can scare the public worse and call for more funding of the unwinnable drug war. For example, Clinton put a retired military officer in charge of the war on drugs and started the active recruitment of former military personnel for police departments. Raids on medical marijuana facilities and on illegal immigrants increased significantly under Obama.

The following set of numbers from 1972 that Balko gives us exemplifies the way that politicians representing all parts of the American political spectrum have jumped on the bandwagon to make local police military units: In 1972, President Richard Nixon declared that heroin addicts stole $2 billion each year to support their habit. Democratic ultra-liberal presidential candidate George McGovern said heroin addicts really stole $4.4 billion a year. A Nixon administration drug treatment expert said it was $6.3 billion. Illinois Senator Charles Percy upped the ante to $10-$15 billion. Still 1972, a White House briefing book distributed to the press put the amount stolen by heroin addicts at $18 billion.

By the way, the total value of all property reported stolen in the United States in 1972 was $1.2 billion, a lot less than the lowest of these ridiculous estimates.

In the typical raid described in Balko’s book, the police obtain a “no-knock” warrant based on information from an informant who has proven to be unreliable in the past and then barge into the wrong home with less than 15 seconds’ notice, pistol whip people, shoot to kill if anyone makes a false move, rip the place apart looking for drugs, arrest people even if nothing is found, never apologize when they finally discover they hit the wrong house and are never reprimanded or face any consequences for their mistake. Prosecutors and judges take the attitude that the police can do no wrong, which partially explains why police departments and unions absurdly believe that even the mildest of criticism threatens not just the ability of the police to maintain order but the safety of individual police officers. (FYI, the murder rate among cops is far lower than the general murder rate in every state.)

Even when the police hit the right house, the SWAT approach of overwhelming a house or a neighborhood with no prior warning is almost always overkill, since the average drug dealer is not dangerous and typically carries no weapons. Smaller dealers get it far worse, since the courts have ruled that while a large drug distributor could not possibly destroy the evidence in a few minutes, small dealers could—therefore let’s not give them any warning.

The most frightening trend that Balko details is the push of police departments towards focusing on these military-style operations in their recruitment efforts. Instead of trying to attract people interested in “serving and protecting,” current police marketing materials all too often appeal to those whose like to fight and shoot off guns. They make great soldiers but trigger-happy police officers.

The biggest absurdity of course is that the goal of this over-arming of the police and stripping of constitutional rights is to stop a victimless crime.

Balko is a libertarian, a hired gun of the Cato Institute, which probably explains why he doesn’t explain what I believe is the main reason for the militarization of American police departments: racism. Remember that the original Nixon push to erode constitutional rights and turn the police into an occupying force came at the height of the civil rights movement after a number of riots broke out in our inner cities. Drug laws have always been stiffer for those drugs used primarily by Afro-Americans than those used in white suburbs, and the criminal justice system has applied much worse punishments to blacks than to whites convicted of the same drug possession and dealing offenses. Balko’s horde of anecdotes of wrong raids and raids gone wrong is color-blind, but we know that the percentage of raids on minorities has always been far, far greater than their representation in the general population. We also know that blacks are over-represented in the numbers of people killed by police.

The other factor in police militarization is the lobbying effort of military contractors. Our federal, state and local governments have collectively spent billions of dollars on equipment and weaponry that is pretty much inappropriate for most domestic policing. But the suppliers of these armaments have been minting money and using quite a bit of it to influence politicians in both parties to support this dangerous and un-American domestic arms race.

Posted in Uncategorized

The print version of the New York Times now looks like a great regional newspaper of 1990

I couldn’t help but notice the sudden outcrop of advice columns in the printed edition of The New York Times. The Times now has five weekly advice columns, one each for etiquette, job issues, ethics, real estate matters and consumer complaints, at least to my count. Who knows, maybe I’m missing one.

These columns are cheap to produce—the readers create half the content with their questions and the other half—the answers—are almost always warmed-over information or packaged homilies. There is no difference between these columns and the syndicated columnists like “Hints from Heloise” or “Dear Abby” that local newspapers have published for at least a century. I can remember when the Times had no advice columns, which typically are a staple of local and regional newspapers. Then for years the only advice column in the Times was the “Ethicist” in the Sunday magazine.

