Best Buy’s “Game-on Santa” makes shopping a competitive sport and the be-all and end-all of existence

I imagine that virtually no OpEdge reader could beat Kobe Bryant at one-on-one basketball. And none of you could outrun Usain Bolt, current world record holder in the 100 meter dash. You couldn’t sneak a fast ball by Alex Rodriguez. Women’s golf champ Yanni Tseng would give you 5 strokes and still beat you. Hikaru Nakamura, currently the best U.S. chess player, would give you a pawn and demolish you in 30 moves or less. You’d be eating a tennis ball on every serve from Raphael Nadal.

But there is one world-renowned titan who you can beat at his own game. And all it takes is money or a credit card that hasn’t reached its limit.

The game is shopping and the titan is Santa Claus.

Or at least that’s what Best Buy is proposing in its Christmas-shopping television commercials this year, unified by the theme line, “Game on, Santa.”

All three of the Best Buy Christmas shopping spots I have seen pose a competition between you, the viewer, and Santa Claus. Whether it’s a giving competition or a shopping competition is moot, since the commercial seems to equate the two. The three scenarios I have seen just about complete the stations of Santa’s mythical annual visit (not to be confused with Christ’s Stations of the Cross):

  1. A mother stops Santa on the roof at the chimney and warns him that she’s been to Best Buy.
  2. A mother shows Santa the new widescreen TV she got for the family, making Santa gulp down his cookie with an expression that says that the news has shocked him as a “Hail Mary” pass that wins a football game might.
  3. A mother is at the hung stockings, which are stuffed to the cuffs, taunting Santa with the fact that there is no room for what he has brought.

Note that in all three commercials the house is upscale and the competitive shopper is an attractive, but not beautiful, white woman who looks to be in her late 30s. 

The commercial is as packed with unspoken ideological imperatives as the stockings are stuffed with junk in the one Best Buy spot. The most obvious ideological subtext is the reduction of all emotions or emotional manifestations to the act of buying something. A history of this centerpiece of 21st century American ideology would begin with the commercialization of Christmas and the gradual replacement of the custom of making gifts with the new custom of shopping for them.

Like the advertisements for and media coverage of Black Friday, the “Game On, Santa” commercials take a subtle post-modern step in the evolution of the consumerist ideology because what is being hyped is shopping in and of itself, and not as a way to celebrate a holiday. One characteristic of post-modern art is for the art to be about the process of making art, and not about something else. 

The commercial sinks a deeper ideological hook into viewers, though, and that is the premise that competition is good. The act of arranging Christmas according to the modern traditions has become a game which produces winners and losers. Instead of the more obvious choice of a loser—that snooty next-door neighbor, the sister who always wins, that obnoxious shopper who wants to grab the last Xbox or the mother-in-law, the upscale mom is beating Santa, which means she’s winning big-time.   

We know that the consumerist ideology connects every emotion to the act of buying.  The Best Buy “Game On, Santa” commercials also connect the act of buying to winning and losing, that is, competition, and by implication, to market competition. The free market ideology says an unencumbered market in which everyone pursues his or her own best interests will result in the greatest good for everyone. The hidden message is that the free market in which people are allowed to compete is a good thing. A twist to the message is that by buying things, you can be a winner in the free market. The “Game On, Santa” theme proposes that the greatest good in our mythical free market world is to shop.

The irony of the Best Buy series is that Santa Claus, like the advantages of the free market, is a mythical figure, a folk hero about whom we create stories for small children. Someone competing with Santa Claus is really competing with him/herself.  It’s the ultimate potlatch, but instead of showing your neighbors how much you’re worth by destroying piles of your own possessions, you demonstrate your worth to yourself by being the smartest buyer of gifts, the “Sultan of Shopping” (“Sultan of Swat” was one of Babe Ruth’s many nicknames). 

How does the self win against the self, that is, transcend the self and become a better self, a winning self? Is it through prayer, chant, right living, death, ritual, acts of kindness, study or group action, as a multitude of philosophers and religious figures have proposed through the ages?

No, in the American ideology, the redemption that “winning against the self” brings comes from being the best shopper you can be.

Romney’s $10,000 bet will define him, just as his father was defined by his “brainwashed” comment

I’m betting that Mitt Romney gave his campaign for the Republican nomination a deadly wound in last night’s umpteenth debate between the Republican candidates to face President Obama in November 2012.

It doesn’t matter if Mitt or Texas Rick was right in their latest little spat over facts. What matters is that by so smugly offering to put $10,000 on the line to back up his assertion, Mitt Romney reminded us in a shockingly brutal manner of the very thing we hate and fear about him: that he was born a one-percenter and then got richer.

In my experience and the experience of most Americans, when most people are so certain of their assertion that they are willing to bet on it, they throw out an amount like ten bucks, twenty bucks, fifty bucks.

