Sunday comics reflect mass media’s desire to commercialize Christmas

On the Sunday before Christmas (or the Sunday after, when the celebration of the birth of Christ comes on Saturday) the color comic section is always full of the holiday.

For example, today the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offers 24 comics in a 4-page color comic insert of which 16 focus on Christmas. If we remove the two comics that have regular daily
storylines and the two that are really project pages for elementary school kids, we’re left with 20 comics, meaning that 80% of the available comics present Christmas jokes today.

An analysis of the topics of these comics reveals how much the comics represent the ideology of the mass media:

  • Gifts – 6
  • Santa (bringer of gifts) – 5
  • Baking cookies (as a gift) – 1
  • Trees (under which gifts sit) – 1
  • Family – 1
  • Religion – 1
  • Jingle Bells – 1

Gifts are the center of or part of 13 of the 16 cartoons. That means that giving—and by implication, buying—presents is at the heart of 65% of the available cartoons and more than 81% of the comics about Christmas.  And make no doubt about it, these comics speak almost exclusively about gifts that are b0ought and not made or created.

On display are many variations of the buy-and-give theme:

  • A husband buys many presents Christmas Eve after he and his wife had promised to do nothing (“Blondie”)
  • A child wonders what he can buy his father for the 87 cents he has left (“Family Circus”)
  • A father guesses what his grown son has gotten him, since the young man gets him the same thing every year (“Zits”)
  • Father tries to teach daughter that the object of Christmas is to both give and receive (“Born Loser”)

Note that the narrative always centers on close relationships and that the glue that cements the relationship on Christmas is the giving—and therefore the buying—of a gift. Even the one Christmas comic about religion has three of its nine panels dedicated to gifts (“For Better or for Worse”), the same number it uses to deliver the religious message, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.”

Happy Birthday, Jesus.  Praise the lord and pass the presents.

That is, after you buy them.

In the case of Christmas, I think the intentions of media outlets to encourage the purchase of their advertisers’ products and the desires of the public to buy them merge. The advertisers and the consumer participate together in a potlatch of spending on often shoddy goods that may or may not have its roots in ancient winter solstice propitiations to the gods, but certainly anchored in the American ideology that all relationships reduce to commercial transactions. The articles and the comics of mass media both reflect and shape this crass materialism.


If violent movies and games are the cause for gun deaths, why are there so few in other advanced countries?

In his press conference on the Sandy Hook elementary school slaughter of the innocents today, Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) executive vice president, gave new meaning to the term American exceptionalism, the theory that there is something inherently different about the United States from other nations.

LaPierre blamed violent video games, movies and other entertainments for the large number of guns death in the United States.

But Canadians have ready access to the same violent amusements. The French have access to them. The English, Japanese, Koreans, Spanish have access to them. In fact you can find a plethora of violent games and movies in every westernized industrial country of the world.

But only in the United States is there a high level of gun deaths. In fact, 80% of all deaths from guns in the 23 populous, high-income countries of the world occur in the United States. We have both the highest number of gun deaths and the highest rate of gun deaths.

That certainly makes us exceptional—but are we exceptionally susceptible to suggestion? Exceptionally given to playing out fantasies? Exceptionally stupid?  Do an exceptionally large number of our citizens have violent tendencies?

No, no, no and no.

What we are is exceptionally inundated with guns and exceptionally lacking in laws to control their registration and use.

LaPierre, whose job is to be the chief salesperson for gun manufacturers, proposes an interesting and very expensive way to prevent future Sandy Hook massacres: have government pay to place an armed police officer in every single school in the country. I assume he means private schools as well as public schools.

The solution is absurd for several reasons. Let’s start with cost: right now public education is underfunded. We’re talking about cutting all kinds of government programs that help the poor, children and senior citizens. Our roads and bridges are in disrepair. Mass transit is being cut in many cities. We have to shore up our shorelines to protect our citizens from another Sandy or Katrina. How do LaPierre and the NRA expect us to pay for all that extra security? I guess he doesn’t care since his industry is going to benefit from its plan to militarize schools because it will likely require the purchase of more firearms and more ammunition.