The front page of the Times is now also different from what it used to be, focusing very little on breaking news except for the very big stories like the Charlie Hebdo massacre or revelations that the Times investigative reporters have dredged up like the collapse of the market for taxi medallions. Instead, the front page contains analysis of news that happened earlier in the week, investigative pieces and high-end gee-whiz features. I suppose that the assumption of the editors is that you already know what the news is from perusing the Internet.

The print edition of the Times carries less news than ever before, and for most international and real non-political national news, is relying more on the Associated Press and other wire services than ever before.

Pick up a Times and if you’re older than 40, the first thing you’ll feel is the lack of heft to it. It kind of feels like a good regional newspaper from the 1990’s. You know, something like the St. Louis Dispatch or the Syracuse Post-Standard, with lots of local columns, frequent award-winning investigative reports and advice columns from national and regional experts. Of course, these regional papers typically used columnists from the Times, Washington Post and other national newspapers, whereas reading the Times, you got to see Charles Blow, Paul Krugman and Gail Collins a day early. No more, since you can easily find their columns on the Internet the day before the print version hits the streets.

I was enumerating these signs of the decline of what was once the greatest mainstream newspaper in the United States to someone the other day when she asked me what I would do differently if I owned the Times.

My response is that the Times management made all its mistakes early in the Internet game by buying into the nonsense that just because it’s on the Internet, it has to be free. If I had operated the Times at the dawn of the information age, I would have done the following:

  1. Charged the same amount to see the newspaper on line as to receive a home delivery.
  2. Not given any free samples to visitors to the website.
  3. Offered the newspaper or selected articles to various Internet news portals such as Yahoo! and Google News on a strict pay-for-usage basis.
  4. Hired a bevy of sharp minds to surf the net for copyright infringements and prosecute all of them aggressively. By copyright infringement, I don’t mean referencing articles or quoting from them in other news media and blogs, but printing an article verbatim without permission and payment.
  5. Given free subscriptions to the online edition of the Times to every public library and public school library across the country.

In other words, I would have defended the castle, which in this case means asserting that the basic value of the newspaper is not in its paper or electronic imagery, but in the information it contains. In effect, I would have had the Times say, “We can and will translate the value of the information we gather to dollars and cents and set a price on it. But we will always provide those who can’t afford direct access to the newspaper a free way to still get the information.” Sounds like the traditional relationship that news media has had with the economy and the community.

Taking the approach I suggested might have hurt the Times profit margin for a while, but newspaper profit margins were notoriously fat, so I imagine the owners could have afforded it. I’m convinced that the rest of the publishing industry would have followed this same strategy for transferring the media to the Internet, if the Times and other big media players would have shown them the way.

Although implementing this harsh approach would cost billions more today than it would have if the news industry had started with it 18-20 years ago, it could still be done. But instead, the Times and virtually all other American newspapers prefer to continue to slide—following fewer news stories, doing more rehashes and relying more on news services. It wouldn’t matter if Internet media were replacing the traditional print and broadcast media in covering and uncovering the news. But it’s not. The Internet relies more on quoting secondary news sources and giving commentary than even the daily newspapers.

The result is that newspaper revenues and readership continue to decline, while Americans are more ignorant of the world around them then they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago.

Posted in Uncategorized

New Yorker story tells anecdote that seems impossible on the surface

Sometimes you just know that either the reporter is lying or has been hornswoggled by the person she/he is quoting. Maybe it’s because everything seems so pat and happens in accordance with commonly held ideas including false ones.

Or in the case of Andrew Marantz’s article titled “The Virologist” in The New Yorker, you smell a lie (as Joseph Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness) because the facts are not verisimilar—they do not correspond to what happens in the real world.

Here’s the quote—and anyone who has ever played, had a child who played or coached Little League baseball will immediately recognize how unlike reality it is. The article, BTW, is about Emerson Spartz, a 27-year-old wunderkind who uses his so-called natural genius and some software algorithms to make the articles that he posts on websites—mostly plagiarized—go viral on the Internet:

When Emerson Spartz was a child in La Porte, Indiana, he had the highest batting average on his Little League team. “I quickly started seeing patterns,” he told me. His coach instructed only the fastest players to steal bases. Spartz was not fast, but he noticed that the catchers were unpracticed at throwing to second base, allowing runners to advance. “I started stealing pretty much every time,” he said. “It worked extremely well, but that wasn’t what the coach cared about, apparently.” To punish Spartz for disobedience, the coach batted him eighth. “I gave him a statistical explanation of why it made no sense to put your best hitter at the bottom of the order,” Spartz said. “You can imagine how that went over.” 

