Do voters condone lying by candidates? Corruption of elections may begin with the public

The reaction to the vice presidential and the second presidential debates reminds me of a mirror. When you look in a mirror you see yourself. In the case of these debates, it appears that opinion writers, pundits, political advisors and bloggers are all seeing what they want to see. Yes, I believe that both the President and Vice President kicked butt, but I’m a liberal. The twisted arguments I have read on both sides make me discount all opinions, including my own, as subjective wishful thinking. Maybe I’m just seeing the reflection of my own views in the mirror. As with the first debate, we really won’t know who won until we see the polls in about a week.

Perhaps the most talked-about moment in the debate has been Mitt Romney’s unfortunate elision of “binders full of resumes of women” into “binders full of women.” Many Democrats and feminists have been giving Romney a hard time about the remark. The remark as stated does commoditize women, that is, treat them as interchangeable commodities. But give the guy a break.  It was another verbal flub and nothing more. I’m not voting for Mitt because I don’t like his stands and his plans and I don’t think he would make a competent leader of a democracy, but I’m willing to give him a free pass on this remark and rather focus on his awful positions on women’s reproductive rights, health care, the fact that women still make less than men for the same jobs and other important issues. The election is too important to sweat the small stuff.

The fact that the story Romney told about his binders was false raises a more important issue—lying by candidates.  Romney said that he asked for the resumes, when in fact they had been given to him and his opponent in the election before the votes came out in Mitt’s favor.  The Republicans have used these kinds of distortions as a major strategy of the campaign, as fact-checking services have revealed time and again.

But does the public care if candidates lie?

An opinion poll on the homepage of Yahoo! the day before the second presidential debate suggests that many do not.

First, let’s be clear that these online polls are not scientific since people can vote more than once using different computers and the participants are not screened to represent an accurate demographic cross-section.  For example, the Yahoo! polls always skew slightly to the right, meaning that the results always favor the conservative view more than scientific polls conducted by reputable organizations do. This rightward lean could reflect the fact that retired people tend to be more conservative and have the time to do these polls, or it may suggest that Yahoo! is used by a right-leaning demographic or it may be caused by another factor.

The results of Yahoo! polls can be particularly suspect because instead of asking yes-and-no questions, the possible answers always come with a characterization that spins them in one way or another. Here’s today’s poll, for example:

Was Candy Crowley wrong to fact-check during the debate?
            Yes, it’s not the moderator’s place.
            No, she made a good correction.

But what if you think that it is the moderator’s place to fact-check, but do not think Crowley’s correction was accurate? How do you vote then?

Taking the inherent inaccuracies of the Yahoo! poll into account, I am nevertheless completely shocked and dismayed by the results of the Yahoo! Poll on candidates’ lying. Here’s what the approximately half million people who answered the question said:

Do you expect candidates to lie during the debates?
Yes, it’s part of the game: 58%
No, they should be honest: 42%

Even if we factor in people voting twice and take into account the chatty but distorting way Yahoo! asks its questions—even when we consider all those factors, we can only conclude that a large part of the American public believes that its okay for our candidates and elected officials to lie to us. (BTW, I don’t want anyone to infer that I believe that conservatives condone lying more than liberals or centrists. I don’t, although I do believe that the current crop of conservative politicians do lie a lot more than other candidates, and a lot more than conservatives of the 60’s and 70’s did).

Lying and corruption are supposed to be the exceptions that we root out of the system. We are supposed to be shocked when we see students in cheating scandals, scientists giving false results or executives cooking the books.  We’re supposed to base our decisions on the truth and consider the liar a pariah.

But evidently, large numbers of Americans have become ethically challenged. They believe that it’s not how you play the game, but if you win. They follow the cynical political philosopher Machiavelli and think that the ends justify the means.

Is this what the American compact has come down to? Lie to get what you want.

The low minimum wage reduces to a subsidy to businesses

The statistic has been around for a few months now, but I just stumbled upon it and was amazed: Wal-Mart workers collectively receive $2.66 billion a year in food stamps, or $420,000 per Wal-Mart store in food stamps. Year after year, low Wal-Mart wages lead to the government providing food stamps and other assistance to its workers and thus indirectly subsidizing Wal-Mart’s profit.

