NY Times article shows that wealthy get more in tax breaks than poor do in benefits

Bravo to Eduardo Porter for his article titles “A Nation of Too Many Tax Breaks” on the front page of today’s New York Times’ business section.

Porter demonstrates that while the poor do get more in government benefits, the rich more than make up for it in the tax breaks that enable them to reduce the taxes they pay.

At the heart of the article are two sets of bar and circle graphs. One set depicts the average that each family in various quintiles (fifths of the country) get in government benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, housing assistance and food stamps. The other set depicts the amount families in each quintile save on average on what they pay in taxes because of tax breaks.

Just looking at the bar graph is enough to see that when you add up tax breaks and benefits, the wealthy make out like bandits.  We can also see that we give more tax breaks than benefits, so if we ended tax breaks, we could fund the benefits and make a dent in the deficit.

But because Porter never bothers to actually add the totals, we never see the hidden story: the middle class are getting screwed, not by the poor as Santorum, Gingrich and their ilk imply, but by the wealthy.

Here’s the math:

Income by Quintile

Average Benefits

Average Tax Break

Bottom Fifth



2nd Lowest



Middle Fifth



2nd Highest



Highest Fifth





By not adding the totals, Porter misses the fact that the middle class get so little from the deal.  The middle class—those in middle fifth and second highest quintiles–get about 24% less in benefits and tax breaks than the poor do.  But the wealthiest fifth get more than twice as much as the middle class do in benefits and tax breaks, and 80% more than the poor and near poor.

When we look at these numbers, I don’t see how anyone could be angry at the poor. No religion or culture that I have ever encountered ever showed anything but charity for the least fortunate among us, which makes me wonder why anyone lucky enough to be part of the middle two-fifths of the country would begrudge the poor $4,000 a year from the collective resources of the government, especially since the fund is always earmarked for specific needs, such as for food, health care or education, or vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the disabled.

The true target of ire should be the wealthiest fifth, who are better off than everyone else and yet get the lion’s share of the government’s largess.

I’m guessing that anyone in the middle who does the math (or reads OpEdge) will gain more sympathy for the position of the Occupy Movement that posits a class war waged by the wealthiest 1% of the population against everyone else.   Or at least they might if the Occupy Movement could make the transition that the Tea Party movement did and become a party that has positions and supports candidates.

Television commercials enter our cultural pantheon next to Shakespeare and Lincoln

It seems as if it were only yesterday that I first saw the new TV commercial starring Mean Joe Greene, a professional football player from the 1970s. The commercial, for a laundry detergent, parodies a TV spot that Mean Joe did in 1979 that makes all the lists of top 10 or Top 25 American TV commercials of all time.

In the new spot, it’s a housewife, played to soccer-and-bake-sale-mom-next-door perfection by sometimes raunchy comic actress Amy Sedaris. The camera angle exaggerates the difference in size between the characters much more than the original spot did.  The housewife tosses a bottle of the detergent to Mean Joe, dressed in uniform and looking very sharp and buff—for a guy in his mid-60’s.  When Mean Joe lobs his jersey to her, she smells it, makes a disgusted face and throws it right back to him.

A great spoof.

TV commercials have spoofed TV shows, movies and other art forms for decades. And parody sometimes enters into the revival of an old ad concept like Mr. Clean, Joe Isuzu or Charlie the Tuna, which are all cases of a TV commercial imitating itself.

This laundry soap commercial marks the first time, however, that I remember seeing a television commercial that mocks another television commercial for a different product.  (If I’m wrong, please tweet me about it.)

What does it say about our culture when to understand and appreciate a television commercial, you need to know about another television commercial? One that’s 30 years old!

Mass culture chews up images and concepts quickly—be it fictional characters like Robin Hood, Mr. Spock or Jason Bourne; historical figures such as the short Napoleon or Washington crossing the Delaware; sayings like “where’s the beef?” or “I’ll be back”; real incidents like the Spitzer scandal; fictional ones like movie plots; or new products, especially strange ones. Situation comedies, comedy sketches, TV commercials, spoof movies, newspaper headlines, catalogue captions, advertising slogans, postmodern art and book titles are just some of the communication forms that cannibalize cultural references.

Cannibalization of cultural iconography occurs in many ways: Over time, we expropriate and distort the content of a cultural icon, as when Robin Hood becomes an anti-tax conservative or Martin Luther King comes to represent general service to the community. We make references to cultural icons, as when James Joyce structures Ulysses after Homer’s epic or when a secondary character in the “American Pie” movies calls himself the “Sherminator.” We morph them, as when the Terminator and Joe Isuzu become good guys. We take them out of context and thereby change their meaning, as Andy Warhol did with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

The surest sign that an event, person, character or saying has permanently entered the public collective consciousness is that it has undergone a large number of these and other processes of cultural expropriation over years. It’s one thing for Johnny Carson to make fun of the Mean Joe Greene soft drink commercial in 1982. It’s quite another to recycle the concept as a homage-cum-parody 30 years later to sell suds to housewives whose ages range from 30-65.

