Sunday NY Times loaded with articles that communicate hidden ideology to an unsuspecting public

You ever wonder why Americans so easily follow our leaders into stupid wars or believe such nonsense as it’s uncool to do well in school or be smart?

It’s because hidden in the subtext of what we read, hear and see are a group of ideological assumptions that define how we live and think.  The mass media spoon little messages into the information and entertainment they feed us every day. These messages tell us what to believe or assume that we all believe the same thing:

The free market is best. Private sector solutions are always better than government solutions. All human relationships can be expressed and reduced to buying things. Society is best when we all act in our own self interest and not for the good of the whole. Learning and intellectualism are unappealing in both men and women. The United States is an exceptional country with a special role to lead the world.

We’re hammered with these false ideas day after day, and sometimes we don’t even know it.

Ideological subtext infects breaking news stories, but it drives feature news media, such as celebrity news, business, book reviews, entertainment and sports. Today’s New York Times shows two well-worn but contrasting ways to imbed ideology into feature articles.

In his weekly chess article, Dylan Loeb McClain reports on a Canadian TV show, “Endgame,” about a former world chess champion who never leaves his luxury hotel suite because he suffers from agoraphobia, which means he is afraid to be in wide-open spaces, crowds, and uncontrollable social situations such as shopping malls, airports, and on bridges.

Here we go again: a genius with severe emotional or relationship problems, unable to adjust, weird, unappealing, a nerd!!!

McClain, who has been doing a good job of telling the public about an exciting new generation of chess players like Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, did not have to do a story on this foreign TV show, which was never popular and was cancelled after one season.  He chose to do the story, which means that he chose to perpetuate the myth that chess players are strange beasts.

Yes, Bobby Fischer, probably the greatest chess player of all time, was a nutcase.  But Lasker, Euwe, Botvinnik, Karpov, Kasparov and most other world champs have been pretty normal people.  I have hung around chess circles all my life and known hundreds of chess players.  And some of them have been socially or emotionally off-balanced. Yet, it’s about the same as the percentage of nuts whom I have encountered among Scrabble players, poets, baseball and softball players, public relations professionals and boards of synagogues, social service agencies and other charitable organizations.

McClain’s completely nonjudgmental article focuses on how “Endgame” tries to get the chess right.  But as a promoter of chess, McClain should care more about getting the image of chess right. Based on knowing hundreds of chess players, here’s the accurate image of the typical great chess player: a young man who does well in school, is a great athlete and has lots of friends of both sexes. That describes about 15 of the top 18-20 teenage chess players in the Pittsburgh area when my son was playing.

What we have then is one of the most important promoters of the game most associated with intelligence and intellectualism accepting as a given the premise that chess players are weird.

Now let’s turn to one of the cover stories of today’s Book Review in which Jonathan Freedland proves once again that the Times book section is always interested in airing the full spectrum of opinion from right-of-center to right-of-center.

Freedland reviews new books on contemporary American geopolitics by Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and policy wonk Robert Kagan. The premise of the review, as lifted in a quote made large in the wide outside margin of the page, is that “Brzezinski from the left and Kagan from the right agree that America should remain dominant.”

The first distortion is to label Brzezinski as a leftist.  When he first appeared in the public imagination in the mid-70’s, it was as a centrist wanting to continue to normalize relations with China and the Soviet Union and interested in pursuing the business interests of large U.S. based multinational corporations.  His views on Israel and the Middle East seem right of center to me.  Kagan’s own views, as expressed in his new book, have been endorsed by President Obama, the avatar of right-of-center internationalism. Kagan may be to the right of Brzezinski but only by a hair or two.

After setting up the false dichotomy between left and right by portraying one center-rightist as a leftist and another as a rightist, Freedland expresses surprise to learn “how much they agree with each other, especially on what matters.” Of course they agree with each other. They both belong in the Jack Kennedy-Scoop Jackson-Richard Nixon-Bill Clinton school of right-looking centrists on international matters.

This school, and American government officials and policy wonks in general, always feel the need to justify American imperial power plays abroad by placing the United States on the twin moral pedestals of pursuing democracy and free market capitalism.  No wonder, then, that Kagan is able to write that “The two authors agree that it’s in everyone’s interest, not just America’s, for the United States to remain dominant.”

These two distinguished authors may say it and Kagan may repeat it, but it’s little more than a pretty fiction that our leaders have been telling us, and themselves, for decades. I’m not questioning the need for the United States to remain dominant for the benefit of U.S. multinationals and their political and academic factotums to thrive. And with economic and military dominance, it will be easier for these ruling elites to keep most of the rest of us satisfied with the crumbs from their tables.

What I object to is the false statement that U.S. dominance will be good for the rest of the world.  It’s self-serving jingoism, and it’s based on the ideology of American exceptionalism.  Like McClain’s covert (and perhaps unknowing) advocacy of anti-intellectualism, Freedland embeds the ideology of exceptionalism into his article by accepting it as an undeniable premise.


Payoff of fuel efficient cars depends on how you jigger the numbers

Hybrids and other fuel efficient cars tend to cost more than comparable cars without the hybrid battery or other fuel-efficient technology. The natural question from the economic point of view is how long until the breakeven point? How many gallons of gasoline do I have to pump into the hybrid until the cost savings of getting more miles per gallon equals the increased cost to purchase the car?

Nick Bunkley proposed and answered the question for 18 fuel efficient cars in an article titled “Payoff for Efficient Cars Takes Years,” which started on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times business section and continued for almost a full page inside, including chart and photos.

