Reading Bertrand Russell got me wondering why the Kochs and other ultra rich fight environmental regulations

Reading the great 20th century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy has made me wonder once again about the motivation of the Koch brothers and other ultra-rich who oppose environmental regulation and global warming.

I’m thinking specifically about Russell’s analysis of John Locke’s ethical doctrines.  In Russell’s probably accurate version of Locke, all individuals seek pleasure.  But individuals can distinguish between immediate and future pleasure and sometimes value the future pleasure more and so forego current pleasure.  I’ll quote the part that applies specifically to the ultra-wealthy opponents of global warming and environmental regulations: “Since it is only in the long run that, according to Locke, self-interest and the general interest coincide, it becomes more important that men should be guided, as far as possible, by their long term interests.”

The long-term interest of all of us is to avoid the economic, demographic and societal upheaval that diminishing resources and climate change could cause.  But let’s face it, the ultra wealthy will inherit the earth since they control most of its natural and human-made resources.  In a real sense, the merging of everyone’s individual self-interest into the long-term community interest of protecting the environment puts everyone to work pursuing the best interests of those who own most of what constitutes the environment.

For much of recorded history, the ultra-rich held their wealth in land and the commitment of others to work the land for them.  When society disintegrated, which happened with some frequency, they could hire a militia and protect their own land.  In fact, I’ve just described much of European history from the 9th to 15th centuries C.E.

But today, the ultra-rich hold most of their wealth in numbers on computers stored by financial institutions.  They depend on governments to protect their property.  They can’t hide any more from a threat to the basic stability of society such as massive shortages of fuel and food, a pandemic or a series of weather-related disasters that displace millions.  If society disintegrates, they go under, too.

David and Charles Koch and their wealthy buddies run their businesses and manage their investments rationally, using scientific principles in their factories, research facilities, mines, fields and computer rooms.  If they didn’t believe in science, then they would be out of business.  They know that we are running out of many natural resources.  They know that we are pumping too much carbon into the environment.  They are used to acting on much less overwhelming evidence than what exists in support of the idea that human activity if causing the earth to warm in a way that could harm every living creature.

Why do these ultra-wealthy persist in opposing the very fact of global warming, greater environmental regulations and development of alternative technologies? Because it takes money out of their pockets in the short term.  It’s all short term and no long term, even though acting in the long term helps them and their families more than it helps anyone else.

I have only two explanations for such irrational behavior, both of which I think Bertrand Russell would endorse:

1.  They are true believers in a god who protects the human race and will provide a miracle or provide an answer to save us.


2.  They are cynical, unethical rogues who don’t care about the future of their families or humankind, but only want to maximize their own current pleasure and extend their own wealth.

In either case, the fact that people exist who will not pursue the best interests of society even when it helps them and their families more than anyone else makes a good argument for limiting the power that any individual has over the course of events.  And in the 21st century, that means limiting wealth and income, and therefore the ability to impress irrational and self-destructive views on everyone else through making campaign contributions, advertising on issues, setting up foundations and lobbying.

Republicans get it wrong on which temporary tax cut to extend and which to end

We have two temporary tax cuts.  One is on federal income taxes; it’s been around for 10 years and has benefited upper incomes much more than anyone else.  The other temporary tax cut is on payroll (Social Security and Medicare) taxes and went into effect a little more than a year ago; because there is a cap on how much income is assessed for the payroll tax, this temporary tax cut has put money primarily into the pockets of the poor and middle class.

Our elected officials are now taking a close look at ending or extending these temporary tax cuts, especially in light of the almost universal desire to balance the budget and to jumpstart the economy and create new jobs.

President Obama and many Democrats want to extend the payroll tax cut and end the income tax cut for higher incomes.  The Republicans want to do just the opposite: to restore the payroll tax cut while keeping the income tax cuts for the wealthy. No one seems to want to touch the temporary-for-10-years income tax cut on middle and lower incomes.

Both give the very same reasons for their proposals: We can’t end the tax cut we like because it will hurt the economy, but we have to end the tax cut we don’t like to help pay down the deficit.

Who is right and who is wrong?