What would they say, those like Harold Bloom who put together lists of the great literature and other cultural artifacts with which every culturally literate person should be familiar? At first glance, you might think that they would probably frown dyspeptically at the symbolism of a TV commercial becoming as much a part of our cultural heritage as Huckleberry Finn or the founding of Jamestown.

To do so would be to stake out new ground in the culture wars. For centuries, the argument has been between high and low culture, between Latin versus the vernacular, painting versus pottery, Beethoven versus folk songs and the Beach Boys. But a television commercial is something different from both high culture and low culture. It represents commercial culture, and the cultural dictators of all ages, especially the conservative ones, have tended to warmly embrace commercial culture. The Aeneid, a piece of propaganda purchased by the Roman Emperor Augustus, makes all the lists of the cultural essentials. We see poster advertisements by Toulouse-Lautrec, the Russian Constructivists, Depero and others hanging in art museums all over the world. Why not a TV ad?

Rather than speculate on whether the Mean Joe Greene laundry soap commercial marks a watershed in what defines cultural literacy, let’s have a little fun by imagining commercials in which the following well-known fictional ad characters pitched these other products. I’m not going to sketch out the commercials, only the characters and products.  I think everyone can use their imagination:

So imagine if these four characters—Mikey who will try anything; the slimy Joe Isuzu; that little old lady shouting “Where’s the beef?” and Madge the wise and practical manicurist…

…were  in their typical TV spot environments, but selling any of the following products—hospital systems; fast food; Wal-Mart; potato chips; financial planning; beer; or prescription drugs, say for depression or erectile dysfunction.

I especially like Madge recommending a beer and Mikey trying Cymbalta. Joe Isuzu shilling a hospital isn’t bad either.

Covering birth control v. ED pills illuminates what health insurance is supposed to do

After I wondered the other day why those against health insurance covering birth control for women make no such objection to coverage of erectile dysfunction pills, several people tweeted me to uncover what they think is a fatal flaw in my argument: ED pills treat a medical condition, whereas birth control does not.

Medical condition versus no medical condition: At the heart of this distinction by those opposed to birth control for women is the idea that health insurance should not cover preventive medicine, such as annual physicals, mammograms, colonoscopies, Pap smears, mole removals, vaccines and dental check-ups. None of these tests or procedures cure anything, only prevent conditions or prevent them from becoming fatal. Imagine how much more suffering there would be in the world if polio and small pox were still running rampant through the world, or if the many early stage and pre-cancerous conditions were not caught.

To say that medical care and health insurance have as their sole goal to cure ailments is just wrong. Medicine and health insurance also prevent ailments.

The birth of a child is a wonderful thing, but only if the child is wanted. Pregnancy is always fraught with risks for both mother and child. Often women have ailments or disabilities that increase those risks to the point that pregnancy would be life-threatening. Those risks multiply for the child in unwanted pregnancies and can continue throughout childhood and beyond. Unwanted pregnancies can also lead to abortions, which, while not usually dangerous if performed under proper medical supervision, are objectionable to many people. To deny that birth control is part of preventive care requires ignoring a slew of data on women’s health issues.

Health insurers and medical professionals are always trying to figure out what and how many preventive tests, procedures and examinations are needed to keep people healthy while minimizing the unnecessary. After what must have been many studies repeatedly analyzed, most agree that covering birth control is worth the cost because it lowers total medical costs and prevents the pain and suffering of many unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

Now the other side will say that there’s another way to prevent pregnancies and unwanted abortion, the “little white aspirin pill between the knees” method, AKA abstinence. They ask, why make society pay for the personal decision to engage in sex? And of course, the same question can be asked about ED pills.

And so those opposed to coverage of birth control pills are left with a dilemma:

  • Loudly oppose coverage of ED pills (since to engage in sex is a matter of personal choice) or admit they have a double standard


  • Come out against coverage of all preventive medicine.

Somehow I don’t think either will happen.

Republicans have latched onto the “birth control coverage” issue because they think they can use it to make other messages that will resonate with the right-wing. The overt messages have to do with government interference, especially as it involves health care, and the role of religion in the government and society. The subtext, though, entails some old-fashioned and wrong-headed ideas about the role of women in society.

Why aren’t Limbaugh and others against insurance coverage of birth control complaining about ED pills?

Every few weeks now we seem to get an update in the mainstream media about the assault against women’s health taking place in state legislatures now Republican-dominated because Democrats forgot to vote in 2010.

For example, today’s round-up of state cuts to birth control funding by Reuters titled “States slash birth control subsidies as federal debate rages” presents a sorrowful litany of states curtailing or ending funds for birth control for low-income women and teenagers in Montana, New, Jersey, new Hampshire and Texas. Meanwhile Wisconsin, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana and Texas, again, have moved to block Planned Parenthood from receiving funds for family planning because PP performs abortions.  We’re talking about more than 300,000 people, primarily poor women and teenagers, who have lost their free or affordable birth control or could lose it within weeks in Texas alone.

