O’Donnell, Paladino and other political candidates behaving badly.

The news hit earlier today that Christine O’Donnell, queen of the small and shrinking anti-masturbation movement and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Delaware, lied about her academic career—yet again! 

A few months back, officials at Oxford University said that O’Donnell did not attend their university, as she had claimed.  Now Claremont Graduate University is disputing her claim to have attended there.

O’Donnell is far from the first politician to be caught in a bold-faced lie about past accomplishments.  Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has referred to his past service in Viet Nam so many times that he may actually think he served under fire in Viet Nam during our illegal war there.  But in fact, he did not.  He’s either a liar or delusional—and which is worse?

What’s wrong with the thinking process of those candidates who lie about their past educational, military or other accomplishments?  When you lie about what you’re going to do in office or what you believe in, it’s likely that you won’t get caught, at least until years after the election.  And it’s understandable why candidates lie about their sexual peccadilloes or predilections (but it’s too bad that includes being gay and shame on those closeted politicians like Larry Craig who bash gays or vote against gay rights).

But in our era of computerized records and long institutional memories, why would any politician lie about a resume fact?  It shows a lack of judgment.  The best lying politicians have the good judgment to know when they can’t lie.  I believe that as soon as a lie emerges on a resume that the political party should disassociate itself from the candidate and select someone else to run.  Period, no questions asked.

Judgment is also the issue in the Paladino email scandal.  It’s now well documented that Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for Governor, has sent a large number of offensive sexist and racist emails to friends and acquaintances. 

As Bob Herbert pointedly put in his article about Paladino’s disgusting emails, Paladino himself admits it showed “poor judgment.”  Here are some examples Herbert lists of Paladino’s “poor judgment”:

“Example: A photo showing a group of black men trying to get out of the way of an airplane that is apparently moving across a field. The caption reads: “Run niggers, run.”

Example: A doctored photo of President and Mrs. Obama showing the president in a stereotypical pimp’s costume holding the hand of the first lady, who is dressed as a prostitute in a grotesquely revealing outfit.

Example: A video clip of a nude couple engaged in intercourse with the title: “Miss France [expletive].” Mr. Paladino characterized it as “a keeper.”

Example: An image showing a woman performing a sexual act on a horse.”

No one in the Republican Party has taken the obvious next step and realized that these repeated emails call into question if Paladino’s judgment is good enough to put so much responsibility into his hands.  I hope voters in New York ignore the differences between Paladino and his opponent Andrew Cuomo.  After all, the New York state legislature will put reigns on both Paladino’s ultra right-wing proposals such as putting poor people into prison work camps and on Andrew Cuomo’s progressive instincts. Instead, New Yorkers, ask yourself if you want as Governor someone who would send these racist and degrading images.

And Maryland voters should ask themselves if they really want someone who is stupid enough to lie on her resume voting for them on nuclear treaties, war resolutions, economic recovery programs and other issues of national importance.

Money for Halloween but not for ancient sewers: Is this the 21st century American apocalypse?

The National Retail Federation told us yesterday that the average American plans to spend $66.28 on decorations, food and costumes for Halloween this year, up almost 18% from the $56.31 per person we spent last year.  I learned about it from the always interesting Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, Teresa Lindeman.  

The same day, the news media also told us of the many mayors who have endured or face recalls from an angry citizenry.  The New York Times report on the trend begins with the truly sad news that the voters of Livingston, a town of 11,000 in central California, booted out the mayor because he pushed through an increase in the water rate, the first one in more than a decade, to fix Livingston’s aging water system. 

Water systems and sewers that municipalities constructed 50, 75 and 100 years ago are now breaking down and must be replaced all over the country.  Our roads and bridges are in dire need of repair.  Mass transit systems continue to pare lines as costs mount.  But all we hear is that we can’t raise taxes.  Most of our politicians are too craven to propose raising taxes, and many, especially Republicans, constantly rail against taxes.

How can we pay for repairing our infrastructure if we don’t raise enough revenues through taxes?  The last 30 years has seen a tremendous drop in the rate of taxes that all Americans pay, with those with the highest income and wealth enjoying the lion’s share of the extra money produced by these tax cuts.  The result: more deficits and fewer government services.  But everyone sure has a great time getting sick on candy and dressing as someone else on Halloween!

Let’s assume that the good people of Livingston (and anywhere else that has a sewer, water or other infrastructure building project on hold because there’s no money) would spend $33 on Halloween instead of $66—maybe made their own costume or decorations, or used last year’s, maybe give less candy, since the kids are going to a lot of houses.

Now let’s say people found a way to cut away $33 in unnecessary expenses every month.  In Livingston, it would probably be enough to fix the water line problems.  But it’ll really be more than $33 for many people, because that $66 per person on average includes people so poor that they don’t spend a penny on Halloween.  Those people, by the way, can usually get help paying their water bill.

The money that goes to taxes instead of Halloween will not leave the hands of American commerce, just be spent repairing infrastructure instead of manufacturing and selling candy, clothes, clothing accessories and paper goods. 