From the Ford Fiesta SFE, which you must run for almost 27 years to break even with the traditional Fiesta to the Jetta TDI, which breaks even in 1.1 years over the traditional Jetta, it takes a while for the money savings to kick in from driving any fuel efficient car, no matter what the technology.

The problem is, Bunkley, like virtually every other economics writer, forgets about a lot of the costs. They only look at the costs that the owner of the car pays directly, and not at the indirect costs that all of society—including the owner—pay, or in this case don’t pay.

These social costs include:

  • The cost of increased respiratory and related illnesses because of the additional pollution.
  • The cost in damaged property from the greater increase in extreme weather events that global warming will bring.
  • Any costs to remediate the environmental damage directly resulting from car emissions e.g., cleaning buildings and streets.
  • The cost of military expenditures to protect gas supplies. Years ago an economist for CNG Pipeline named Mendel Yoho told me that if we added the additional cost of our military expenditures over those of Europe and added that to the price of gasoline that we would be paying about what Europeans pay for their gas.

With the great advances in digital technology and computational software, we can pretty much accurately assess each gallon of gas its share of these social costs. Adding social costs to the current price of gasoline would yield a “real” price of gasoline, which would be much higher, meaning that the payoff of switching to the more fuel efficient car would come more quickly.

We shouldn’t heap too much blame on Mr. Bunkley, who is merely taking a conventional approach.

In general, free-market economists and their popularizers frown upon the concept of social costs. They don’t like the idea of taxing companies and individuals for the social cost of a product or service, for several reasons. On the simplest level, any tax represents constraint on the market. The implication of a tax to assess social costs is that the government is intervening in the economy and society, either by using the money to address the social cost or by redistributing the tax to the population through lower other taxes.

This particular line of reasoning falls within the consistent position of Republicans for decades: no taxes and no redistribution of wealth (which in this case would be from polluters to everyone).

Did Bunkley think about including something about social costs saved by driving fuel-efficient cars and reject the idea? Probably not, because from health care to pollution controls to raising tuition to public universities, economics writings never focus on the cost to society, only to individuals.

And let‘s face it, an article with a list of 36 cars for sale is really about buying stuff. Bunkley is analyzing one of the criteria of purchase. I can imagine the car salesman saying, “The Civic Hybrid may have a cool color and great pick-up, but it’ll take you 12.1 years to break even, while it only takes you 4.4 years if you buy a Lexus HS 250h!”

At the end of the day, whatever one you buy, you’re buying a car, which is about the best thing anyone can do to support our suburbs-and-car-centered consumer society. Never mind that you will pollute the atmosphere to some degree, unless you’re running on solar or wind.

I’d like to see someone do an analysis, with and without social costs, of the breakeven point of building and riding mass transit.

A round of wedgies for Supreme Court, pro-gun extremists, Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum and others

Reading the news online this morning made me so angry that I wanted to hurt someone. Actually I wanted to hurt a bunch of people.

But since I’m a left-listing pacifist, I don’t really want to injure anyone or make them experience extreme pain. Maybe just make them feel a little discomfort and a whole lot of shame for what they’ve done.

In other words, I want to give them an OpEdgie Wedgie.

For my readers who may not be familiar with American youth culture or are not native speakers of the American version of English: Merriam-Webster’s defines wedgie as “the condition of having one’s clothing wedged between the buttocks usually from having one’s pants or underpants yanked up from behind as a prank.”

Perusing the news about the latest mass murder on a college campus—the killing of 7 at tiny Oikos University in Oakland, California, makes me want to give an OpEdgie Wedgie to anyone who has ever voted for or advocated allowing people other than law enforcement officers to carry guns or bullets on college campuses.

And I’d like to give an OpEdgie Wedgie to Supreme Court Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy for voting that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor, before admitting them to jails even if the officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband. My wild-running imagination wants these particular operations to leave an imprint of a swastika or hammer & sickle.

And let’s give an OpEdgie Wedgie to whoever in Obama’s Drug Enforcement Administration was involved in the decision to raid Oaksterdam University, a private school that trains people how to grow, package, retail, cook with and sell medical marijuana. Oaksterdam U. is located in California, where use of medical marijuana is legal. The raid represents the sheer stupidity of our drug laws as they apply to a relatively harmless substance that many people use to alleviate pain, subdue anxiety, counteract the nausea of chemotherapy or fight the effects of glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum deserves an OpEdgie Wedgie every day, just for being Rick Santorum. He really deserves three or four OpEdgie Wedgies a day, one for his constant use of racial code phrases, one for implying that African-Americans are the primary recipients of government assistance to the poor, one for wanting to inflict his moral values and religious beliefs on the rest of America and one for pretending to advocate for the working class while all along working for the ultra-wealthy.

Mitt Romney deserves a daily OpEdgie Wedgie for hypocrisy and a thirst for power that will make him say or do anything.

And while we’re at it, let’s give a daily dose of the OpEdgie Wedgie to Paul Ryan for saying his budget plan will end the federal deficit by closing tax loopholes, but never telling us which loopholes he will close. For details, see Paul Krugman’s article earlier this week titled “Pink Slime Economics.”

Speaking of pink slime, let’s give a pink OpEdgie Wedgie to the manufacturers of this concoction of ground-up meat parts for claiming pink slime is all beef, forgetting to mention that the beef to which they refer includes connective tissue, cartilage and fat. They also forget that it’s not the beef we care about, but the fact that it’s been marinated in ammonia.