A load of hooey.

Little League, for the uninformed, is for 10-12 year olds. In the Minor and Intermediate leagues for kids under 10, no stealing is allowed. By the time the kids get to Pony and Colt leagues (for the kids older than 12), everyone but the real players have dropped out of organized baseball and so most teams have a pretty good catcher.

But in Little League, every manager knows to have every single player try to steal second base until the catcher demonstrates that she-he can make the throw and the shortstop demonstrates he-she’ll be there to take the catch and tag the runner. The catcher can often be so shaky and the pitcher’s move to home plate so slow that everyone runs—until the other side starts to gun ‘em down.  It’s not even a strategic consideration, such as whether to play your fifth best player at third or in center field; or when to bring in the fast pitcher who may walk a lot of hitters or the control kid whom the other side is definitely going to hit. I coached in two Little Leagues and my son played in three (including an all-star league) and every single manager ran his players until one or two kids got caught or until they knew the capabilities of the other team.

What that means is it’s unlikely Spartz’ coach told only the fast players on the team to run against weak-throwing catchers. Everyone was running until the other teams showed they could stop it.

The other false note in Spartz’s story is that his punishment disobeying the coach was to bat eighth. It would never happen that way. Never. When coaches on any team in any youth sports want or need to discipline a player, they bench the player. Sometimes coaches are too slow to bench, sometimes too fast, sometimes they are inconsistent in their pattern of discipline—but no coach chooses to punish a player by dropping him in the batting order. You reserve dropping in the batting order for good players who are in a batting slump; or when another player is hitting so well you have to move him-her up; or when a player is coming back from an injury or other layoff. Again, I’m not talking about strategies about which there is any dispute. Everyone does it.

Assuming that he didn’t fabricate it himself. I can see why Marantz wanted to believe Spartz’s tale of Little League rebellion. It fits the character that Marantz is so assiduously drawing in the rest of the article:

  • He uses math…
  • …to figures out stuff…
  • …that other, more experienced people miss…
  • …with a courage of convictions to keep doing what he knows is right…
  • …with disdain for the authority…
  • ..who doesn’t like that his rebellion is a success.

The incident encapsulates what Marantz spends more than 5,500 words trying to say, but it couldn’t possibly have happened the way Marantz says Spartz describes it. Even if Marantz didn’t play Little League ball as a kid (or any sport, since all youth sports punish through benching), he should have known enough to ask someone. Isn’t that what fact-checking is all about? And what about Marantz’s editor or the stable of fact-checkers The New Yorker must employ? Were they all so dazzled by the idea of a rebellious boy genius seeing what adults missed that they didn’t think to ask someone what really happens in a Little League game?

This obvious whopper of a whopper throws into doubt all the other facts about Spartz’s life and business. But the article is nonetheless worth a read as it encapsulates the end game of the capitalist approach to entertainment and the arts. The end goal is not communicating a message—lofty or false—or even entertaining. No the end goal is to get eyeballs to see the piece, so that advertisers will pay to be on the website that sponsors the article, photo array, or in the case of much of Spartz’s content, list (of celebrities with something in common, the most or least of good and bad attributes, the cutest, the sexiest, the oldest, et al.).  All artistic success reduces to eyeballs on the page, which we can then transform into the lowest of all denominators—cash value.

Posted in Uncategorized

The numbers that define 2014

Numbers define the last day of the year for me. As the owner of a small business, I typically spend December 31 creating detailed balance sheets and sorting corporate income and expenses into various categories—kind of a dry run for doing our corporate taxes next month. I also start to organize the financial information we send our clients at the end of every month. Personal finances also get attention because I take a look at how all my family’s investments performed in 2014 and compare where we stand now to how much we had a year ago. Thank goodness, we’re without debt, so I don’t have to add up the money owed or the interest paid.

These numbers have usually put a smile on my face for about 30 years now. I have a good business and a nice portfolio of investments.

But every year when I turn to the numbers that define where we stand as a society, my facial expression immediately turns dour. Number of soldiers and innocents dead in wars. Number of victims of gun violence. Number of people in the United States and worldwide starving or experiencing food insecurity. Number of people locked in prisons for victimless crimes. Number of children and women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence. Number of people dead from epidemics and violent weather.

Even when these numbers go down, they still dismay.