Republicans say that it’s the rich folk who invest in businesses that produce jobs, so we better not limit their ability to do so by taking money from them.  Let’s examine this idea in light of current business practices.  Before making any investment that produces jobs, a company or individual analyzes the marketplace, seeking to answer one question: is there a need or can I readily create a need for this product or service in this market?  If no market exists, the company and business doesn’t make the investment.  If there is no investment to make, they’ll raise salaries, usually for executives only, and pay out dividends.  This additional wealth will end up driving up stocks, luxury goods and artwork, which creates little if any new jobs. In a slumping economy, there is by definition less reason to invest, since fewer people have money to spend. 

By contrast, virtually all of the additional money the poor and middle class have received from the temporary payroll tax cut has been spent and will continue to be spent, thus maintaining or increasing demand for a wide range of goods and services.  Businesses will retain or create jobs to meet that demand, even if they end up paying more in taxes, because they’ll be making more money.  As Warren Buffet recently pointed out, people and companies don’t avoid making more money as a way to avoid paying additional taxes.  High taxes or low, they’ll want to make the money.

Thus, without considering any issues of fairness or equity, it makes more sense to extend the temporary payroll tax because it will at the very least continue demand.  But it makes no sense to continue to extend the 10-year tax break for the wealthy, since unless there is greater demand from the general public, they will likely not use the extra money to create jobs; and if there is demand from the general public, not having the tax cut will not serve as an impediment to additional investment.

The Republicans have it entirely wrong, then, that is, if we assume that they are truly interested in righting the economy and creating more jobs.  If, on the other hand, their true interest is to use tax policy and government spending to shift wealth to their top contributors, i.e., the wealthy, then their proposal to end the payroll tax cut while continuing the income tax cut for all incomes makes perfect sense.

The rightwing push to recreate the good old days when only whites and people of means could vote

For most of the history of direct and representative democracy, only a limited few were allowed to participate as voters in making decisions or electing representatives, typically free males with property.  Ancient Athens, the late medieval and early Renaissance Italian city states and England for most of its democratic history come immediately to mind.  In John Locke’s description of an ideal democracy, only free male property owners vote.  That’s what our founding fathers thought, too, adding “white” as an additional qualifier.

It was only after many struggles throughout the 19th and 20th century that all Americans aged 18 or older, white or black, male or female, got the unimpeded right to vote.

Now Republicans want to turn back the clock and limit voting rights. 

Because the poor, minorities and those under 30 did not vote in the last election in great numbers, the Republicans now have control of a majority of state governments.  And everywhere they have introduced legislation that restricts voting or makes it harder to vote.  I imagine that the Republican ideal is that voting be limited to white males and females plus anyone in the top 20-30% when it comes to income and wealth. 

Georgia Democratic Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis wrote an impassioned article on this Republican attempt to disenfranchise millions of Americans in this past Saturday’s New York Times.  Lewis speaks with a certain authority, having suffered more physical blows than any other person in the decades-long fight for voting and other civil rights.  And I mean punches, beatings, whippings, hosings, birchings and canings.  I urge everyone to read the article, which is full of many examples of new laws in 12 states that make it harder to vote (and proposed laws making their way through the legislatures of another 23 states). 

As Lewis so effectively demonstrates, all of these new and proposed laws tend to make it harder for traditional Democratic voters to cast a ballot.  One example will suffice: the new Texas law requiring an ID to vote allows people to use state hunting licenses but not IDs from state colleges.

Unless an Obama landslide carries Democrats back into power, the rightwingers will have another 2-4 years to pass more restrictive voting laws.  In the end, the Republicans could achieve a permanent electorate majority even while establishing itself as a minority party among the total adult population. 

Whether our future electorate represents the broad spectrum of Americans or skewers towards whites and the propertied, it is growing ever more conservative on non-economic issues such as abortion, gun rights, belief in global warming, belief in evolution and capital punishment. 

But on the economic front, we are still quite liberal.  We want to tax the wealthy more, cut military spending, extend unemployment benefits, regulate industries for safety and environmental emission, invest in improving our infrastructure, continue Social Security and Medicare in its current forms and create a more equitable society.

The one economic issue on which Americans are becoming more conservative is unions.  After years of seeing and hearing business and the mass media assault unions, many Americans now envy the good wages and benefits of union workers instead of trying to emulate them.  Perhaps envy is an emotion more in keeping with the politics of selfishness that has dominated American thinking for the past 30 years.  Besides spreading poison in the media about unions, the rightwing has spent those 30 years weakening unions.  We are now seeing the “final solution” in the battering of public unions by Republican legislatures, once again aided and abetted by the right-wing and the mainstream media.