But only a child, someone who has a major gambling problem or someone who is really rich would say $10,000 and mean it as Mitt did last night.

Survey after survey is now showing that people are fed up with the current economic regime under which, in good times and bad, the richest one percent get richer and everyone else loses ground.  Romney is a one-percenter and he looks like the archetype of a one-percenter.  He earned his impressive fortune by doing Wall Street deals that often led to massive layoffs.  He often raided good companies for fees, sold them off and sat counting his money while his former corporate wards went into bankruptcy.  All if this will surely go through the minds of many people every time they think of Romney’s proposed bet.

The fact that Perry handled it so perfectly only made matters worse for Romney.  “I’m not in the betting business” was the right thing to say, the only sane thing to say.  And it came from good old country boy Texas Rick.  The contrast between Perry and Romney’s rich boy’s bankerly prep boy manner is so obvious on every level because we have seen this kind of behavior from these two archetypes in hundreds of movies and TV shows about the old west and small towns.  One version has them at a poker table and Mitt is trying to buy the pot.  In another, Mitt wants to hire the socially awkward straight shooter to run people off their farms. In these movie, the Perry character always plays the hero.  It was Perry’s finest moment in the campaign by virtue of it being his only fine moment.

As to Romney, I am convinced that he cooked his campaign’s goose in one arrogant and grandiose gesture.  I predict that the groundswell of disgust over Romney’s comment will outlive the news day and define his campaign. Seeing that his competition is the corrupt and hypocritical Newt Gingrich, it’s still possible that Romney could win the nomination.  I just don’t see it, though.  Unless Jon Huntsman’s dad manages to buy the New Hampshire primary, it looks like the Newt.  But even if Mitt does win the nomination, I can’t see independents or conservative Democrats voting for a guy who would intimidate his opponent with money during a debate.  And I believe that a large horde of poor and rural Republicans will sit on their hands rather than vote for the rich boy.

It’s very possible that “You wanna bet” will be the quote of the campaign, similar to Reagan’s “Are you better off than four years ago?” quote of 1980 or Lloyd Bentson’s zing of Dan Quayle in 1988, “I knew Jack Kennedy and you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

My favorite quote that defined a campaign came in 1968, when Mitt’s Dad, George Romney, went from front runner to nobody in the Republican campaign in a matter of days for saying that he previously supported the Viet Nam War because he had been “brainwashed” during his trips over there. Nobody wants a brainwashed President.

Now the American people (if I may be so bold as to speak for them) don’t mind having a rich man serve as president and often elect them—both Bushes, Jimmy Carter, Jack Kennedy, FDR, we can go back to Washington, Adams and Jefferson, three of the wealthiest men of their time.  We just don’t like the rich to rub our noses in it, especially now when it seems that every day brings greater proof that the economic and tax policies of the past 30 years have led to the largest transfer of wealth in recorded history, the money flowing from the poor and the middle class directly into the pockets of the richest one percent of the population.

So at the end of the day, Mitt is following in his father’s tracks. Both men were among the most successful corporate leaders in the dominant industry of the time.  Both served as governor of a big northern state.  And now it looks as if both will be failed presidential candidates remembered for ruining his big chance with one foolish comment.

Yes, I’m betting that Romney will lose now.  But I’m not going to put any money on it.

Religious political ads beg question: do we want a president who will trample the Constitution for religion?

Just before and during the 1960 presidential election cycle, there appeared an epidemic of media stories that posed the question, “Can a Catholic be president?”  The answer in most cases was why not, assuming that he (since the thought of a female president in those days would have been considered science fiction) follows the constitution and not the dictates of the Vatican. The conclusion was not surprising since the father (Joe Kennedy) of the candidate in question (JFK) controlled a company that at the time was one of the largest media advertisers in the country (Cutty Sark).

What’s interesting is the assumption back then that to participate as a candidate in a national election, the candidate couldn’t be too religious. A quick trip to church every few Sundays would do. In a sense, religion didn’t matter. The 1960’s of course represented the high point of secular humanism in the United States.  Wikipedia has a great working definition of secular humanism: a secular philosophy that embraces human reason, ethics, justice, and the search for human fulfillment. It specifically rejects religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.

We can see just how far we have veered into allowing religion to affect our politics in two news stories today. The first is Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to overrule the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and not allow a perfectly safe birth control method to be sold over the counter to anyone as the dangerous acetaminophen is. This obvious sop to the religious right needs no further comment.

The second story revolved around a new television ad Rick Perry’s campaign is running. Here is the complete text of the ad, pulled from the Reuters report:

“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian. But you don’t have to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers wrote in 1996, as long as there are tests in schools, there will be prayers there also. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion and I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again. I’m Rick Perry and I approved this message.”