But will it happen?  If it doesn’t, I have this apocalyptic nightmare vision of the future of this country: A bunch of people shivering in outdoor toilets in the dead of winter or in long lines for hours stuffing their faces with candy while they wait for bottled water or to fill their pails at a community spigot about five miles down a road that’s half dirt and half asphalt fragments.

More tendencies and trends while fending off some propaganda bends of truth.

Another blog full of short takes, beginning with a political cartoon I saw a few weeks back that gratuitously communicated a “big lie” through conflation, which is when someone equates two things that aren’t comparable, like comparing Bush II’s national guard record to John Kerry’s Viet Nam combat experience.  

The cartoon, by Steve Breen, depicts the similar reactions to the news in 1945 announcing the European armistice and in 2010 announcing the end of the combat mission in Iraq.  Both hear the same news, in 1945 from the radio, in 2010 from the TV: “After thousands of troops lost their lives and billions of dollars spent, combat ops are over in….” For 1945, it ends with “…in Europe…” and in 2010 it ends with “…in Iraq…”  The pudgy middle aged guy listening to the radio in 1945 rejoices, while his 2010 alter ego sits with the expressionless expression of the shell-shocked.

Let’s forget that there is a certain duplicity about Obama “marking the end of combat” when 50,000 troops and another 80,000 mercenaries remain in a country involved in “non-combat” operations.

Let’s focus instead on the manipulative conflation of deaths between World War II and Iraq, saying both were in the “thousands.”  I can’t tell if Breen was in favor of or against the war in Iraq—you could read it both ways.  But either way, to compare the dead in these two wars shows a poor understanding of history.  The United States suffered about 416,800 military deaths in World War II, compared to 4,421 during the conflict in Iraq (or at least so far).  And remember that we currently have about 2.5 times the population than we had during World War II.  Whatever Breen was trying to say, he magnified the impact of the Iraq War on the population.  About the money, though, he did get it right on the money.  Paying for the unnecessary and ill-managed Iraq War is bleeding the country financially and will continue to do so for years. 

Now turning to one of my favorite subjects, Wal-Mart’s marketing campaigns: I’ve been following Wal-Mart’s recent series of lifestyle commercials, which follow years of the mass market retailer focusing TV ads exclusively on prices.  One thing that’s been hard to miss in these ads is the lack of men: be it celebrating Christmas or doing back-to-school shopping, men are nowhere to be seen in Wal-Mart’s portrayals of the life of families.

Now finally, Wal-Mart has put a man into a TV spot about how it helps families pursue their lifestyle.  No, he doesn’t shop, but he’s right there on the couch watching football with the kids while munching on all the goodies mom bought at Wal-Mart.  And true to the real world as Wal-Mart always is in these commercials, dad is carrying a big load around his middle.

FYI, the week before the start of the NFL season the airwaves were saturated with commercials for food products that are traditional game-time munch foods, like grilling sausages, chips, beer and both frozen and delivery pizza.

Finally, in case you had the idea that Parade was the only celebrity-obsessed general interest magazine, check out the latest issue of AARP, the slick bimonthly magazine published by the American Association of Retired People for those over 50, or contemplating being over 50 one day.  From the photo of actor Dennis Quaid on the cover to the very last page, AARP is obsessed with celebrity.  The issue does contain AARP’s usual tip-focused articles on personal finance, travel, mental and physical health and retirement living.  But as much as possible, it covers TV and movie personalities: Jane Pauley on finding hidden strengths; Quaid’s campaign to improve hospital safety; Lady Gaga, Pink and 6 other young celebrities who dye their hair gray.

The focus on cheap celebrity as opposed to the real accomplishments of politicians, writers, inventors, business people, scientists, teachers, researchers and explorers (yes, they still exist!) is always best seen in round-up columns in which a group of people are asked something or the same fact is revealed about each, e.g., where they all went to college.

In the case of AARP, it’s the regular feature on the very last page in which AARP tells us what prominent people turn 50, 60, 70 (and sometimes 80) this month.  For the most recent issue, AARP features seven people, as follows: turning 50 – Hugh Grant, Damon Wayans and Colin Firth; turning 60 – Fred Flintstone, Joan Lunden and Bill Murray; and turning 70 – Raquel Welch.

We have 5 actors, 1 news personality and a fictional cartoon character.  As the Latin used to say, “res ipso loquitor,” which means it’s a thing that speaks for itself.

Let’s tie up loose ends, examine new tendencies, look at some trends.

Instead of a long essay today, I want to provide some quick takes on recent news:

I’ll start by commending U-Mass professor Robert Pollin for his article on rising inequality in the United States since the mid-70’s in the most recent Nation magazine.