With the union base of the Democratic Party in near ruins, the Republicans have their sights set on Democratic voters.  And if the Democratic Party doesn’t put tons of money into bringing the voters out in 2011 and 2012, Republicans are going to pull the trigger and take down the important achievements of the voting rights movement.

Mallard Fillmore creates a fantasy news media that’s far more liberal than in real life.

Right-wing accusations that the mainstream news media is liberal, if not left-wing, predate Bruce Tinsley, whose “Mallard Fillmore” comic strip appears daily in Conservative-leaning media.  Tinsley’s contribution to what has been a constant propaganda theme since the Viet Nam War era is to create a parallel cartoon universe peopled by a regular set of absurd caricatures who participate in a daily drama built on lies, exaggerations and false premises. 

Some of Tinsley’s recurring characters include a liberal/left-wing news reporter, newscaster, news director, caveman, teacher, educational administrator and university professor (since another myth perpetrated by Tinsley is that our educational establishment is left-wing).  These people spout off exaggerations of left- wing opinions and obvious absurdities into which Tinsley sprinkles a good bit of lying. The topics come from the usual right-wing breviary: global warming, unions, public schools, the “language” police, any and all taxation, affirmative action, attempts to influence citizens to eat a healthier diet and any type of government regulation.  

Satire has long used exaggerated forms of social and political types, but what turns “Mallard Fillmore” into pure propaganda is that his satire does not reflect reality, but creates an alternative world that often has little to do with what is actually happening in the real one.  Because the detail in the lies and exaggerations is so precise, it’s impossible to tell when Tinsley is “just kidding” and when he is quoting something that someone actually has said or might say.

Yesterday’s “Mallard Fillmore” strip perfectly exemplifies the Tinsley approach.  Our hero, a standard issue cartoon duck, is watching television in his cozy armchair.  Meanwhile, a newscaster is speaking from the television set.  Here is what the TV newscaster says:

“It’s been a wild year in weather, from a super-hot summer caused by man-made global warming…to last winter’s record-cold temperatures due to natural cyclical patterns…”  

The expression on the duck’s face says it all: The newscaster is another manipulative expert trying to convince us of the existence of global warming through false reasoning. We are supposed to conclude that the news media is part of a global warming hoax.

But the reality of the situation is much different:   As I have noted a number of times in OpEdge, the mainstream news media go out of their way to undercut the science behind global warming.  For example, a search of “hot weather global warming” on Google News produces a mere 143 stories, virtually all of which say that one summer does not make a global warming trend.  In contrast, the freakishly cold winter of 2009-2010 produced a number of false assertions that the cold proved that the earth was not warming.

The false heart of Tinsley’s misrepresentation of the news media’s advocacy of global warming is his centering of the strip on TV news.  Most of the news about weather comes from TV weather personalities.  A study a few years back by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that only about half of approximately 570 television weathercasters surveyed believe that global warming is occurring, and fewer than a third believe that climate change is caused by human activities.  It’s far more likely that the real version of the imaginary news anchor in the comic strip would make a snide side remark questioning global warming than use limited anecdotal evidence to defend the concept.  (FYI, only half of all TV weather personalities are meteorologists and none are climatologists; none are experts in long-term climate trends.)

So, it’s a complete lie, but it feeds into the myth of “liberal” media bias in a funny and memorable way.  It is also easy to view the strip as a reflection of reality, and thus it can be used as secondary evidence by the benighted know-nothings who propose that climate change is not occurring in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence gathered over more than a century.

Tinsley’s strategy then is to create a situation that looks like a traditional satire of reality (right down to anthropomorphizing cute animals) but is in fact based on myths.  In this case, the myth is that the news media is actively promoting a false idea.  The reality is that the idea is true, but that much of the news media is impeding its dissemination by publicizing the distortions and illogical reasoning of those opposed to the idea.

Those against government support of scientific research forget that it produces lots of jobs.

One of National Public Radio’s news features this morning was a “well-balanced” report on the frequent attacks on government support of scientific research that takes the form of a denunciation of what on the surface appears to be a stupid or meaningless study.

The NPR reporter, Nell Greenfieldboyce, presented several examples of right-wing politicians or associations condemning a specific project because of the ostensible absurdity of the topic: shrimp on treadmills; link of the size of a man’s penis size to the risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases; toenail exposure to nicotine. 

