John Yoo, Michael Jackson’s doc and Penn State administrators all betrayed professional ethics

When Julien Benda wrote The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (in French: La Trahison des Clercs) in 1927, he defined the “intellectual” (or “clerc”) much as we define the “knowledge worker” today: the professionals who manipulate  bodies of knowledge to deliver mostly services, such as university professors, policy wonks, writers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, teachers, engineers and designers. 

In his long essay, Benda argues that that European “knowledge workers” of the preceding hundred years often ceased to follow their professional dictates to reason dispassionately about political and military matters, instead becoming apologists for nationalism, warmongering and racism.

The most obvious contemporary betrayal by a knowledge worker must be John Yoo, the lawyer who at the behest of his bosses in the Bush II administration concocted a legal argument (mostly built on invalid premises) to justify the use of torture. 

We are seeing two examples of knowledge worker betrayals dominate the news right now: the medical decisions made by Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s physician, that first incapacitated and then led to the death of the pop entertainer, and the decision by at least two Penn State administrators to conceal the predatory sexual abuse of children by a long-time assistant football coach.

Jackson’s doc and the Penn State administrators have a lot in common:

  • Both sets of actions were made to avoid horrible truths, i.e., this talented entertainer had a major substance abuse problem and an adult in authority was having sex with 10-year-olds.
  • Both focused on short-term issues, i.e., keeping Michael happy and damage control.
  • Both acted to protect institutions, for Michael Jackson had (and still has) the kind of institutional brand of a Penn State.
  • In neither case were decisions colored by important concerns of true community scope, such as the hypothetical example of killing someone to keep millions of people from starving. At the end of the day, we’re talking about trivial matters—pop music and football.
  • In both cases, behind the trivial matter was a whole lot of money at stake. 

Most in common, though, is the fact that in deciding to act illegally, they also acted unethically. They betrayed their professions. Education in all professions emphasizes ethical behavior. Additionally, all professions have a code of ethics, which stress these principles:

  1. Always act on the truth, which means making decisions based on the truth, not what you want the truth to be.
  2. Always tell the truth and never cover up the inconvenient.
  3. Act in the best interests of your institution or client and the community, but put the truth and the community’s interest ahead of the client’s desires.

While no set of professional ethics may employ these precise words, the thoughts behind these words serve as the ethical foundation of all knowledge-based professions, such as teaching, law, accounting, human resources, advertising, engineering and research.

It’s clear that in the decisions they made, both the physician and the administrators betrayed the ethics of their profession, and of all knowledge workers.

The same, sadly, can be said about football coach Joe Paterno, who should now consider resigning. Paterno has been exonerated by the authorities because he did his job by kicking the accusation upstairs to the administration, although he claims to have done so without inquiring as to the exact nature of the horrific acts his graduate assistant reported to him. Maybe he did his job, but if someone came to me—or virtually everyone I know—and told any of us he saw a coach doing something inappropriate with a 10-year-old, we would certainly ask what it was. And once we heard that what was seen was a sexual act, we would not only pass the information to the boss, we would bug her or him frequently about the status of the case. Joe-Pa never did, and that makes him culpable.

Wealth gap between young and old widens, but so does gap between richest and poorest in all age groups

Pew Research Center today released a study showing that the gap in wealth between households headed by those over 65 years of age and households headed by those under 35 has grown substantially since the beginning of the great recession. 

The older households now have 47 times more wealth than the younger households, double what the gap was in 2005 during the artificially good times produced by the real estate bubble.

For the most part, the news coverage laid the groundwork for a war between generations.  Take, for example the Associated Press story about the study—the version that most people will see.   

The first expert made a kind of declaration of generational war by saying: “It makes us wonder whether the extraordinary amount of resources we spend on retirees and their health care should be at least partially reallocated to those who are hurting worse than them,” said Harry Holzer, a labor economist and public policy professor at Georgetown University who called the magnitude of the wealth gap “striking.”

Striking, but not surprising, seeing that young people have had less time to save, we are in the midst of a recession that has shrunk entry-level jobs, young households tend to have expensive children and the young carry more debt than they used to carry, thanks to raging inflation in the cost of college.

More instructive than demonstrating what everyone with eyes can see—that our young people face a tough economic future—is the little reported finding in the Pew study that in all age groups, the rich have gotten richer and everyone else has lost ground. 

I’m sure most of our elected officials and the rich folk they represent would love for the public to think there’s a generational war. It’s a better sideshow than the proposed, and nonexistent, class war between public workers and others in the middle class because it involves more people. Both nonexistent wars keep our minds off the real class war: the one that the wealthy have been waging for 30 years against everyone else, the one that the Occupy Wall Streeters have now taken to the streets.  In this class war started 30 years ago by Ronald Reagan and his cronies, wealth has been transferred from the poor and middle class up the ladder to the wealthy through cutting government programs, shrinking unions, cutting taxes for the wealthy and outsourcing traditional government services to private for-profit companies.