I have never gotten or given a wedgie, so until this moment, I never realized what a great release of pent-up aggression one can experience from pulling up someone else’s shorts, even if done only in the head. I feel much better. Relaxed, almost glowing.

All I have to do now is shut the news out and I think I’ll be okay.

Take a look around and everywhere you’ll see the benefits of government to businesses and people

Yesterday I took a local Metro North train from White Plains, where I had been meeting with a client, back to Manhattan, where we’re staying for a few days. The train was crowded and along the way I saw people get on and off, riding from one Westchester County suburb to another. At the Fordham stop in the city, a bunch of college students boarded. I saw many like me carrying briefcases and dressed for the business world. Others were clearly bound for a cultural attraction or to do some shopping.   

What I also saw was government providing low-cost transportation to people of all social classes and helping to address both traffic and environmental problems.

Along the way, we went over bridges and saw other bridges, filled with automobiles. We saw roads and when we could see streets, they were mostly clean.  Government built those roads and bridges and maintains them.

In the evening, we took the government owned and operated clean and safe subway to Carnegie Hall to see Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony do a magnificent concert of 20th century classical music. In the program notes I discovered that Carnegie Hall presents a wide range of music and other cultural activities, something for everyone. The program also lists all the donors that have contributed at least $2,500 in the past year to what is perhaps America’s most famous concert hall. But it also tells us who owns and operates Carnegie Hall. Guess what! It’s the City of New York.

At the concert, we spoke briefly with an older woman whose clothing and jewelry told us that she is fairly well-off. This very pleasant and enthusiastic woman most assuredly receives her medical services at low cost through Medicare. She likely collects Social Security, as well.

Earlier that day I had lunch with a cousin who lives in the tiny Scarsdale suburb about one of her children who has a learning disability. The boy goes to a public school and gets special attention and classes. I also spoke on the phone and made plans to see another cousin, who is a magnificent school librarian, a real pro with a special charisma who knows how to engage children of all levels of development. And yes, she works at a New York City public school. And then I remembered what a great education I received from the New York City schools (until my family left in 10th grade), highlighted by the opportunity to attend Stuyvesant High School, a high school for the gifted with wonderful laboratories and other facilities.

Everywhere I looked I saw government making our lives better: protecting us, keeping our streets maintained and clean, taking us places, educating our children, making it possible for businesses to exist, keeping us healthy, providing a stable retirement program for all workers.

And it’s all threatened by more than 30 years of low taxes and cuts to government services, fueled by the political mentality that I call Reaganism. The two central beliefs of this mentality propose that individuals should only care about their own selfish interests and that the government is always bad (except for fighting wars). This regime of tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy and ultra-wealthy and underinvest in our civilization has led to a dire situation:

  • School budgets are being cut in New York and everywhere else. In many schools, art lessons, music education and other non-core classes have been slashed and classes are too large.
  • State governments are retreating from their long-term commitment to state supported universities and colleges. In the late 60s and early 70s, my tuition (paid for by a state of Wisconsin “Leadership and Need” scholarship) was $175 a semester to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus and learn from many inspiring scholars such as Davy Carozza, Corliss Philabaum and Ihab Hussan. Enough said there.
  • More than 30 years of inadequate investment and maintenance have left our infrastructure of roads and bridges in a sorry state. We’ve seen bridges crumble and potholes seemingly multiply like rabbits. Of course, when we let roads deteriorate because taxes are too low, individuals end up paying more on tires, brakes, gas and realignments.
  • In New York, mass transit cuts appear to be an irritant only, but in many other places such as Pittsburgh, transit cuts are hurting many people.

It’s no coincidence that residents of the New York City metropolitan area pay some of the highest tax rates in the country. They enjoy so many services.

Government is not perfect. Government comprises people, and people make mistakes. Large groups are sometimes slow to identify and react to new challenges, which can lead to an inefficient use of funds. Bureaucracies can be infuriating. Leaders can sometimes lead government entities down the wrong path, as with the Bush II wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or Truman’s decision to pursue nuclear-generated electricity instead of solar power in the early 50s.

It sounds just like every company for which I ever worked, all of my clients and my own small business.

And don’t believe the nonsense that raising taxes hurts the economy and leads to layoffs. As the estimable Eduardo Porter pointed out in The New York Times earlier this week, a growing body of research suggests not only that the government could raise much more revenue by sharply raising the top tax rates paid by the richest Americans, but it could do so without slowing economic growth. Top tax rates could go as high as 80 percent or more.”

So the next time you consider voting for anyone who wants to maintain taxes or lower them still further, look around you and see what government does for you and the community in which you live and the economy that provides your income. Think about how much better things could be if government had the money to improve these services. And remember that the more money you make, the more valuable to you are the government services that make it possible. Now in my mind, when you get more, you pay more.

No class warfare here, just the realization that we’re all in this thing called the United States together and that everyone should give their fair share so that our society and all of us can thrive.