In all cases, NPR showed that the critic had overblown the example by taking it out context, in two ways: 1) how the research topic related to solving problems; 2) the cost of the studies (always much less than the number the right-winger had thrown around).  In each case, the story included the reply of the conservative accused of taking things out of context.  And in each case, before going on a diatribe against government waste, the right-winger shamelessly pointed out that he/she/it never said that the absurd study represented the total cost of the broader grant whose cost he/she/it had mentioned.

For example, it turned out that the shrimp on a treadmill study cost about $1,000, although part of a $500,000 grant to study how shrimp respond to changes in water quality.  A spokesperson for the right-winger in this case, Senator Tom Coburn, responds by saying, “our report never claimed all the money was spent on shrimp on a treadmill.”

So what NPR presents is a “he said she said” in which science gets the win on points.

But what NPR doesn‘t address is the broader topic of the value of government support of scientific research.  The reporter lets the other side moan on about government waste when so many people are out of work.  For example, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition angrily condemns the National Institutes of Health for funding the toenail to nicotine study (part of a larger effort to improve prediction of lung cancer) with these words, “They used recovery money, money that was meant to more or less stimulate the economy.”

The hidden assumption behind both the criticism of individual projects and of government research in general is that it’s a waste of money that doesn’t help the economy.

But in fact, government funded scientific research is a major creator of jobs, in two ways:

  • Government support of scientific research creates jobs immediately. Universities and research institutes hire scientists, engineers, technicians and administrators to conduct the research, all relatively high-paying jobs. Those jobs have as much of a trickledown effect on the economy as most service and many manufacturing jobs. For example, most research needs sophisticated equipment, the manufacture and sales of which creates additional jobs.
  • Government support of scientific research creates jobs in the future. The results of scientific research create new products, technologies and even industries that create many future jobs, sometimes millions of them.  For example, the shrimp study will likely have industrial applications.  Personal computers, airplanes, the Internet, contemporary agriculture (the good and the bad) and artificial fabrics are some of the industries and products that would not exist if the government had not supported basic research.  Each of these industries account for millions of jobs.

Governments have supported scientific research since the time of Alexander the Great, who commissioned scientists to tag along after his marauding armies to study the lands he subdued.  The signers of the Constitution affirmed the role of the government to support scientific research by mandating that the federal government conduct the national demographic study we call a census every 10 years. 

When we cut government support of research, we in effect eat our future in the same way that we eat our future when we cut funds for public education.  In both cases, we choose not to make the investment in knowledge and people that our future economy needs.  In the current situation, the “we” eating our future are the wealthy who have enjoyed more than 30 years of historically low taxes on their income and wealth. 

Instead of cutting scientific research funds, we should double or even triple the amount of money we make available for research and technology transfer.

We should also realize that scientific research helps companies before it helps individuals, helps companies more than it helps individuals, and helps the company executives and owners far more than it helps most of the other employees.  We should make sure that those who benefit the most pay the most to support scientific research.  Thus, as with so much that we must change to fix our struggling economy and prepare for a future threatened by diminished natural resources and global warming, bringing support of government research to appropriate levels comes down to reinstituting the equitable tax system we had in the 50’s, 60’s and most of the 70’s.   In other words, we have to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Perry’s comments span spectrum from ignorant to dumb in his first week as a presidential candidate

Texas Governor Rick Perry didn’t take long to establish himself as the leading presidential candidate of the know-nothings.  Maybe he decided to hit the ground running with misinformed opinions to make up for the fact that his ignorance does not really clear new ground, but rather follows in the footsteps of the Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

Here are some of the ignorant remarks Texas Rick made last week, each delivered with his usual combative sense of self-assurance:

  1. Called Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke a traitor and intimated that Bernanke would be subject to a lynching in his state. 
  2. Said all abortion should be illegal everywhere in U.S.
  3. Said that the existence of man-made global warming is not proven.  His global warming comment came with a lie of Bachmann-like proportions: “And I think we are seeing almost weekly or even daily scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”  Don’t ask Texas Rick to name any of these scientists, though, since it’s a complete invention.  Virtually all climatologists and other scientists believe that there is more than sufficient evidence to state without question that the earth is warming and humans are the primary factor.
  4. Said that the theory of evolution is unproven and has gaps, and that he believes in intelligent design.  Again, the overwhelming evidence has convinced virtually all scientists that Darwin’s theory is correct and that intelligent design is not.
  5. Called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” which means that you pay early investors with the money collected by later investors.  If you accept the definition of “Ponzi scheme” that Perry proposes by using it to describe the Social Security Trust Fund, then every defined benefit pension plan is a Ponzi scheme.
  6. Implied that working class and middle class people aren’t paying enough in taxes.  His exact quote, “we’re dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax,” neglects the fact that the low- and middle-income people not paying income tax still pay payroll (Social Security and Medicare) taxes and that most of their incomes are at or close to poverty level.
  7. Defended abstinence only sex education, which every reputable study on the subject has found to be ineffective in decreasing HIV infections and does not decrease rates of unplanned pregnancies.  By the way, sex education that includes contraception does reduce HIV infections and unplanned pregnancies.