Pollin pulls statistics from Larry Bartels’ Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age to compare the income collectively earned by the top 20% of workers with that earned by the bottom 20%.  So for example, 60 years ago the top 20% earned just around three times what the bottom 20% collectively earned; today it’s more than four times.  What’s really interesting is that before the Carter administration, the ratio went up and down in a very narrow margin, but since Carter, it has gone straight up, except for the Clinton years in which the growth in income inequality temporarily stalled, but at a much higher level than during the 50’s and 60’s.  So it’s not just the parties, but the political temper of the last 40 years that has led the United States to become a nation of rich and poor, with a rapidly shrinking middle class.

Now to the Corn Refiners Association, my latest nominee for a “Ketchup” award, named after the glop that the Reagan administration wanted to declare a vegetable for the school lunch program.  At the end of the year, I am going to make a special “Ketchup” award to the most absurd bending of language of the prior year.   

The Corn Boys want to change the name “high fructose corn syrup” (HFCS) to “corn sugar.”  Cane, beets and corn all produce fast-digesting sugars, but cane/beet sugar—also known as table sugar—has managed to brand itself as being natural and therefore healthier than corn syrup.  Because consumers believe that HFCS is a health risk, food processors are abandoning it in favor of table sugar.  So the Corn Boys want to make their product seem as healthy as an easy-to-abuse processed food product.  Truly bizarre!

Finally, an anecdote that suggests to what extreme the mainstream news media has really oversold the Tea Party:  Someone I follow on Facebook described Tea Party anti-masturbation activist Christine O’Donnell as winning an election earlier this week.  In fact, O’Donnell was not elected to anything, merely nominated by the Republican Party for a U.S. Senate seat. 

But it’s no wonder my FBF got confused.  The mainstream media covered this last round of primary voting for 2010 just as they have been covering the elections all year—focus almost exclusively on the Republican races, while assuming that the country was going to experience massive memory loss of the Bush II economic debacle and throw out the Democrats as perpetrators of our economic woes.   The New York Times version of the Delaware primary voting did not even mention the well-known and popular Democratic candidate, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, until well into the last quarter of the article.

The news media is counting the Democratic candidates out because it wants to keep moving them, and public discourse, to the right.  I am confident that many centrists, when faced with the choice between Democrats looking their way and the extreme right-wing Tea-partiers, will vote for the Democrat.

I also want to remind the readers that the only way to keep the temporary tax cuts for the middle class and poor that are set to run out after this year is for Congress to pass a bill.  If the Republicans block or try to block that bill because it doesn’t include extending the temporary tax cuts to the wealthy, it doesn’t matter how many times they shout “Class warfare” or “You’ll stunt growth.”  All most voters will hear is, “I won’t let you have your money” and they won’t like that message one bit.

At the end of the day, though, this fall election all comes down to who gets more of their solid voters to the polls.  The Democrats should be dedicating significant resources for vans and car pools to get urban seniors, college students and minorities to the polls in November.

Even when discussing families recently made homeless, the emphasis is on buying things as a way of life.

Michael Luo had a poignant article in this past Sunday’s New York Times about the 40,000 leap in the number of families with children in homeless shelters across the country since the current recession began.  The article has a lot of interesting information about a group that has seen their American Dream dissolve. 

But Luo couldn’t just give us the information.  He had to use the news that more families are losing their homes as a platform for reminding us that living the American Dream revolves completely around buying things in malls in suburbs.

Like many journalists writing about the impact of the recession on people, Luo begins his story with a case history.  Now he might have selected a family new to living in a homeless shelter who can’t get used to going to the library instead of buying books.  Or a family that takes two buses to take their kids to Little League practice.  Or a family of immigrants who are learning how to make old country specialties on a hot plate.

Here is the story that Luo selected to tell:

“For a few hours at the mall here this month, Nick Griffith, his wife, Lacey Lennon, and their two young children got to feel like a regular family again.

Never mind that they were just killing time away from the homeless shelter where they are staying, or that they had to take two city buses to get to the shopping center because they pawned one car earlier this year and had another repossessed, or that the debit card Ms. Lennon inserted into the A.T.M. was courtesy of the state’s welfare program.

They ate lunch at the food court, browsed for clothes and just strolled, blending in with everyone else out on a scorching hot summer day. ‘It’s exactly why we come here,’ Ms. Lennon said. ‘It reminds us of our old life.'”

Yes, their old life when recreation meant shopping for more stuff in a suburban mall. 

Luo had his choice of 15 families at the Rhode Island shelter at which he found the Griffith-Lennon family.  He also could have chosen to feature a family at another shelter. 

Or he might have tried to highlight another aspect of the Griffith-Lennon family life, maybe what they’re telling their two young children about what has happened to them. 

But Luo selected this particular family and this particular aspect of its life because he wanted to transfer the symbolic humiliation of losing one’s home onto the broad ideological imperative upon which the mass media thinks we should build our lives: the commercial transaction, that is, buying something, is the basis of all relationships, celebrations, manifestations of love, respect and all other emotional states, and every other emotional component of life.

War helps no one but the wealthy, and yet countries seem to find poor people willing to fight.