And what do we do about malls? Movie theatres? Churches? Universities? Health clubs? Hospitals? Public buildings? Over the past few years, there have been mass murders at all of these locations. Many of them already have police officers or armed security on detail. Evidently there weren’t enough in place.

Then there are the killers who operate on the run, like the Washington D.C. sniper or the western Pennsylvania nutcase who went out hunting ethnic and racial minorities. Do we place a policeman at every intersection and every quarter mile of freeway?

If we were to take the NRA’s proposal seriously, we would become a police state in which there would be a security force on every block and in every building. And even then we wouldn’t be safe from the proliferation of guns and weak gun control laws.

There are two characteristics that mass murderers have in common. First of all, they are all crazy. There is no way to guarantee we can keep guns out of the hands of all the nuts, although every other industrialized nation seems to do a pretty good job at it. But stiffer gun ownership requirements, a longer wait before one is able to purchase a gun, requirements that gun owners get licenses like drivers of automobiles, a more extensive FBI database of criminals and the mentally ill—all of these gun control initiatives would make it much harder for the nuts to get their hands on firearms.

The other characteristic shared by many of the mass murderers is their use of semi-automatic assault weapons. It makes sense to ban these weapons.  Of course that would take sales away from LaPierre’s clients, the gun manufacturers. And we can’t have that, can we?

Lobbyists for industries never want to regulate their industries, and they often give reasons that defy logic and stretch the truth. But in this press conference, the NRA has hit a historically slimy and self-serving low.

None of the four arguments against gun control make any sense when you analyze them

Through the years, I have read and heard four basic arguments by those who oppose gun control. Those who favor making it easier for people to buy and carry guns repeat these arguments with an almost religious fever, as if the incontrovertible logic of their statements trumps all other facts and reasoning. But careful examination shows that each of these arguments is illogical or non-factual or both.

Let’s examine the four arguments against control one at a time.

#1 The Second Amendment forbids gun control.

The second amendment states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  The key words are “well-regulated” and “infringed”:

  • Well-regulated: The amendment clearly says that the reason to allow people to keep and bear arms is to have a well-regulated militia, and regulated means rules, laws and control. You are allowed to have arms so you can be part of the militia and the militia can be regulated. Thus you and your weapons (arms) can be regulated. 
  • Infringed: Infringed is a mighty broad word, and many constitutional lawyers could drive a truck through the leeway it gives to regulate.

The interpretation of all of the Constitution through the years by both the right and the left demonstrates that our society understands that the document is not rigid, but pliable to the point that you can twist it into anything. While the Second Amendment unfortunately seems to clearly state that people do have the right to own guns, the amendment per se and as part of a document that has been stretched in every direction has nothing in it that prevents as much gun control as is necessary to keep order and safety, which is, of course, the primary job of a well-regulated militia.

I asked my cousin, Marshall Dayan, a renowned death penalty attorney who often deals with constitutional issues, for his view of the Second Amendment and here is what he wrote: I would take issue (though Alito and the SCOTUS would not) that the Amendment clearly states the right to individual handgun ownership. It refers to the right of THE people, not the right of PEOPLE, so I read that to be a communal right, not an individual right. Hence, if AS A PEOPLE, we chose to keep arms in an armory for the purpose of maintaining a well-regulated militia, I don’t think the federal government could preclude that under the 2nd Amendment by its terms. But I don’t think a reference to the right of THE PEOPLE is the same as the right of individuals to keep and bear arms. But my interpretation is, at least for now, mooted by U.S. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago.”  FYI, Jeffrey Tobin makes the same argument as Marshall in The New Yorker.

Of course, a simplistic and somewhat snider approach is to say that the amendment refers to firearms and not ammunition, and ammunition can therefore be regulated or even prohibited.

