Population decline does not have to lead to economic decline, despite assumptions of economists and media

January 31, 2012

The mainstream news media in the United States have put a completely negative spin on the news that by 2060 Japan will lose one third of its population by natural means—no famine, no war, no epidemic, no forced expulsion, just fewer people being born. 

The articles all dwelt on the pension crisis that a shrinking population will cause, as fewer people of working age support more retired people who happen to be living longer (and thank goodness for that!).  None of the benefits of a shrinking population, such as decreased unemployment, increased wages and a shrinking energy and resource footprint, were cited in any of the stories I saw.

The negativity is embedded into the characteristics attributed to Japan’s natural population shrinkage:

  • ABC-TV: “even more troubling,” “little signs of improvement,” “paint a dire picture,” dismal birthrate.”
  • FOX  News: “greater burden,” “grim estimate.”
  • Associated Press: “grim population decline,” “greater burden,” “grim future.” 

Even those media, primarily European and Asian, which did not use the negative characterizations, focused almost exclusivity on the pension challenge; for example, The Tokyo Reporter  and the Guardian.

In my extensive reading of economic theory and practice I have found very little on how to manage a falling population. The assumption of virtually all economists is that the economic system keeps growing through population growth. Even those few economists who propose a “steady state” don’t tell us how to get there, or how to address issues related to “no growth” such as the increased percentage of retirees until the population stabilizes at a lower level.

And yet all the long-term global problems we face as a species over the next few hundred years demand that we use fewer nonrenewable natural resources and the easiest way to do that is for the population to decrease.  The Japanese present the first working laboratory about how to go from large to smaller without famine, epidemic or war.

In my view, the reason that most economists and all of the mainstream news media consider a growing population a blessing and a shrinking population a curse is because they are ideologically set to dislike the actions that society must take to smooth the transition as the population of a rich nation declines:

  • Government intervention, to make sure that society reallocates resources, e.g., from caring for the young to caring for the elderly.
  • Higher wages, as a shrinking population will lead to less unemployment and then labor shortages.
  • Higher taxes, as a means to fund necessary programs to make the transition to a less populous society.
  • Immigration and a greater ethnic diversity, as a means to address labor shortages.

These actions all tend to redistribute wealth (within the country and across the globe) and to create a more equitable distribution of wealth in society. Japanese government, media and think tanks, as in the United States and elsewhere, are controlled by its moneyed elite. It makes sense then that it’s hard for these people to view as positive something that works against their own short-term best interests.

Change always affects the economy, creating a new set of winners and losers. But when change leads to economic growth, as it often does, the bigger pie can mask the impact of the change, sometimes for decades. When the pie remains the same or shrinks, the costs of addressing social challenges suddenly become much more apparent. Thus it took the great recession and its grim jobless aftermath for people to realize that changes to law and policy had shifted an enormous amount of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy. The growing economy masked the change.

There is no doubt that a shrinking population will create a shrinking economy. But absolute economic might does not translate into individual well-being. Whose people are better off on average? China’s, with its 1.35 billion people sharing a $6.988 trillion gross domestic product (GDP) for $5,184 a person; or Japan’s, with its 127 million people sharing $6.855 trillion GDP for $45,774 per person?

If we measure well-being in terms of per-capita GDP, we see that a country can thrive with a smaller population. There is no reason then why it can’t thrive after its population has shrunk. And no reason why the transition to a smaller population must cause pain to society, although it may cause some pain to those who will have to give up a part of their wealth to address the issues that the transition to a smaller population entails.

Despite complaints by Newt supporters, media is consistent in treatment of politicians’ sex lives

January 30, 2012

Over the weekend, Gannett columnist Michael Reagan (the adopted child of former president Ronald Reagan) decried the double standard that compelled the news media to publicize Newt Gingrich’s past sexual peccadilloes after it ignored the affair that John Edwards was having as a candidate for president in 2008 while his wife was under treatment for cancer. In both cases, the media knew about the affairs while the gentlemen were running for office.

Reagan pulls out all the standard right-wing nonsense about “the liberal media” and “their traditional double standard, which always seems to come into play when the target is a member of the GOP.” But a close look reveals that Reagan’s claim of a liberal bias is absolutely untrue.

In making a shoddy case for an incorrect notion, Reagan employs the rhetorical device most associated with his father’s brand of deceptive messaging: the argument by anecdote. Comparing two anecdotes only—Gingrich and Edwards—gives Reagan the opportunity to identify a random characteristic—political party—as proof of a mainstream media conspiracy.

As we have learned from Daniel Kahneman’s recent Thinking, Fast and Slow, one oddity of human thinking is to favor the information learned in a single story (anecdote) over hard statistics. Additionally, people tend to judge on the facts at hand. Reagan gives us two facts only and then spins a lie from the comparison.

If, however, we take a look at which political candidates have had their sex lives dragged through the media mud and which haven’t, we will see a common sense consistency that the news media has applied since World War II to virtually all candidates for national and other office.

Among the candidates and elected officials whose extracurricular hugging and kissing were ignored were presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Bush I and probably Reagan; one recent candidate to have her past (and possibly current) sexual wildness swept under the table was Sarah Palin.