War used to be a great way to make a living for poor males or younger sons with no other prospects.  But in today’s global, technology-driven society, war can help no one but the wealthy and their chosen governments, corporations and factotums.

Franz de Waal has an attractive theory that man has two simian ancestors:  chimpanzees who are warlike and will drink the blood of other chimps, and bonobos who are passive and friendly and practice free love. I am suspicious of theories that find the source of human activity in other animals, mainly because in my experience I have seen humans from time to time exhibit behavioral traits of virtually all other animals.  For example, John Eisenberg’s The Mammalian Radiations describes 10 or so mating patterns among mammals, all of which you can observe among human beings, although a few are pretty kinky. 

I am much more inclined to believe that our aggression came about as a result of reacting to our environment, which in the early history of humankind means responding to the presence of a major competitor in our ecosystem, the Neanderthals. Our reaction (about which I first read years ago in Steven Stanley’s The New Evolutionary Timetable): to make war upon our enemies.

Once mankind extirpated the Neanderthal, there was little logical reason to wage war for a long time.  When humans roamed in bands, hunting and gathering for food and everything else they needed to live, rival groups may have had reason to fight from time to time-over carrion, camping grounds or hunting preserves. The idea of attacking another tribe as a source of wealth probably occurred to more than one tribal leader. But throughout this so-called prehistoric period, the abundance of game probably made it less than good economic sense to pillage and rape as a way of life. 

Agriculture changed the war equation.  Farmers and animal husbanders could store food and live in easy-to-target permanent locations.  It was the golden age of war for those who waged it, and in some parts of the world, it lasted into the 20th century.  From the Cimmerian raiders to Genghis, the crusaders and the Nazis, armies could literally live off the land, commandeering locals for slave labor, rampaging fields and barns for food, raping women for sexual satisfaction.  Sometimes, nomadic raiders wandered a serendipitous path. Sometimes, raiders returned to the same location on a regular basis, like migratory animals.  This strategy often transformed into a policy of extortion of agricultural or trading communities, as the Comanche, Osage, Norse and Chinese warlords did, with the ransom or protection generally paid in seed, drink, pottery, precious metals or humans. 

Whatever the rampaging strategy, even if the leader and his circle culled the largest share, the distribution by definition had to be fairly equitable to keep the men fighting.  The general and his army were a literal band of brothers, held together by their common desire to earn their way through the world by looting. Before the industrial revolution, war was typically good for warriors.  And when it wasn’t good, as under the relentlessly restless Alexander of Macedonia, the soldiers rebelled or deserted.

As agricultural centers grew and trade developed between them, I imagine that the emerging urban civilizations across the globe began to consider war as a solution to a myriad of challenges.  Perhaps the population was expanding too fast for the food supply. As victors, the city could expropriate the wealth of defeated cities or destroy trade competitors.  Perhaps by waging war, the city could bring new regions into its sphere of influence.  Or, the city could defeat another city of substance which was threatening to attack it.

The problem facing cities wishing to go to war was finding soldiers to fight it. Almost from the beginning, war should have lost its appeal to anyone with the industry and knowledge to pursue agriculture or animal husbandry, that is, unless the urge to kill our own kind was as great as the urge to have a regular and plentiful source of sustenance. Beyond these basic instincts, the agricultural life seemed to hold all the advantages: the ability to sleep in beds instead of on the ground, with a roof over one’s head, even if it were nothing more than dried mud; a constant source for sexual release instead of infrequent orgies of rape.  And as agriculture led to the growth of cities, there were ever more attractive professions than looting the countryside: ceramics, engineering, cobbling, quarry work.  

Yet even if there have always been more farmers than warriors, the warriors end up in charge of things, always, and for good reason—they are willing to kill for their power. All they need is someone to do the killing for them. So slowly, the ruling elite began to propose reasons other than economic reward to convince ordinary citizens that they should go to war:

  • Religion
  • Patriotism
  • Defense against an imminent threat, e.g. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

It is my belief that the great political partnerships between church and state we see in virtually all societies throughout history result from state and religious rulers making the same deal that Constantine made with one faction of early Christianity:  Support my war and I will support your religion. It is now fairly well accepted among scholars, for example, that the crusades were fought in part as a safety valve, i.e., to transfer Western Europe’s criminal and pillaging class from Christian lands to the land of the economic enemy.  God or the gods have been used to authenticate virtually all recorded wars, and often both sides have claimed god’s mantle, as in all of the current conflicts in the Middle East.

War has always been and continues to be part of the bag of tricks by which the wealthy get those less fortunate to support their concentrated power and wealth.  If we follow the flow of money and disregard religion, it’s easy to see who prospers in war:  the wealthy and those soldiers such as Sudanese and Croatian who choose to rape and pillage.  But for the average person in most countries —the person who would continue to teach school, develop software, repair shoes, clean streets, sell merchandise or build cars, even if a new regime took over—for this average person war only means dead family members and higher taxes.