Then there are the numbers that suggest our decline as a society. Rate of inflation in the cost of a college education. Estimated number of people denied the right to vote because of recent state voting laws. Amount that average temperatures for the year exceeded historical averages. Decline in the upward mobility of those in the lowest 80% of the population. Loss of buying power of the minimum wage. Decline in union membership.

The big numbers news for 2014 came in April and November. In April, Belknap Press released Arthur Goldhammer’s English translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which detailed the steady increase in the share of the wealth and income pies in industrialized nations going to the top 1% and the top .1% of the population. Piketty proved what most people have experienced: the net transfer of wealth and income from the bottom 99% of the population to the top 1% over the past 35 years. While the numbers were depressing, progressives could at least take solace in realizing that Piketty had turned the world’s gaze to the problem of growing financial inequality and redefined the premises of public discourse on the economy for years to come.

No such consolation can we find in the outcome of the mid-term elections, which saw Republicans win the U.S. Senate and tighten their hold on the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures.

A confluence of many forces caused this crushing defeat for those who want to see a more equitable distribution of wealth, higher taxes on the wealthy, more investment in infrastructure and basic research, more government support of public education, gay marriage, greater women’s reproductive rights, more restrictive gun control laws and the shrinking of our military and military budget:

  • Continued fallout from the Democrats’ decision essentially to sit out the 2010 election, thereby insuring that Republicans could gerrymander Congressional seats after the 2010 census.
  • The mainstream news media’s insistence on providing more coverage to Republican candidates, strategy and disputes, and on defining all issues from the point of view of right-looking moderate Republicans.
  • Obama’s decision to wait until after the 2014 election to begin taking stands on immigration, climate change and normalization of relations with Cuba instead of doing so in the heat of campaign when it could have energized traditional Democratic voters who felt there was no reason to come to the polls.
  • The impact of the slew of laws passed over the past four years that make it harder to register to vote and to vote.
  • The truly obscene amount of money spent by corporate interests to support both parties, mostly the Republicans.
  • An insidious form of racism—the racism that makes people apply higher standards when judging the performance of African-Americans in public, business, civic, social service or government roles. I’m convinced that Americans were more disappointed in President Obama’s performance than they would have been if a white president had done the same things and gotten the same results. Right-wingers and the news media fueled this disappointment in Obama’s performance by the manufacturing of a series of phony crises that somehow demonstrated administration incompetence or duplicity. These crises turned out to be mostly overblown. Nothing that the Obama Administration did related to Benghazi, the Ebola crisis or ISIS compares to how the Bush II Administration botched response to Hurricane Katrina or its incompetent prosecution of the war on terror. Well, there was the healthcare website in late 2013….

These explanations don’t still the gut-wrenching anxiety that comes from knowing that under Republican control of the legislative branch of the federal government, the sequester is likely to remain or be replaced by a miserly budget that continues to cut funds for infrastructure, global warming, social net programs and public education; that there likely will be no raise in the federal minimum wage; and that there will be lots of votes attempting to turn back the clock on Obama’s legislation and executive actions.

And the explanations don’t assuage the dismay in knowing that as long as the Republicans control Congress and most state governments, we will likely make no progress in creating a more equitable society and economy.

Posted in Uncategorized

Foreign Affairs latest pub to glorify entrepreneurs, pretend befuddlement that entrepreneurism hasn’t led to greater wealth equality

Once again, Foreign Affairs is pretending to cover an issue extensively while presenting opinions running the gamut from y to z. I write “y to z” because the original expression is “running the gamut from a to z.” When you write or print out the alphabet, “a” is on the left and ”z” on the right. Thus when creating a play on words to describe the narrow and conservative range of points of view Foreign Affairs typically considers, the most accurate formulation is that it runs the gamut from “y to z.”

The selection of experts all saying the same thing is one of the more pernicious rhetorical devices by which propagandists try to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. The publication suggests that the narrow range of opinions it is presenting covers all possibilities, when in fact those giving the opinions generally agree on everything except a few details.

In its last issue, Foreign Affairs presented the opinions of about a half dozen experts on what the United States can learn from the experience of fighting the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars. These so-called experts focused exclusively on how we can fight wars better and spent no time discussing how we can better evaluate if a war is worth fighting.

In the current issue, called “Here Comes the Disrupters,” Foreign Affairs turns to a discussion of entrepreneurship, which loosely means the craft and science of starting businesses. The publication concerns itself primarily with entrepreneurs whose business ventures disrupt an industry, usually through technology. In the mythology of capitalism, entrepreneurs are heroic disrupters who through their vision, talent and perseverance overcome the great odds facing anyone who starts a business (except those who start with a lot of money and connections, which seems to apply to Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, Meg Whitman, Bill Gates and most of the other entrepreneurs lauded by the mass media).