What would happen if Wal-Mart raised the wages it pays its workers to a level that prevented them from qualifying for food stamps? In asking the question, I assume that Wal-Mart, like most companies, does not carry excess labor and so could not lay off masses of people to keep their profit margin stable. So the company would be forced to raise prices. But if Wal-Mart raises prices too much, people will start shopping elsewhere. After all, the main reason people shop at Wal-Mart is price.

To remain viable as a business, Wal-Mart would eventually have to take the money to pay workers a decent wage out of profit and executive salaries.

That means that there would be less money for the multi-billionaire Walton family and the executives who make millions, starting with $35 million a year for the chief executive officer. Maybe the CEO would have to settle for making 42 times what the average worker makes, which is what the average manufacturing CEO in the United States made in 1960. By the way, the average U.S. manufacturing CEO now makes 344 times what the average worker makes, compared to 25 times the average worker for European CEOs. Wal-Mart’s CEO currently makes more than 2,000 times what an entry-level Wal-Mart employee does.

It amazes me that Republicans like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and the other good old boys and girls don’t complain about the corporate giveaway that takes place every time someone with a minimum or low wage job files for food stamps.

During the past 30 years, one way that income has been transferred from the poor and middle class is through the deterioration of the purchasing power of the minimum wage. Since the late 1960’s the minimum wage has lost 40% of its value. Most people who lose 40% of their purchasing power would be in real trouble—so imagine what it means to those at the lowest end of the wage spectrum.

It’s been a boon to employers who now can pay a de facto 40% less to get minimum wage jobs done. Since the minimum wage sets the bar for wages and salaries at all levels, it’s no wonder that on average, employees make less than they did 30 years ago, when inflation is figured into the equation.

My proposal is to set the minimum wage at a level so that 40 hours of it would bring a worker above the maximum level for receiving food stamps. That would result in an increase in all wages. It would also take money out of the pockets of the rich folk who save a significant part of their income and put that money into the hands of the poor, near poor and middle class, who would spend more of it, thus creating more jobs. Don’t worry, the rich and upper middle class would still do pretty well.

The fly in the ointment is the possibility that Wal-Mart and other large companies would offshore even more jobs to Asia than they do now. Which brings us to the second part of my proposal: that no good or service be allowed to be imported into the United States unless the producer/seller both paid its workers the prevailing U.S. wage and provided a similar level of safety and environmental protections.

My two proposals would lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth, in the United States and probably worldwide. Studies of 20th century America, 14th century Europe and 16th century Spain demonstrate that a more equitable distribution of wealth leads to a stronger economy.

The alternative is to continue on the path we are on and end up having an economy and society that look like those of a third world nation.

Right-wing group thinks that program to have school children have lunch with new friends may turn kids gay

What could be more innocent and more reflective of basic American values than a program that encourages school children to have lunch with kids with whom they usually don’t associate?  It’s a wonderful way to encourage children to learn about people outside their small circle of friends, who might come from a different ethnic or economic background, or maybe even have a disability.

This national program is called Mix It Up at Lunch Day and is sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a long-time civil rights organization known primarily for its work on behalf of African-Americans, but which in recent years has gotten involved in rights issues for gays, immigrants and others.  According to SPLC, Mix It Up “encourages students across the nation to challenge and cross social and racial boundaries by sitting with someone new in the cafeteria for just one day.” SPLC says that more than one million students across the nation took part in Mix It Up last year.

It reminds me of the middle school my son attended, which assigned kids to lunch tables and changed the assignments every six weeks. By the end of the year, every child had sat at lunch with every other child in his or her grade, a great way to slow down the formation of cliques.

Mix it Up at Lunch Day sounds like an idea that everyone from all points of the political spectrum can get behind.

But not the ultra- right-wing American Family Association (AFA), which has launched a campaign to have parents keep their children home from school on this year’s Mix It Up day, set for October 30.