Here are some of the politicians who have seen their sex life become an issue, with the reasons why:

  • Newt Gingrich, who accused a sitting president of adultery while carrying on his own affair.
  • Larry Craig (who didn’t run for president), who was caught trolling for men in a public restroom after advocating anti-gay policies.
  • Gary Hart, who openly dared the news media to catch him with his mistress.
  • Herman Cain, who committed the illegal act of sexual harassment against multiple victims.
  • Anthony Weiner (also not a presidential candidate), who was the first to have his sexual adventuring outed on a smart phone, which created a news story regardless of the actual circumstances.
  • Bill Clinton, who had a run-of-the-mill private affair with a consenting adult.

We now have 13 anecdotes (6 Dems and 7 Reps), and we already see a pattern that suggests that if there is a bias, it’s against a Democrat or the Democrats.

In 11 of the cases, the news media ignored the sexual improprieties of the candidate or elected officials unless the candidate made hypocritical statements, as in the case of Hart, Gingrich and Craig, or broke the law, as Herman Cain apparently did.

The only two exceptions to this rule are both Democrats, Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton. In Weiner’s case, it’s understandable, as the novelty of smart phone hook-ups and sexting overwhelmed any ethical concerns. I do not mean that journalists behaved unethically by reporting about Weiner’s wiener, but that the newsworthy value of the “first-ever politician caught sexting” story negated whatever pretence of privacy that Weiner deserved. 

That leaves us with the unexplained example of Bill Clinton, whose consensual affairs were publicized while he was running for office and while he served as president. For one thing, he is the only sitting president whose sexual indiscretions were not guarded closely by the mainstream media. Secondly, the decision to publicize these affairs entirely contradicts the established media standard of only going after hypocrites and law-breakers.

I don’t mean to dredge again through this disgraceful incident in American political history, which saw a sitting president impeached for telling one white lie about a private matter a few years before another sitting president got off scot-free for lying multiple times to the American public to gain support for an unnecessary war that funneled billions to his cronies; that second president also broke multiple laws regarding torture and due process. Michael Reagan brought the topic up by claiming that the media shows its liberal bias in its choice of sexual scandals to publicize. I’m merely pointing out that Reagan’s assertion is a lie specifically about the issue of publicizing sexual improprieties and that this lie supports a broader lie about the political leanings of the mainstream media.

The media is not now, nor has it ever been liberal-leaning, although for a brief period of time it supported civil rights and opposed the second most disastrous war in American history. Moreover, the media has been completely consistent in its treatment of the sex lives of politicians, except in the one case of Bill Clinton.

By defending Mitt and Newt income, Santorum defends a corrupt, unfair and unlevel playing field

Some in the news media have praised Rick Santorum for his “Why can’t we all just get along” moment in the middle of the Jacksonville, Florida performance of the traveling reality show called the 2012 Republican debates.  The pundits missed the main point of Santorum’s words: what Rick did was express approval of the corruption and unfairness of our current economic and political system.

Here’s what Rick said that has won some praise: “The bigger issue here is, these two gentlemen, who are out distracting from the most important issues we have been playing petty personal politics, can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies — and that’s not the worst thing in the world — and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard? And you guys should let that alone and focus on the issues.”

Rick’s overall message is, “let’s talk about the issues,” but in making it, he also subtly asserts that the current system is just fine.

First Rick puts his seal of approval on the revolving door between government and industry that all too often leaves the fox guarding the henhouse when it comes to regulating the private sector to improve safety, reduce pollution or ensure fair and equitable wages. Newt Gingrich may represent the high point of hypocrisy and corruption in the Age of Reagan, but he is far from the only case.

Santorum’s kind words for Mitt Romney are far more insidious because they support the current structure that rewards a very few with outsized amounts of money while the number of Americans in poverty and near poverty continues to climb.

Let’s savor the words, which reek of deception and class self-satisfaction (and make no mistake about it, Rick Santorum may have come from the working class but he’s now one of the moneyed elite): Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard.

But what about the sanitation guy working nights at Wal-Mart?  What about the warehouse worker or the stockperson in the supermarket? What about the nurse working a double shift?

Lots of people work hard, and they don’t get to make millions of dollars a year. And they have to pay Social Security taxes on all their income, not a small part of it. And their healthcare insurance is not quite as good as Mitt’s.  I’m not saying that Mitt hasn’t worked hard. So the expression that he was born on third and thinks he hit a triple doesn’t exactly apply to Romney.  I understand that brain work can use as many calories as muscle work, but the joints don’t ache as much at the end of the day.

It’s inherently unfair that some people make so much more than others, but let’s assume for a moment that it is fair.  Here would be the justifications, which we’ve heard before from a plethora of right-wing sources: society values the work of the investment banker more; the investment banker creates more wealth for society; investment banking requires a set of skills and the advanced education that very few people have.

But even if were fair to pay enormously large sums to investment bankers, corporate executives and high-powered professionals (which it’s not), the system would still be unfair because it is tilted in favor of those who already have money and power in a way that never existed in the United States until the past 30 years.  We can prove this assertion without examining the details: the United States has less social mobility than any other industrialized country.  In other words, virtually the only way to make a lot of money working hard (instead of just working hard to get by) is to be born into a well-off or wealthy family.