These legislators are crazy if they think that the affected women will stop having sex because they can’t afford birth control.  No, what will happen is that more women will get abortions, more women will have pregnancies that tax their health or lead to life-threatening conditions and more unwanted children will be born, some of whom will have physical or mental disabilities.  And the health care bill in these states will mushroom.

I have a question for the pious and frugal legislators ramming through these new laws that are so destructive to women.

What I would like to know is why all these pious and frugal state legislators are so eager to take birth control away from women, but haven’t said anything about the fact that millions of men get health insurance coverage for erectile dysfunction drugs, such as Viagra, Cialis and Levitra?

Rush Limbaugh is not the only one to wonder why society has to pay for women so they can engage in sexual relations, but none of these arbiters of public morality complain that they are paying so that millions of men across the country can be made physically able for coitus.   What equivalent term for “slut” and “prostitute” that Rush would use for the unmarried Viagra users.

Whatever cost argument you make against covering birth control is much more appropriately made against ED drugs.  By paying for women’s birth control, we lower healthcare costs, because we reduce unplanned pregnancies and their complications. Paying for ED drugs achieves absolutely no savings in future costs, and so increases the cost of health insurance.

I’m not as sure about the religious argument.  It is not natural to use man-made technology either to prevent conception or to enable erection, and that would seem to make both against Catholic doctrine.  On the other hand, birth control prevents pregnancies, whereas Viagra and Cialis enable it.  And there is that old religious concept of raising the dead…

Of course the freedom of religion issue would only activate for ED pills if the Vatican came out against their use.

Seriously, it is grossly unfair for right-wingers to go after birth control and not ED drugs.  My own view would be to cover the birth control for cost and public health reasons, but not to cover the ED pills because the ED pills raise healthcare costs and address no public health problem.  Sex is, after all, an optional activity for men and women. Just not for the human species.



What’s the chance of two major news stories in one day about right-wing propagandists?

Yesterday was one of the more bizarre news days in a long time, mainly because two of the most widely-disseminated news stories revolved around right-wing propagandists, Rush Limbaugh and Andrew Breitbart.

Note, we’re not talking about two right-wing ideas, nor about two right-wing legislative initiatives, nor about two right-wing candidates.  No, the two in question are media personalities (I will refrain from using the word journalist to describe either), both known for their scurrilous tricks and for being among the most important mass media innovators in recent decades.

Let’s start with Rush, who really stepped into a deep pile this time.  Yesterday Limbaugh suffered a crescendo of condemnation by Democrats, including President Obama, and non-partisan civic leaders for his repeated rants against a law school student whose sin was to appear in front of a hearing that Nancy Pelosi held on the so-called Obama rule mandating healthcare insurance coverage of contraception for women.  FYI, Pelosi held the hearing only because the original Republican hearing on the topic did not invite a single woman to testify!

As Rush has continued his assault, even Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the Republican Party’s leading panderers to the social issues right-wing, have stepped back from the rudeness of Rush’s comments.

One interesting phenomena that occurs when news stories grow over time, is that the key information is quickly boiled down to its essentials.  In the case of Limbaugh’s invective against an innocent woman who dared to express the will of the most Americans, every story now cites one already notorious quote: What does it say about the college coed … who goes before acongressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex…It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.”

I’d like to spend a few moments analyzing a second quote that was prevalent in Thursday’s first round of stories, but dropped from most of the stories that appeared on Friday, after media interest mushroomed.  I’m selecting this quote because it exemplifies Rush Limbaugh’s specious rhetoric throughout the years:

“Can you imagine if you’re her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she’s having so much sex she can’t afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope.”

We begin our analysis with “”She’s having so much sex, she can’t afford the birth control…” Behind this statement is a false assumption—that the more sex a woman has, the higher the dosage of her birth control or the more diaphragms she has to buy.  When we’re talking about women’s birth control, it will almost certainly cost the same amount no matter how few or how many times the woman has sex (except for the emergency Plan B, which no one wants to make the centerpiece of regular birth control).

From this lie, Rush draws a false conclusion: “Can you imagine if you’re her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be?” We all know that Rush means that the parents should be very upset that their daughter is “having so much sex…” I can, however, readily prove that most parents don’t care about the amount of sex their adult daughters have by running a little thought experiment (and I’m using heterosexual examples, just to keep it simple and focused on what Rush was talking about): How would most parents react to learning that a single 30-year-old daughter had sex:  a) 500 times a year with one man; b) five times a year, once each with five different men;  c) once a year but with two men at one time. I don’t think we need a survey to conclude that for most parents, a long-term strong relationship is better than five one-night stands or one three-way.  Rush’s emphasis on the amount of sex someone has is once again misleading.