The Pew study states that the young have had more of their government benefits stripped from them over the past 25 years than the elderly have. Yes, they should get those bennies back. College should be cheaper, and would be if states and the federal government supported education at the same level as they used to. All children should have access to quality healthcare.  There should be lower student-teacher ratios in classrooms.  Unemployment benefits should be extended, particularly now that more than 50% of all unemployed people have used up their benefits and receive nothing.

In short, we do need to spend more on our young people.

But not by cutting programs for the elderly because they’re not doing so well either.

The Pew study found that the net worth of the average household in which the head is more than 65 is $170,494. So including the value of their home, that’s all the average retired household has to live on, other than Social Security. Let’s say Mr. & Mrs. Average can invest all of it in a diversified portfolio  and they take out 4% a year, as financial planners typically recommend. That means that other than Social Security, they have another $6,820 they can live on every year. And you want to cut Social Security?

No, the answer is not to transfer wealth from old to young, but to transfer wealth from the ultra wealthy to everyone else. 

So to Professor Holzer and anyone else who proposes that we pit the young against the old in a battle for pie share, I respond that the pie is too small because the rich are not paying their fair share into the pot, and what we need to do is make the pot bigger by taxing the wealthy.

I’m not calling for a financial guillotine. Let’s just return to the spread of wealth that we had in 1979, before the class war started.

Why the idea that people can learn from their mistakes doesn’t apply to Cain’s sexual harassment

In his attempt to address the charges that he sexually harassed three women while he was president of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in 1996-1999, Herman Cain keeps trying to misdirect the media into side issues.

His first misdirection was to suggest that it was only because he was a Black conservative that these accusations were seeing the light of day, comparing himself to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose nomination was nearly scuttled because of accusations of sexual harassment some 20 years ago.  It didn’t seem to quell the outrage.

Cain’s second misdirection was to accuse the Perry campaign of disseminating the reports. This move made sense tactically, because Cain is fighting Perry (and Bachmann, Santorum, Paul and Newt) for the non-Mitt—AKA more conservative—position in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. It’s as if the Republicans are playing a game of high-low poker in which the high and low hands split the pot, in this case frontrunner status. Romney is going high and everyone else is going low. (Or more accurately, Mitt is going low and the others are going even lower!) Cain thus gains more by tearing down Perry than he does by tearing down Mitt. 

Blaming Perry worked in one way: most mainstream media gave more coverage to the Perry canard the day Cain made his statement than they did to the other big Cain sex news of that day—the discovery of a third woman claiming harassment. The effect lasted exactly one day, though, because the news of the third victim was just too big to contain.

So far, none of the politicians or pundits, nor Cain himself, has addressed the real issue: Do these incidents of sexual harassment disqualify Cain from the presidency? 

We don’t know the answer to that question because the facts of the incidents have not been revealed. We can, however, lay down some general guidelines for analyzing the incidents to see if they should disqualify the Pizza King.  Essentially, we have to ask ourselves three questions:

  1. What did he do? Did he make a few off-color or suggestive remarks, or did he constantly make such remarks, touch a woman inappropriately or make an explicit sexual proposition?
  2. What were the accepted social mores and laws of the time? What was considered standard behavior in the 50’s and 60’s would now be considered workplace harassment.  
  3. Did he learn from the experience? The initial assumption—three times and you’re out—might not apply if all three incidents came in one single week or month after which Cain was a perfect gentleman. In that case, the incidents could be considered as one lamentable but forgivable occurrence, that is, assuming that the incidents were all talk and no touch.

Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: Repeated and/or unrepentant sexual harassment of any kind should disqualify someone from the presidency for three reasons:

  • We want our president to treat all people equally, especially in the workplace.
  • Workplace sexual harassment is against the law.
  • Workplace sexual harassment also shows poor personal judgment and the kind of risk-taking that could be dangerous in a president.

But I want to illustrate how difficult it is to determine if Cain’s past harassment disqualifies him from presidential consideration by dredging up two embarrassing incidents from my own past:

As a 22-year-old, I taught a class in French literature at the University of Washington in which I often made off-color remarks or sexual innuendoes in class, but never directed at any of my female students. One day during my office hours, one of the women in the class talked to me about it. I’ll never forget her words because they hurt me like a series of slaps in the face—the pain, almost physical, was my own shame. Here’s what she said: “You are a great teacher. You treat women as equals and give us the same opportunities as men. I asked around and know that you have never hit on any of the female students. But your sexual remarks are bad—they make us feel uncomfortable, and they’re not appropriate.” My off-color remarks ended immediately. The year was 1973, and in retrospect, my student was brave and outspoken. My rhetorical question of course, is if this incident reflects on my current views and actions and therefore disqualifies me for president. Hell no, it’s like Obama admitting he smoked a little weed, except Barack did nothing to feel embarrassed about, whereas I did.