#2 Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

Glib, but inaccurate: People with guns kill people. As we saw in the Newtown tragedy, someone with a semi-automatic assault rifle can take out a lot of people in a matter of minutes. If the Newtown shooter had only knives, he would not have been able to kill more than a few people in that time, and maybe would not have been bold enough to attempt his mass murder.  I heard someone on National Public Radio this week quote former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said that it’s bullets that kill people, which is another clever argument for allowing the sales of guns but not of the ammunition that make the guns lethal.

The evidence for a causal relationship between gun ownership and gun violence is stunning. All other industrialized nations have much stricter gun control laws and far fewer people who own guns. The result is that they have much lower rates of deaths by guns. In fact, among the 23 populous, high-income countries, 80% of all firearm deaths occur in the United States.

#3 Bad guys will get guns no matter what; or “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

But if guns were more restricted, it would be harder for the outlaws to obtain their firearms, which would discourage many potential bad guys. There can be no doubt that the Newtown shooter would not have been able to buy a gun by himself; that he was allowed to practice shooting without going through a qualification process that included a certification of mental health is truly appalling. 

Keep in mind, too, that restrictions on private sales of guns would give law enforcement agencies another arrow in their quiver in fighting violent crime.

Finally, as gun control organizations such as the Brady Center substantiate, many more people are killed by guns because of accidents, domestic disputes and mass murder by deranged nut-jobs than by criminals in the course of robberies, mob hits or other crimes. An estimated 41% of gun-related homicides and 94% of gun-related suicides would not occur under the same circumstances had no guns been present.

#4 If more people carried guns, the criminals would be afraid to use theirs

With this argument, gun advocates enter a Wild West fantasy in which we always know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. In a shooting situation, that just isn’t so.

These fantasists don’t really think through their scenarios at all.  Imagine, for example, an attempted bank robbery or convenience store stick-up: The police arrive to find a shooting gallery. How do they know who the robbers are and who are merely defending themselves?

Or think of the mass murder of 12 people in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado earlier this year: You’re in the theatre and all of sudden the air is filled with smoke and gun shots. So you pull out your gun and start shooting back in the direction you think it’s coming from. Someone on the other side of the theatre sees you fire your weapon and thinks you’re the shooter and starts aiming at you. Meanwhile, the hundreds of other people in the theatre now have gunfire coming at them from three, maybe even more, directions. When you think it through, it’s clear that many more dead would have been the likely scenario if a vigilante had pulled a weapon out and started firing at the Aurora mass murderer.

Police are trained to know when to fire their guns and when not to. The average citizen does not receive this training.

At this point in American history, the argument is not about prohibiting hunters or range shooters from practicing their sport. It’s about protecting the public from the proliferation of weapons in society. As I pointed out about two years ago and others are saying now, no one objects to rigorous testing for driver’s licensing, complicated rules of the road and the requirement that people who drive cars must have insurance. Why should legitimate hunters and range shooters object to regulation of their sport?

Now’s the time for a rapid fire assault on gun manufacturers and elected officials

Now is the time to put the pressure on elected officials, gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association (NRA) to strengthen gun control laws.  What I’m talking about is a rapid fire assault of letters, emails and tweets. Let’s prove that sometimes the pen can be mightier than the sword and the gun.

I’m asking all my readers to pen emails and letters to the President, both your U.S. Senators, your Congressional representative and the representatives and senators to your state legislatures telling them you are in favor of greater gun control. You can find their names and mailing addresses at the websites for your state.

Here are some specific changes in the gun laws that you can advocate to elected officials:

  • End the sale of all semi-automatic weapons and ban the sale of ammunition for semi-automatic weapons.
  • Establish a longer waiting period before people are allowed to buy guns.
  • Ban all sales of guns and ammunition that do not require a background check, such as sales between “friends.”
  • Allow licensed gun dealers to sell guns only at their place of business, the way it used to be before the law was changed in 1986.
  • Ban all sales of guns over the Internet.