If soldiers and citizens refused to serve, there could be no war.  And yet it continues, perhaps, again, because of a basic need in humans to kill other humans.  The best argument that there is such a basic genocidal urge is the very fact that in wealthy nations, the ruling elite can still find people willing to die, kill or both for the state.

Palin’s “despicable” illiteracy serves as the “inception” of thousands running to the dictionary.

I subscribe to Merriam-Webster’s online unabridged dictionary, which contains the definition and spelling of more than a million words and also gives me access to a myriad of online resources that are helpful to a writer, including the Collegiate Dictionary, Collegiate Encyclopedia, Thesaurus, Atlas, medical dictionary, style guide, French-English dictionary and Spanish-English dictionary.  It’s a great bargain at under $30 a year and I recommend it to any student, teacher, communications professional or frequent reader.    

Once a quarter, Merriam-Webster sends me an online newsletter, the highlight of which is the list of the 20 words that people looked up the most over the past three months.  Some words, such as “ubiquitous,” “conundrum,” “integrity” and “love” always make the list.  So do “affect” and “effect,” which makes a lot of sense since these two words are so similar in spelling and meaning.

Then there are the words that become popular look-ups because of blips in mass culture.  For example, this quarter’s list, which I received a few days ago, includes “inception” and “despicable,” both in titles of movies this past summer, Inception and Despicable Me.

But the most looked-up word over the past quarter isn’t even a word, it’s a slip of the tongue made by Sarah Palin in early July: refudiate.  Palin spouts so much nonsense, makes so many mistakes in word usage and misstates so many facts that I didn’t follow the controversy at the time she used this neologism (for which the good dictionary gives two definitions: 1) “a new word, usage, or expression”; 2) “a usually compound word coined by a psychotic and meaningless to the hearer.”) 

After much online mocking, Palin compared her use of the word favorably to Shakespeare’s invention of words. While Shakespeare did invent or bring many words into written use for the first time, the comparison is absurd: The job of the creative writer includes stretching the boundaries of language and expression, whereas the job of the politician and civic leader is to articulate precisely his or her positions.  The essence of every good speech, be it the Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther’s King’s “I have a dream…” is clarity.  I’m not saying that politicians can’t make up words, but when they do, they should immediately define the new word for the audience and general public.  A good speech often creates new phrases, such as “the New Deal,” “The Great Society” and “The Contract with America.”  Palin merely dug herself into a deeper hole of ridicule with her defense of combining “refute” and “repudiate,” which have very different meanings, to form a nonsense word.

But lambasting Palin’s incoherence and her foolish excuses for it is akin to shooting large fish in a very narrow barrel.  I want instead to take a look at what the silly controversy about refudiate says about the current state of public discourse. 

On the one hand, the fact that so many people looked up the word in the dictionary is a sign that people do pay attention, which is a good thing.

But consider this fact:  On the first day after Merriam-Webster’s release of its online newsletter, my search on Google News found 551 articles or blog entries about refudiate achieving the number one position on the Merriam-Webster list.

I’ve used Google News results in the past to suggest how much the mainstream news media is covering a story, especially one that no one has to cover.  Let’s compare the coverage of the Merriam-Webster newsletter to some feature stories over the past few months that I think got short shrift on the news media:

  • University of Washington study shows, “opposition and frustration with government is going hand in hand with a frustration and opposition to racial and ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians” – 40 stories.
  • Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco research proves that immigrants increase both wages and productivity of all workers – 18.
  • Study by a Stanford professor shows that 74% of all Americans believe the earth is getting warmer – 37.

An analysis of Palin’s position on any number of issues would, alas, certainly be newsworthy, but how could the aftermath of yet another slip of Palin’s tongue be more important than these significant studies?  It’s absolutely incredible, except for two factors:

  • All of the studies I’m mentioning go against current trends in media coverage, i.e., the news media is giving the Tea Party a pass on the discriminatory essence of many of its followers; the news media is complicit in the great and unfortunate wave of anti-immigration feeling rolling over the country; the news media has kept alive the false and anti-scientific idea that global warming may not be occurring.
  • The news media has demonstrated time and again that they want to reduce political campaigns to personality battles, candidate miscues and scandals.

Let’s take a look now at how many hits were on Google News for some real news stories on September 11, that is, stories that the news media must cover (and keep in mind that I’m taking a moment in time and when you look up these stories, you may see more, or even fewer):

  • The natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California raises safety issues – 3,832 stories.
  • Iran cancels release of U.S. hiker – 2,058.
  • Tropical storm Igor nears hurricane strength – 1,295.
  • FAA proposes more rest for pilots – 779.

We would expect that these real news stories would achieve greater penetration than a feature story.  But compare this coverage to the announcement that Pastor Terry Jones is canceling his scheduled burning of copies of the Koran – 13,093 stories!! 