In 30 seconds, Perry comes out in favor of public school prayer and the celebration of the rites of one religion in schools.  He implies that his opposition to gays serving openly in the military is a religious matter.  While he ends with a call to the amorphous concept of “faith,” all his examples have to do with but one faith.

That the Obama administration has not declared war on religion was made painfully clear by the decision to shoot down the FDA plan to make Plan B more accessible.  It’s ironic that the announcement came out on the same day as the news about the new Perry ad: the religious right believes that both Plan B and the Perry-supported vaccine that prevents cervical and other cancers will make more teenage girls break with fundamentalist Christian religious views and want to have sex (and here I thought that hormones and young men sealed that deal).  Of course, it’s possible that Perry would have supported Plan B, too, if Teva Pharmaceuticals had given his campaign enough money.

But Texas Rick Perry is little more than a footnote to history.  What’s disturbing is that someone who had a viable shot at the presidency, even for just a few short weeks,  should make wearing his religion on his sleeve central to his campaign.

What’s even more disturbing is that he’s not the only one: A majority of the Republican presidential candidates have openly declared the centrality of Christianity to their political views.  The rest of the list of fanatics includes Santorum, Bachmann, Gingrich and former candidate Cain.

The fact that about two-thirds of the country practices or affiliates with the religion in question does not excuse the professions of faith that seem increasingly de rigueur for candidates. We may have a large Christian majority, but we are not a Christian country. We don’t have a King who was crowned by a Pope or Archbishop. Nowhere is there a reference to one specific religion in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  In fact, the first amendment explicitly prevents government favoring one religion over any other. Although many Americans have deep, often Christian, faith, we are not by definition a nation whose government or governance is faith-based.

Call me a cranky old man, but I miss the good old secular humanist days when religious candidates were marginalized and the country was dedicated to creating a more equitable distribution of wealth. Today, in our era of rich and poor, the religious fanatics are taken ever more seriously by the mainstream media.

The connection of the growth of religion in politics and the growing inequitable distribution of wealth is important to note. The final ascension to political power by the right, consummated by Newt and Bush II, came only through the marriage of right-wing free market, low-tax economics with the social agenda of right-wing Christians. It is only now, in the throes of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, that evangelicals are beginning to realize that the deal they forged has economically left behind millions of their number.

Neo-con paid journalist bashes energy efficient light bulbs in the name of freedom from engineering standards

An article by Claudia Rosett titled “First, they came for our 100-watt bulbs” making the rounds of right-wing media this week proposes that a new engineering standard is really an encroachment on our basic rights. She bemoans the loss of freedom represented by the federal government mandate to gradually phase out incandescent light bulbs, starting with 100-watt bulbs on New Year’s Day.

Here is a sample of Rosett’s impassioned defense of our freedom to use an obsolete, energy-draining technology: “For decades, America has been the world’s beacon of freedom. Yet here we are, wards of the nanny state, with politicians dictating that even that prime symbol of American ingenuity, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, shall be regulated into oblivion.”

Later on, Rosett applies the  negative label “nanny state,” to the government’s quite rational and easy-to-understand program to phase in the new, more energy-efficient light bulbs over a period of several years. She then proceeds to use the rhetorical device called reduction ad absurdum by taking government interference to save energy to some imaginary absurd ends, such as banning coffee and toast for breakfast and issuing draconian quotas regarding the thermostat temperature at home.

I’m surprised that Rosett isn’t demanding that we reinstall gas lamps in our cities and drop the speed limit to 15 so we don’t scare the horses on the road.

What Rosett fails to comprehend is that one function of all governments since the Sumerians and Shang Chinese has been to set standards: weights, measures, equivalencies and building specifications. Engineers set the standards and the first thing the engineer asks is, “what do you care about?” Thus, uniformity has always been important is establishing standards, so that companies and consumers in all parts of the country would have confidence that 100 watts meant the same thing no matter what brand they bought. Be it building products, manufacturing parts, processed food or consumer appliances, safety has been an issue in standards for many a century.

With the related challenges of global warming and resource shortages, it makes sense for the government to ask engineers to tweak the standards for what is essentially a building part to make it last longer and operate more energy efficently.

Rosett’s freedom argument is a ruse: What Rosett really dislikes is that the government has begun to include energy efficiency in the latest engineering standards. I don’t know it for a fact, but I suspect that the issue of light bulbs is less important to her than the fear that the slippery slope will lead to a government-imposed radical reengineering of electricity generating plants and automobiles.

What‘s most laughable is that Rosett accuses the federal government of the cronyism that she herself is practicing by writing an article condemning the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs as designed to enrich manufacturers who prefer to sell pricier light bulbs that a lot of Americans, if free to choose, prefer not to buy.” As it turns out, Rosett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is currently in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a neo-con policy organization that mostly works on security and terrorism issues. In fact, Rosett’s article about freedom is really meant to ward off environmental regulation, one of the many bête noirs of Bill Kristol, Joseph Lieberman and the rest of the neo-cons.