Finally, Rush, like everyone else on the right, conveniently forgets that when we cover birth control for women, no one pays for it, because the entity that pays for the insurance policy, be in the government, employer or individual, ends up with lower healthcare costs because birth control is so much less expensive than an unwanted pregnancy.

Within this nasty rant are all of Limbaugh’s propaganda tricks: hiding an outright lie by focusing on the implications if it were true; conflation of facts or situations, which means giving equal weight to two things that are not equal or comparable; exaggeration; concealment of outright lies in entertaining quips and fantasies (e.g., “Botox-filled” and the image of a “co-ed gone wild”). What has made Limbaugh so effective for so many years is that he combines all of these propaganda tricks into one run-on sentence, which he follows with yet another and then another in a headlong rush of conjecture and deception.

Some advertisers have already pulled their ads from Limbaugh’s radio show and others are threatening to do the same.  They have good reason. Not only were Limbaugh’s remarks rude and inappropriate, they go against the holy of holies, the American marketplace, which consists of American consumers. Two-thirds of all Americans believe that healthcare insurance should pay for women’s birth control, while 99 % of all adult Americans and 98% of all adult Catholics have used birth control. Advertisers have noticed.

Let’s hope that the outcry continues to grow and leads to the cancellation of the Limbaugh show.

We turn now to the other right-wing mass media propagandist, Andrew Brietbart, who made news by dying suddenly at the age of 43.  While I wish no man death or illness, I am delighted we won’t be hearing from Brietbart anymore, for he was surely one of the most deceptive mass media manipulators of the current era.

Breitbart worked at The Drudge Report, the first and most well-known of the rumor mills that spewed out unsubstantiated accusations and assertions, primarily against Democratic candidates.  Sometimes the Drudge Report turned out to be true, but often not.  It didn’t matter to the mainstream news media, whose ethical standards prevented them from reporting directly the rumors that Drudge would routinely publish, but did not prevent them from reporting what Drudge said. Thus a new propaganda device emerged: it doesn’t have to be true, as long as we quote the Drudge Report or some other unscrupulous source.

Breitbart graduated to blogging and was instrumental in disseminating the photos of Representative Andrew Weiner’s wiener that led that weenie to resign. Breitbart’s blog also was the first to run the videotape of the sting-cum-scam in which two young right-wingers visited ACORN offices pretending to be a prostitute and pimp. He was probably best known, however, for editing down the remarks of an African-American civil servant to make her sound as if she were a racist.  The propaganda technique in question, taking a statement out of context, was a favorite of the Nazis and Stalinists. The kind of editing he did is akin to an athlete taking performance enhancing drugs. For this offense, he should have been ostracized permanently by the mainstream news media for reasons of credibility.

At his untimely death, it doesn’t surprise me that the right wing has praised Breitbart as a sainted figure. It also makes sense that the mainstream media is treating him even-handedly, since they depended on him for so many stories, if very little real news.

But like Limbaugh, Breitbart will likely go down as a villain in the history of propaganda and the mass media.  They both have routinely lied and distorted, and they debased the quality of news coverage in the United States.  Even though the mainstream news media has often glorified their shenanigans, historians will eventually get it right.

Now for a semi- errata: Over the past few days, I have exchanged a number of tweets from a JD or JohnJosephTexas.  JD is defending Professor J. Rufus Fears, the subject of my blog of February 28, against my assertion that Fears was not a historian.  JD found a history book that Fears wrote 30 years ago that is out of print and says that there are others.  JD also claims that while at Indiana University, Fears taught in the history department.  Rather than get into an extended argument about a trivial point, let me yield to this extent: While I believe that the best way to describe Fears is as a history teacher, I will grant that he is a historian who specializes in teaching not research. What remains is my view of the history that Fears teaches, as reflected in the topics of his course on 36 dates that changed the world: It is old-fashioned and centered on the actions of Christian men in Europe and the United States.

Arizona professor finds that tax progressivity does not matter in creating an equitable society

Most people who have been reading the progressive or the mainstream news media know that the last 30 years have seen the United States become a less equitable society, with fewer people in the middle class and more people who are poor and near poor. By income, assets or any other measure, the top 1% now control much more of the wealth of the country than they did in 1979.

In my view, that net transfer of wealth took place in three ways:

  • Tax rates were lowered and the tax system made less progressive, which means the difference in the tax rate paid by the wealthy and the poor narrowed.
  • Government programs transferred less money to the poor and middle class.
  • Less income went to the wages of the non-owners, non-executives and non-professionals and more went to high earners and to corporate profit.

It has long been a mantra of the left, including myself, that making taxes more progressive is one of the best ways to reduce income and wealth inequality. When I spoke with Professor William Domhoff of “Who Rules America?” fame in Santa Cruz this past January, he began to make the case that maybe we shouldn’t harp so much on tax progressivity.