I believe that the news media should never have covered the planned hate-mongering antics of an obscure pastor in a small college town in the first place.  Once the news media made this non-story into the kind of sideshow that prevents us from considering real issues, coverage snowballed as religious and political leaders felt the need to take a stand against the planned protest.  What happened is that the news media created a news snowball that turned into an avalanche of coverage that buried alive more important stories and issues. 

The sad thing, of course, is that be it coverage of the ramblings of the incoherent Palin or the pronouncements of an intolerant ignoramus like Pastor Jones, this trivialization of news happens all the time.

AP puts a big lie about climate change in its headline about a story about the Old Farmer’s Almanac

Earlier this week the Old Farmer’s Almanac came out with its prediction that the United States will have a colder than average winter this year.  An Associated Press article by Russell Contreras is the version of the news that most people will read about this annual rite of fall, mainly because for most non-business, non-local news nowadays, virtually all small-town and many big city media republish the Associated Press version of this type of feature story.

And if all the websites and newspapers that used the AP version of this story included the headline, as Yahoo did, then they have perpetrated what amounts to a hoax.

The story itself is quite well done.  Contreras contrasts the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction of a colder than usual winter with two other predictions: 1) the Farmer’s Almanac, which predicts a much gentler winter than last year; and 2) the National Weather Service, which predicts a warmer than normal winter in some parts of the country and a colder than normal winter in other parts of the country.  The story also discusses the rivalry between the two almanacs.

The headline: “Old Farmer’s Almanac: Global cooling to continue.”

This headline is misleading in so many ways that it turns a fine feature story into a piece of propaganda for global warming deniers.  Let’s start with the obvious:

  • The story concerns predictions of weather in the United States only, whereas global weather patterns take into account the entire Earth.
  • The story talks about predictions of a one season’s worth of weather, which as has been discussed before in OpEdge, is subject to a number of local factors.  You can’t judge global weather trends by analyzing one year, or even one decade.  You have to take a look at long-term trends over many decades, which once done, reveals that our planet has been getting consistently warmer for almost 200 years.  It’s like saying that Reggie Jackson or Babe Ruth were bad ballplayers because they suffered a week-long slump.  Or using the bad acts of one paroled criminal to condemn a highly successful parole program, as Bush I did in his infamous “Willie Horton” ads during the 1988 presidential elections.  The propaganda technique is called “argument by anecdote,” and it’s one of the most powerful tools of propagandists because people tend to latch onto stories more readily than statistics.
  • Of the three “expert” sources discussed in the article, only the one featured in the headline has predicted a colder winter than normal.
  • The words of the headline, “global cooling will continue,” assumes that there has been global cooling, a view shared by less than a handful of scientists and based on an analysis of short-term and medium-term trends related to a reoccurring cycle in the activity of the sun.  What that means is that solar activity may make things cooler or warmer for a few decades and thereby act temporarily against a long-term trend on Earth.

The pernicious impact of this headline derives mostly from the way in which people read the news.  Most people skim stories, going from headline to headline until they find something of interest, and then perusing the first few paragraphs of some stories and very infrequently reading the entire story.

In other words, for most people, the headline is all they will read.  And the headline “Global cooling to continue” is a distortion not only of the story that follows, but of what the preponderance of scientific evidence and climate experts say is actually happening.

Unless perceptive editors substitute a headline that would be both more truthful and more accurate to the story, it’s this distortion that most people will see.  We know that Yahoo!’s editors just ran with it.  Let’s hope others showed higher journalistic standards. 

By the way, I found 379 stories on Google news about the Old Farmer’s Almanac predictions for this winter in the United States, and all the ones I checked out either repeated the AP story and headline, or were based on the inaccurate headline and not the story itself.

Before I close, I want to exonerate Contreras from his role in communicating this “big lie.”  I am assuming that like most newspapers, a special headline writer and not the story writer composes headlines at AP.  The theory has always been that writing headlines is a specialized skill that many fine writers don’t have.  It’s therefore likely that Contreras submitted his interesting story and a headline writer and the editors turned it into a misleading propaganda piece.  If I were Contreras I would be completely pissed off to see my work distorted.

Wall Street Journal gives right-wing economist Robert Barro a platform to jigger the numbers on unemployment benefits.

One of the most important principles of logic, employed by scientists, historians and most other researchers, is that things that correlate do not necessarily have a causal relationship. 

Now that’s a mouthful, but it’s really a simple concept:  Just because two things happen at the same time or happen to the same person or nation does not mean that one is causing the other.  For example, just because two people show up at the same movie theatre for the same show doesn’t mean that one is there because of the other.  Or more famously, just because there are insects hanging around that pile of pig dung doesn’t mean that the pig dung created the insects.

If you read enough about physics, chemistry, geology, history, anthropology and other bodies of knowledge, sooner or later you will run into a discussion of whether or not two trends or set of facts that correlate (or exist together) have a causal relationship, that is, did one cause the other.

But judging from his August 30 article in Wall Street Journal it seems as if this important concept of critical thinking has not occurred recently to Robert Barro, a Harvard professor who is considered a global expert on macroeconomics, which is the study of how national or global economies function.