The second incident is a bit more subtle. It was the mid-80’s and I was working for a major public relations agency. A young female intern closed my office door one afternoon and started crying. One of the mid-level executives kept hitting on her and she felt very uncomfortable. She told me she had gone out with him once just to placate him, but that had only made it worse.  She wanted my help and my advice.  I told her that she didn’t have to put up with it and all she had to do was to harshly and directly tell him to stop asking her out and to leave her alone. 

She followed my advice and it worked, but I was wrong, wrong, wrong! I should have reported the incident to senior management and asked the company to begin an investigation of the matter, which eventually would have led to action against the harasser. The reason I didn’t act in the right, and legal, way was that I didn’t know what to do, and the reason I didn’t know what to do was because the company had not trained me. Nowadays all supervisors and managers receive training in how to identify and address harassment complaints in virtually all large and mid-sized companies, and many small businesses as well.

Of course, by 1996 when Cain joined the NRA, corporate America had made enormous strides in recognizing and addressing the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. As leader of a major corporation and then a trade association, Cain should have known what constitutes harassment, so it’s pretty hard to give him a pass, especially in light of the fact that there were three incidents. 

But let’s say the facts came out and it turned out that all Cain did was mouth a few awkward suggestions to the three women during a two-week period, before and after which he behaved impeccably. I would say that everyone makes mistakes, and this unfortunate incident (merging them into one) should not in and of itself disqualify Cain.

To convince me, however, I would have to see the complete reports and hear from at least two of the victims. I doubt that’s going to happen. Based on Cain’s cover-up attempts, it’s more likely that the reported harassment was serious and troubling. It’s likely that touching was involved or that the words crossed an unambiguous line, even for those times. It’s likely that the incidents occurred far enough apart to constitute three mistakes, not one. It’s likely that Cain did behave in a way that should remove him from presidential consideration. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he tell us what happened, admit he made a mistake and say he learned from the experience?

While Oakland police attack with tear gas, rightwing media smear Occupy Wall Street with irrelevant facts

Last night police used tear gas and billy clubs to prevent Occupy Wall Street protesters from expanding the area they control in Oakland, California. Suddenly the fact that a very small number of individual protesters had broken windows earlier in the day fell to page 100 of the news coverage. The main stream and rightwing news media could have gone to town trying to attach the destructive values of the vandals to everyone else in the peaceful and peace-loving Occupy Wall Street movement. But the police attack was a much more powerful, and frightening story that drowned out the peccadilloes of the few vandals in the crowd.

The lesson once again, the one that Oakland authorities don’t seem to want to learn, is that most of the public favor the protesters and it therefore attracts very negative publicity to act violently against them. As I explained to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter a few days ago, governments and corporations should wait out the occupiers.  Although I support Occupy Wall Street, I nonetheless predict that the movement will either graduate to other methods or play itself out when the weather turns cold.

Meanwhile, another phalanx of the rightwing news media launched an attack on the Occupy Wall Street movement yesterday. Unfortunately, it’s a dud that shouldn’t do any damage to the image of the movement, at least not among those who can do some common sense thinking.

The Daily Caller, a Washington, D.C.-based website founded by conservative pundit Tucker Carlson and former Cheney factotum Neil Patel, reported that the average value of the homes of Occupy Wall Streeters arrested in NYC was $305,000, almost 70% more than the national average of $185,400 across the country. 

The headline shouted out the message: Many Occupy Wall Street protesters live in luxury.

As experts, the article quotes other Daily Caller writers: “Sleeping beside the hardcore activists are increasing numbers of wealthy students turning up to make the most of the party atmosphere, drugs and free food,” reporters Paul Bentley and Micela McLucas wrote in October. “While they dress down to blend in, the youngsters’ privileged backgrounds are revealed by glimpses of expensive gadgetry or the absent minded mention of their private schools during heated political debates.”

We’re supposed to frown on these lazy rich kids who want to party instead of getting jobs. 

But the statistic is both misleading and meaningless. Misleading, because they are based on arrests made in the New York City protest. Even if many of the protesters came from around the country, the largest number will naturally have come from the immediate region, i.e., New York City, Long Island, Northern New Jersey, Westchester county and Western Connecticut,  all of which have among the very highest costs of living in the country. I’m sure the average cost per home of protesters in Cleveland and Pittsburgh are much lower, because most of the people protesting in those towns live in those low cost areas.

The statistics are meaningless for two reasons: The one message that all of the various Occupy Wall Street movements around the country have broadcast clear from say one is that the movement represents the other 99%.  I assure you that someone living in a home worth $305,000 is not among the wealthiest 1% of the population, who, let’s remember, own 35% of all U.S. wealth.