Earlier this week Professor Domhoff sent me a link to an article at the blog of Professor Lane Kenworthy, Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Arizona in which Professor Kenworthy analyzes how different industrialized countries reduce income inequality. He uses existing statistics, but looks at them in an innovative way.

It turns out that no other country reduces income inequality through a progressive tax system except the United States, the nation that does the worse job of reducing the inequalities of wealth that the free market seems to generate naturally. 

Professor Kenworthy writes that “the chief contribution of taxes to inequality reduction is indirect. Taxes provide the money to fund the transfers that reduce inequality.” He finds that “it is the quantity of the tax rather than its progressivity that matters most.”

Professor Kenworthy reaches the conclusion that we should consider a national consumption tax with all the proceeds earmarked for programs that help the poor and middle class. Kenworthy suggests a 5% tax with funds used for universal healthcare, universal preschool and/or high quality child care. Everyone pays the same rate on a consumption tax, which people and businesses pay when they purchase goods and services, so it is regressive. 

I think the idea of any tax that has all funds earmarked to improving our tattered social service net is a great idea, and certainly worth very serious consideration when we are talking about reforming the tax system. But I warn progressives interested in getting behind this idea not to sever the link between the tax and the earmark to social service programs. If that link is severed, the right-wing will jump on the tax part and then use it to pay down the debt or cut other taxes on the wealthy.

Moreover, I was wondering if perhaps there were a more direct way to transfer wealth, and that’s to implement policies that equalize income, such as:

  • Raise the federal minimum wage
  • End state “right to work” laws and other anti-union laws
  • End privatization of government services, such as prisons, charter schools and military supply line support, since this privatization typically leads to lower salaries for most of the employees of the privatized operation.

No matter how we prioritize the progressive economic agenda, Professor Kenworthy has thought outside the box and uncovered an important idea—that tax progressivity is not important and therefore can be a bargaining chip with the right.

Study begs question: do people get rich acting unethically or act unethically because they think they are privileged?

The news this week that a new study found that wealthier people were more likely to behave unethically set off a chicken-or-egg debate in my mind. 

In the study, Paul Piff, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, led a team of researchers at UC-Berkeley and the University of Toronto in a variety of behavioral experiments involving about 1,000 people.

They ran 7 experiments, all of which concluded that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals:

  • In two of the studies, upper-class individuals were more likely than lower-class individuals to break the law while driving.
  • In a laboratory study, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies.
  • Other lab studies showed upper class people more likely to take valued goods from others, to lie in a negotiation and to cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.
  • Yet another lab study showed that those in the upper class were more likely than the poor to endorse unethical behavior at work.

The researchers used a number of ways to evaluate socioeconomic status, such as education levels, annual income and the participants’ own perception of their social standing. But it didn’t matter what measure they used to sort participants into classes: those with higher status tended to behave in ways that served their own self-interest, even if it was unethical. My own view is that the reason it didn’t matter which criterion they measure: In the United States, virtually all social status reduces to money. The wealthier you are, the higher the social class, the higher the self-perception of class, the higher the annual income and the higher the level of education. 

By the way, neither the study nor anyone else is saying that all wealthy people are unethical, only that a larger percentage of wealthy people than poor people will do or consider doing things that most people consider to be unethical.

Now comes the chicken or egg: do people gain higher status primarily by engaging in unethical activities? Or does having a higher status make people think they are better than others and can play by their own rules?

Let’s start with the “chicken” speculation of the authors of the study, i.e., being rich changes how people behave:

  • The independence offered by financial security may foster a sense of entitlement and a lack of concern for others.
  • Affluent people may be more likely to get away with misbehavior because they have better paying jobs and better paying jobs are associated with less supervision.
  • The affluent may be more willing to take ethical risks because they have the resources at their disposal to address the inconvenience of getting caught.

We know that there is less social mobility in the United States than ever before in its history and less than any other industrialized country. What that means is that today’s upper class of wealth is primarily, but not exclusively, children of the upper class. That would certainly speak to the idea that the chicken came first, that is, that wealth created the pattern of bad behavior and not the other way around, at least in the current generation.

The researchers did find an “egg” explanation, which means that there may be something about cheating, lying and other unethical behavior that helps people get rich. The researchers found that unethical behavior was closely related to positive feelings about greed. Although the connection appeared to be strongest among high-status individuals, even lower-status individuals were more prone to ethical lapses if they felt that greed was good.

In other words, if you want money as an ends to itself and value the acquisition of wealth, you will be more likely to behave unethically.

Here comes the paradox: greed imbues our entire value system.  We equate the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of wealth. We measure success by wealth and what it buys: the amount of the sports or book contract, the size of the diamond or the house. We admire rich people and follow their doings. Much of the mass media revolves around celebrities, who for the most part are either rich or striving to be rich. Over the past 30 or so years, our leaders have created a system that provides no constraint on the accumulation of wealth, even if that means a decline in public services for everyone else, thus confirming private greed as the central economic value.