The introduction by editor Gideon Rose sets the stage for the one-note pony show in the magazine by praising Joseph Schumpeter, a mid-20th century Austrian free-market apologist who postulated that innovation was crucial to economic growth and that entrepreneurs were solely responsible for all innovation. Rose, like most right-wingers, praises the “perennial gale of creative destruction” (a translation into English of Schumpeter’s words) that roils the lives of individuals but benefits the overall economy and therefore helps all individuals raise their standard of living.

Yet Rose expresses befuddlement at how to share the fruits of entrepreneurship with the rest of the humanity: “Everybody wants more growth, more dynamism, and more broadly distributed benefits, but nobody seems to know how to get there.”

But we do know how to get there. We tax the entrepreneurs for their excess profit and use that money to provide a range of benefits and incentives to others, such as a decent minimum wage, high wages for all; job creation programs, low-cost college education, social nets for the poor and active public investment in infrastructure and research and development. That’s what the industrialized nations did roughly between 1935-1975.

Fostering entrepreneurial creative destruction was and remains a major rationale for virtually every aspect of the Reagan revolution, including lowering taxes on the wealthy, passing regulations making it harder for unions to organize, letting the buying power of the minimum wage deteriorate, scrimping on societal investments and retreating from our commitment to free public education and low-cost universities. The result—a steady decline in new start-up companies (that is, companies less than a year old) since 1978 from more than 14% of all U.S. firms to around 8%.

In other words, by writing that nobody seems to know how to broadly distribute benefits in society, Rose has either not read even the basics of 20th century history or is consciously lying. I’ll leave my readers to decide which one.

One reason that entrepreneurship has slowed down may be that our society has become less equitable since the late 1970s. To start a business requires resources that the entrepreneur must either have or borrow—but most start-up business people must pledge their house and other assets as collateral to borrow money from banks. Even venture capitalists want the entrepreneur to have some “skin in the game.” But fewer people have the “skin” to get into the game, as technology automates ever more middle class jobs, wages have stagnated for essentially 35 years and the cost to gain the education needed to be an effective technology entrepreneur becomes ever more expensive. The basic dynamics of capitalism have always depended on the accumulation and investment of capital. No wonder entrepreneurship is declining—fewer people can muster the capital needed to compete.

Rose follows his wave-the-free-market-flag encomium to entrepreneurship with interviews with six of the world’s leading technology capitalists whose companies significantly changed the dynamics of their respective industries, people like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom. The publication creates an artificial diversity by featuring an American man and woman, plus males from South America, Africa and Scandinavia and a Jew from Wales. But the diversity is only ostensible, as all come from either upper middle class or wealthy backgrounds and all attended elite educational institutions or exclusive colleges.

The six entrepreneurs seem to agree on most things. Yes, entrepreneurs help the entirety of society and not just themselves. Yes, competition, free markets with government investment in pure research, little regulation and open immigration are the ways to foster entrepreneurial activity. Yes, it’s too bad that creative destruction causes people to lose jobs, but what can we do about the vast wealth and income inequalities that have formed in virtually all countries of the world? All agree that “creative destruction” is a good thing.

Interestingly enough, the chiming of this chorus of “disrupters” rings most harmonious when discussing the single most important factor in their success. All blame their success on the luck of being at the right place at the right time with the right product or concept, the right contacts and a goodly amount of financial backing. Yet none seem to understand the major implication of relying on luck, which is that these captains of technology don’t deserve all the accolades and rewards they get. To rely on luck really means one is relying on society, since society creates most of the conditions which shaped the successes these people have had. If you don’t believe, consider the bad luck of living in a society with no roads or telephones.

Without knowing it, these entrepreneurs build the best case possible for high rates of taxation on the incremental income of the wealthy. Taxes quantify the value of luck to the entrepreneur. The more one makes, the luckier one has been, the less one has had to do with one’s success and the greater share should be returned to society to pay it forward for the next generation of the lucky few and the just-muddling-through rest of us.

Funny thing, though, none of these entrepreneurs want to complete the thought process. They prefer instead to speculate on what society can do to make it easier for entrepreneurs to succeed, as if that were the end goal of society.

Posted in Uncategorized