These comments, all in the first week of Perry’s candidacy, remind me of that lunatic Governor—wait, wait, I’m blocking on the name—who a couple of years ago said that his state might want to exercise its legal right to secede from the union (even though such right does not exist). Oh yeah, it’s the same guy!

We also learned during the first week of his candidacy that making ignorant statements that go against the facts is not the only right-wing tradition that Texas Rick upholds.  He also continues the long-line of hypocrites about sexual politics, like Larry “Wide Stance” Craig and Newt Gingrich.  It turns out that the self-righteous, holier-than-thou Perry once owned stock in a video distributor known for selling hardcore porno tapes.  And guess who spent years on an anti-porn campaign targeting the company? Surprise, surprise, surprise, it was the American Family Association, the ultra right-wing Christian organization that helped organize Texas Rick’s recent stadium prayer rally.

His smarmy porn investment aside, it’s clear that Perry is shouting out right-wing untruths and absurdities to attract the attention of the 25% of the country that buys into his fact-starved distrust of government, dislike of taxing the wealthy and eagerness to impose morality on others.  He is telling Tea-Partiers and the Christian conservatives that he is the Knight of Faith who will win the White House for them.  By doing so, I believe he hopes to solidify the ultra right’s support and thus win the nomination.

But the nomination is not the election.

I imagine that President Obama’s campaign staff broke out a few bottles of Dom Perignon when they heard that Perry was running. A candidate who wants to end abortion, dismantle Social Security (for future generations only), is ready to get the hangin’ rope for a mild-mannered and well-respected government official and is anti-science?  This kind of religious know-nothing doesn’t have a chance with the general population.  Texas Rick is expressing opinions so far to the right of the mainstream so often that even if the news media treat him with kid gloves, he is going to scare a lot of people into voting for President Obama. 

Most elections are decided by turnout: which party gets more of his/her party’s stalwarts to vote.  In Republican primaries, Perry will bring out the righteous right.  But in a general election, I think he’s going to bring out the other side, those who will be so frightened by the prospects of eight years of a Bush II clone-without-tone that they’ll hold their noses and vote for the President despite disappointment at his accomplishments.

New progressive atlas maps myths and truths about the United States

I recently stumbled across a new book by Boston-area university professors Cynthia Enloe and Joni Seager that I highly recommend to everyone: The Real State of America Atlas is a series of charts, graphs, surveys, facts and snippets of text that attempt to give a picture of present-day America. 

Enloe and Seager use a series of two-page spreads to cover a  broad range of topics, including women’s reproductive rights, gun control, climate change, the militarization of society, prison politics, education and foreign affairs.

The book is wonderful, if only for the factual nuggets on every page.  Here are some of the most amazing, odd or fear-invoking factoids I found:

  • Starbucks sells 70% of all coffee consumed in the Peoples Republic of China.
  • Fewer Americans believe in global warming or the need for gun control than did 10 years ago.
  • In the last 40 years, the number of people getting to work by mass transit has fallen from 9% to 5%, and the number who walk to work from 10% to 3%.
  • Although 62% of all Americans believe that no country should have nuclear weapons, the U.S. still has 9,600 atomic bombs.
  • We incarcerate more people per 100,000 residents than any other country in the industrialized West, and three times as many as any other country except Russia and Georgia.
  • About 43% of all American households have guns.
  • We spend about twice as much per citizen on healthcare than the nation in second place.
  • The richest 1% of all Americans own 35% of all wealth, while the poorest 40% own a mere .2% of all wealth.