Everywhere we go, we are told to be greedy. Now comes this research that shows that greed causes people to turn their backs on our shared norms of social and economic interactions. In other words, the basic drive that propels our society erodes its foundation.

The right-wing likes to blame many groups for the decline of American civilization that they see: The real implication of this research is that it shows that it’s not the pointy-headed academics who have led us into the fix we’re in, nor the European-style socialists, nor those who offend archaic family values.

No, it’s greed pure and simple that is sinking the United States.

The Great Courses video lectures presents a history of the west and calls it world history

On the back cover of a recent New York Times Book Review was a full-page advertisement for a “Great Course” (that’s the brand name) set of DVDs or CDs titled “The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History.”

I never read these ads, but the idea of reducing history to 36 incidents appeals to my “top 10” mentality, like the “10 greatest battles in history” or the “25 most influential people of the 20th century.”  Great Courses describes the video course as “36 of the most important and definitive events in the history of the world. It’s an intriguing and engaging tour of thousands of years of human history.”

With only 36 events, I assumed that selection of events to include on the list would reveal the ideological bent of the lecturer, in this case a professor at the University of Oklahoma by the name of J. Rufus Fears.

Never fear, in his list of important events of world history, Fears reveals himself to be another white male selling an old-fashioned and specifically American version of the growth of the Christian world, spiced with a survey of world religions to promote a superficial diversity.  Check out the list or skip to my analysis:

  1. Hammurabi Issues a Code of Law (1750 B.C.)
  2. Moses and Monotheism (1220 B.C.)
  3. The Enlightenment of the Buddha (526 B.C.)
  4. Confucius Instructs a Nation (553–479 B.C.)
  5. Solon—Democracy Begins (594 B.C.)
  6. Marathon—Democracy Triumphant (490 B.C.)
  7. Hippocrates Takes an Oath (430 B.C.)
  8. Caesar Crosses the Rubicon (49 B.C.)
  9. Jesus—The Trial of a Teacher (A.D. 36)
  10. Constantine I Wins a Battle (A.D. 312)
  11. Muhammad Moves to Medina—The Hegira (A.D. 622)
  12. Bologna Gets a University (1088)
  13. Dante Sees Beatrice (1283)
  14. Black Death—Pandemics and History (1348)
  15. Columbus Finds a New World (1492)
  16. Michelangelo Accepts a Commission (1508)
  17. Erasmus—A Book Sets Europe Ablaze (1516)
  18. Luther’s New Course Changes History (1517)
  19. The Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588)
  20. The Battle of Vienna (1683)
  21. The Battle of Lexington (1775)
  22. General Pickett Leads a Charge (1863)
  23. Adam Smith (1776) versus Karl Marx (1867)
  24. Charles Darwin Takes an Ocean Voyage (1831)
  25. Louis Pasteur Cures a Child (1885)
  26. Two Brothers Take a Flight (1903)
  27. The Archduke Makes a State Visit (1914)
  28. One Night in Petrograd (1917)
  29. The Day the Stock Market Crashed (1929)
  30. Hitler Becomes Chancellor of Germany (1933)
  31. Franklin Roosevelt Becomes President (1933)
  32. Mao Zedong Begins His Long March (1934)
  33. The Atomic Bomb Is Dropped (1945)
  34. John F. Kennedy Is Assassinated (1963)
  35. Dr. King Leads a March (1963)
  36. September 11, 2001

There are so many things wrong with this list from the standpoint of world history that I don’t know where to start!

Except for the Hammurabi Code and the founding of some major world religions, all the events involve the growth of the Christian West according to the mid-20th century middlebrow American version that goes from Greece to Rome to Christian Europe to the land of the free.

One quarter of all the events involve the United States, a nation that has existed for about 230 years, or a mere 2% of the time since humans began cultivating plants and animals. How, for example, did the assassination of John Kennedy change world history? Eisenhower and Kennedy had already committed us to Viet Nam and the civil rights movement was already growing. And how do both the 1929 stock market crash and the election of FDR get onto a list of 36 events that changed history?

Neither of the events representing arts and letters changed history. There are commonalities between the creative artists involved: Both are recognized by most people. Both represent more of a summing up of a tradition than a break with tradition. Both have created examples of Christian art:

  • Dante is one of my favorite poets, one who I have studied extensively and reread quite often, but I would never claim that he changed history, not even literary history, unless you believe that no one else would have thought of writing in the vernacular instead of Latin. Other than the innovation of writing in Italian, his style represents the height of medievalism, soon to be swept away by the stylistic innovations of the Renaissance. Real literary innovators with lasting influence include Li Po and Tu Fu (late Tang Dynasty poets), Cervantes and Joyce.
  • Same thing goes for Michelangelo, whose event was getting the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel. A magnificent and extremely famous painting, but Michelangelo, though imitated, did not revolutionize painting, only helped it a little to evolve. Nothing Michelangelo did was as influential as the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Van Eck, Monet or Picasso, not to mention the late Yuan Chinese painter Zhao Mengfu, who had a lasting impact on both Chinese and European art.