What could AFA’s objection possibly be?

As reported in the New York Times, AFA claims that the event is “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in America.”

The Times gives us this quote from Bryan Fisher, who works for AFA: “Anti-bullying legislation is exactly the same,” Mr. Fischer said. “It’s just another thinly veiled attempt to promote the homosexual agenda. No one is in favor of anyone getting bullied for any reason, but these anti-bullying policies become a mechanism for punishing Christian students who believe that homosexual behavior is not something that should be normalized.”

The only way that this statement makes any sense is if Fisher is saying that AFA dislikes Mix It Up and anti-bullying policies because both discourage kids from beating up gays. What else could AFA possibly mean by “punishing Christian students who believe that homosexual behavior should not be normalized” in the context of anti-bullying initiatives?

Beyond this convoluted justification for literally bashing GLBT students, is the illogical inference that Mix It Up has a special gay agenda. There is no special mention of GBLT as a group in the Mix It Up material I saw, and quite a lot about racial and ethnic groups like African-Americans and Latinos. I also saw an emphasis on encouraging kids from different socioeconomic groups to get together. There can be no doubt that Mix It Up is meant to include people of differing sexual orientations (as it should), but their inclusion is not explicitly stated. To say that the program has a special gay orientation is nothing more than a lie.

Moreover, Mix It Up promotes tolerance for differences—be it racial, social, sexual, whatever— and does nothing to promote any given lifestyle or ethnic group.

What’s more, most people would only connect SPLC with the civil rights movement for African-Americans.   I understand that the AFA boycott may partially be in retaliation for SPLC putting the right-wing group on its list of hate groups. So maybe, all we have here is a tit-for-tat maneuver that is unfortunately based on a big lie and AFA’s ugly viewpoint regarding sexual minorities.

That’s pretty bad in and of itself, but I keep having this gnawing feeling that something else is going on.  Let’s add one and one together: The first one is the fact that Mix It Up Day focuses on race and ethnicity. The second one is the fact that SPLC is known for its stand on race issues. When I add those two “ones” together, the two I get is that behind the attack on gays by AFA is a veiled racist attack against minorities.

“Cap & trade” too complex. Why not just create more rigorous emissions standards and fine polluters?

Let’s take a break from the presidential election campaign to discuss a topic that both candidates seem to be largely ignoring: the environment – specifically the enormous amount of carbon wastes that human are spewing into the environment by burning fossil fuels. The funny thing is that in long term, the rapid warming of the planet through human action is the most single important issue we face, and the candidates want to run away from the discussion.

California is not taking the head-in-the-sand approach of our national leaders when it comes to pollution emissions.  As the New York Times reported today, California is set to introduce a cap-and-trade plan which charges industries money for the greenhouse gases they produce. The California plan seems to be the preferred mode of economists and governments to address pollution control.  A similar cap-and-trade plan never made it through the U.S. Congress. The European Union has had a cap-and-trade program in place since 2005.

But just what is cap-and-trade? The Times gives a good overview of what will happen in California. After I read it, I was scratching my head at its complexity:

“…the state will set an overall ceiling on those emissions and assign allowable emission amounts for individual polluters. A portion of these so-called allowances will be allocated to utilities, manufacturers and others; the remainder will be auctioned off.

Over time, the number of allowances issued by the state will be reduced, which should force a reduction in emissions.

To obtain the allowances needed to account for their emissions, companies can buy them at auction or on the carbon market. They can secure offset credits, as they are known, either by buying leftover allowances from emitters that have met their targets or by purchasing them from projects that remove carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere…”

I like the part of it that involves gradually lowering the amount of emissions that are allowed.

But the idea of trading emissions credits is overly complex and therefore almost by definition easy to abuse.   Cap-and-trade creates a marketplace in which pollution credits are bought and sold.  Theoretically it enables a major polluter to continue to spew poison into the air merely by buying pollution credits from companies that don’t pollute or don’t pollute as much. As with all markets, even the theoretical “free market,” the altar at which most Republicans pray, the cap-and-trade marketplace runs by rules and regulations that lend both additional complexity and the possibility of nefarious manipulation.