Anti-global warming professor may or may not know physics, but he sure knows propaganda

William Happer, a physicist at Princeton who specializes in optics and spectroscopy (study of wavelengths), authored an anti-global warming screed in this morning’s Wall Street Journal which could serve as a primer for propaganda techniques. The article pretends to prove the veracity of the its title “Global Warming Models Are Wrong Again,” but careful analysis reveals his arguments are built more on rhetorical tricks than on facts.
Whatever the quality of Happer’s scientific research, he is a superb propagandist. But when we pick apart some of the statements and assertions that Happer makes in this hapless article, we find he primarily uses propaganda techniques and not facts or logic to make his case. In the bullets below, Happer’s quotes are in italics:
  • What is happening to global temperatures in reality? The answer is: almost nothing for more than 10 years.” What Happer does is take a meaningless slice of time for climate change. If he looked at 200 years of data, he would see that the world is getting warmer. Making the last 10 years as the length of time in which to measure global warming uses a technique I call FRAMING, which occurs when you define a problem to get the answer you want.
  • “CO2 is not a pollutant. Life on earth flourished for hundreds of millions of years at much higher CO2 levels than we see today. Increasing CO2 levels will be a net benefit because cultivated plants grow better and are more resistant to drought at higher CO2 levels, and because warming and other supposedly harmful effects of CO2 have been greatly exaggerated. Nations with affordable energy from fossil fuels are more prosperous and healthy than those without.” Let’s forget the fact that the life that existed on earth with much higher levels of CO2 than today didn’t include humans or other large mammals. Let’s focus instead on the end of this paragraph, which is a NON SEQUITUR (which loosely means that it makes no sense or that A doesn’t really prove B): Although fossil fuels release CO2 that does not mean that you can disprove the theory that too much CO2 harms the Earth; it only means that cheap energy is necessary for nations to thrive.
  • “The direct warming due to doubling CO2 levels in the atmosphere can be calculated to cause a warming of about one degree Celsius. The IPCC computer models predict a much larger warming, three degrees Celsius or even more, because they assume changes in water vapor or clouds that supposedly amplify the direct warming from CO2. Many lines of observational evidence suggest that this “positive feedback” also has been greatly exaggerated.” Note that Happer gives attribution for a computer model that predicts global warming, but does not tell which studies or computer simulations disprove it. He uses the passive construction to AVOID ATTRIBUTION. If he changed the passive “can be calculated to cause…” to an active tense, “XYZ calculates,” grammar would force him to tell us who did the calculations. Many lines of observational evidence…,” begs the question, “Which lines?” and also avoids telling us who is following, making or observing these “lines.” If you believe in this research, sir, tell us who did it? But if Happer told us who did this so-called research he cites, we might find that it’s shoddy, has already been discounted, makes framing mistakes, was done by non-scientists or isn’t really research. We don’t really know unless Happer offers the citations.
  • “But there is no hard evidence this is true. After an unusually cold winter in 2011 (December 2010-February 2011) the winter of 2012 was unusually warm in the continental United States. But the winter of 2012 was bitter in Europe, Asia and Alaska.” Happer is ARGUING BY ANECDOTE. The argument by anecdote provides examples and assumes that we will extrapolate from those examples to the conclusion the writer or speaker wants us to draw. Happer talks about what has happened over the course of two years, when global warming is a process that has occurred over many decades; in this context, two years are only anecdotes, not statistically valid data.
  • “Nightly television pictures of the tragic destruction from tornadoes over the past months might make one wonder if the frequency of tornadoes is increasing, perhaps due to the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. But as one can read at Andrew Revkin’s New York Times blog, dotearth, ‘There is no evidence of any trend in the number of potent tornadoes (category F2 and up) over the past 50 years in the United States, even as global temperatures have risen markedly.'” The sentences I quote are the beginning of a multi-paragraph argument in which Happer proves without a doubt that the number of tornadoes have not increased in the United States (he never mentions the rest of the world). But who is saying it? I googled “tornadoes global warming” and could only come up with articles in which experts say that there has not been an increase in tornadoes. I could come up with articles in which experts say that there has not been an increase in tornadoes. I could come up with no article in which a scientist or a group has said that tornadoes have increased (except for a speculating weather personality or two trying to spice up coverage of a tornado). What Happer has done is set up a STRAW MAN, which means he creates an argument which is easy to destroy and then destroys it. And once again, he bases his argument on a NON SEQUITUR. He wants us to believe that just because there has not been an increase in tornadoes that there has been no global warming, nor damage from same. His reasoning is absurd, even if it builds on the idea that global warming will create more extreme weather. Extreme weather includes a lot more than tornadoes. I sense (but don’t know for a fact) that he selects tornadoes to discuss for precisely this reason, another example of FRAMING the argument to get the conclusion you want. Reduced to rhetorical principles, Happer frames the argument, then destroys a straw man, all so he can make a statement that’s a non sequitur.
Happer ends by invoking the sainted Richard Feynman on scientific research in general. He then closes with, “The most important component of climate science is careful, long-term observations of climate-related phenomena, from space, from land, and in the oceans. If observations do not support code predictions – like more extreme weather, or rapidly rising global temperatures – Feynman has told us what conclusions to draw about the theory.” If you only skim these last two paragraphs, you might come to the conclusion that Feynman, one of the most important physicists since Einstein, is against global warming. But all Feynman is saying is that science is based on facts.
Note that in this last paragraph, all Happer is really stating is that we should judge the theory of global warming on facts and if the facts aren’t there, the theory is wrong. His rhetoric avoids a direct statement about global warming. Some might call it a rhetorical flourish: the writer puts down the facts and we make the conclusion, a kind of 1+1=2 (or in the case of the implication that Happer wants us to draw, 1+1=3!).
But I think Happer is using this rhetorical device to avoid speaking directly, because he knows the facts are against him.