There are subtle signs of ethnocentricity everywhere: For example, the founding of Europe’s first university in 1088 is mentioned, but not the introduction of the examination system in the Chinese civil service more than 475 years earlier. We learn of the Battle of Vienna in which the Christian Hapsburgs turned back the Islamic Ottomans, but nothing about the founding of any Chinese dynasty, nothing about the Mughal conquest of India, nothing about Chinggis Khan! Also note the male-centric nature of the lectures: no event involves a woman.

We would have to hear or see the lecture to know for sure, but the promotional materials suggest that Fear’s handling of slavery and its bloody demise—a major theme in world history—is a whitewash. The event representing the American Civil War is presented from the point of view of the South, i.e., “General Pickett leads a charge.” The paragraph description of this lecture on the website makes the specious claim that the South would have won the Civil War if it had won the Battle of Gettysburg. This understanding of the war conveniently forgets the tremendous resource advantage that the North had, which Ulysses S. Grant understood and used to his advantage in planning his battles. But more to the point, there is no room in the course for any event depicting the 400-year history of the slave trade, which funded the economic and technological advances of Western Europe and the United States from the 16th through much of the 19th centuries.

And who is this J. Rufus Fears, who lectures to us about these important events in world history?

The Great Course promotional material calls Fears a “historian,” but judging from what I could find about him on the Internet, he is as much of a practicing historian as Rufus T. Firefly.

An Internet search finds that Fears teaches a lot of video/audio courses for adults, all about great men or great ideas of the West or of world religions. His only publication other than course material that I could find is as editor of a book by Lord Acton, a 19th century English Catholic historian and politician. Fears did write an article in “Atlantis: Fact or Fiction,” a 1978 book of essays on possibilities of the actual existence of Atlantis that focuses on Atlantis in myth and literature. The University of Oklahoma says that he’s a professor of classics, which is not really history, although it can involve history. I cannot find one scholarly article or book by Fears, or even one book or article of popular history of the sort that David McCullough or Bruce Catton might write.

While perhaps not a historian, Fears is a regular guest on “The Rusty Humphries Show,” a right-wing radio talk show that runs on more than 250 stations. A visit to Humphries website lists some other recent guests, the usual right-wing suspects, including John Bolton, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, anti-choice activist John Schneider and Rand Paul.

I’m not saying that “The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History” doesn’t provide history to those who buy the course. But everything I can find out about the course and the good Professor Fears indicates that what we’re getting is comforting if distorted verification of the ideological imperatives of western superiority and American exceptionalism.

I think I’ll pass on Fears’ version of world history and instead reread some Fernand Braudel, Mote’s magisterial Imperial China: 900-1800 or Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

By saying Obama follows a secular not a religious agenda, Republicans make case for reelecting the President

The Republicans are doing a lot to restore my faith in President Obama.

First Rick Santorum accused Barack Obama of being the most anti-religious president in the nation’s history. Then Mitt Romney said that Obama sought to substitute a “secular agenda” for one based on faith.

What a relief to know we have a secular president.

What a relief, especially after weeks of hearing Santorum, Romney and the other Republicans talk about introducing religion into public policy and political decisions in one way or another.

What a relief to have reaffirmed the fact that President Obama, unlike his immediate predecessor, follows the U.S. Constitution and the wishes of our mostly deist founding leaders and promotes a secular agenda.

We are, after all, a secular country, one that is not supposed to have religion enter into government decisions, nor to favor one religion over others.

I understand that a good 20-25% of voters think differently. They believe that we are a Christian nation. What’s more, they want to force a set of values on everyone that they associate with Christian practice.

But we have to go no further than the issue of birth control to recognize how much the real world diverges from the ideals of the Christian right wing. In the real world, 98% of all women use birth control sometime during their life. In the real world, the cost of birth control is far less than the cost of an unwanted pregnancy, which means that when you ask a religious organization to pay for their employees’ birth control you are asking them for no money and in fact giving them money since their insurance costs will decline.

To be sure, both Romney and Santorum are playing to the hard core base that now determines Republican primary elections. But besides pandering to the right-wing “values” voters, the labeling of Obama as “non-Christian” and “non-religious” also has a subtle impact on other voters. It’s another, harder to disprove, version of the “Obama wasn’t born in the United States” canard. Wherever we fall on the political spectrum and however devout or non-practicing we are, most Americans have a Christian background and live their lives by an ethos they identify as Christian. To say that Obama is not Christian or is anti-religious (which is just another way for them to say “anti-Christian”) turns him into the “other” or the “stranger” who has historically been so feared in American culture and politics. The ultimate outsider, of course, is the Black.