In some ways, cap-and-trade reminds me of the securitization of home mortgages. It used to be that banks loaned people money to buy a home and then patiently waited until the consumer paid the loan back. With securitization, the banks made the loan and then sold it to someone else, who lumped together many loans and sold them as an investment that could be traded on the market.  Creating a market for mortgage-based financial instruments was supposed to spread the risk and lead to safer investments, which in turn would help consumers.  We all know how that worked out: Because banks were selling off the loans, their lending standards fell, people who couldn’t afford loans got them, those loans were buried in the financial vehicles that were sold, and when the loans went south, the entire house of cards of the mortgage market crumbled, taking the U.S. economy with it.

I don’t think that cap-and-trade will lead to another financial meltdown (although trading in a triviality—the tulip bulb—took down the Dutch economy in the 17th century). What it does is interject a level of complexity that is both unnecessary and open to abuse.

Cap-and-trade is the type of plan that Rube Goldberg might build.  Rube Goldberg was an American cartoonist who drew a series of popular cartoons depicting complex gadgets performing very simple tasks in convoluted ways.

The simple way to deal with emissions is to set regulations and make polluters follow them or suffer stiff fines. The argument against this approach is that it will be too expensive for companies or that the companies will pass on the costs of consumers, hurting everyone, but especially poor people.

These arguments are bogus: First of all, society is already paying the additional cost of pollution through higher healthcare costs and cleanup of natural disasters. These “hidden” costs, often called “social costs” are paid collectively by all of us. We pay and the company doesn’t, meaning that besides allowing our environment to be fouled, we as a community are subsidizing the income of the polluting company’s senior management and shareholders. It’s a classic “pay me now or pay me later,” except instead of the companies paying now, we all pay later.

Keep in mind, too, that the money that the polluting companies shell out to put scrubbers on coal-burning plants, introduce a little natural gas into the coal mix or any of the other currently available emission technologies goes to the companies that develop, sell and maintain these pollution-preventing technologies . The money is not burned and lost to the economy. It is used to create a more diversified economy, and one that is not so hazardous to the health of the Earth.

As to poor people who might not be able to afford the new higher prices when companies clean up their act, it seems to me that it’s far simpler to give the poor an energy tax credit than to create a convoluted and easy-to-scam cap-and-trade marketplace.

I applaud California for actually doing something about greenhouse gas emissions.  I only wish it had followed the dictum of 14th century Christian philosopher, Thomas of Occam, to seek the simpler solution, which is this case means making polluters pay.



Why do so many right-wingers seem so grim and angry?

I normally associate fear with many conservative positions:  Fear of minorities and the poor. Fear of losing a job or a home. Fear of terrorist attack. Fear of cities and those that have different lifestyles and backgrounds. This fear of the other that haunts U.S. culture through history.

But what I’m feeling from the right in the current presidential election cycle is anger not fear.  Anger at people who accept government benefits—except for themselves, of course. Anger at Muslims and at Arabs (two different things). Anger at unions. Anger at anyone who wants to raise their taxes. Anger at women who have abortions and even at women who use birth control.

There have been so many Republican candidates who had fed this anger and then fed off of it that I don’t know where to start: Certainly, Mitt deserves notice for his “47%” comments, delivered in the smooth corporate style that Bertram Gross once called “friendly fascism.”

But even at his worst, Romney is so genteel. I’m talking about bitter, hateful words that seem to spew from the mouth like spitfire from an automatic weapon—Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Todd Akin are the A-team of the angry candidates, but other Republican celebs fomenting anger include Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Jack Welch, Jack Nicklaus and Sarah Palin.

I have experienced this anger in the tweets I receive whenever I write something critical of Romney or right-wing positions.  I must preface this remark by mentioning that I get very polished and enlightening tweets on a regular basis from a dozen or so conservatives who vehemently oppose my views—vehemently but with civility.