Money protects children from the degradation that the country has inflicted on public schools over the past 30 years with cuts in funding and an all-out war against teachers’ unions. Wealthy children can go to private schools, get tutors, attend summer enrichment camps, take lessons to improve their talents, participate in national youth competitions, take SAT prep course, hire college consultants and make sizeable donations to universities.  They can also afford to stay in school and don’t need money for graduate school.

In short, Mitt Romney was positioned to make hundreds of millions of dollars because of the millions with which he started.

Perhaps Santorum’s statement was not an admonishment to his fellow candidates to stop the negativity. Perhaps he was really speaking to President Obama—in code of course, since he’s so used to speaking in code about the President.

Perhaps Rick’s real message was that the Republicans are not interested in the “fair shot” that Obama advocated in his State of the Union address.  They like things the way they are.  It works just fine, thanks for Newton Leroy Gingrich, as he can use his government connections to help achieve the political goals of the highest bidder.  And it sure works for Willard Mitt Romney, who, because he was born on third base, received a big long-term contract for hitting a bloop single with the bases loaded to score the first run of a 15-0 blowout in April.



Who will make weaker opponent for Obama: Mitt or Newt? Doesn’t matter if progressives don’t vote

January 25, 2012

Progressives, liberals and blue-dog Democrats face an interesting mental puzzle: Who do we want to win the Republican presidential nomination: Mitt Romney, who is seen as being able to attract more centrist and independent voters and therefore more likely to defeat Obama? Or Newt Gingrich, who is seen as less likely to defeat Obama but would be a disaster as president?

If we focus on the best possible “worst case” scenario for the country, we favor Mitt, because his track record suggests that he will be a far abler manager and administrator as president than the loosey-goosey Gingrich. But if we focus on the best chance of retaining Obama, who despite his faults is far more progressive, far more interested in the problems of the 99% and far less corrupt than either of the two likely Republican nominees, Newt seems on the surface to be the better choice as the assumption is that centrists will never vote for the corrupt and hypocritical Gingrich.

The flaw in the reasoning is the assumption that Newt would be easier to defeat than Mitt because fewer centrists will like him. Consider that rural-based evangelicals have never seemed to be able to warm up to Mitt, who represents the city-slicker as much as he represents free market values. They have decided to forgive Newt his transgressions, which Gingrich has rewritten into the rebirth narrative so dear to the religious right.  This group, comprising from 20-30% of the population, might sit on its hands in the general election for Romney but might vote in droves for Newt.

Meanwhile in his effort to pander to the far right, Romney cut ties with the Hispanic community by coming out against the Dream Act, which would give long-time illegal aliens with deep community roots the opportunity to go legal. While Newt has not stated a position on this pending legislation, he has expressed sympathy with the long-term illegal immigrant, which has not hurt him with the evangelicals and allowed him to build a bridge to centrists and social conservatives among Hispanic voters. That Newt is a converted Catholic and not a Mormon probably helps his standing somewhat with both evangelicals and Hispanics.

On the other hand, we can safely assume that Mitt Romney would be more able to raise money for the general election than Gingrich could, and many pundits, predictors and politicians put a lot of stock in how much money each candidate raises. Money doesn’t vote, people do. But money can influence votes and money can drive voters to polling places. Whoever the GOP candidate is, we can expect that Obama will raise more money, as much as $1.0 billion total according to a few estimates.

A variation on current speculation is whether the extended campaign for the nomination will hurt or help the Republicans.  It didn’t seem to hurt the Democrats in 2008, and in fact helped keep the party in the spotlight. But we were dealing with two candidates who were relatively scandal free. The Republican race has come down to the King of Republican Scandals against Mr. One-percent. Of course, it’s possible that by the time of the love fest that will be the Republican convention, the country will have grown tired of hearing about Mitt and Newt’s flaws, and will therefore shut their ears to Democratic negative campaigning in the fall.

At the end of the day, though, all the speculation in which progressives may engage about the current state of the presidential race leads to one action plan, and it’s always the same action plan for winning all elections:

  1. Support the more progressive candidate, which in this case will surely be Obama.
  2. Drive that candidate leftward with letters, emails and support of other candidates.
  3. Vote on Election Day.

Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow shows why propaganda is effective: the mind wants to be fooled

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s very accessible and entertaining Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is his highly anecdotal take on more than 40 years of research by him, his students, his friends and his associates about how the mind operates. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to know why people think as they do, and how to improve one’s own decision-making, be it in selecting new employees or investing.

Now Kahneman is not a biologist who will depict the chemical and physical processes the brain undergoes. His interest is how the conscious part of the brain—I like to call it the mind—thinks, and specifically, how it makes decisions.

Kahneman proposes that we have two thinking systems, #1 and #2. System #1 is fast-thinking and impressionistic, while system #2 is methodical and rational, and yet will take directions at a moment’s notice from the conclusions provided by System #1.

What I found most interesting in Thinking, Fast and Slow is that virtually all the tricks by which journalists, academics and speech-writers twist the truth are made possible by peculiarities of the human mind.