I also think we should let the gun manufacturers know how angry we are that they continue to encourage and lobby for recklessly loose gun control laws. We should demand that these companies start supporting gun control.

Some may ask: why would the gun makers want to do something that could impede the steady flow of new guns sales? The answer lies in the history of regulation in the United States. Once government and the public start to clamor to regulate any industry, the tendency has always been for the industries in question to propose their own, usually milder, regulation. Additionally, the industries about to undergo regulation always have a seat at the government policy table. We can see that this week in reports about regulation of mortgage lending. The banks would prefer no regulation, but if there has to be regulation, they want—and are getting—a hand at shaping the new rules. Let’s make sure gun makers fear regulation enough to want to participate in the process of developing new regulation.

Here are the names of the leaders of the three leading American makers of guns. One letter from every concerned citizen should be enough to convince these amoralists that they should come to the negotiating table:

  • James Debney, President & Chief Executive Officer, Smith & Wesson, 2100 Roosevelt Avenue, Springfield MA 01104
  • Gerald R. Dinkel, President, Colt Defense LLC, P.O. Box 1868, Hartford CT 06144
  • Steven Feinberg, Cerebus Capital Management LP, 875 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022: owner of Bushmaster Firearms International LLC

I am also proposing a full-out assault on the NRA and its many affiliates. If you go to Twitter and search for “NRA” you will find about six Twitter accounts. I am tweeting a gun control message every day to all of these accounts, and I advocate that others do the same. Let’s tweet them into submission!

If the public doesn’t keep the pressure on, as soon as the Newtown massacre of the innocents falls out of the media spotlight gun makers and legislatures will retreat to their cozy clubby bloodless little world. Only a concerted effort by many will make sure that doesn’t happen.

Instead of trying to stop voters from voting, states should stop semi-automatics

To think that the killing of 32 college students at Virginia Tech in 2007 once marked for many the epitome of the unspeakably horrific. Now we see even worse—the mass murder of 20 children aged 5-10 and seven of their teachers, followed by the killer’s suicide.

What could be worse than the killing of these innocents to the psyche of any nation? Like parents everywhere, I remembered when my son was that age and I must say he was delightful, as were all his friends and classmates and the kids of my cousins. It’s the golden age of childhood, at least for most parents.  So most of the country felt the loss in a visceral way that made the mass media coverage seem all that much more tedious and pedestrian.

The little we know about the killer convinces me that lots of people knew this kid was a loonie, including his mother, who nevertheless kept a .223 caliber rifle in the house. Without getting into the essence of the second amendment , which I believe has been stretched apart by gun rights advocates, what person ever has the need for a semi-automatic weapon, either for hunting or for protection?  The semi-automatic is the weapon of choice of mass murders. Let’s just outlaw it.

I don’t see how anyone’s rights suffer infringement if we prohibit gun ownership in households in which someone is having or is under treatment for emotional and mental problems. The argument that someone who wants a gun will find a way to get one is completely rhetorical once you look at the alarmingly high statistics for gun deaths by friendly fire or of other household members.

Outlawing semi-automatics and tightening restrictions are two moves that might stop a lot of mass murderers from committing their heinous acts, or at least slow down their planning and/or execution.

Unfortunately much of America doesn’t seem to agree with me. As Charles Blow reports in his weekly column in the Saturday New York Times,  53% of Americans don’t support a law making it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic weapons.  Of course that survey was taken before the Newtown tragedy.