But I am getting a very large number of tweets from Romney supporters, global warming deniers and those who want to lower taxes on the wealthy and end Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid that manifest anger, and in many cases contain nothing more than angry invictive. Over the past few months every grammatical tense of all the common four-letter vulgarities have been tossed my way, along with a number of other usually tedious and gratuitous insults and an occasional veiled threat involving firearms.

I especially like when people infer things about me or my life, for example that I was a hippie that didn’t study in college (I won the scholarship as the outstanding student) or that I am not financially successful (when I have earned a great living running a business for more than 20 years).

But my favorite tactic of the angry birds attacking me on Twitter is “machine-gunning tweets,” by which I mean sending eight or nine tweets in a row. I can understand wanting to string some tweets together to make a point that requires too much detail for the 140-charatcter Twitter limit. When machine-gunning tweets though, the tweeter is not building an argument, just sending a series of disconnected statements, all dripping with hostility.

(I can’t say if the progressives and centrists who tweet me are angry—they tend to agree with what I have written, so why would anger leak into their communications to an ally? They may display hostility when they tweet those with whom they disagree. I do know that a lot of them express fear when they tweet me—fear that Social Security, Medicare or food stamps could be eliminated, fear that we’ll restart our torture gulag, fear that they’ll lose reproductive rights, fear they’ll lose basic civil rights.  But I can’t say what the underlying emotional tone is when they tweet conservatives.)

The switch from fear to a mean-spirited anger came with the ascension of the Tea Party, which studies show basically comprises wealthier than usual whites living primarily in distant suburbs and rural areas.

Both anger and fear have an object and that object is the other. We fear the other. We hate the other. The other in the United States (as in many countries) are racial minorities and newcomers (AKA immigrants). It is truly a propaganda tour de force, though, that the Republicans have gotten away with adding poor people, those who receive government benefits (except for those that the hater receives), school teachers, union members and intellectuals to the list of the despised other without large numbers of people realizing that the list now includes a majority of all Americans.

Change in polls show Romney won debate and kudos to Parade Magazine

I wrote the other day that we wouldn’t know who really won the first presidential debate until the next polls of likely voters came out.

That verdict is in, and it seems as if the pundits were right and Romney won by the only criterion that counts: a change in the polls in his favor.  New polls have shown Romney pulling even or slightly ahead in the larger swing states and closing the gap nationally. That is, assuming these polls aren’t cooked like many Republicans said former polls and the latest unemployment numbers were.  Funny, they’re not questioning the accuracy of these new polls.  LOL.

I have a few observations I want to share on Romney’s post-debate surge, working backwards from the end of the decision-making chain to the beginning:

  1. We don’t know the composition of the people who swung to Romney in the aftermath of the first debate, but I’m going to guess that they were Republicans who were going to stay home or independents leaning towards Mitt in the first place.
  2. It’s fairly clear that Romney’s performance in the polls swayed the people now responsible for the swing to Romney, since nothing else changed. What is unclear is whether the pundits’ immediate declaration of a Romney victory influenced the perception of who won the debate or the decision to raise hands for the challenger.
  3. Those who judged Romney the winner did not factor in the fact that Mitt told so many lies in his debate remarks.   If telling the truth had been one of the criteria by which the debate were judged, Romney would have been declared the loser by all but the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world.

The most depressing implication of the “win,” then, is that either people are not seeking or retaining information about the views of the candidates AND/OR they just don’t care if a candidate lies or distorts a lot.

Many supporters of Obama I know have been wringing their hands in anxiety and moaning some form of the question, “Why didn’t Obama do better?” The Economist supplied the
answer to this question days before the debate in an editorial cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher: Both candidates are at the debate podium. Romney is juggling three small, perfectly round balls labeled “Massachusetts,” “Bain Capital” and “Olympics.”  Obama is juggling nine or ten enormous shapes, each with jagged edges or other potential hazards, and they’re labeled with “Iran,” “Libya,” “Unemployment,” “Deficit” and so forth.  Kallaugher hits on the reason that incumbents mostly lose the first presidential debate—they all have had a pretty demanding day job.