For example, the mind will tend to make decisions based on the principle of “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI), which means that people will assume that all the information at their disposal is all the information that is relevant to a decision. By their selection of criteria, experts and details, writers create a world of facts that readers tend to take as WYSIATI, which is why propaganda techniques that involve selection and non-selection work. No one bothers to ask why only the rightwing anti-labor expert is being asked about the impact of the strike, or why none of the options being discussed involves adding taxes to the wealthy. We just accept the facts and experts the media select for us.

People also tend to let the order of seeing facts or events influence their thinking. Pudovkin and Vertov proved this oddity by running film shots in different orders before audiences in the 1920s. Every audience changed its emotional reaction to the narrative depending on how the shots were ordered. Kahneman describes research that proves we do the same thing when we make decisions or evaluate people. Propagandists have used editing to distort the truth from the ancient Greek sophists up to Andrew Breitbart and the maker of the rightwing anti-union Waiting for Superman.

Kahneman’s book describes extensive research that demonstrates that people will believe an anecdote much more readily than they will believe statistics that go against their current ideas. This peculiarity of thought, proven in multiple contexts, demonstrates why the argument by anecdote is such an effective propaganda tool. The argument by anecdote proposes that one story proves a trend even if the statistics show otherwise. Thus the “Willy Horton” case history that haunted the Dukakis presidential campaign. The anecdote doesn’t even have to be true; witness the great success of Reagan’s “welfare queens” remark, which Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum want to resurrect as “food stamp squires.”

Another weird thing about the mind is that, when asked a difficult question, it will substitute an easier question and answer that one instead. Propagandists take advantage of this predilection of the human mind to eschew the really tough question when using such rhetorical devices as conflation, false conclusions, the Matt Drudge Gambit, question rigging and trivialization. For non rhetoricians, here are some quick definitions:

  • Conflation: Equating two events, objects, trends or facts that have nothing in common; for example, using fictional evidence to prove a historical trend or comparing Bush II’s spotty National Guard stint to the military record of war hero John Kerry.
  • Criteria Rigging: Selecting the criteria that will prove the point you want to make, for example, the studies that use criteria that exist in the suburbs to show that the top places to live are all in suburbs.
  • False Conclusions: Putting a false conclusion at the end of a paragraph or article that is factually based and logically reasoned.
  • Matt Drudge Gambit: Reporting that a disreputable reporter or media outlet, such as Matt Drudge or Glenn Beck, said something that you know probably is false.
  • Question Rigging: Selecting the questions to get a better answer. For example, instead of asking people if they believed global warming was occurring, research groups asked them if they thought the news media reported too much on global warming. When asked the second way, many more people seem not to believe that global warming is occurring.
  • Trivialization: Reducing discussions of important decisions to trivialities, for example focusing on the personality differences between opponents while ignoring their substantive differences.

If we can just overcome these propensities to think in an illogical way, or learn to recognize why we are reaching a conclusion, we would all make better decisions and not be so susceptible to the smoke and mirrors of politicians and pundits.

I’m not sure how many people will end up thinking more rationally after reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, but for the rest of us, at least there is the delight in reading about all the neat research involving the measurement and analysis of human decisions and reactions in both real and artificial environments. I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow.

CliffsNotes Shakespeare cartoons work as literary travesty, but not as a teaching aids

One of the four short subjects on the “Blackboard” page of the New York Times’ quarterly “Education Life” insert is a gee-whiz Cheez-whiz feature on CliffsNotes Films recent release of animated seven-minute versions of six of Shakespeare’s most often-taught plays.

That’s 7 minutes a play.

From the publisher of study guides which all too often are mistaken by lazy students as cheating aids, not teaching aids. The danger of CliffsNotes, and the reason why most literature teachers look down on them, is that so many students use them to replace reading or thinking about original source material.

I saw most of the Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Othello at the CliffsNotes website. All open with a super hero character with a cape named Cliff flying into a public library where he sets the scene for the play. Cliff’s first words are always the same: “Hey, I’m Cliff and these are my notes.” Cliff will provide narrative links between the scenes throughout the play. A comic foil to Cliff in all of the introductions is a prop from the play, the handkerchief for Othello, Yorick’s skull for Hamlet and a bloodied, bodiless head for Macbeth.

The plays present little else than plots. Characters reveal in words what their soliloquies and actions show in the original Shakespeare. The type of animation, the irony in all the voices and the fast-paced editing stitched together by colloquial narration all derive directly from the fractured fairy tales and Mr. Peabody cartoons that Jay Ward created for the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” show. So is the reduction of complex minor characters to Commedia Del Arte caricatures, the worst of which is making the sensitive and thoughtful Laertes into an intellectually slow big guy, a Lenny or an offensive lineman in a Burt Reynolds football movie.

The Times article notes the use of slang in CliffsNotes cartoon Shakespeare. Here are some examples I especially enjoyed. When I say “enjoyed,” I mean I appreciated the cleverness with which the writers reduced beautiful words to the lowest common denominator of idioms:

  • “Making the beast with two backs…” to describe Othello’s marriage to Desdemona.
  • “…first it was like, oh no, we’re going to lose…” to describe the beginning of a battle in Othello.
  • “I like to call it ‘Daddy issues,’” which is how Cliff reduces Hamlet to a phrase popular with television psychologists; and “Weird stuff is happening in Rome” is how he describes the situation the day before Caesar’s assassination.
  • “Soothsayers, always saying sooths,” is Caesar’s way of sloughing off warnings about the ides of March.
  • “He’s your brother-in-law! Gross,” Hamlet to his mother about her marriage to Claudius.
  • “Dad, Hamlet’s gone bananas,” Ophelia’s plaint to Polonius.