State legislatures everywhere have passed laws that make it harder to vote in most cases overruling the wishes of the people who elected them. In the case of voter suppression laws, the states were addressing voter fraud, a non-existent problem. You would think that despite the opposition of the electorate, state legislatures would now vote to ban assault rifles and strengthen restrictions on firearm ownership. Don’t hold your breath

It seems as if the Unites States has been betting against the dice for years and now it’s catching up to us. Sandy and Katrina demonstrated that we have been wrong not to listen to the engineers and build levees, barriers and sand dunes to protect population from the effects of global warming. And now we see once again what happens when we let guns proliferate and remove restrictions on their possession and use; we see it in the faces of the grieving parents and in the imagined faces of our own children—dead by gunfire, never again to smile at you openly or hug you in the warm unaffected way of the eight-year old.


George Will plays the intellectual but tells the “big lie”

George Will told “The Big Lie” in his column this week, which I read in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as “Off the cliff of credibility.”

Long-time followers of the pseudo intellectual Will know he is capable of telling a whopper.  His Wikipedia biography details a fib he told in a 2009 article about global warming, which he was trying to prove isn’t happening by citing a learned source for a false statistic.  When the learned source called Will on it, Will persisted—much like Romney persisted in his falsehood that Jeep was moving jobs from Ohio to China. Will kept repeating his fib and kept citing the source who had publicly repudiated him.

Will, who conceals his bankrupt rightwing economic hokum behind the demeanor of a coldly objective and slightly pedantic university scholar, was at his old lying tricks again this week. Either that or he really is pretty stupid.

Here’s the lie: When Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “Social Security has not added one penny to the deficit” Charles P. Blahous III, a member of the Social Security board of trustees, wrote to the Post to say that in 2012 this program will add $165billion to the deficit because benefit expenditures exceed Social Security tax revenue by that amount and “this gap is filled entirely by revenue that the federal government borrows’.” The fact that the second-ranking Senate Democrat is off by 16,500,000,000,000 pennies reveals the sort of precise thinking that got the country into its current condition and that supposedly will produce a cure. It is enough to make you want to hop in your Fisker and drive off a fiscal cliff.

Durbin is right and Will is a liar, because he knows Durbin is right. Will knows that the payroll taxes that the federal government collects go to a special trust fund for Social Security. That trust fund has a massive surplus. It is true that in 2012, the trust fund spent $165 billion more than it took in, which is maybe the third time that has ever happened. That’s why we collect surpluses for Social Security in many years—so the money is there in the lean years.

What’s also true is that the federal government has borrowed money from the Social Security Trust Fund, and if it didn’t have to pay it back, it would be $165 billion less in the hole this year, but that’s funny math: sooner or later the federal government has to pay back what it borrowed from the Social Security trust fund to finance Bush II’s meaningless and bloody wars and to meet all of the government’s commitments during the time it was starved of funds because of the Bush II tax cuts. But that’s not Social Security creating a deficit. That’s the federal government having to pony up to pay off its debts, including what it owes to Social Security recipients.

Our big Social Security problem is that the baby boom is going through retirement and the generations behind it chronologically are significantly smaller, leaving a smaller number of people to pay into the system for those currently receiving benefits. But that problem will work itself out over time, especially when the smaller workforce increases the value of labor. All the system needs is a quick fix, and the easiest one would be to remove the cap on income that is taxed for Social Security purposes.

George Will knows all this basic information, that is, assuming that he is the student of history and of civics that he purports to be.  But he would rather see the government get out of the retirement pension business, unless it is to collect the tax and give it directly to the private sector to invest on a non-guaranteed basis.

While there have always been a lot of lies and myths floating around the political blathersphere, the big lie is that the Social Security system is bankrupt or on its last legs.

For the casual follower of Will, it may seem like a shock that he tells a big fat whopper about the major source of income for most retired Americans. But to those who have followed him carefully for the last few decades, it’s par for the course. Will cloaks his inaccuracies in a fairly erudite vocabulary, but it’s the same set of lies you can hear delivered much more explicitly by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

The right wing persists in using failed slogans and attitudes

It’s amazing that the right-wing ideologues in the news media continue to use failed slogans and continue to take repudiated positions. It’s as if there has been a message retrenchment to the basics of Romneyism among media stalwarts.