Perhaps the most striking map is the one on page 39 of counties won by each presidential candidate in 2008: While garnering 53% of the vote, Obama took perhaps 15% of all U.S. counties spanning across maybe 20% of the country’s geography.  Obviously, he won the metropolitan areas with the greater population and lost the sparsely-populated rural areas.  The map shows that among the greatest of the many divides in our country today is the one between the cities and close suburbs and the rural areas and far suburbs.  

The authors introduce each topic with short essays, and these tend to put a welcomed progressive spin on the issues.  I particularly liked their analysis on climate change: “A peculiar climate change denial movement has been forged in the past decade in the US.  A few key conservative financiers and energy companies, along with rightwing popularizers, have launched ambitious campaigns to produce uncertainty and doubt in the minds of many Americans about climate change and our responsibility for it…At the policy level, the US has been a poor partner to its industrial allies in crafting international solutions to climate change.”

For the most part, though, Enloe and Seager let the charts speak for them, and they tell a story of an America divided in its opinions and its condition between white and non-white, rich and poor, men and women.  They depict an increasingly militarized society dominated by large corporate interests and products.  They show an America out of sync with the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to healthcare coverage, climate change, capital punishment, deaths by guns and gun ownership.  And they hint at a broken government whose elected officials tend to ignore the will of the majority of the people, except on the issue of gun rights.

The book is a very quick and entertaining read, and it will leave you with a bunch of “gee-whizzes” you can share with your friends and family.  You’ll also have a ready reference guide when you want to refute some nonsense that a right-winger is trying to fob off as factual information. Buy and enjoy!

Wall Street Journal looks for boogeyman for bad housing market and can only come up with appraisers

In what must be one of the most absurdly reasoned analysis articles in years, The Wall Street Journal argues that appraisers are to blame for the continuing housing bust that has now lasted more than four years.   

Let’s be clear: the author, S. Mitra Kalita, doesn’t blame appraisers for creating the bust, only for extending it.  

And what are appraisers doing to hold down sales? They’re being overly conservative in their appraisals.  

The article cites a survey by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) that says that 10-12% of their members had a contract canceled because of a low appraisal last year.  Another 10-13% saw a contract delayed, while 16-20% made less commission because a lower appraisal led to a lower sales price.

First of all, these numbers prove nothing, because it’s not a measure of sales that were canceled, delayed or lowered, but of agents who had sales canceled, delayed or lowered.  Sales delayed or lowered shouldn’t figure into the equation, because they’re still sales. Now, each realtor sells an average of 7 houses a year, according to NAR.  If the 10-12% of agents with canceled contracts had only one contract canceled each because of the low appraisal, which would work out to only 1.7% of all contracts scratched.  Even if all these dead contracts went through, it would not create a roaring, or even a modest, comeback in housing.  The very fact that the Journal article and NAR measure the wrong thing leads me to believe that they couldn’t come up with good numbers, and that the numbers of lost contracts from low appraisals is minimal.

Apart from these meaningless numbers, the premise of the Journal article is completely ridiculous.  The idea that low appraisals are continuing the housing bust falls into many illogical pieces when you review Economics 101.  I think somewhere in the first 25 pages, every economics introduction defines the law of supply and demand, also called the law of demand, which states that consumers buy more of a good when its price decreases and less of it when its price increases.  Low appraisals should therefore lead to lower prices, which in turn should lead to more sales.

Except that few people have money to buy a new or first-time home. When we add in those who have stopped looking for a job and those working part-time who want to work full-time, we have a 16% unemployment rate.  Meanwhile, most people with full-time jobs haven’t had an increase in their purchasing power in years and face increased transportation, education and healthcare costs. The fewer people who can afford a product, the lower its sales, that is, until the price of the product drops to the point that more can afford it and demand starts to pick up.

Not only do we have few buyers, those buying have the choice of many houses.  There is a glut of properties on the market, primarily because of overbuilding during the boom years and the high number of recent and current foreclosures.

Few buyers is why the real estate bust continues.  Many properties is why prices remain low and in many markets continue to decline.  It has nothing to do with appraisals.

In fact, we should be happy that appraisers are tending on the conservative side now. We know that appraisers were part of the problem in the first place.  They gave overly optimistic appraisals that whipped up the prices of properties to a frenzied froth, but everyone was happy:  Sellers got more money for their house; banks took their cut, and then packaged and sold the loans, the bad with the good; buyers thought that houses would continue to appreciate at historically high rates.  Of course the happiest then (and among the saddest now) were those who borrowed more money on a house they already owned than they had initially paid for the house: happy then, to treat the house like a personal bank; sad now, because they owe far more than the house is currently worth.