Changing the subject: I frequently criticize Parade Magazine, the Sunday newspaper supplement that is probably the most widely read periodical in the United States. Parade is an easy target for anyone opposed to celebrity culture and to those concerned that the news media promotes consumerism and unhealthy habits such a poor nutrition.

Today I come not to bury Parade, but to praise it.

This Sunday’s issue has a long article telling the public the dangers of not vaccinating children against common diseases and debunking every myth of the anti-vaccine movement.

Parade presents the case for vaccination with both facts and a heart-rending case history. Parade’s extensive coverage includes two sidebar articles with lists: one of the 5 leading myths about vaccines, each exploded with easy-to-understand science; the other of the types of vaccines people need at different stages of life.

The anti-vaccine movement is one of the saddest parts of our current retreat from rationality—and one of the most senseless. Global warming can seem far off and abstract, even after a summer of beastly heat. Whether we’re descended from other animals doesn’t matter when you’re paying the rent or saving for your children’s higher education. But the growing number of parents who fail to get their children vaccinated leads directly to epidemics of painful and preventable diseases.

Bravo to Parade for taking on this important health issue.



Romney admits he was wrong to write off 47% of the country

News flash!

On last night’s “Sean Hannity Show,” Mitt Romney admitted that his comments about “the 47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes were “just completely wrong.”

Mitt doesn’t apologize, but he does say he was wrong.  Better late than never.

Romney explains away his harsh and dismissive comment by asserting that during a campaign a candidate says thousands of things and “now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right.”

He never tells us what he meant to say, but did remember to apply several at-a-boy pats to his back: “My life has shown that I care about 100 percent, and that’s been demonstrated throughout my life.”

Maybe so and maybe no, but we know this much: The tax plan that Mitt has been talking about for the past 18 months and which he may or may not have repudiated in the first presidential debate cares only about the 1% and pretty much screws the other 99%.

I also have to wonder if Romney had another moment of “something not coming out right” in the debate when he said that the healthcare plan which he proposes to replace the Affordable Care Act will protect people with pre-existing conditions.  Yes, he enables people with pre-existing conditions to buy insurance if they had it but lost their job and are willing to pay for it themselves. Anyone else with a pre-existing condition is left holding the bag, unable to get insurance or paying an exorbitant amount for health insurance.

Romney told a lot of lies during the debate, which of course did not count in the scoring done by the pundits who have declared him the winner.  Maybe these were just other moments of “something not coming out right.”  Maybe nothing ever comes out right for Paul Ryan, whose litany of distortions and lies has been well documented.

Or maybe Mitt really meant it when he denigrated 47% of the population to an audience of fat cats last May. After all, the 47% include senior citizens, the poor, children and veterans, all of whom benefit from government programs that would be cut or ended to pay for the tax cut largesse that Romney wants to bestow on the already wealthy.

The polls will tell us who won last night’s debate, but it looked like a draw

Despite the efforts of pundits and politicians to spin last night’s debate in favor of one or the other candidate, we won’t really know who won until we see the next set of polls of likely voters nationwide and in the swing states.

Many pundits and politicians say that Mitt Romney won because he was more aggressive and attacking. When we break his style down to its components, we get the following, all of which characterized Romney’s debate style against the other Republican contenders for the nomination:

  • Insistence that the rules be followed (usually so he could shoehorn in one more comment).
  • Interrupting his opponent(s).
  • Stridently communicating a few limited points and sticking to them.

There can be no doubt that these behaviors worked in the debates against other Republicans. Against Obama, they worked, too, but only to provide a contrast in styles.

What the pundits are really saying when they declare Romney the winner in that they prefer or believe that the American people prefer the attacking style to what seems to be Obama’s more laid-back and studied approach.

Most commentators have missed a more profound difference between the two candidates: Romney tended to speak in anecdotes and broad principles, while Obama’s presentation focused on facts and specifics.  My dear readers will be able to latch on to an example or two that contradicts what I say, but if you go back and read the transcripts carefully, you’ll see that the preponderance of examples supports my analysis that Romney followed Ronald Reagan’s model of telling stories to illustrate big ideas, while Obama went from fact to fact and from action to action.