I didn’t realize that the right-wing media was channeling Romney’s worst until earlier this week when channel surfing while driving home from the office: I heard Rush Limbaugh take off on the 47% of the country who are takers; the 47% first promulgated as the “other” whom Mitt Romney would never help as president. Just what the wealthy racist donors wanted to hear. But not what the voters wanted to hear.

I can never bring up the 47% canard without pointing out that these moochers include senior citizens who paid payroll taxes and are now receiving Social Security and Medicare, veterans who fought for our country and children who find themselves in poor families for no fault of their own. There’s most of Romney and Rush’s 47%.

So why did Rush persist in conveying the thought that half the country are moochers and do it in the same ill-fated words? Doesn’t he realize that a good part of his audience are part of that 47% and know it?

I thought Rush was losing it to attack the 47% after the election results, but he’s not the only media maven (or is that craven) to channel the Mittman this week. The wicked witch of the North, East, West and South, Ann Coulter, penned a column today in which she lashed out at Hispanics and immigrants and told a lot of whoppers. As the analysis in the Huffington News pointed out, Coulter accuses Hispanics of looking for handouts when statistics show that Latinos use less than their share of government benefits compared to the rest of the population. Coulter says that immigrants from Latin America have too many babies out of wedlock. Again, Huffington cites facts that prove her wrong.

When Romney’s strong anti-immigration stand turned off Hispanic voters, it guaranteed that he would lose some key swing states and the election. Many Republicans were beginning to express the view that there was no reason not to take a more favorable view of reforming immigration laws in a way that pleased Hispanic voters.  You would think that as a Republican shill, Coulter would fall in line. Instead she has thrown more red meat to the ultra-right nativists who favor mass deportations and building a 30-foot high wall along our borders.

I know that both Rush and Coulter always have to ratchet up the audacity to keep the attention of the masses and pump up their ratings. But in both cases, they used tired, old, failed, lie-ridden rhetoric that the political party they support had repudiated.

Why resurrect these false and failed ideas? I’m guessing that keeping these lies out there will make sure that some part of the population will continue to believe them and therefore continue to vote Republican even if the GOP economic stands work against their best interests. It’s a short term strategy, since this Republican core is losing population.

Universities should increase merit scholarships, but end athletic ones, plus stop giving breaks to legacies

One of the minor threads in the vast patchwork quilt called anti-intellectualism in the mass media is the assault on merit scholarships for college students.  For example, the New York Times used today’s report on the effort of the University of Oklahoma to attract National Merit Scholarship winners to treat the practice of giving these high academic achievers as controversial. To quote the article, penned by Richard Peréz-Peña, “Oklahoma’s program touches on a long-running argument within higher education, about the role of ‘merit aid’ — scholarships that schools give on the basis of credentials like grades, test scores or musical skills — versus the aid that nearly all schools give on the basis of a student’s financial need.”

Interestingly enough, the writer cites school officials at Michigan State and Texas A&M as opponents to academic scholarships. These two schools are well known for funding the minor league training of a number of professional football and basketball players. But then again, Oklahoma also gives a lot of money to star athletes.

Inputting “against merit scholarships” into the Google machine will yield hundreds of other articles arguing against giving scholarships to student who are high achievers but don’t need the money.

I can speak with some personal experience on this issue, as seven years ago Northeastern University awarded my son Ezra a full merit scholarship covering room, board and tuition for four years.  Although his mother and I both make incomes that disqualified us from receiving any need-based assistance, I never felt bad about my son taking Northeastern’s money. Ezra maintained a high grade point average in the most advanced academic courses that his urban high school offered, scored highly in his SATs and was involved in a slew of extra-curricular activities. (FYI, he won a number of university and national scholarships for his academic performance at Northeastern and is now getting his PhD in structural engineering at Stanford, funded by a National Science Foundation fellowship.)