No matter what one thinks about global warming, no sensible person can deny that by definition there is a future shortage of oil, natural gas and coal as soon as you start pulling these finite resources out of the ground in great quantities. Anything we can do to save energy extends the supply of oil, natural gas and coal. It only makes sense that as a matter of national security, the government set energy efficiency standards for parts and products.

The case of setting a new standard that makes incandescent light bulbs obsolete has nothing to do with freedom. The government is not banning a book, not fining a television station for a singer’s “wardrobe mishap.” It’s not even limiting where sex offenders can live, a curtailment of individual freedom that many applaud.

All we’re talking about is an improvement in the specifications for a building product that consumers also buy to help meet an important public policy goal.

Consider Rosett’s article another neo-con con job.

3 things about Newt: he’s a hypocrite, a pseudo-intellectual and the father of today’s roughneck politics

There are three things you should always remember about Newt Gingrich:

Let’s start from my secular humanist position on the personal lives of politicians: Essentially, I don’t care what elected officials do with consenting adults when it comes to their sex lives—infidelity, homosexuality, bondage, whatever. It’s their personal business. No one can get inside a marriage of another person. I believe information of this nature is nobody’s business, and reporters should consider it off limits, as they once did.

That leaves no room for coercion, child molestation, work place sexual harassment or anything else that’s against the law. Those acts should disqualify candidates. While I didn’t care to hear about Ginger White’s consensual 13-year affair with Herman Cain, I believe that the Pizza King had already disqualified himself by being accused of sexual harassment by four separate women. That’s a lot of smoke.

The one case in which a politician’s consensual sexual relationships with other adults is a matter for media and public scrutiny is when candidates condemn what they themselves are doing. Thus the demise of Senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig, a secret gay who publicly persecuted others of his sexual predilection.

Thus the hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich, a married man engaged in an affair, who harried the President of the United States for engaging in an affair while married. As history has shown, Clinton worked on his marriage, while Newt dumped his wife for his mistress, and then dumped the mistress for another mistress who is his current wife. If Newt wants to be a master of serial monogamy, that’s his affair (or affairs), but he should refrain from critizing others for doing the same thing.

Number 1: Let’s not forget that Newt Gingrich is a hypocrite.

Some pundits call Newt the intellectual in the race because he has a PhD. It is true that up to now, only Woodrow Wilson, considered to be an intellectual even by those who called him a fool, was a presidential PhD. Let’s not forget, though, that many have been doctors of law, which is the legal equivalent of a PhD without the original dissertation.

But just because Woodrow Wilson was an intellectual doesn’t mean Newt is. Wilson taught at Princeton, which was and still is one of the most important intellectual centers of the United States. Wilson published a number of well-respected scholarly articles and books. Newt taught at a fourth-rate institution and never published anything of scholarly merit. Newt’s thought processes and patterns of expression are more fitting a middle Georgia car salesman, but he delivers them with the prissy superciliousness that actors such as Monty Woolley, Clifton Webb, Kelsey Grammer, Jim Parsons and others have used to characterize comic versions of intellectuals throughout the history of American mass culture. Gingrich’s historical allusions are often inaccurate or half-baked. If he wins the nomination and debates Obama or has to go mano-a-mano against an educated Republican like Mitt or Huntsman, we’re going to see that Newt the intellectual is a fraud, a contemporary version of Twain’s Duke and King.

Number 2: Let’s not forget that Newt Gingrich is not an intellectual, he’s a pseudo-intellectual.

The third thing we should never forget about Newt Gingrich: Other than Ronald Reagan, he has done more to create the politics that the Republican Party now follows than any other person. He masterminded the first use of the bag of unethical tricks on which the Republican Party has come to rely in campaigning and pursuing its agenda in Congress. His “Contract with America” cemented the partnership between those wanting to lower taxes for the wealthy and those expressing right-wing social views. His shutting the government down, although it led to the demise of his Speakership and the reelection of his arch foe, showed the Republicans how to score points with their base through intransigence.

Against a much weaker president than Bill Clinton, Republican threats have worked and they haven’t had to resort to the atom bomb. Keep in mind, though, that when they bullied Obama about continuing temporary tax cuts for the wealthy, cutting money for jobs and linking the debt ceiling to more cuts, all Boehner, Cantor and the rest of the Republican intransigents were doing was following the Gingrich game plan.

And number 3: Let’s not forget that Newt plays hard and dirty.

Imagine if Newt wins the nomination and the election. He will declare open season on ethics laws and practices. Cronyism will invade the White House even more than it did under the two Bushes. We’ll return to the days of Warren G. Harding or Ulysses S. Grant, when the President’s inner circle put a price on every piece of land, natural resource, government function and other government assets. You know, those good old days when government considered its sole duty was to do whatever the corporate masters commanded.