But beyond that, who cares if some of the protesters come from the wealthiest 1%?  I would be delighted if it turns out to be the case that people in the top 1% have financed the Occupy Wall Street movement. It means that there are unselfish people around who realize that they have been taking too much of the pie resulting in recession, joblessness and widespread economic unease. It means that there are people willing to put their society ahead of increasing their own largess, to sacrifice for the good of the nation.

Of course, some might call them class traitors. To be sure, anyone wealthy who is part of Occupy Wall Street is a traitor to the basic American ideology since the time of Reagan: the principle that people should always seek what is in their own best interest.  The theory, which takes out of context and then misinterprets one sentence of the 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith, proposes that if everyone seeks his own selfish good, unimpeded by the state of course, then society will prosper. History disproved this theory even before Smith was born, for example, Spain under Phillip II, the French ancien régime and the last centuries of the Roman Empire.

The number of traitors to Reaganism increases on a daily basis, even if most of our elected officials still prefer to ignore or diminish our growing numbers. If in fact some truly wealthy people are involved in Occupy Wall Street, it’s good reason for the other 99% to rejoice.

The answer to overpopulation is family planning and immigration to richer nations

One of the major themes of the news over the past week has been the public recognition that the population of humans is now hitting the 7 billion mark.  That’s a scary number, that has many worried, and with reason. Overpopulation is implicated in our environmental and our economic problems. Every one of us, from poorest to richest, has some carbon footprint and uses resources, leading to more global warming and greater resource shortages (which eventually leads to economic and often political tensions). 

There is more to addressing environmental and resource problems than reducing the population, to be sure.  Those in the wealthiest nations use more resources to create more pollution, while people in the developing nations are clamoring for a higher standard of living that will entail using more resources and creating more pollution.  We will therefore have to learn how to use fewer resources and those in the wealthiest society may have to lower their living standards; for example, by giving up second cars, using mass transit and car-pooling.  

But reducing the number of people in the world should nevertheless take a central place in any discussion of how to address global warming and resource shortages.

Most economists and politicians don’t like to think of a shrinking population, because growth in population is the easiest way to achieve growth in an economy, and both economists and politicians set economic growth as a primary goal.  What economists and politicians like about economic growth is that it’s an easy way to deal with the inherent inequalities of a free market economy.  As long as there’s growth, the unemployment and economic dislocation that ensues from money-saving technologies such as computerization and the Internet is hidden from view because growth creates new markets to soak up the newly unemployed. Growth, too, can conceal an active program to draw more of the wealth created by the economy to the wealthy.  For example, it is only since we have entered the greatest economic contraction since the Great Depression that the mainstream news media is talking about the growing inequality of wealth that has occurred over the past 30 years.  Before, economic growth hid the transfer of wealth upwards.  

When a population shrinks, it’s very hard to maintain economic growth.  But just because an economy shrinks does not mean that it cannot provide jobs and an adequate standard of living for the people which it comprises.  The belief that only a growing economy can thrive is just a myth, but one that’s accepted by the many economists in the pay of those benefiting most from growth.

In the past, famine, war and disease were the main ways that populations decreased, and if we do not act to stem the population rise, it’s almost certain that famine and perhaps war and disease as well will do the job for us.

I believe that the key to reducing the population without a great deal of suffering is eliminate the most wretched among us, the approximately 1.7 billion humans who  live in absolute poverty, which is roughly defined as living on the equivalent of $1.25 a day or less.  What if there were a painless way to totally wipe out this 24% of the population?  Wouldn’t getting rid of one quarter of the world’s population reduce our carbon footprint, even if it were the one quarter that uses the fewest resources?  And wouldn’t we also be removing a lot of human suffering by extinguishing the ultra poor?

Now I’m not suggesting a mass genocide against populations living in absolute poverty.  Rather I propose four simple policy steps to ease into population reduction. What I propose is to keep the populations of the richer economies at about their current size by migrating the poor into wealthier societies:

  1. Promote negative population growth in all countries by making birth control easily accessible and rewarding people for having one child.  For example, governments could agree to pay the complete costs for four years of college or career training of the first child of every citizen, while raising taxes on each child beyond one for any family. To those who say that this policy will negatively impact the poor since the wealthy will be able to afford the additional cost of having more children, I have two arguments: 1) we’re trying to avoid famine, war and disease, which usually kill more of the poor than of other groups; 2) whatever the rules of a society, the wealthy always have an edge.
  2. Create an open border for immigration from poor countries to rich countries.  If rich countries replace the hole in their economies created by a lower population with people from poorer economies, the world will gradually get wealthier. We can already see this process of replacing populations of wealthy nations with immigrants happening to a certain degree in Europe and the United States.  In both cases, unfortunately, local populations are resisting the newcomers, a short-sighted mistake that will make everyone suffer.  Instead, the industrialized nations should open their arms to immigrants.
  3. Develop a strong social safety net to alleviate the human suffering that population dislocations cause. At every step of the process of population decline, some people will be forced out of a job or profession, which is what always happens during all social change, for example, the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society at the end of the 19th century.  Those out of a job or career, be it temporarily or permanently, are in a sense sacrificing for the public good resulting from a declining population.  It only makes sense that they be compensated with generous and long-lasting unemployment benefits. Additionally, the new immigrants will need social services to get acclimated to the new society and economy.  Moreover, a strong social safety net will generally help minimize suffering during any social and economic transitions.
  4. Keep working on reducing everyone’s carbon footprint. That includes developing alternative forms of energy; making current industrial processes more energy efficient; spending more to clean up current industrial and electrical processes; and increasing use of mass transit, bicycles and other energy-efficient forms of transportation.