Atheist march reminds that in our secular society there shouldn’t be polarization between believers and nonbelievers

Yesterday’s rally of atheists, agnostics and others who don’t believe in religion had a flavor of liberation politics. The tone of the language reported across the country and around the world resembled the kind of pleas for recognition that people of color, gays, women, Hispanics, people with disabilities, Moslems and other groups seeking their rights in society have issued through the years.

Sample these comments by speakers:

  • “There are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists, secularists or agnostics,” said Richard Dawkins, the British scientist whose ventures into pop science have unfortunately led to his misleading anthropomorphizing of chemicals in the body (i.e., he attributes emotions and goals to genetic material).
  • “These are battles that homosexuals have won, people of color have won, women have won,” said Jamila Bey, who claims to have once lost a job when her boss learned she was an atheist.
  • “We have the numbers to be taken seriously,” said Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry, which promotes the scientific method and reasoning and helped organize the rally.
  • “Coming here makes me feel less alone,” said 13-year-old Catherine Williams, who attends a small conservative private school and is reported to have said that it can be uncomfortable because many of her classmates are vocal about their religious beliefs.

While discrimination against atheists for their beliefs may exist, lumping non-believers together as just another interest group may ultimately have a negative impact on achieving the goals that brought together the 20 groups and 15,000 people who rallied yesterday.

Here’s why: The social right-wing always pose religious issues as a battle between good and evil and the rest of the country hears it as a battle between two competing special interest groups, for example, women versus the Catholic Church. For both the right and the mainstream, religiously-tinged issues—contraception, abortion, gay marriage, crèches in public, religious groups in public schools and the teaching of evolution—are characterized as battles between two sides. Identifying a new special interest group—nonbelievers—intensifies this tendency towards polarization.

And yet the Constitution is clear: there should be an absolute separation of church and state and all individuals should have the right to practice his or her own religion, assuming it doesn’t break the basic laws of the land, e.g., mutilation of children or marrying more than one wife. By presenting themselves as an oppressed group, nonbelievers buy into the “us versus them” mentality created by the opposition of special interests. The media and society then both take it upon themselves to “balance the needs” of the competing groups, when in fact there should not be a competition or a balancing at all, since we are officially a secular country.

In short, by assuming the mantle of a special interest group, nonbelievers turn the story into a battle between atheists and the God-fearing. That plays right into the hands of social conservatives. The issue transforms from right-wingers against the Constitution into believers versus nonbelievers.

Instead of pleading for recognition as a group, the rally should have focused more on the key issues which I believe unite all those who don’t believe in religion:

  • National science standards that would insure that we teach science in science classes, while leaving religious theories such as intelligent design for elective comparative religion courses in high school.
  • National environmental, energy and other policies that are determined and implemented based on scientific studies.
  • Standards of conduct that would ensure that proselytization of one religion never again becomes the unofficial policy of a branch of the armed services as it did to a certain extent in the Air Force for years.

These policy issues, by the way, should unite atheists, agnostics and secularists with most Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Animists, Pantheists, Wiccans and all brands of Christians. In an open society all religious groups can thrive, as none are either oppressed or treated with any special deference.  Let’s focus our efforts on keeping our society as open as it is and opening it more. We don’t do it by conceptualizing oppressed groups. That only helps the right-wing legitimize itself and feeds the news media’s predilection to polarize instead of analyze. Instead, I urge nonbelievers to put their energies into the issues.

I’m not saying that nonbelievers shouldn’t organize, only that they should organize around issues and thus avoid becoming the “counter-balance” to believers.

Paul Starr’s Remedy and Reaction offers insightful review of the history of U.S. health care reform

With the Supreme Court considering multiple challenges to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 next week, OpEdge readers might want to delve into the long-term history of health care reform in the United States. If so, there is no better place to go than Paul Starr’s recent Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar Struggle over Health Care Reform, which traces health care reform from the earliest proposals for government-sponsored health insurance just before and during World War I.

Starr is without a doubt the guy to tackle the subject. Since its 1984 publication, his Social Transformation of American Medicine has become established not just as the seminal work in the narrow field of health care, but as one of the very most important books of American social history. Since then, Starr has taught, conducted historical research into both health care and the media and served as a senior health care advisor for Bill Clinton. He is co-editor of The American Prospect.

Here are some of the insights that I gleaned from reading Remedy and Reaction:

A lost golden moment

There was a golden moment when all the stars were aligned for a major overall of the healthcare system which would have ensured that virtually every American had healthcare insurance. Both Republicans and Democrats pretty much agreed on what to do, the various constituencies such as insurers, physicians and the public were either on board or not opposed and the president in charge supported the idea and knew how to get things done. Unfortunately, the president was Richard Nixon and a potentially watershed moment drowned in the Watergate scandal.

Mitt Romney’s important role

Starr documents that the Affordable Care Act is profoundly the child of the successful Massachusetts plan that Governor Mitt Romney competently shepherded to passage and then efficiently implemented. The federal plan is derived from the same philosophy and using pretty much the same set of strategies and tactics as the Massachusetts plan.  Starr also points out that Romney did not talk about healthcare reform during his gubernatorial campaign, but once in office he rolled up his sleeves and displayed enormous competence. Starr doesn’t say it, but I will: the Romney disavowal of his landmark accomplishment strongly suggests that Mitt is a value-free technocrat whose idea of being in charge is to implement competently the desires of his backers, whatever that means. By repudiating his own good works, Romney transforms himself from a major statesman to the ethical equivalent of an Albert Speer, that wonderfully brilliant architect and thinker who dedicated himself to accomplishing the will of his backers.