The thought of the Professor of Cronyism achieving the presidency is almost enough to make one want to contribute to the Romney campaign…

Almost, but not quite.

Facebook users create their own virtual newspaper and it looks a lot like a tabloid

Earlier this week, Facebook published a list of the 40 most-shared stories in 2011. Once we put aside the definitional problem that arises when you publish an annual list for a year before the year is actually over, we can have a lot of fun with this list.

What I did was to categorize all 40 of the most-shared stories in terms of broad subject areas that might describe sections of a newspaper, segments of a TV news show, or topic areas on a news website such as Google News or the homepage of Yahoo!

Here are the results of my analysis:

Topic # of Stories
Child-rearing 7
Humans doing weird or stupid things 7
Breaking news stories 5
Cute animal stories (mostly dogs) 4
Technology stories 4
Famous people dying 3
Career and relationship advice 3
Astrology 3
News-related opinion pieces 3
Science 1

The astrology stories all concern the buzz earlier in the year that there were really 13 zodiac signs. That’s not going to happen in every year, so let’s take these out of consideration. Now I’m not proposing to remove the famous death category, even though that category was dominated by Steve Jobs, nor to take out breaking news, even though that category was dominated by the Japanese tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster. Every year a person as well-known as Steve Jobs will die, and every year there will be some major disaster as well as other important news. But not every year will astrology get a jolt.

The first thing that should hit all of use is the fact that Facebook users pass so many stories about child rearing on to their friends. It makes a lot of sense, though, because when people get together, those with children spend a lot of time talking about them.

Let’s say we were to take child-rearing and astrology stories out of the list. What we’re left with looks a lot like the contents of a tabloid newspaper, the home page of Google News or Yahoo! and the lineup for a local television news show: some news or news analysis and a lot of features.

It’s striking what’s missing from this list that is a staple in the mass media:

  • Stories about celebrities such as movie and reality TV stars living out their lives through buying, using or displaying material possessions
  • Stories about new things to buy, whether it’s gadgets, food, vacations or entertainments.

Not one story about Lady Gaga, J-Lo, Kate Middleton’s wedding, the Kardashians, Charlie Sheen or any of the “Jersey Shore” crew made the top 40.

While analyzing the top 40 stories transmitted via Facebook  may not provide an accurate reflection of what people want to see  in the mass media, it does suggest what people value enough to pass on to those who are close to them. The analysis makes a good case but doesn’t prove that Americans, or at least those who use Facebook, are not that interested in the steady stream we receive of information meant to inspire, coerce or goad us to mindlessly buy more things.

The other missing topic on the list is sports.  There were two sports-related stories, the Penn State sex abuse scandal and Former Duke basketball player Grant Hill’s New York Times Op/Ed piece defending the Dukee’s African-American b-ballers from Jalen Rose’s accusation that they were “Uncle Toms.” Child abuse went into the breaking news category and Hill’s Op/Ed went into the opinion category. If one of the top 40 had been about the marriage of a sports star, I would have put it in the untapped celebrity column.

The bigger point is that based on this one list, we can postulate that people don’t use Facebook to share real sports stories to the degree that they do to share stories about stupid dog tricks or breaking news. No game-winning homers, incredible catches or posterizations made the list. Why is that?

Here’s one thought: We are completely inundated with sports reporting on sports-only radio stations, TV networks and websites, sports reporting in virtually all other media (such as National Public Radio) and sports star advertising spokespersons. I’m a casual sports fan, but I have noticed over the past few years that when I watch a game with a rabid sports fan, he (always a he) usually is on his cell talking or texting about the game to other friends of his. I imagine that some are keeping in touch via Facebook. What I think has happened is that social media has been integrated into the sports viewing experience so that it is less necessary to share the results after the game.

A plea to President Obama: Don’t flinch on how to pay for the extended payroll tax cut

President Obama is proposing to extend the temporary cut in payroll taxes beyond this year, lower it even more and pay for it by assessing people who earn $1.0 million or more a special 3.25% tax.

The Republicans say that they’re open to extending the payroll tax break, which put about a thousand dollars in the pockets of the average tax-payer in 2011, most of which was spent and thereby boosted the economy. But under the plan that Republicans announced yesterday, the payroll tax cut extension would be funded mainly by reducing the number of federal workers, extending a pay freeze for them for three more years and tightening eligibility requirements on unemployment and food stamp benefits.

Rather than tax the wealthy, who have had an easy tax ride for 30 years now, the Republicans prefer to take money from a struggling Peter’s pocket to pay a struggling Paul. If there is an after-life, my bet is on an elephant passing through an eye of a needle before any of these elephant party standard-bearers get into heaven.