I see as the greatest impediment to pursuing this 4-step program, or one like it, is that every one of these steps leads to more of the two things that the rich who control our resources and government officials despise:

  • These steps almost by definition lead to a more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth, which means the rich will have less. 
  • These steps lead to more government interference in the marketplace, e.g., to encourage people to have one child only, to bring in immigrants or to make it easier for companies developing alternative energy.

It’s not a coincidence that in those countries in which there is a more equitable distribution of wealth such as China, France, Spain and Germany, the governments have put addressing global warming higher on the “to-do” list, while the United States with its growing inequality seems determined to act in the short-term best interests of major polluters and its car-crazed population.   The rich folk have a greater say in the United States than in Europe, and so far, they have cast all their votes in favor of continuing to pursue a growing economy fueled by irresponsible energy use and a rising population.  Hey, at least they’ll get to keep their low taxes and great profit-making opportunities—at least in the short term.

BP hollow advertisement for Gulf Coast beaches and seafood neglects what makes each Gulf state distinctive

While watching five minutes of one of the professional football games this past Sunday, I experienced a very bizarre TV commercial. 

On the surface, it had markings of a typical spot promoting tourism: people having fun doing things and eating. But right away, this commercial seemed different. The people in the ad joyously proclaimed that they were from four different states, all along the Gulf of Mexico: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.  They seemed to be engaged in a very friendly rivalry over which state was the better place for a vacation.

But something seemed out of place, something seemed strange: The Floridians weren’t talking about theme parks.  The Louisianans weren’t talking about either Cajun food or riverboats.  The Mississippians said nothing of casinos.  And the Alabamans breathed not a word about football.  No one was talking about what made their state distinctive.

Instead every image was of people doing one of two things:

  • Eating seafood, assumed to be locally caught.
  • Enjoying the beach and water activities.

This act of extreme homogenization of four very different states and the distillation of their similarities into two attributes seemed bizarre. It made me feel a little ill at ease because I kept wanting them to “show me the Mickey,” or at least a football play.  I would have settled for a shot of a jazz band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”   I just couldn’t believe that anyone would think they could sell people on traveling to any of these four states just for a sandy beach and fried shrimp.

But it all made sense at the end of the commercial when we learned on an almost empty still screen that BP Oil sponsored the spot.

In other words, running this spot is part of the reparations that BP is paying the Gulf states for the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill, which sent oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for three months.

It looks to me as if the committee that cobbled together the concept for this spot used the heavy-as-a-Mack-truck touch characteristic of BP’s interactions with the public during the three months in which nothing the experts tried could cap the leak.  Notice first, the avoidance of the problem, much as BP tried to avoid speaking about the leak: Nowhere in the commercial does anyone say that the Gulf of Mexico shore had a problem. Instead we get the squeamishly happy assertions by proud state supporters that their state is the best place to vacation, all exemplified by the images of succulent seafood and pristine shorelines that prove that the Gulf Shore is fine. Only those who remember the images of oil-covered birds and enormous slick floating ovals will get the connection.

Note, too, how narrowly the commercial addresses the unspoken public issue of the spill’s aftermath and nothing else.  That’s why there’s no room to mentioned Florida’s theme parks or Louisiana’s red beans and rice. Every image and statement focuses solely on how the public issue plays out for people who want to go on vacation: beach activities and seafood. A lawyer must have figured that one out. It was this kind of narrow response that made BP chair Tony Hayward look so uncaring and uninformed.

Finally, note that way the message—that Gulf waters and beaches are clean—is married to a product for sale, to wit, vacationing on Gulf beaches. Someone on the committee insisted that as long as BP was going to do “image advertising,” some industry should benefit. 

Of course, none of the states will benefit from an ad such as this one.  No one says, “Honey, let’s go to a Gulf beach this next vacation,” the way they may say, “Let’s go to Europe” or “Let’s go to Africa.” It will take many years and more money than BP will want to spend to establish the idea of the Gulf as a region to visit. And why would any of these states want to homogenize their image? Why would Louisiana want to tell people that it’s “just like Alabama?”  Meanwhile, all of these states already have their own clear image to tourists, which depends to a small degree only on seafood and beaches. 