Appraisers were an integral part of the system of lies that created the bubble.  If they’ve cleaned up their act and are acting more conservatively now, a loudly blaring free market clarion such as the Wall Street Journal should commend them for it.

Iowa straw poll symbolizes today’s elective process: those with money get more say in the voting

The first vote of the presidential election cycle took place this past weekend, and Michele Bachmann squeaked out a 400-vote (one percentage point) victory over the septuagenarian libertarian Ron Paul.   The question on everyone’s tongue is if the straw vote of just under 17,000 Republican regulars and enthusiasts in Ames, Iowa will change the complexion of the race.  Will other also-rans besides Pawlenty drop out?  Will contributors line up now to fill Bachmann’s coffers? 

Instead of analyzing the results of the straw vote, I want instead to examine its place in American politics, especially as a symbol of how money has subverted the one-person one-vote principle of representational democracy.

We start with two simple facts, reported by a number of sources: Straw voters had to pay $30 a piece to vote, and the campaigns of the various announced candidates “footed the bill, throwing in a lunch of barbecued pork, grilled hamburgers and ice cream as an enticement to spend part of the day in Ames.”

A little simple arithmetic reveals that Michelle Bachmann probably paid about $150,000 directly to people to have them vote for her.

And make no mistake about it, the paid-for-in-full Iowa straw voters have more of a say in who will be elected president in November of 2012 than any other voters do. 

The concept that applies to the situation is the tabula rasa, or blank chalkboard.  In philosophy, tabula rasa is the theory that individuals are born without built-in beliefs or knowledge and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception.  A corollary of the tabula rasa theory is that the first mark on the blank chalkboard of the mind tends to have more meaning to people than later marks, because that first mark is the only thing on the chalkboard at the time, i.e., the only experience or facts known by the person.

The application in communications is that when considering any issue, most people begin with a clean slate.  The first facts and opinions they hear about the issue tend to shape their reaction.  I have applied this principle for more than 25 years in advising companies and nonprofit organizations how to respond to a potential crisis or get people to believe their side of the story in a crisis or regarding an important issue.

For example, my public relations firm was asked to publicize the position of a well-respected private college after a large Pennsylvania healthcare system tried to steal its name and use it for its new medical college.  We decided to announce the college’s lawsuit late in the business day so that the healthcare system had no time to respond.  The first day articles all told the story from the college’s point of view using the college’s facts.  The result was that the public and elected officials all came to the immediate conclusion that the healthcare system was in the wrong.  We were first out of the gate, and therefore created the reality accepted by the world.  After days of bad publicity for the healthcare system, the lawsuit was quickly settled out of court to the benefit of the college.  We won by putting the first mark on the tabula rasa.

In a profound sense, the Iowa straw vote is the first mark on the tabula rasa of the presidential political season.  No matter how small a mark it is, it takes on an unwarranted large significance by virtue of there being no prior indicator of true voting sentiment.   So this first straw poll vote is more influential, by definition.  Over time, the significance of the Iowa straw vote will fade, as more and more votes are taken in the various states.  But for the time being, the actions of less than one thousandth of one percent of eligible U.S. voters are driving the early phase of the election cycle, in which we discover which of the candidacies is viable.  Some candidates will soar and other fall by the wayside based on how campaign contributors and other voters react to the Iowa straw poll.

Yet only people who paid could vote, and those who did vote mostly received the voting fee from the candidate for whom they voted. 

The Iowa straw vote thus symbolizes the whole electoral process:  people with money have more say in who is elected. 

The candidates with the most money:

  • Always get more coverage by the news media, always get more positive coverage in early media reports and always are considered frontrunners even if early polls suggest otherwise.  Proof positive is this year.  The news media has already decided that Mitt Romney (and now the other money-bags, Rick Perry) are frontrunners, and took the Huntsman candidacy quite seriously simply because Huntsman has hundreds of millions of his own money to spend, if he chooses to do so.
  • Can afford to stage more special events and thereby get even more news coverage.
  • Can do more advertising and hire more people to go door-to-door, make phone calls and attend rallies.