The President is right that we need to keep pumping money into the economy. Both the recipients of the payroll tax break and those from whom the Republicans want to steal money to pay for it will put most of this money into the economy. But virtually all of the 3.25% that the President will get from income in excess of $1.0 million will go into savings or investments. The Republicans say that the rich folk will use this money to create new jobs, but history has shown that not to be true. It’s more likely that this money will go into stocks or bonds bought on the secondary market, which does not create jobs because the proceeds of the sale do not go to a company but to whomever owned the stock or bond. A lot of that 3.25% might end up in the hands of other rich people as paintings and other art objects exchange hands. 

It’s time for President Obama and the Democrats to show a little backbone. They have backed down so many times in the recent past when it comes to economic and taxation issues.

They backed down and extended the Bush II tax breaks for the wealthy, paying for it with decreases in job-creation and social service programs. 

Obama backed down and agreed to link raising the debt ceiling to making spending cuts.

Obama backed down on implementing stronger air quality regulations.

But Obama should not back down on insisting that a tax increase on the wealthy pay for this tax break for middle class and poor Americans. Here’s why:

  • All recent surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans are on his side, with about two-thirds wanting to tax the wealthy.
  • The Republican plan will take money out of the economy, so it won’t help the country.
  • The Republicans and everyone else know that not extending the tax break will take enough money out of the economy to sink the economy even further.

It’s time for all of us to write President Obama and the Democratic leadership and tell them not to flinch, but to insist that we pay for extending the payroll tax break by taxing the wealthy. Everyone should also write their congressional representatives and senators and tell them to support the Obama plan. You can get all the addresses and emails you need at the website of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the Quaker’s lobbying group. The FCNL legislative directory is at

What the increase in kids with subsidized school lunches has to do with making society like professional sports

Day after day, people suffer financially outside the public view. They lose their jobs. Their unemployment benefits expire. They can’t pay their mortgage, and if they sell the house, they’ll still owe money to the bank. They move in with relatives or into their car. They scrimp on food for their families. They forego medical treatment or don’t fill their prescriptions. 

Despite the occasional feature article, especially around the December holiday season, those of us with good jobs don’t have firsthand experience of poverty or near poverty and its negative impact on the health and spirits of people. The pictures of the increase in poverty and near poverty in the country come to us in broad strokes: statistics and studies.

Another one of those reports full of numbers graced the front page of today’s New York Times, a disturbing in-depth analysis by the Times of the Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program data. 

The bad news is not surprising given the high rate of unemployment, but it is still shocking: The number of students who eat subsidized lunches rose to 21 million last school year from 18 million since the 2006-2007 school year. All 50 states have experienced increases, and 11 had increases of 25 percent or more.

As the Times notes, kids in families with incomes at 130 percent of the poverty level or less are eligible for free school meals. That’s $29,055 for a family of four.  Children in a four-member household with income up to $41,348 are eligible to pay 40 cents for a school lunch.

Let’s focus on the hypothetical life of one of these children, say a fifth grade boy in Roseville, a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb where the Times reports that the number students getting subsidized lunches rose to 44 percent this fall from 29 percent five years ago. Maybe the father has lost his job and the mother is only working part-time now. They are in the process of selling their furniture and most of their things, including the Xbox that the boy loves to play with his friends. They’re going to all live in one room of grandma’s apartment. Imagine the boy’s mixture of shame, anger, fear and frustration when he tells his friends he can’t go to movies with them. Or think how his father must feel when he tells the boy that travel soccer is out.

Or think of an African-American first-grader who’s always gotten free lunches because both her parents have always been in the last-hired, first-fired pool of unskilled workers. She has never had a single extra lesson, never had a vacation, shares a bed with an older sister and is lucky to get free meals at school, free afterschool at the Y and free healthcare through a state program. But often towards the end of the month, the family’s dinner consists of baloney sandwiches or oatmeal, and the family has saved nothing for her college.

I could go on and on spinning hypothetical facts that apply to one or to hundreds of individual children. What I want all OpEdge readers to do is imagine just one of these children who only recently started getting free or subsidized lunches, create a realistic life for that child and try to put yourself in the shoes of that one child, try to feel that child’s emotions. Try to evaluate that child’s likely future, given that she/he will have to compete with children whose parents spend enormous sums for music, chess, dance, sports and art lessons, tutoring, specialty summer camps, SAT prep course and, perhaps most importantly of all, for a financially secure and emotionally stable home life. Don’t think of the occasional genius or athlete that makes it out of poverty, think of the average kid and her/his family.  Think how you would feel if you had the rug pulled from underneath you, or never had a rug to begin with.

Now multiply your imagining of one child by 3 million times to represent those who have gone on the school lunch program in the past five years, and then by 21 million times to represent all of the children getting free or subsidized lunches, and you get an idea of the pain and suffering that exists in the United States today.

We can conceive of all societies as games which produce winners and losers. There are always a lot fewer winners than losers and the winners always get more money, recognition and power than the losers do. But in the current epoch—what I call the Age of Reagan—we are taking winning and losing to an extreme. 