Not a socialist plot

Starr shows that the basic philosophy behind Obama’s plan from the beginning has been to cover more people and cut the cost of coverage while taking a pragmatic approach that does not profoundly upset the current complicated system that mixes public and private solutions and funding sources. Its dependence on private insurance and patient cost sharing derive from Republican ideas. So is the idea of not creating a “public option,” but instead establishing insurance exchanges, which are marketplaces for insurance for those not covered by government programs or their employers.

Like all compromises, there is something for everyone to hate and love about the Affordable Care Act. But Starr, who would probably have preferred a more European style system, brings up a stunning fact that should win the day with many centrists and progressives: The impact over Obama’s healthcare reform over 10 years will be to increase total healthcare costs in the United States by a worst-case 1 percent, while providing coverage to 32 million more people, or a little over 10% of the American population. By that math, the cost per person for health care goes down, which means that by applying some quick fixes to the current system, we cover many more people and at a lower cost.

It’s an imperfect law that doesn’t address all the challenges of perfecting an imperfect system, but it is nevertheless landmark legislation. Let’s hope the most right-wing Supreme Court since the Dred Scott days agrees.

For Mitt Romney, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to win

The core of Romney’s big speech in Chicago yesterday was his accusation that the Obama Administration has pursued “an assault on freedom” with new business regulations and higher taxes.

The expression freedom is bandied about a lot, especially by Republicans bewailing its imminent loss—economic freedom, personal freedom, religious freedom. But what about freedom from breathing dirty air? The freedom from hunger? The freedom from economic insecurity? The freedom from disease?

We can pose both sides of most issues as a test of freedom. In the days of the civil rights movement, it was the freedom to sit in a restaurant versus the freedom to deny service in a business establishment.  The current flap about contraception pits the freedom of women versus the freedom of a religion to discriminate against women.

Of course, the more we apply the word “freedom,” the more it loses all meaning. And that’s the point!

The value of any word to a propagandist or ideologue increases as the meaning of the word becomes more amorphous, harder to pin down.  And there is no more amorphous word than freedom.

The first definition of freedom in Merriam-Webster’s is “the quality or state of being free: the quality or state of not being coerced or constrained by fate, necessity, or circumstances in one’s choices or actions.” The entry, however, goes on for many paragraphs and gives many different meanings to the word. The synonyms for freedom, some contradictory, suggest how easy it is for propagandists to find a meaning to fit the moment: “self-determination,” “independence,” “liberty,” “facility,” “ease”,” right,” “privilege,” “franchise,” and even “generosity” (which is not the essence of the freedom from taxation that Romney would like America’s wealthiest to continue enjoying).  Then there’s Kris Kristofferson’s definition, made famous by Janis Joplin: another word for nothing left to lose.

One anecdote on the use of freedom outside the political realm should illuminate the power of words that lose meaning. A few years ago at a family Bat Mitzvah in California, the rabbi performing the service said in his sermon that “Torah is freedom. The more Torah, the more freedom.”

It was of course, a completely false statement. The Torah, which comprises the first five books of the Jewish Bible, does include many well-loved biblical stories and all of the ones told by Jews, Christians and Moslems alike. But the Torah is primarily a book of laws, 613 to be precise, whose purpose is to restrain the behavior of people, i.e., take away their freedom.  Thou shall not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. These are the birds you should regard as unclean. According to the Jewish tradition, the Torah is the source for every Jewish law, even those not mentioned in it. That includes all the laws that take away freedoms related to eating, traveling and mixing the sexes in social situations.

These laws take freedom away from people. The more Torah, the less freedom. And yet so many of the congregants smiled in agreement when the rabbi equated a book of mostly proscriptive laws with freedom.

Whether he knew it or not, the rabbi was using yet another definition of freedom. Freedom is also that feeling of supreme exhilaration and limitless power that people describe as “feeling free.” I remember when I was much younger and religious, I would sometimes read the Torah and get a sudden feeling of being free, like the feeling when I used to take my feet off the pedals and glide my bicycle down a steep hill, or the feeling when I quit one job for another one that paid 36% more. Many TV commercials will say their products help attain this “feeling of freedom.”

From kindergarten on, we are indoctrinated to the importance of freedom and “the feeling of freedom” at school and in the mass media. We are taught that the United States was founded to promote freedom (at the time, of course, only for white adult males who owned property) and that the United States is a beacon of freedom to the world. One of the major themes in our history is the gradual spread of freedom through increased freedom for our citizens and in the foreign lands that the myth says we have saved. We claim that every war we fight is to protect our freedom or the freedom of the people whose land we are invading, or both.  Thinking about American freedom can swell the chests of many of us with an almost swooning pride. We have learned to feel the “freedom feeling” whenever we consider our history, culture and laws.

It is this definition of freedom—this feeling—to which Romney appeals when he talks about economic freedom. When he says the policies of his party will increase freedom, he wants people’s hearts to swell with the feeling of freedom and then recoil with the fear at the thought of lost freedom because of environmental regulation, healthcare reform or raising taxes on the wealthy. He never mentions that his tax freedom results in less money for society to help people be free from disease, from ignorance, from hunger, from the helplessness of old age and from the frustration of poverty. He never mentions that his freedom from regulation makes people less free from business scams, unsafe products, dirty air and infectious water.