While I much prefer the Obama approach, Daniel Kahneman proved in Thinking Fast and Slow that believing anecdotes over facts is hard-wired into the human brain, and that many people actually respond more favorably to the argument by anecdote, especially when they already believe what the anecdote supports. The degree to which fence-sitters in the election prefer anecdotal thinking will mostly determine if Romney picked up any votes last night, which is, of course, the true test of who won the debate.

As far as individual points go, the biggest verbal altercations surrounded two points:

  • Romney’s tax plan, which the Republican nominee either repudiated or lied about in the debates.  If he really does not intend to shift the tax burden to the middle class and poor from the wealthy, the debate was the first we have heard of his change of mind.  As Obama mentioned in the debate, all independent analyses of the Romney plan conclude that it would shift the tax burden down the economic ladder.
  • The $716 billion that the Obama Administration is saving in Medicare costs by ending unneeded testing, cracking down on fraud, adjusting payments to doctors and hospitals for certain services and running a more efficient operation. Romney continues to insist on falsely labeling as benefit cuts these business-like adjustments to what the government pays. Yes, doctors and insurance companies will make $716 billion less, but those on Medicare will receive the same level of benefits and have the same number of trips to the doctor and tests (except for those that they never should have had in the first place).

The biggest disappointment in the debate was the reverence with which both candidates approached the report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known in short hand as the Simpson-Bowles Commission. As I and many other analysts pointed out when Simpson-Bowles released its report two years ago, the report did not do what it was supposed to do, which was to develop a plan to reduce the deficit. Instead, the Simpson-Bowles plan proposed an overhaul of the tax system which would shift the burden of tax payments from the wealthy to the middle class and poor. That both candidates spoke kindly of the plan shows how far right the country has moved.

Hollywood fantasy imagines charter schools to be the answer when studies show they underperform

This year’s liberal stand-in for the devil incarnate are the Koch Brothers, who have forked over millions of dollars to establish the Tea Party, push Tea Party candidates, raise doubts about climate change and promote legislation that guts environmental regulations and reduces taxes on the wealthy.

It’s hard to vote against Dave and Charles when it comes to spreading around the bucks for bad causes, but how about Phillip Anschutz, the Conservative billionaire who financed the current anti-union melodrama, Won’t Back Down.

Won’t Back Down paints an ugly imaginary world in which all unionized teachers are lazy, uncaring incompetents. A sexy babe single parent played by Maggie Gyllenhaal organizes a charter school that saves the children.

According to Wikipedia, the film is “loosely based on the events surrounding the use of the parent trigger law in Sunland-Tujunga, Los Angeles, California in 2010, where several groups of parents attempted to take over several failing public schools” using a new law passed in California in 2010 which enabled parents “to direct changes such as dismissal of staff and potential conversion of a school to a charter school.”

The right-wing backing of Won’t Back Down begins with the studio that produced this fantasy, which also made Waiting for Superman, the documentary on charter schools that uses argument by anecdote to convince us that charter schools will save American public schools.  Anschultz, famous for his values campaigns and support of conservative think tanks, put up the money. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, known for its stands against unions, the minimum wage and any kind of government regulation of business, contributed $2.0 million to a national publicity campaign for the movie.

By the way, Ms. Gyllenhaal went to the ritziest of private schools, belongs to a fabulously wealthy family and descends from Swedish royalty.  A lot of wealthy and connected people who send their own children to private schools like Bruce Rauner and Malin Burnham have put their money and influence behind the charter school movement.

The question is: why would these right-wingers create and promote a slickly sentimental inspirational tearjerker about establishing a type of school that is known to fail?

Despite the glossy but distorted images of educational success in both Won’t Back Down and Waiting for Superman, charter schools are known to fail.