In the article, Barro declares that if unemployment benefits had not been extended to 99 weeks, the unemployment rate might be 6.8% and not close to 10%.  He therefore blames the Democrats and the Obama Administration for extending joblessness by helping the jobless to put food on their tables.

At the heart of his argument are some numbers he throws around in the middle of the article.  Let’s preview what Barro says, and then take a look at it:  Barro gives some statistics for past recessions like the “mean duration of unemployment” (halfway point between the high and low for how long unemployment lasted), the share of long-term unemployment (what percentage of the total unemployed looked for a job for more than a half a year) and the peak unemployment rate.  Then Barro compares these numbers to today, when they appear to be much worse.  He then concludes: “The dramatic expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to 99 weeks is almost surely the culprit.”  As you see, it comes out of nowhere, but is based on an underlying, but unstated and unproved, assumption that these numbers have a causal and quantifiable relationship.

With that explanation as our guide, let’s see what Barro wrote:

“To begin with a historical perspective, in the 1982 recession the peak unemployment rate of 10.8% in November-December 1982 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 17.6 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment (those unemployed more than 26 weeks) of 20.4%. Long-term unemployment peaked later, in July 1983, when the unemployment rate had fallen to 9.4%. At that point, the mean duration of unemployment reached 21.2 weeks and the share of long-term unemployment was 24.5%. These numbers are the highest observed in the post-World War II period until recently. Thus, we can think of previous recessions (including those in 2001, 1990-91 and before 1982) as featuring a mean duration of unemployment of less than 21 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of less than 25%.

These numbers provide a stark contrast with joblessness today. The peak unemployment rate of 10.1% in October 2009 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 27.2 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of 36%. The duration of unemployment peaked (thus far) at 35.2 weeks in June 2010, when the share of long-term unemployment in the total reached a remarkable 46.2%. These numbers are way above the ceilings of 21 weeks and 25% share applicable to previous post-World War II recessions. The dramatic expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to 99 weeks is almost surely the culprit.”

Barro then goes on to state that if the number of unemployed for 26 weeks or less today hit historical levels, then unemployment would be 6.8 %, blaming the extension of unemployment for the difference, with neither proof nor logic.  He uses phony math to propose a causal effect where none exists.

Barro states the conceptual basis of his argument earlier in the piece:

 “The unemployment-insurance program involves a balance between compassion—providing for persons temporarily without work—and efficiency. The loss in efficiency results partly because the program subsidizes unemployment, causing insufficient job-search, job-acceptance and levels of employment. A further inefficiency concerns the distortions from the increases in taxes required to pay for the program.” 

In short hand: people don’t look for jobs when they can collect unemployment and businesses are less able to hire because they are paying more in unemployment insurance.  It’s the same old right-wing claptrap that makes no sense when you actually examine the statement.

Let’s take a look at the second part first:  To support the unemployment program in each state, employers pay a percentage of gross wages for each employee up to a small amount.  In Pennsylvania, the percentage varies, but for my businesses it has been miniscule, and I only pay on the first $8,000 in income, so maybe it’s a couple of hundred bucks an employee per year.  Believe me, every business that is profitable or would be profitable without financial machinations makes a whole lot more than a few hundred bucks on each and every one of its employees.  So even when a bunch of those hundreds add up to enough money to hire someone else, remember that the total profit has also increased and so the company likely has the funds to hire with or without the paltry sums paid into the unemployment fund.

It’s the first assertion, though, that is truly offensive and an insult to virtually all working Americans—that a large percentage would rather stay home on their duffs than work.  We hear economic right-wingers make this statement all the time, and yet we never see any numbers to back it up.

First of all, I’ll admit that there is a part of our population who would rather sit at home than work, but when it comes to unemployment insurance, we’re talking about a special sub-group: those lazy-assed loafers who had a job and now would rather collect their unemployment than return to work. 

The issue is not how many people are in this loathsome subgroup, but how many can afford to live on that unemployment check and thereby eschew work.  Well, trust fund babies could.  But I’m under the impression that most people who lost their jobs were working at low wages, and a lot of those working for higher wages were living at or close to their means.  Remember that unemployment insurance pays only a part of your former wages and that there is a limit above which you receive no more no matter how much you made in your former job.  And, people who lost low paying jobs are not getting very much. 

Of course people who lost higher paying jobs like school teachers, attorneys or managers may be collecting unemployment checks greater than what they could make flipping burgers or welcoming customers to Wal-Mart. 

That is, if there were any such jobs.  According to the Department of Labor (DOL), there are currently five people looking for work for every job that’s opened, which is down from about a year ago when it was a more than six people searching for every available job.  DOL isn’t the only organization that has concluded that there are a paltry number of jobs for the number of people unemployed: so do such stalwarts of business as the Conference Board and the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.  

It’s for this reason that what Barro says smacks more of Simon Legree than Adam Smith:  If there are no jobs, we as civilized human beings must help the unfortunate fellow citizens who have lost theirs.