The ineptness of the ad would astonish if BP did not already have a track record for awkward and rigidly controlled communications.  It seems as if BP has a tin ear to how the public reacts to anything other than the price of gasoline.

Parade scores a hat trick of American ideology with Ellen DeGeneres Halloween issue

The cover of yesterday’s Parade showed Ellen DeGeneres holding a giant lit-up pumpkin. The headline read “Happy Halloween from Ellen DeGeneres.” 

Inside was an article that essentially was an interview of the terminally nice Ellen. The secondary headline was: “Our Halloween treat for you—a sit-down with Ellen Degeneres, the new queen of daytime talk.” This piece of text, by the way, was arranged to be the carved-out nose of a pumpkin. The main headline, a quote from Ellen in red, served as carved-out mouth: “Making people FEEL GOOD is all I ever wanted to do.”

The inside back cover displayed a full-page ad for a Cover Girl line of makeup called “Simply Ageless.” The ad focused on the spokesperson for this line of cosmetics, who happens to be…you guessed it!…Ellen DeGeneres.

A hat trick consists of three goals in one hockey game scored by one player, and Parade certainly scored an ideological hat trick with this issue.

Here are the three big ideological scores Parade made:

  1. Advanced celebrity culture, which offers conspicuous consumption and anti-intellectualism as the aspirations for the public.  The celebrity as behavior model typically involves buying something, which Ellen suggests almost first thing in the article. We see two foci on celebrity culture in Parade: 1) We celebrate a holiday through the celebrity; 2) We navigate a controversial social issue—gay marriage—through a celebrity.
  2. Promoted cultural homogenization: Cultural homogenization is changing parts of an authentic experience, e.g. the spices in Indian food or a novel with a tragic ending—to make the experience more like a standard issue one that will be milder, less controversial, more inclusive and/or easier to understand.  Think of the Mexican-themed restaurant at which you can’t get corn tortillas.  Parade homogenizes Halloween by forgetting about the scary trick and the family tradition parts, and focusing only on the treat—those little pieces of candy that seem to go down so easily, one after the other after the other.  The treat isn’t candy, though, but a chat with that nice gay lady, Ellen whom you get to see on TV almost every day.  Talking to Ellen for Halloween is akin to thinking that picking up trash in a city park commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King because it’s service to others.
  3. Made the commercial transaction the center of all concerns: All Ellen does in the article is sell something as the answer for emotional needs.  She sells her show, she sells her new book, she sells her cosmetics. Of course, the entire article was bought and sold by the Simply Ageless line of cosmetics. In the ad biz, we call buying an ad and getting an article for free a “pay-for-play.”

Lots of my younger readers may be scratching their heads and saying to themselves, “That old codger OpEdge, to think that anyone reads Parade anymore!”

Whether people read this long-time mélange of celebrity news, bad food advice, well-worn health tips, patriotism and middle American values I can’t say. But I do know that virtually every local Sunday newspaper in America has a copy slipped into the coupon section. Add up the circulation of all those thousands of newspapers and it’s hard not to conclude that more people read or have the opportunity to read Parade than read or have the opportunity to read virtually any other media outlet in print, on line or over the airwaves (even with the decline of newspapers).  Parade is one of the most important taste-re-enforcers in American society and one of the most effective propaganda vehicles for the ideology of consumerism.  

I do commend Parade for accepting Ellen’s homosexuality matter-of-factly and for promoting a gay as America’s replacement for our “big sister” Oprah Winfrey.  But remember, Parade is never a frontrunner on important issues, only an indicator that the American people have made up their mind and believe whatever it is that Parade is promoting, be it recycling, the widespread impact of post-trauma stress disorder or gay marriage.  Representing consensus thinking enables Parade to do it what it does best: sell the idea that buying stuff—for example stuff that celebrities buy and recommend—is the be-all and end-all of the good life.

Jobs did as much to keep adults acting like children as Disney, of which he was the largest shareholder

The death of Steve Jobs led to a tidal wave of sympathetic news coverage. Jobs the entrepreneur. Jobs the visionary. Jobs the entertainer. Jobs the philanthropist. Jobs the college dropout who showed those pointy heads that college isn’t needed (while creating thousands of jobs for the college educated and virtually none for anyone else).  Jobs the obsessed perfectionist.

 Not much of it made sense to me, except from the standpoint of mainstream propaganda about the business person as heroic maker of history. Then again, I had recently spent two hours trying to convince my 22-year-old engineering graduate school son that Jobs was less important to world civilization than Gustave Flaubert, the great French novelist who is routinely credited with a large number of innovations in prose writing that we now take for granted.