Many philosophers believe that the essence of civilization is restraint. Learning restraint—limiting your freedom for your future good, the good of others or the common good—is at the heart of the process of growing up from infancy into a mature member of society.

Romney and the rest of the Republicans don’t really want absolute freedom in the economic realm. They just believe that our laws should protect the rights of individuals and organizations to do as they please (outside the sexual realm) as opposed to protecting the rights of people to have the basic human dignities of food, health care, education and the opportunity to make a living and improve their lot. Those who say that unfettered economic freedom enables more people to enjoy all the other freedoms are merely expressing their beliefs, which they constantly and inaccurately present as a fact-based theory. History, however, is filled of examples of how taking away an economic freedom—the freedom to hire children, the freedom to dump toxic chemicals into rivers, the freedom to charge what you like because you have a monopoly, the freedom to pay someone less than minimum wage or the freedom to prevent union organizing—has improved society and helped the economy.  It’s one set of rights versus another.  We can also call them freedoms, but  once we do, the concept of freedom loses its meaning.

In the realm of political campaigning, “freedom” has become something one accuses the opponent of not loving/having/protecting/cherishing. With name-calling, we say, “you’re this,” but freedom in the Republican’s sense is conjured only in its absence as a characteristic. Saying the opponent or the idea is against freedom is a highly sophisticated form of name-calling, dependent not just on conflating different concepts of freedom, but also on a body of unproved assertions and an almost autonomic emotional reaction.

But emotions aside, keep it in mind that when Romney says the election is about freedom, he means the freedom of the economic and social class he represents to continue pulling more and more wealth from everyone else through continued low taxes for themselves and low wages and declining government benefits for everyone else.

According to Mickey D’s, the hot spot for octogenarians to hook up for romance is Mickey D’s

For the first time ever, the fast food version of Siva the Destroyer, AKA McDonald’s, is going after senior citizens—and I don’t mean newly AARPed 50-year-olds, but those in their late 70s and early 80s.

I saw this commercial for the first time during one of the many breaks during the last two minutes of an NCAA tournament game this past weekend.

The commercial unfolds as a series of vignettes, with quick fade-outs and fade-ins to tell us that it’s another day of the week. In each vignette, the same two elderly gentlemen—one bald–stare at what a former employee of mine once called a “senior babe,” an extremely attractive woman in her late 60s or early 70s. They make juvenile comments about how the bald one wants to go over and try to meet her. As far as attracting the attention of unknown members of the opposite sex goes, these guys don’t seem as if they’re out of practice, but rather as if they never really were in practice.

In every vignette, the would-be lover, his intended and the friend are drinking coffee or a special McDonald’s coffee drink—you know, sweetened coffee topped with a pyramid of white whipped froth consisting of corn syrup and dairy products, topped by a few rivulets of a thicker, less airy corn syrup tinted with food coloring and a roux of natural and artificial flavorings. They’re called McCafé drinks.

In the last vignette the potential suitor arrives at the table wearing an awful fitting toupee which transforms him into a pathetic clown. Meanwhile a bearded man, looking slightly younger and spryer than the toupéed jester, approaches the senior babe.  Brandishing his McCafé drink as a peacock shows his tail, he asks if he can sit at her table. Her eyes light up and they begin an animated conversation. We cut back to the two oldest adolescent males in the jungle. The friend says the would-be lothario should have put the wig on his chin instead of his head. Before the McDonald’s music and logo, the scorned lover mugs pathetically with the toupee in a way that made me feel embarrassed for and angry at the guy at the same time.

What do we learn from this commercial?

We learn that senior centers, libraries, venues for volunteer activities, dances, houses of worship and family gatherings are not the best places to meet women when you are of a certain age. Instead, you have to hang at Mickey D’s on a regular basis. Of course, that’s a completely false impression. True enough, there must be groups of seniors who use McDonald’s to meet and schmooze once a week, or maybe every day. But what happens in this commercial is slightly different. It’s hanging at Mickey D’s to hook up. And what I’m saying is that the scene rings more false than cute because there are so many better places for seniors to meet and match nowadays.

We also learn in this commercial that the relationship marketplace for straight men in their 70s and 80s is pretty grim. In a turnaround of Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” (to which these characters would have probably danced decades ago), it’s three boys for every girl. Of course, that’s false, too. Death and illness give men the numbers advantage when it comes to late-in-life love. The older the age group, the more eligible women there are per eligible man. Neither Target nor Wal-Mart would ever commit such a demographic sin in one of their commercials. When they depict a demographic group in an ad, everything is right in every detail.

Target and Wal-Mart would also never make mean fun of its customers, although they both will “make fun with” their customers, as McDonald’s has also done through the years. “Making fun with” includes such scenes as the wife letting the husband think he’s making the buying decision; the couple arguing about what to do with the savings they have from buying something; the kids trying to use smart phone technology to trick dad into buying more treats. These are gentle teases which affirm the attractiveness of the target audiences. But depicting an octogenarian as an infantilized Pagliacci is inherently insulting to the characters and by implication to the demographic they represent, which is why the scene seems more uncomfortable than cute, despite the peppy McDonald’s “ba-da-da-da-da” playing brightly in the background.

The irony is that whoever worked on this spot started with the right ideas. McDonald’s strategy to go after senior citizens is a good one, since the original denizens of Big Macs are baby boomers now retiring and aging.