I’m presenting my favorite outside of bullets because it may represent the epitome of travesty, which is, to quote Merriam-Webster, a burlesque literary or artistic imitation usually grotesquely incongruous in style, treatment or subject matter.

I’m talking about the reduction to 14 words of Shakespeare’s most well-know and oft-quoted soliloquy, the one Hamlet gives in the middle of the play that bears his name. Here is how Cliffnotes delivers the 36-line poem that Hamlet recites to himself and which hundreds of millions of school children have had to study and often memorize through the centuries:

“To be or not to be, that’s the question…right?  When you think about it…”

I think it would have been nobler in mind, and deed, if this bit of paraphrasing had remained in some undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.

CliffsNotes states with pride that it believes that students introduced to Shakespeare by its films will want to read and see the original plays. Fat chance! Why would they? These seven minute cartoons are self-contained works of entertainment that satisfy viewers the way Road Runner cartoons or episodes of a sitcom do. The strange dress and sometimes archaic ideas are the same kind of easy-to-digest local color they are accustomed to getting at historical rides and exhibits at a Disney amusement park.

One telling detail: Before you can see any of the CliffsNotes Shakespeares online, you must first sit through a 25-second commercial for a movie about some kids making a zombie movie.

Because the CliffsNotes Shakespeares remain true to the plot, they are great for helping kids get “gentleperson” C’s in their English classes, as they enable the student to regurgitate the plot in essays, test answers and classroom response.

For the student or non-student of any age who has some familiarity with Shakespeare, the CliffsNotes versions should be a hoot, and especially, I think, for educated Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who have grown up with the kind of humor central to the CliffsNotes Shakespeares and are more familiar than Baby Boomers with the argot of the moment.  I could see my son and his friends (mostly other engineers and engineering graduate students) whiling away an hour laughing at these travesties. Some may have used CliffsNotes in the past and others certainly did not, but part of the humor for all of them would be that these were the CliffsNotes versions. It’s similar to laughing at pot humor in current youth movies.

That CliffsNotes would produce such intellectually bankrupt yet mildly entertaining nonsense makes perfect sense

But why does the New York Times publicize it? 

Without a doubt, CliffsNotes or its public relations agency has launched a national campaign to attract coverage of the CliffsNotes films in the news media and through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

But why did the Times bite?

The Times reporter, Katherine Schulten, doesn’t express a point of view, but lets the facts prove the obvious—that this film venture is intellectually bankrupt because it undermines every reason to study Shakespeare in the 21st century.

But for CliffsNotes, even bad publicity, and perhaps especially bad publicity, is good publicity.

Consider why anyone would criticize CliffsNotes, either overtly or implicitly as Schulten does? There is only one reason: because CliffsNotes encourages cheating by enabling students to avoid reading the assigned material. 

But isn’t that exactly what the marketplace for CliffsNotes educational products wants? So no matter how strong or weak the criticism, it helps CliffsNotes sells books.

There are other offbeat stories the Times could have covered, but the editors decided to help CliffsNotes sell its quasi-ethical substitutes to reading literature. In doing so, the Times may or may not have been expressing anti-intellectual values. It was, however, certainly expressing marketplace values.

Another skirmish won and lost in three-way battle for control of the Internet

The one-day protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA)  accomplished its objective: With three major sponsors running from the proposed legislation, SOPA and PIPA backers are scrambling to revise the law to make it more palatable to the Wikipedia’s and Googles of the world.

The Stop SOPA/PIPA campaign follows the series of battles to preserve network neutrality, which means that telecommunications companies don’t offer different rates to consumers based on content or type of service. Over the past few years, there have been five attempts to give companies like Verizon and ATT the right to create tiered plans for content. All have failed, as consumers have clamored to maintain the free flowing access to the Internet and all of its websites that network neutrality creates.

In case you’re cheering what looks like the latest victory for the people, think again. While many consumers and small companies have an interest in maintaining Internet rules that encourage a free marketplace of ideas and products, it wasn’t the actions of the small fry that won the battle. It was one set of enormous, multinational corporations defeating another.

When it comes to controlling the Internet, there are really three groups of very large companies. These companies have the money to hire lobbyists, contribute to political campaigns, support research and launch public awareness programs such as yesterday’s Wikipedia blackout. (Readers, please alert me if someone else has developed the same or similar nomenclature or has a better way of looking at the power structure as it involves the Internet.)

Here are the three Internet power centers and what their interest is in controlling the Internet:

  1. Internet content creators, such as Disney, Warner Brothers and the music companies, which want to control the use of intellectual property so they can make more money.
  2. Internet access providers, meaning telecommunications companies, which want to put a meter on the flow of the electrons that carry Internet information so they can make more money.
  3. Internet organizers such as Google, Yahoo!, Wikipedia, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and Twitter, which have an interest in keeping everything free and free-flowing. Segments of this diverse group have their own side issues, i.e., the portals and social networks want weaker privacy laws and the merchants such as Amazon that are large enough to organize content are interested in continuing the tax free ride on Internet sales.