 Sue me if I’m not impressed with the portability of the iPod or iPhone, but am negatively influenced by the tinny sound and small screen. And sue me again if I never saw any advantage in an Apple computer over a standard issue PC. And sue me a third time if I’m not enraptured by animation—I am after all, an adult.

 I kept my silence about Jobs, though, as it seemed to me that it would be sour and small-minded to complain about the outsized coverage of Jobs’ death, which continues unabated three weeks later.

That is until learning in The Economist that Steve Jobs was the largest single shareholder in Disney. 

Disney represents a number of pernicious trends and ideological imperatives in American culture.  Let’s see how many of them would apply to Apples, iPods, iPhones, iPads and/or Pixar films:

  • The infantilization of adults, which means that adults continue pursuing the immature  entertainments of their youth such as Disney theme parks for adults, slapstick buddy movies and video games, instead of growing into more adult preoccupations. Pixar fits right into that trend. So do iPods and iPhones, because they give you music and information right here right now, just like a child likes it to be delivered.
  • The idea of putting a brand on everything, which replaces real sentiment with a commodity to which artificial (or manufactured) sentiment has been attached through applying a label.  Movies become books, comic books, mugs, posters, lunchboxes, pens, tee-shirts, key chains, glasses, dolls of various sizes and materials, jigsaw and crossword puzzles, board games, television shows, theme park rides, theme park characters, and, finally, sequels.  Again, the Pixar connection is obvious.
  • The homogenization of culture, which means that instead of a mosaic of subcultures each of which offers authentic experiences drawing on centuries-old traditions, there is one homogenized culture everywhere.  In a sense, the dominant culture extinguishes the smaller cultures, much as dominant species can wipe out the weaker species in an ecosystem and thus spawn long-term ecological disaster.  Disney represents cultural homogenization more than any other company or brand. Whatever the big city, you can find a Disney Store somewhere, with a Hard Rock Café, a P F. Chang, a few Starbucks, McDonald’s, Olive Garden and a Subway or two close by. And an Apple store, too, now that you mention it. Part of homogenization is to make everything taste or feel the same. For example, the bagel chains have increased the size and sugar content of a bagel so much that the standard bagel is no longer a bagel, but a sweet roll in a different shape. Or think of how many of today’s movies reduce to the same video-game-like explosions, crashes and chases. If you want to see homogenization at its best, go to a Mexican or Italian theme restaurant at a Disney theme park. You’ll get the colors and the names, but not the food. Jobs’ products (excepting the movies) fought homogenization by lowering the cost of setting up a special interest network, e.g., for an ethnic or political group or for people who like model trains. But Jobs’ technology also made it easier for the technical integration that helps large media conglomerates control all their hundreds of media outlets and thereby homogenize the news and information we receive.
  • The Victorian Disney morality, which I will exemplify with two recurring Disney themes:  
  1. The Disney Princess, which trains little girls to be pedestal-dwelling clothes-and-jewelry consumers who find value in being “treated like a princess.” As Betty Friedan described it more than 50 years ago, being treated like a “princess” leads to the malaise of the imprisoned. The princess on the pedestal is both worshipped and enslaved.
  2. The Disney belief that the best lifestyle is to be found in a homogenous small town based on everyone owning a car. Even in the age of Disney cartoon heroes of color, this small town vision dominates Disney theme parks, Disney literature and Disney movies.

From what’s coming out in obituaries and rushed biographies, Steve Jobs clearly did not subscribe to the Disney moral vision, and that’s to his credit.

But regarding the basic business ideology, Jobs and Disney were very much on the same page. The commodification of emotional value through branding, the infantilization of adults and homogenization away from authenticity towards some lowest common denominator—these methods of Disney were not alien to Steve Jobs the business person. 

Congressional study shows rich have taken a large slice of the economic pie away from poor and middle class

Don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t know that a Congressional Budget Office study now confirms what so many other research studies have been telling us for years: that since 1979 there has been a redistribution of income and wealth up the economic ladder, with the poor and middle class getting less and the rich getting more.

Unlike  Rick Perry’s unveiling of his extremely regressive optional 20% flat income tax, which Google News reports was covered in 2,181 media outlets, the Congressional Budget Office Study, titled ”Trends in the Distribution of Household Income, 1979-2007,” Report has been covered by a mere 72 media outlets.

The main finding of the report is that the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s income over the last three decades. The report speaks eloquently of the growing inequitable distribution of wealth in the country, so let me just quote from it:  “…the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979: The share of income accruing to higher-income households increased, whereas the share accruing to other households declined. In fact, between 2005 and 2007, the after-tax income received by the 20 percent of the population with the highest income exceeded the after-tax income of the remaining 80 percent. In short, the richer you were in 1979, the more you have benefitted from 30 years of spending and tax cuts, and the poorer you were, the more you have fallen behind.”