To connect the consumption of a product with an emotion is a staple strategy of advertising, one that McDonald’s has pursued with a vengeance for decades, especially in spots featuring African-Americans and young adults. And as we have seen in many McDonald’s spots through the years, what better emotion can there be than romantic attraction? Moreover, one unifying theme shared by all McDonald’s spots for specialty coffee drinks over the past few years is an attitude best described as hip cuteness, and what could be cuter and hipper at the same time than seniors in love?

On paper, the spot has it all: It connects a product to an emotion, focuses on a target market that is of growing importance, and has thematic and design similarities with other McDonald’s spots that will help enhance the overall brand message that the company tries to make in all of its advertising.

Somewhere along the way, though, these strategies led to the uncomfortable and unrealistic mess we see in the commercial. Because it presents a reality that doesn’t exist and one in which the representative of the target market is humiliated, I’m certain that the commercial will fail with that target market.

But I’m betting it plays well with the enormous youth market for coffee drinks, i.e., the young and slightly unsophisticated who will accept the McCafé drink as a cheaper substitute for a beverage from a real coffee house or that corporate imitation known as Starbucks. The humor is a highly sanitized version of the crude and somewhat humiliating humor of a lot of youth movies. Young men and women can relate to the awkward dilemma of a boy wanting to pick up a girl in a fast food restaurant but being afraid to ask.

And there can be no doubt about it. That’s not Viagra or water from the mythic fountain of youth that the bearded elderly gentleman has in his hand that makes him so attractive to the senior babe. It’s a McCafé! The elixir of love.

Peanut Institute tries to sell its product as a nut to reap benefit of red meat mortality study

This week’s news release by the Peanut Institute uses a common misunderstanding fed by an accident of language to deceive us into thinking that its healthy product is even healthier.

The news release repackages the earlier announcement of the release of a massive study of food consumption and mortality by the Harvard School of Public Health which concludes that eating red meat is associated with a thirteen percent increased risk of death. That means that every time you eat red meat, you lower your life expectancy by increasing your chances of getting cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

As it turns out, nuts are the best food to substitute for meat. The study shows that replacing one serving of red meat with one serving of nuts per week reduces mortality risk by 19%. It’s a 14% reduction for poultry and whole grains; 10% for legumes and low fat dairy; and 7% for fish.

The news release keeps referring to the peanut as a “nut.” Some examples:

  • The headline: “PEANUTS #1 NUT CONSUMED IN US”
  • “Over half the nuts eaten in the US are peanuts…”
  • “According to USDA data, peanuts account for about half of all nuts eaten in the US…”

But wait a minute! Peanuts (or goober peas as Burl Ives used to call them in that folk song) are a legume not a nut, which means they can only claim a 10% edge over red meat, not the 19% reduction of a real nut.

The Peanut Institute finally confesses the truth but not until it gives us quotes from a Harvard professor about the benefits of replacing animal protein with plant protein followed by a paragraph about the fact that eating peanuts and peanut butter can reduce the risk of heart attacks in half, but only eating them five or more times each week.”

Only buried at the very end of the article do we get the fact that peanuts are not nuts, and we get it wrapped in more health claims: “With lots of nut and legume choices (peanuts are, technically, a legume), Americans are increasingly choosing peanuts and peanut butter.” Immediately afterwards, the release immediately calls peanuts a “nut” twice in the following sentence.

There can be no doubt that the Peanut Institute, as a matter of policy, tries to pass the peanut off as a nut because a nut is presented as healthier than legumes in this study.  In a sense, the Peanut Institute hopes to take advantage of people’s ignorance. It’s a strategy that many businesses and politicians seem to be employing in the current era.

The Peanut Institute deception makes little sense: peanuts are quite healthy and the substitution of peanuts for meat in a diet is a good thing, even if eating nuts is better.  Peanuts are a domestic crop, quite inexpensive and have more uses than most nuts.  There are plenty of good stories to tell about the lowly peanut. Why risk alienating people by trying to tell them a not so little white lie?

Both this specific news release and the underlying strategy of mislabeling peanuts are ill advised, not only because they are unethical, but because they can’t possibly work.  That “peanuts are legumes” is one of the “fun facts” that nutrition curricula repeat throughout the grades, like “the tomato is really a fruit” and “carrots are good for your eyes.” In other words, at the first mention of “peanut is a nut,” a large percentage of editors and reporters who see this news release will shout at the paper or computer screen, “Peanuts are legumes, you fool!” Some may use stronger invectives than fool. If the Peanut Institute is lucky, the media will stop reading the release then and there.  Otherwise they will see the Peanut Institute’s weasel-like admission of the truth and recognize that the institute is not dumb, but manipulative. If I were still a reporter, I would never forget the Peanut Institute’s attempt to distort.

The fact of the matter is that there was nothing that the Peanut Institute could have done in a news release to spin the coverage of the story towards peanuts. The media rightfully focused on the central finding, which was that red meat is bad for people to eat, and the more you eat of it, the worse it is for you.

The Peanut Institute would have been much better off if it had contacted reporters and editors with a short statement about what the report might mean for sales of peanuts and other legumes and an offer to arrange an interview with a peanut executive about the link between what you eat and disease, either immediately or in the coming weeks. That might have attracted a follow-up business or health feature story and would have been the appropriate way to try to take advantage of a news story to gain coverage of the organization and product.

As punishment, let’s send Burl Ives and the Georgia Militia after the peanut brains who thought up this mistake of a news release.