We see it in how much we focus on the competitive aspects of elections as opposed to the issues, focusing on who has raised more money, who won a debate and who is ahead in the polls and straw votes.

We see it in the dominance of reality TV, which pits people against each other in winner-and-loser contests involving singing, dancing, remembering trivia or lyrics, scavenger hunts, attracting members of the opposite sex, running a business, survival living or losing weight.

We see it in the media focus on celebrities, who for the most part are the biggest winners, near-winners, and former-winners of society.

But most of all we see it in our economic system in this Age of Reagan, which has gutted the middle class and produced a nation of rich and poor.

I don’t have a problem with a society which produces winners and losers. I like to play, and I like to win.

My objection is that currently the winners get too much and the legions of losers are growing even as their piece of the pie continues to shrink.

What we need to do is take the games analogy one step further.  Consider any professional sports team.  The best players get far more money than the near-great, average player or hanger-on. Often they get such outsized amounts that an economic analysis shows that the owners are overpaying them compared to the other players. 

But everyone else—all the losers—do pretty well in professional sports. Sure, A-Rod got paid $32 million to play baseball in 2011, but the lowest paid player made a cool $414,000.  And they all get premium healthcare coverage.

I’m not saying that everyone should make $414,000 a year. What I am saying is that we should lower the price of losing by expanding government programs, and then pay for those programs by raising taxes a lot on the wealthy and a little on the merely well off. To deal with the current economic challenges, we have to extend unemployment benefits, expand free and low-cost healthcare programs, subsidize banks that revise mortgage terms so that people stay in their own homes and expand public resources such as libraries and after-school programs. Long-term, the best way to make sure that, while winners get more even, losers thrive is to encourage unionization of all industries, raise the minimum wage and pump money into public schools.

Childhood is supposed to prepare children for the adult world. Nowadays, whether it’s baseball, soccer, chess or dance,  we give out participation trophies and ribbons to every kid, and tell them that even if they didn’t win the championship they’re still winners because they dared to compete and they played by the rules. 

Translate that approach to the real world and you have a society in which we let people play to win, but make sure that even the losers survive and have the basics of food, shelter, health care and education.

Media and pandering politicians should hang heads in shame at goading vaccine deniers to put children at risk

The news sent a chill up my spine: In eight states more than 1 in 20 school children now don’t get all the vaccines required for attendance. The number of parents denying vaccines to their children is up in virtually every state. I immediately winced, imagining the unavoidable increase in children getting debilitating diseases and dying because they haven’t been vaccinated.

Many people now believe that certain vaccinations can cause autism. Others minimize the risk of getting disease. Because those opposing vaccination tend to cluster geographically, the United States is going to have pockets of disease spring up, primarily in rural areas; for example, vaccination exemptions for school children in some rural counties in Washington State have exceeded 20%. 

This non-vaccinated population is going to be visited by a plague of diseases they didn’t have to suffer. And guess who is going to pay to treat these people? Unless we end all health insurance and government health benefits, it will be all of us, just as we all pay for the irresponsible behavior of smokers and over-eaters.

The myths surrounding vaccinations have grown with public distrust of both government and science, which is why I don’t blame the parents who deny their children the protection of vaccines. They may anger me, but I don’t blame them. For the most part, they are loving parents, but misguided, gullible and poorly educated.

I blame the politicians, pundits and reporters who spout an anti-science bias in their statements denying climate change and evolution. 

I blame the anti-intellectualism of the news media that conflate the opinions of the person-in-the-street and untrained office seekers with the reasoned empirical results presented by scientists and engineers.

I blame the producers and hosts of talk shows who give ignorant celebrities time to air their mistaken notions about the dangers of vaccines.

I blame all the politicians who have told lies about vaccines causing diseases, abortion causing cancer and brain dead people being able to communicate, all in an effort to garner the votes of the ignorant and uneducated.

For the past decade or so, the main actors in our marketplace of ideas have created an atmosphere in which faith trumps science, even in the kingdom of science. They have shamelessly undercut the authority of science—which is based not on majority rule or inherited rights but on real-world facts. Now we as a nation will reap what they have sown in sick children and increased health care costs.

The Associated Press article announcing the disturbing news exemplified the approach that the mass media takes to scientific issues. The article states unequivocally that there is no truth to the myths that vaccines cause autism or other diseases. Yet the writer feels the need to quote four women who have withheld some or all of their children’s vaccinations to balance the quotes from five experts on how important it is to have children vaccinated. The writer presents everyone’s quotes with respect and objectivity, which equates the views of the misinformed parents with those of the scientists and professors. Thus, even as the AP reports the news, it undermines the authority of science in a matter of science. 

The use of this pros-versus-Joes approach leads to an aggrandizement of the vaccine deniers. Remember, they still represent a miniscule portion of the population, and yet they get feature billing of their views. The views of 99% of the public are ignored.  