So far the consumer has won virtually every Internet control battle because there are three large corporate groups engaged in conflict: two can always fight off the other, or sometimes one just doesn’t put a dog into the fight, leaving two smaller groups to battle it out.

Unfortunately, the larger battle has already gone against those who believe in a free marketplace of ideas, in which the truth reigns over false ideas and misplaced beliefs.  No matter how free the Internet remains in terms of access to content and bandwidth, the selection of content has already been severely limited by the concentration of content providers resulting directly from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  

That law allowed companies to own more media properties and led directly to the sorry state of the our media free market: seven or eight large multi-national conglomerates, many of which grind rightwing political axes, control an enormous amount of content on the Internet including most “news” and mainstream entertainment, because these companies control the content available in every other media. If you don’t believe me, plug in “Little Mermaid” and compare the results to any recent book of poetry published by an independent little press.

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t really care much where the content originates, as long as it can organize it for users and charge advertisers for the right to appear on results pages. And when Netflix is looking to do a deal to make more content available, it actually likes dealing with a few big guys. Thus, there is no group of big companies ready to take the side of the consumer.

Without a group of big companies on our side, it will be exceedingly hard for consumers to influence Congress to pass a law that limits media ownership and forces large media enterprises to break up into many smaller businesses. But there is precedent for breaking up a company or industry for the public benefit, such as the 1911 dismantling of Standard Oil and the splitting apart of AT&T in 1984. 

Dismantling media properties in the United States is not as high on the list of priorities for progressives as other goals, such as increasing income taxes on the highest incomes, removing the cap from taxable income for Social Security, investing more money in public schools, exiting Afghanistan, pumping more money into mass transit and alternative energy and implementing much more rigorous environmental regulations.  But as we gradually take the country back from the rightwing fringe, let’s not forget about bringing more voices into the marketplace of ideas by limiting the size of any one voice.

For the best model of how the rich run America, buy Domhoff’s books and visit his website

My son and I enjoyed the distinct pleasure of having lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Santa Cruz, California with G. William Domhoff the other day. Bill Domhoff has long studied and written about the sociology of power, which means he explores who has power in the United States, how they got it, how they use it and what they do with it.

His Who Rules America is a classic study on power in America and is routinely reprinted with his always cogent updates. The Powers That Be, describes a social policy model by which a small percentage of our citizens end up defining the terms for all political, social and economic discussions and thereby dominate all others despite the fact they have few actual votes. Domhoff’s model, now included in revisions of Who Rules America, roughly depicts wealthy people and corporations forming foundations and financing university research to produce reports advocating policies which filter to the public through the news media and government commissions comprising the very experts whom the wealthy have financed. Over the past 30 years, right-wingers with money have followed the progressive Domhoff’s social policy model to seize and exercise power on such issues as taxation, privatization of government functions, gun control, abortion rights, capital punishment and voting rights.

Domhoff recognizes that one of the most important denominators of power is money.  With it, you can buy other types of power, including social and political influence, and even knowledge. Domhoff has therefore studied income and wealth distribution in the United States and among the various industrialized countries for decades. Years ago, Domhoff was one of the first to see that we were becoming a less equitable nation, with the wealthy gathering an ever growing portion of both income and wealth. He was also one of the first to notice the relative lack of mobility between economic classes in the United States compared to other industrialized countries.

His rigorously scientific approach and open-minded progressivism make Domhoff a delight to engage in conversation.  Always the pragmatist, Domhoff states on his website that “it is not easy to change power arrangements, even in a country where people have won freedom of speech and the right to vote. To start with, it is necessary to understand the intricacies of a power structure and how it was constructed in order to change.” In a follow-up email to our talk, Domhoff wrote “I think there has to be a combination of social movements and progressive candidates within the Democratic Party to make advances. Social movements in the USA have usually done best when they have used various forms of strategic non-violence, which can encompass sit-downs, sit-ins, and much else.”

In our chat, he freely roamed among a wide range of subjects, including how to rebuild the progressive voting rolls, the large parts that racism and anti-unionism play in political and economic beliefs, the formation of tax policy, some of his approaches to the study of power and the issue of class identity. I appreciated the fact that he used the term “welfare state” enthusiastically and positively, viewing the welfare state as the means of ensuring that a rich nation doesn’t forget its most needy and that our marketplace has as level a playing field as possible.

The highlight of the lunch for me was his passionate replay of the tragedy of the 2000 election, in which many progressives voted for Ralph Nader, thereby throwing the Electoral College vote and the presidency to the loser of the popular vote, George W. Bush. Domhoff made it clear to his progressive colleagues that the differences between Gore and Bush made a vote for Nader dangerous to the future of the country. At the end of the day, about 2.9 million voters didn’t listen to the pleas of Domhoff and other progressive pragmatists, including 22,000 in New Hampshire and 97,000 in Florida. If those New Hampshire or Florida voters had voted for Al Gore instead of Nader, we might not have pursued the needless and expensive Iraqi War; fewer of our civil liberties would have been curtailed in the aftermath of 9/11 (that is, if 9/11 occurred); our taxation system would not be so skewered in favor of the wealthy; we would almost certainly have a lower deficit; and we would have made much more progress in developing alternative energy and slowing down global warming.