The report blames the greater inequity of salaries and benefits in the private sector as the primary cause of growing income inequity. The weasel-like explanation provided in the executive summary manages to avoid all mention of either unions or union-busting.  The other big reason for the growing inequality in income (and wealth) mentioned by the report is tax and government spending policy. In short, the government taxes the wealthy less and gives fewer benefits to the poor and middle class than it used to do.

There have been many studies that have shown the growing inequality of wealth in the United States, but this one has a special stature because Congress’ own numbers-crunchers did it.

One of the 72 brave media to cover this report was The New York Times, which made it the lead story of its national news section.  For some reason, though, the Times thought this “smoking gun” of class warfare waged less important than another tedious survey showing growing distrust of the government, which managed to make the top left-hand side of the front page, a place reserved for the second most important news story of the day. 

Of course, the poll in question was sponsored in part by the Times itself.  

The Times/CBS poll shows that the public has less negative feelings towards our president than towards Congressional Republicans, which show that the voters get what’s going on. The poll also reports that about half of all Americans sympathize with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The Times handling of these two studies exemplify the basic approach of the mainstream news media in general to key economic and social issues in two ways. 

  1. Media hyping itself: The Times puts the trivial “survey-du-jour” that it co-sponsored in a featured position on the front page, while relegating a “competing” study to an inside section. The relative newsworthiness of the fifth or tenth study this month to tell us that we’re pissed at our elected officials is debatable, but the value to the Times brand of promoting a Times survey as newsworthy is unquestionable. Associated Press and others follows a similar strategy with the surveys that they sponsor.
  2. Preference of opinion over fact: The story that measures opinions is on the first page, whereas the story about facts is buried in the front section.  Time and time again, we can see the media preferring reporting opinions over reporting facts.  Opinions can be inflammatory. One of the basic principles of all drama is conflict, and when opinions collide, the news becomes dramatic. Giving an opinion also allows the media to float false or obnoxious ideas without having to back the ideas up with facts.  As an example, I think we can assume that more people know Michele Bachmann’s misinformed opinion about the vaccine that prevents cervical and other cancers than know about this important report. The report is based on facts and filled with statistics. Michele Bachmann just made it up, but it stirred a tempest in a teapot, and thus served as a distraction. If the news media and politicians didn’t have these sideshows, they might have to let people know that over a 30-year period Congress has passed a number of tax laws that benefitted the wealthy while hurting everyone else.

Banks turn away cash: another sign we should raise taxes and stimulate economy

Banks have too much cash and are taking actions to discourage savers from making more deposits. So reports The New York Times on its front page this morning.

Both big national banks and small community banks are concerned that they have too many deposits. Some banks are assessing fees on deposits. Others are dropping interest rates.

You’d think the banks would want the deposits, but the problem is that they have no place to invest the loot. The demand for loans is much lower than the demand for safe places to park some cash. The banks have to pay depositors interest even if they aren’t lending out the money, so when the banks take in too much money, their profits go down.

The fact that banks want to turn away cash proves two points:

  • We need to raise taxes on the wealthy
  • The federal government needs to stimulate the economy

The rightwing theory that lowering taxes puts money into the hands of job-creators just doesn’t work in the real world. When demand for goods and services is down, the rich folk (perhaps a more accurate term than the euphemistic “job-creators”) invest less in making goods and services and instead keep their money in their pockets—or in the bank. 

Now I’m not saying that all the deposits in excess of loan demand in banks come from the wealthy, but since the wealthy own most of our savings, a good chunk of bank deposits must be theirs. Instead of letting them continue to accumulate cash because of the lowest income tax rates on the wealthy in the history of the western industrialized world, let’s use that money to pay off our federal deficit and strengthen the healthcare and unemployment benefit safety net for those victimized by the long economic contraction that the world is undergoing.

The federal government could also stimulate the economy using funds raised from returning tax rates on the wealthy to the standards of the 1980’s. The private sector does not seem to be up to the task of creating jobs, despite what Republicans say. If we keep taxes low or lower them more, the owners and executives of corporations will just keep more money. If we lower their cost of doing business by continuing to gut environmental regulations, they will pocket that difference, as well. If we want to climb out of the deep economic hole we’re in, it will take government stimulus, including:

  • Redistributing income from the people who save it (rich) to those who spend it (poor).
  • Rebuilding our ailing public infrastructure.
  • Setting higher safety and environmental regulations, which will create new industries to meet the new needs of keeping people safer and trying to impede global warming.
  • Supporting growth industries such as alternative energy with loans, grants and purchases of finished products.

With the government stimulating demand, the banks will benefit from both fewer deposits and greater demand for business loans. 

It sounds like a win-win-win-lose, as follows: Win for banks, win for American economy, win for poor and middle classes; lose for the richest one percent, who have won the economic equivalent of the World Series 30 years in a row! 

A little secret: even after paying more in taxes, our wealthiest will still be rich or very well off.