What that means is that to win an election, the candidate must either have a lot of money or appeal to those who give a lot of money to campaigns.  A candidate may have views that reflect the overwhelming majority of citizens, for example Dennis Kucinich, and yet never get a chance to be taken seriously, because the views he/she favors are not the views of political donors.  It has been many an election since the winner of a presidential election spent less money than his opponent. 

Most people can only vote.  Those with money to spend can also influence how we sort out candidates and issues, and thereby limit our choices to those candidates that support their positions on the issues that they care about, even if those positions and issues do not represent the will of the people.

There has always been a bias towards money in American politics, but it’s gotten a lot worse since our right-wing Supreme Court overturned laws limiting corporate campaign contributions last year.  And it will continue to get worse until we can pass campaign financing laws that will survive the gauntlet of corporate toadies that now represent our Supreme Court majority. 

History of U.S. debt debate is just a series of farces, each more pathetic than the preceding one.

If he were still alive, I would want to ask Karl Marx a question about his clever, but enigmatic old saw that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”  

Dr. Marx’s phrase comes to mind as I read the reaction of the news media to the naming of the members of the Congressional debt panel charged with addressing our self-inflicted fiscal wounds.  Self-inflicted, because the primary cause of the growing federal debt is a conscious policy to keep taxes at historically low rates for the wealthy. (We could also label the secondary cause—spending for two foolish, goalless wars—as another self-inflicted wound.)

My question for Dr. Marx is, What about if it’s a farce the first time?

The original farce was the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, put together by President Obama to balance the budget.  Like the new debt panel, the National Commission membership comprised ultra-Conservatives or establishment types who tended to look rightward from a centrist position.  And like the new debt panel, many members had a long record of advocating political actions that take money from the poor and middle class and give it to the wealthy.

The National Debt Commission farce ended last November, when it published its report, which advocated a number of tax moves having nothing to do with balancing the budget but which would have lowered taxes on the wealthy while raising taxes on everyone else.  The report also advocated draconian cuts to most programs that create jobs or help the poor, elderly, young and disadvantaged.   The final clownish pratfall of the report was the realization that if we followed every suggestion, the rich might be richer and everyone else a whole lot poorer, but we would still have a deficit!

If the first time is a farce, is the second time tragedy?  Of course, we could go from farce to “gross-out film,” which is a farce heavily dependent on jokes about bodily functions. Or perhaps, we’ll repeat the “Perils-of-Pauline” cliffhanger of the recent debate on whether or not to raise the debt ceiling?  Or maybe a quiet Chekhovian drama in which nothing seems ever to happen.  I can only imagine Pat Toomey, Jon Kyl and Jeb Hensarling sitting around the parlor sewing and moaning in despair over the loss of the temporary tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 as if it were the family cherry orchard.

All discussions of genre aside, I think that the debt panel is a bad joke from the start, since it focuses on lowering our debt instead of focusing on fixing our economy and helping the millions of people suffering because of 30 years of a free-market, no-tax regime.  The awful punch line of this bad joke is that the very action that will create jobs and lower debt—raising taxes on those who haven’t been paying their fair share—is off the table for so many Republican members of the new debt panel.

The news media is presenting the naming of the debt panel members as if it were the final act of a drama of reconciliation.  The central question posed in the coverage in the mainstream news media is, Will people compromise? Most of the stories look for hopeful signs that the members have demonstrated their willingness to compromise in the past, including those in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Arizona Republic and San Francisco Chronicle The Journal, for example, wrote, Republican House and Senate leaders named six conservative diehards Wednesday to the new deficit-cutting committee, but the appointees’ histories suggested they might be open to striking a deal with Democrats.” The tone was wary but positive, similar to the calming and reasoned approach affected by financial experts whenever the stock market declines a few hundred points.

Some mainstream mass media, such as the Associated Press and Miami Herald, were more pessimistic.  For example, here is a quote from the Associated Press story, the one that most newspapers in small towns and rural areas will use: Members of both parties said the job of whittling down the government’s enormous debt was urgent, yet critics expressed little hope that the bipartisan panel would be able to overcome stark political divides.” 

For the most part, though, the mainstream news media reflects an unwarranted cautious optimism.  I see little coming out of the debt panel or other special committees until our elected officials on both sides of the aisle resolve the inherent contradiction that drives their actions:  The good of the country and the will of the people tell them to raise taxes and create jobs, but the large corporations and ultra-wealthy that feed their campaigns and provide their incomes after their political careers want them to keep taking more from the poor and middle class to give it to the already well-heeled.