Let’s hope progressives have learned our lesson. Let’s vote for Barack Obama in November, even as we continue to aggressively push him to the left with our support of progressive candidates for other offices and our letters, emails and comments on key issues such as raising taxes on the top one percent.

For anyone interested in any issue related to power in America, there is no better place to start than Domhoff’s website, Who Rules America at www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica.

The Who Rules America home page presents an introduction by Domhoff with links to various topics and a list of articles, some by Domhoff and some by others, all studies of who has and doesn’t have power in the United States.

The menu bar sends you to six broad topic areas, each of which presents a cornucopia of research, all presented in the breezy language and style of journalism:

  1. Power in America: This section includes Domhoff’s theory that the owners and executives of large corporations and banks constitute a class that dominates American public policy. Other articles explore the distribution of wealth and income in the United States, analyze the prevalence of the dominant class as members of federal advisory committees that set long-term governmental policy and dismantle the myth that public employee and union pension funds have acquired power over corporations.
  2. Power at the Local Level: Here Domhoff details his growth coalition theory, which essentially proposes that a specific segment of the dominant class—the owners of land and buildings—has the lion’s share of power at the local level because they join together to create a growth coalition that biases the area in favor of unmitigated development. Perhaps the most interesting part of this section of the website is the case studies of New Haven, Atlanta and San Francisco. I have found this section particularly useful in my public relations business, especially in my advice to outsiders wishing to break into regional business markets and social circles.
  3. Social Change: The articles in the Social Change section of the Who Rules American website include analyses of the successes and failures of social change movements in the U.S. and advice for progressive activists on how to move forward.
  4. Theories of Power: In this section, Domhoff considers a number of older theories of power, including the still-relevant ideas expressed by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite.
  5. Studying Power: This section studies how to study power.  It includes a history of power structure research in the United States and a step-by-step guide on how to do research in the power structure in your community.
  6. Santa Cruz: The Leftmost City is a long essay by Domhoff on progressive politics in the beach and university town of Santa Cruz, California, where Domhoff has resided for more than 40 years.

For anyone interested in learning how things really work in the United States, perusing Who Rules America is akin to eating potato chips.  It’s hard to read just one article.

Once you’ve pored over the website for a bit, why don’t you go to your nearest bookstore or visit the website of your favorite online book dealer and order/buy one or more of Domhoff’s books. Not only will you support the research of one of our most important sociologists, you will also be alerting the publishing industry and the political elite that carefully monitor media sales that there is a large and growing market for political and social books from a left and progressive perspective.

Forbes publisher says Kodak failed because of Rochester location, but wouldn’t blame environment for a person’s failure

Rich Karlgaard’s publication, Forbes, has long glorified the lone captain of industry who shapes the destiny of companies and nations. The flip side of its great man theory is the belief that people are responsible for their own fates and should not depend on government for handouts. Before and during Karlgaard’s rein as Forbes’ publisher, the publication has pursued both the great man and the no entitlements themes with a vengeance.

Yet in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece over the weekend, Karlgaard misapplies a chic theory of early human history to blame the failure of Kodak on its Rochester location.  It’s not the great, or in this case, not-so-great, man who brought Kodak down, it was the fact that Rochester didn‘t have enough creative buzz and talented people to help Kodak make the transition from film to digital picture-taking.

Let’s start with the facts of the article.  In documenting Kodak’s decline, Karlgaard makes a strong case that Kodak died of its own short-term greed.  Despite an early lead in digital technology, it preferred to sell the cash cow of film, which gave its digital competitors time to build an enormous market lead. That’s the story Karlgaard tells, but he then uses the old rhetorical device of not matching the facts to the conclusion.

To demonstrate that it was the backwater qualities of Rochester and not the stupidity of management that sunk Kodak, Karlgaard mentions a few other cases —paltry anecdotal evidence that is also contradictory since it forces him to label Boston as another backwater. In addition, Karlgaard forgets that while Kodak had its headquarters in Rochester, it had research and manufacturing facilities all over the world.

Although Karlgaard details the stupid tricks of the management of Kodak, Digital Equipment, Data General and Wang, he blames the places where these companies were headquartered.  Some amorphous quality he calls “innovation and adaptation” resides not in individuals or the corporate cultures of companies, but in the region.  Some regions got it and some regions don’t. This kind of argument borders on racism, because positive and negative qualities are falsely attributed to a population.

Karlgaard presents no evidence, only his assertion that Rochester failed Kodak as a location for a company more than Kodak failed Rochester through the stupidity of its senior management.  I’m guessing that Karlgaard or one of his ghost writers recently has stumbled upon a recent theory of early human history that proposes that European civilization and its American extension dominate the world and that the reason for it is the accident of geography.  This theory, popularized by Ian Morris in his Why the West Rules—For Now, is still in dispute, as is the idea that the West has mostly dominated the world stage throughout the ages.  Moreover, Morris and others are talking about the change geography compels over hundreds of years among populations of millions of individual entities in locations defined as much larger than a single metropolitan area.  Applying the idea to one company over a 40-year period distorts whatever validity this theory may have.