By the way, just at his high school alone I knew of at least 10 other students with credentials similar to Ezra’s—different skills and different activities, but all showing a clear demonstration of talent, drive and creativity.  Whatever one wants to say about the overall decline of secondary school education in the U.S., no one can dispute the fact that the best students today are far more educated and skilled than the top dogs of any previous generation.  And that there are more of them now.

To attract top-flight students, Northeastern offers merit scholarships, just as a large number of universities offer room, board and tuition to attract athletes who will help their teams ascend the football and basketball rankings. If you take the scholarship from my son, then take away the athletic scholarship from the suburban kid who went to sleep-away football camp every summer.  At least the academic scholarship has something to do with the mission of higher education. 

The scandal is not that a well-off kid got a scholarship. 

The scandal is that there are too few merit scholarships for the number of deserving students.   Instead of ending merit aid, as many colleges are threatening to do, merit and need scholarships should be expanded and athletic scholarships should be completely eliminated.   

Another scandal is that too many talented high school students in poor school districts do not get the same opportunities to learn and excel that the kids in richer school districts and independent private schools get.  Universities would do more for fairness if they used their enormous resources to make access to educational opportunity available to all children.

And yet another scandal is the fact that too many high school students end up going to college when instead they should be in vocational or career training.  While 70% of all high school graduates go to college, a far lower percentage of all jobs require a four-year college education.  That great disconnect leads to college graduation rates of about 50% and a whole lot of young people with a lot of debt and nothing to show for it.

And how about the large number of places reserved for legacies and athletes? A study a few years ago showed that both these groups get bigger breaks on their SAT scores than minorities do. There’s something scandalous when my son’s truly brilliant chess buddy complains that legacies hold back the class and impede his education at one of America’s very most prestigious universities.

Yes, there’s a lot to fix in higher education, and not just in the process by which high school seniors are selected.  I don’t think that ending merit scholarships to deserving kids belongs on higher education’s agenda for change, and it befuddles me why media outlets like the Times want to keep it there. 

In youth chess, my son learned that there is nothing wrong about giving a trophy to the winner, but that it is unfair if a deserving kid doesn’t have a chance to compete. That’s the real problem for higher education, and one that not just colleges, but school districts and all levels of government should seek to solve.

Why is all the talk about cutting payments to the poor and elderly? How about cutting defense?

So far, the mainstream news media and the Conservative propaganda machine both agree that the payments to the poor and elderly should be the focus of public discussions of a deal to cut government spending to go along with the almost certain increase in taxes on the ultra-wealthy and wealthy.

That may be changing now that 22 House members from both sides of the aisles announced that military spending should be part of the deal to avoid the fiscal cliff.

The dirty little not-so-secret story of the deficit we face is that military spending and historic tax cuts for the wealthy are what fueled its tremendous increase during the Bush and early Obama years.

Here are some facts I picked up from the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the national lobbying group for the Quakers:

  • Military spending has doubled in the last 10 years, primarily to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • U.S. per capita spending on its military budget has increased by 72 percent since 1998.
  • Military spending accounts for half of all the funds that Congress appropriates every year.
  • The U.S. military budget accounted for nearly 48 percent of global military spending, as of 2010. U.S. presence in the world includes hundreds of military bases in Europe.

After all other wars since World War II, the nation has cut back on military spending and tended to other needs at home. The cut in military spending after the Cold War ended was called the Peace Dividend.  It is most associated with the Clinton years of economic growth and federal deficit reduction. The other thing that Clinton (and before him, Bush I) did was to raise taxes, especially on the more well-off.

That increasing government revenues and spending on people instead of guns grows the economy makes sense for all except the navel-gazers brainwashed by the myth that the market is always right. The tax part is simple: rich folk save their money, whereas the government spends its money and that creates jobs.