There’s an economic aspect to the accusations, too: that old saw that communists and socialists are godless. Americans for decades are used to hearing the words “godless” and “socialist” (or “communist”) pronounced one after the other to describe progressives and liberals. To say that Obama is against religion is also a veiled way of saying that he is against our free market capitalist system.

And yet, I think many will share my desire that religion not enter into a president’s decision-making. I think most of us prefer that decisions are based on facts, science, reason, the law and what’s best for the country and its people.

That Romney and Santorum affirm that our current president is following a secular path gives me more confidence in what Obama is doing. That the Republican candidates don’t like Obama’s secular path is scary. Because they could get elected, and that would be trouble. We recently had a faith-based president and it didn’t really work out, unless you like useless, goalless wars, state-sponsored torture, catastrophic environmental change and the largest deficit in American history.

Why pick on affirmative action? Why hasn’t anyone sued universities about favoritism to legacies and athletes?

Yesterday’s announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted an appeal from a rejected white applicant to the University of Texas-Austin reminds me that every time the constitutionality of affirmative action returns to the issues agenda, one question is always left out:

Why didn’t the applicant suing a university for accepting minorities with a less impressive record of academic achievement also or instead sue the university for discriminating in favor of athletes and legacies? Legacies, for those not up on academic admissions parlance, are students whose parents previously went to or have contributed money to the university.

The unfairness of lowering standards to accept athletes to an institution dedicated to intellectual achievement and professional training seems fairly obvious. I can understand giving a break on the SAT or grades to a national chess champion or the winner of a science fair, but what does sports have to do with the mission of higher education?

And yet where are the lawsuits claiming that the university acted illegally in preferring a kid with a 1000 on the SATs who can throw a football 70 yards through a tire to someone with 1100 on the college boards who has no extra-curricular activities?

The advantage given to legacies is even more unfair, because it is a major part of the rigidity in the college system that necessitated affirmative action in the first place. 

A quick search of “college admissions legacies” will reveal the oft-told history of legacy preferences, which Ivy and other colleges began to use after World War I when their objective criteria were leading to the admission of too many Jews. Today, Ivy League and private colleges give from 10% to 15% legacy preference, but some give as many as 30% of all acceptances to legacy applicants. Overall, many more students are admitted as legacy preferences than are admitted through affirmative action programs. What’s more, polls find that 75% of all Americans are opposed to legacy preferences.

Yet no one sues universities because they are giving preferences to people whose parents graduated from or gave money to the school.

Correction.  In his 2010 analysis of everything that’s wrong with legacy preferences in The Chronicle of Higher Education, educational policy guru Richard D. Kahlenberg cites a losing 1970’s case filed against legacy preferences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The problem was that the plaintiff included legacies in a hodgepodge of discrimination complaints, including discrimination for being an out-of-state student. Her SAT scores were 850, uncommonly low for an in-state or out-of-state UNC student both back then and now. 

Kahlenberg summarizes the compelling legal argument against legacies at both public and private universities, based on the 14th amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. He also demolishes the argument that universities need legacy admissions to keep the donations rolling into the university coffers. Analysis reveals that people give about the same to their alma mater or other universities with or without the legacy factor.

The higher the university on the food chain, the more the legacy admission undercuts the ambitions of other competent but less connected candidates. Let’s face it, the more important the job, the more likely it will be filled by an Ivy or Ivy-like (e.g., Stanford or Northwestern) graduate, and if not an Ivy, a public Ivy (e.g., U of Washington or UNC) or other prestigious school. The college educated earn more in general, so no matter how you slice it, legacies come from wealthier families on average than non-legacies at virtually every university.

When you’re better off, you are more likely to have special lessons, more likely to travel abroad, more likely to participate in national youth competitions, more likely to take an SAT prep course and more likely to live the lifestyle behind the cultural assumptions of the SATs. Affirmative action is one of the ways that colleges can level the playing field.

I’m not saying that once legacy admissions are ended we won’t need affirmative action anymore. What I’m saying is that the legacy system reflects the subtle action of institutional racism and is one more reason we need affirmation action. By the way, we’ll know that we won’t need affirmation action anymore when the rate of poverty among African-Americans or the average wage of African-Americans is about what it is for everyone else. 

As others have pointed out, the Supreme Court decision to take the appeal is especially disturbing in light of its 2003 ruling upholding affirmative action. In that ruling, the Supreme Court laid down some affirmative action guidelines for universities and suggested that the high court shouldn’t revisit the issue for another 25 years. Of course that was before Roberts and Alito joined the court.

Most of the plaintiffs in these affirmative action lawsuits are middle class and upper middle class whites. That leaves us with the fact that none of these fighters for equality ever thought to take on legacies. There are certainly more legacies than there are affirmative action students, and the legacies tend to include more of the children of those people who have taken money from the middle class through the economic and tax policies of the past 30 years.

It’s quite puzzling. The only answer that I have is that it’s another manifestation of the racism that has distorted the politics and social policy of this country since its inception.