With or without this new scientific idea, Karlgaard makes one of the most specious arguments I have read in the news media in a long time. Behind it is the odious notion that business folk operate on a different standard from others.  Even if she/he made mistakes, the business master of the universe can’t be at fault, so it must be her/his environment.  Unspoken are the many times that Karlgaard and the staff he hires and fires have rejected the environment argument for the failures of the poor or disadvantaged.

The double standard is the unspoken premise behind many rightwing ideas.  For example, why is it that conservatives always argue that corporations and industries don’t need regulation and inspections to keep employees and the public safe? Where did business owners and executives obtain such high ethics that there aren’t even a few rotten apples in the barrel? Meanwhile, the same conservatives argue for limiting the length of unemployment benefits because regular working stiffs—not the dedicated and altruistic business owner—can’t be trusted and will not look for a job if the steady check is coming in. The same conservatives want to impose a greater paperwork burden to get food stamps and Medicaid and to register to vote, even as they bemoan paperwork for businesses.

Karlgaard implies the same argument in his Wall Street Journal piece.  It couldn’t possibly be the captain of industry, so it must be the rough seas in the home port.



Backers of anti-worker legislation use front organization to shill for another front organization run by PR firm

A recent full-page ad in many of the national daily newspapers pictures the newly deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and his youngest son, who replaced him as supreme ruler, Kim Jong-un. Both are deep in concentration, as if they are planning something grotesquely stupid or painful to perpetrate upon their people.

But the ad isn’t about the North Korean evil empire. It’s about the oppression supposedly felt by American workers in labor unions because they don’t have the right to vote to recertify the union every 3 years, something that the ad sponsors hope to rectify with the proposed Employee Rights Act, a piece of rightwing anti-union legislation percolating in Congress. The ad conflates the lack of real change in political leadership in North Korea with a so-called lack of union rights. The theme line of the ad is “It’s a new labor day.”

The ad talks neither about the rights of workers to organize, nor about the right to negotiate on even terms with management that unionization gains for workers.  Nothing is mentioned about the right to make more money and better benefits, which exists only theoretically for most non-unionized nonprofessionals. The only right in which the ad is interested is the right to dismantle an existing union.

The ad sends us to a website called employeerightsact.com which details the anti-union provisions of the Employee Rights Act, all of which make it harder to organize and easier to decertify a union.  The information is all presented in terms of benefits to the working stiff.

As with the American Petroleum Institute’s Vote4Energy website, employeerightsact.com makes it easy for those to act in favor of its proposed legislative change. The primary call to action in both cases is the same: write an elected official, in this case, your Congressional representative to tell her/him to support the proposed Employee Rights Act. Both websites also have a slew of information, most of it half-baked assertions and carefully-chiseled semi-facts.

But one thing separates these two websites: The American Petroleum Institute tells us what it is and who is supporting it.

By contrast, employeerightsact.com says that it is a project of the “Center for Union Facts” and sends us to its website.

The Center for Union Facts never really gets around to giving us a formal mission statement, but it seems hell-bent on doing anything to hurt unions. Some of its favorite hobby horses are the aforementioned anti-employee Employee Rights Act and an obsession with union corruption and political influence.  It claims that it wants to get the word out to union employees about their rights, but the only right mentioned is the right to decertify.

And who runs Center for Union Facts, you might ask? Here’s all the website says: “The Center for Union Facts is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization supported by foundations, businesses, union members, and the general public.”

I tooled around the Internet looking for information about the organization and discovered that it is operated by a Washington, D.C.-based public relations agency called Berman & Company.  Here’s a direct quote about who funds Berman’s efforts from a Sourcewatch article:

United Press International noted that “the group’s spokesman refused to release the names of its donors or say where its funding came from.” Berman told Bloomberg reporter Kim Bowman that he had raised “about $2.5 million from companies, trade organizations and individuals, whom he declined to identify.” Sarah Longwell, a spokeswoman for the Center for Union Facts, echoed Berman’s groups standard claim for secrecy on who funds their front groups. “The reason we don’t disclose supporters is because unions have a long history of targeting anyone who opposes them, whether it be in a threatening way or by lodging campaigns against them,” she told Detroit Free Press. The paper reported that while Wal-Mart Stores denied funding the group it stated that “it has a relationship in which it exchanges union information with Berman, the group’s head.

As it turns out, Berman & Company runs a number of pro-business websites, none of which ever identifies which organizations and individuals are putting up the money. Here is a partial list of other Berman-run organizations, compiled by ”Berman Exposed,” a website dedicated to revealing the deceptive tricks of the company and its founder, Rick Berman: 

We’ve gone through a bit of a maze, so let’s review: One or more companies and individuals pay Berman to create a “front” organization to advocate against regulations and laws that constrain business, including laws against drunk driving and smoking. I call the organization a front because it represents companies and individuals who don’t want their names associated with the work of the front. In the case of anti-union activity, Berman’s front creates another front. The front to the front then launches a misleading advertising campaign meant to draw people to the website. And through it all, we never know who it is who is really pulling the strings.