I could understand putting the views of the parents opposed to vaccination in the article if the article also included the views of parents who get their children vaccinated, and in some ratio that reflected popular opinion. Since that would require quotes from 20 non-experts, I would settle for the common sense approach, say quotes from five parents who have their children vaccinated and from two who don’t. Having quotes from parents who get their kids vaccinated would have reminded us that the non-vaccinators were expressing opinions only, and that the reporter did not seek their views to balance those of the scientists.

Mainstream media spin Black Friday sales and limited violence to support the ideological imperative to shop

In a weekend OpEdge entry, I concluded that the three small incidents of violence reported nationally on Black Friday demonstrated how docile a society we have become. An Associated Press writer used the same three incidents to build a case that Black Friday has “devolved” into a “wave of violence” in an article titled “How much crazier can Black Friday get?”

With an estimated 152 million people shopping in stores and only three incidents, all relatively minor, I stand by my initial assessment that Black Friday was actually a very peaceful day this year. I do, however, want to explore the ideology behind the hand-wringing hype.

The hyping of Black Friday violence serves several ideological functions: The issue itself—has Black Friday become more dangerous, more violent or less civil?—serves as an example in the public discussion of the broader issues of safety and civility. Societies always have public safety concerns: how they are manifested is thus revealing of each particular society. How we speak about public safety makes subtle statements about the ideology or ideological battles of the times. Thus in the 50’s, an age in which one of the most important ideological imperatives was to influence Americans to move to car-dependent suburbs, a lot of talk about public safety revolved around the dangers of city living.

What we see in the AP’s and other articles about Black Friday violence reflects our current fears of violence in public places. The context, however, is shopping, pure and simple. Just as so-called urban violence prevented people from keeping their families safe in the 50’s, so the AP story subtly proposes that violence threatens our ability to shop. In both cases, the threat is to something central to the American way of life. In misinterpreting the relative calm of Black Friday, the subliminal message of the mass media is that the commercial transaction is central to our lives, a right that is under attack, the fear of losing which resonates within us with the raw emotional power of love or hunger.

The secondary effect of these stories about Black Friday violence is that the perpetrators become role models for misbehavior against which we can measure our own actions.  We saw this effect a year ago when a self-styled Tiger Mom advocated a harsh program for raising successful, career-driven children. The Tiger Mom became a symbol of overly restrictive child-rearing techniques, but also for intellectualism and Asian child-rearing philosophies. Tiger Mom’s absurd actions such as not allowing her children to have sleepovers made people feel better about the anti-intellectual, undisciplined approach that many American parents take to child-rearing. She made American parents feel like they were good parents, because they were better than she was; and it made them feel that the weaknesses of American child-rearing—permissiveness and anti-intellectualism—were the very reasons that they were better.

In the same way, reading about the pepper-spraying woman, shop-lifting senior and parking lot thugs who perpetrated the few incidents of Black Friday violence make shoppers all feel better about themselves. We may have pushed a little, we may have grabbed something from the hands of someone else and we may have wasted hours waiting on line. But we didn’t pepper spray anyone. We can feel good about our shopping etiquette, and by implication, the shopping we did. We never have to confront the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of making shopping the be-all and end-all of our existence, the only way that we measure or manifest all emotions. The fact that we’re good little shoppers conceals the fact that all we’ve done is shop.

The final tally for what the news media is now calling “Black Friday Weekend” was impressive: A record 226 million people visited stores and websites during the four-days starting with Thanksgiving, up from 212 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 over the weekend, up from $365.34 a year ago.

Many articles offered speculation as to whether people were making their purchases early or if the sales increase meant that retailers were going to have “a holly jolly Christmas,” in the words of that esteemed social philosopher Burl Ives.

The assumption behind all of this quick-and-dirty analysis was the same: increased holiday sales is a sign that the economy is on the mend. This basic assumption ignores that the increased spending, if it occurs, will take place within the context of a real unemployment rate of 16%. The profit from the sales will not be used to hire more employees. As with all the windfalls from lower taxes, higher profit and lower costs that corporate America has received over the past 30 years, the additional profit generated by larger than expected sales will be divided among existing employees, with virtually all of it going to senior management and stockholders.

The basic fraud of the low-tax, free market regime is that growth is always good, because the rewards of growth will trickle down. Every reporter writing on Black Friday sales this year assumed this fraud as an unsaid eternal truth. To the perpetrators of contemporary American ideology, whether or not Black Friday signaled a good holiday season is grist for an always-hungry mill that daily churns out millions of words about public controversies. But the grist concerns the trivial question as to whether or not Black Friday Weekend sales predict growth. The answer matters not. But what does matter to our ruling elite is that we all continue to believe that growth is good no matter how few people enjoy the benefits of that growth.