And now for the really offensive part:  you know all these economic right-wingers, including Barro, who think that we need to hang the threat of hunger and homelessness over people who have lost their jobs to make them want to work—all those right-wingers also advocate that we should leave regulation of every industry to the high-minded, ethical and socially conscious companies that make up the industry. 

In other words, we act to reign in the base instincts of the workers (most people), but don’t have to reign in owners, since they won’t succumb to a base motive.  That’s the hypocritical and self-serving essence of Barro’s argument against extending unemployment benefits. 

And I reject it as just another way to distribute wealth up the economic ladder, in this case from the unemployed middle class and poor to business owners.

Robert Reich identifies inequitable distribution of wealth as a major problem, but his solutions avoid the issue.

Someone in the mainstream news media is talking about what has been a major theme in this blog for some time now: the need to foster a more equitable distribution of wealth and income in the United States.  (see blogs for November 10, 2009 and June 14, June 15, June 17, June 18, July 22 and August 13 of this year). 

It’s Robert Reich, Clinton’s secretary of labor and now a professor at UC-Berkeley, in his opinion piece in today’s New York Times.  Reich says exactly what I’ve been saying: to fix the U.S. economy, we must address the growing inequality in wages, with much more money going to the top earners and much less to everyone else.  

Reich touches on why the current inequitable distribution of wealth is so bad for the country.  Unfortunately, he gives the same old same old complicated market-oriented anodynes instead of offering the obvious simple solutions that have worked in the past. 

None of Reich’s solutions distribute wealth more equitably, but instead propose to help low-wage earners keep more or earn more from a mythical growing economy.  Here’s what Reich suggests:

  • Give tax breaks to more low and middle-class wage earners, which of course does not raise incomes, only allows those helped to keep more of what they’ve earned.  Since Reich does not link this idea to raising taxes on others, all this suggestion does is provide a government subsidy to the employers who pay the low wages and continue to pay low taxes.
  • Make public universities free and then require graduates to pay back 10% of the first ten years of income after school.  There aren’t enough jobs for qualified college graduates right now, so how will this measure help?  And even if it did help to create more jobs, again, it’s a complicated scheme that insulates the high income/high net-worth crowd from contributing from their copious stash to a more equitable distribution of wealth.
  • And I quote, “Another step: workers who lose their jobs and have to settle for positions that pay less could qualify for “earnings insurance” that would pay half the salary difference for two years; such a program would probably prove less expensive than extended unemployment benefits.”  In other words, we take money away from the unemployed and give it to people who have found work that pays less than what they used to make.  Again, how does this move distribute wealth more equitably?  It sounds as if all we’re doing is robbing a down-and-out Peter to pay a merely diminished-and-struggling Paul.

Here are some of the simple solutions that Reich ignores, all of which have been proven in the past to equalize the distribution of wages and wealth in the country:

  • Raise taxes on the wealthy and either lower them for others or use the taxes to provide simple wealth-shifting programs such as lowering the cost of tuition at public universities or increasing food stamp payouts.
  • Remove the $106,800 cap on individual and employer payments to the Social Security Trust Fund (known sometimes as SSI or payroll taxes), so that everyone pays on all income, which would secure the Social Security system well into the future.
  • Raise the minimum wage.
  • Foster unions by lowering barriers to unionization, ending “right to work” laws and requiring that charter school teachers join unions in areas in which the public school teachers are unionized.  It’s just a fact that the period in which the United States had the most equal distribution of wealth was the same age in which the economy was the strongest and unions were also the strongest: after World War II through most of the 70s.  Unions turn low wage jobs into middle class jobs—they always have and they always will.
  • End government outsourcing for ongoing, non-manufacturing, non-research functions such as operating prisons and public parking and providing military services.  Government pays lower paid workers more and higher paid workers less than the private sector does, so when the government does it, there is a more equitable distribution of wealth.

All of these actions will raise wages.  To those who say that raising wages will make us less competitive in global markets, I answer, not if it means that the pay at the top is lowered and profit margins are thinned.  That’s what happened in Europe, which has suffered less in the current recession and seems to be coming back more quickly.  

Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.  Occam’s razor is one of the most important tools in science and philosophy.  So why do economists continually ignore this principle in devising solutions to economic challenges?  For example, they want to establish a carbon exchange market with trading and derivatives instead of just ordering polluters to install equipment or taxing these polluters so that that they and their users pay the social costs represented by pollution and global warming.  Regulation and taxes are easy, establishing a market is complicated.  Yet economists will write pages of gobbledygook to tell us why we’re better off going with the complicated.

And that’s what Reich thinks he’s done: created complicated solutions to the problem of inequitable distribution of the wealth to replace simple ones.  But to propose a complicated solution would require that Reich’s solutions really address and maybe even solve the problem.  Reich’s does neither.  He identifies the problem, but offers complicated, ponzi-scheme-like ideas that will do nothing to help.