Military spending doesn’t re-circulate into the economy creating echoes of additional wealth as much as spending on people does. There is a value in investing in military technology and a lot of technological advances began in the military, but if we put the same research dollars to use on peaceful uses immediately it would make our research much more efficient. Let’s put it this way: Would you rather have our scientists and research engineers working on new bombing systems or a barrier system that keeps the shores protected from the next Sandy or Katrina without harming the environment? That’s an easy call except to the hoard of elected officials and lobbyists who feed at the trough of military contractors.

One thing to keep in mind is that neither party is all that serious about the deficit. It’s just a side show to make sure that we don’t go too far into downward income redistribution. The so-called fiscal cliff leads to a great reduction of the deficit, as government spending is cut and taxes are raised. Even Republicans, however, admit that if we suck too much money out of the economy to pay to the rich folk and foreign banks and governments that own our debt we’ll sink into another depression. So everyone’s a Keynesian, but no one wants to admit it.

The deficit was caused by low taxes on the wealthy and military spending. Those are the places to look for the money to pump into the economy while stabilizing the debt level.

Falling birth rate is not a problem if we embrace immigration and income redistribution

The recent study by the Pew Research Center that found the U.S. birthrate is falling has transformed a lot of economists and economic writers into Chicken Littles, running around the barnyard waving their wings furiously and shouting that “the sky is falling.” Most of the news coverage, e.g., in U.S. News and World Report and Bloomberg Business Week concluded that a falling birth rate is a negative, or made unstated and unsubstantiated assumptions that it is negative.

Having fewer people in the world will mean we use fewer resources and push less CO2 into the environment.  What could be bad about that?

What the economists and pundits fear is that the economy will shrink with fewer people to feed, educate, keep well, herd from place to place and entertain. Fewer children mean a need for fewer pediatricians and toy makers and elementary school teachers. The children become teens and there is suddenly less demand for cars, video games, cosmetics and fashion clothes. And as the new generation ages, more and eventually all industries contract.

Continual increases in productivity and energy efficiency make the problem worse, because when productivity and energy efficiency improve, fewer jobs are required to produce the same amount of products and services.  More people don’t have jobs, which leads to an even smaller economy and enormous social problems.

In other words, the common view is that without population growth the economy and society will decline.

This old time thinking may have worked before we realized we were both polluting the Earth and depleting its resources.  But no more.

To address global warming, we have to reduce our output. Fewer people is a far better way to do it than famine, war or pestilence. True enough, we must slowly move to renewable sources of energy and materials, but even as we do, reducing our population remains one of the best ways to address global warming.

But what to do about the economy that will shrink if the population decreases?

The answer is two-fold: immigration from poorer, less developed nations and income redistribution. If we accept immigrants from poorer, less developed countries they will fill the gap between our current population and the smaller population that would result from no immigration. The population of the world will get smaller, even as ours will stabilize. And while the immigrants will use more energy and resources in the United States than they would have back home, there will still be a net decrease in energy/resource use in the world.

Income redistribution comes into play as we address the growing number of unemployed that results when productivity increases but the population doesn’t. There are several ways to address the social problems inherent in fewer hours of work needed to produce the same amount of goods and services:  working fewer hours to afford the same or a slightly lower standard of living; raising the education level needed for jobs (extending adolescence); reducing the retirement age; free services and goods to the unemployed. All of these actions take money from those who own the means of production in the form of higher wages and benefits or more use of tax policy to distribute income down the ladder. The only way for a humane and decent society to address a falling population is to distribute wealth in a more equitable fashion.

Two of the most fundamental principles of the study of economics are 1) that an economy must always be growing to be healthy and 2) a greater population is the most effective way to achieve that growth.  Economists accept these principles as absolute truth, but they are only starting premises—foundation stones upon which the whole of economic theory is currently constructed.

But just as Einsteinian physics replaced the Newtonian version, so must an economic theory that does not depend upon growth develop.  As long as economists and mass media journalists continue to believe and promulgate that growth is always good we will not come close to learning how to create a world in which our energy and materials footprint is small enough to sustain the human race.