Let’s remain in the reality-based community that Karl Rove likes to belittle and look at the facts: Virtually all studies show that the charter school movement has yielded disappointing results in the area of student performance in school and standardized tests (which don’t test all skills, but do test a lot of skills such as reading and math that are needed to get through life and hold down a job). For example, a recent Stanford University study found that the math performance of 46% of charter schools is indistinguishable from public schools, 17% had substantially higher scores and 37% of charter schools had substantially lower scores than their public school equivalents.

Why do conservatives support charter schools?  Can the answer be anything other than breaking teachers’ unions? What I find so amazing is that so many people buy the argument that less experienced, lower paid teachers in charter or private schools or in the Teach for America program (which let’s high-flying recent college graduates without education degrees teach in disadvantaged schools for a year or so) will do a better job than higher-paid teachers in unions. We think that higher paid actors, athletes, musicians, attorneys, physicians and business people are better at what they do. What’s different about teachers? And yet all these popular education reform movements seem to have as their goal the destruction of teacher unions and the lowering of salaries for the professionals who educate our young.

What we need to improve public education are more teachers and better facilities—smaller class sizes, more specialists helping kids with learning disabilities and those who are gifted, more computer labs and science labs, a shorter cycle of replacing text books and larger budgets for supplies. A recent study showed that better-performing schools spend more money on the classroom and teachers than do underperforming schools.

Of course that takes money, which mean that Phillip Anschutz and the other rich folk backing the attack on traditional public schools will have to pay more in  taxes.

One quarter of the year now dedicated to the X-mas potlatch of conspicuous consumption

Congratulations to Frontgate, a retail company selling home décor and furnishings with locations in Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio, plus a website and catalogue business.

Frontgate is the first company to try to sell me something related to Christmas this year.

The Frontgate Christmas catalogue arrived in the mail on September 25, more than a month before Halloween.  Frontgate wants us to bypass Halloween and Thanksgiving and go right to Christmas.

What Frontgate wants to sell us symbolizes the conspicuous consumption that long ago took all celebrations hostage in the United States (with the possible—and I stress possible—exception of Thanksgiving).  Frontgate is peddling wreathes, flameless candles, candle holders, fake holly displays, nutcracker soldiers that light up, artificial trees with and without lights and frosting, ornaments for the tree, lights for outside, Happy Holidays doormats, five-foot tall drummer soldiers beating snare drums, giant figurines for the lawn including Santa’s helpers and a dog with reindeer antlers replete with small cat sidling up to it and a sign that reads “Santa’s Little Yelper.”

Embedded in this list of items for purchase we can find many of the ideological corollaries of the basic principle of American consumerism: that all human experience—be it celebration, expression of emotion, response to challenge or interaction with others—reduces not just to products and services, but to the purchase of products and services.

Here are some of the themes of the consumer ideology that I recognize in what Frontgate mongers:

  • Buying stuff people used to make as an expression of the holiday spirit. People used to display their ingenuity and express their love by making things and giving it to friends and neighbors. That’s the origin of Christmas gift-giving. In an agricultural society, wreathes would be a natural gift and some might carve nutcrackers—perhaps not five-foot leviathans. The ideology of consumerism tells us that instead of making it, we should buy it.
  • Buying fake instead of real: Artificial wreathes and flowers belong with the rest of ersatz or pseudo culture, which also includes theme parks, casinos that are imitation European cities, ethnic food at fast food, theme restaurants and McMansions.  These fake experiences are all exhortations to consumers—buy the doodads for sale at the gift shop—it will all look comfortably alike except for that icon that has been trademarked by another kind of leviathan.
  • Showing off in front of the neighbors: who can outdo whom, keeping up with the Jones and the Cohens—there are lots of metaphors and aphorisms to describe buying stuff and showing it off to everyone you know hoping to inspire admiration and envy. All that wealth display takes a lot of spending, and it replaces other types of interaction with the neighbors— as conversations about stuff replaces conversations about the families, politics and community affairs or joining together in volunteer efforts (as opposed to giving money in return for your name on a building, room or brass tree leaf). Lots of the Frontgate Christmas stuff ends up on the kind of lawns that people drive miles to see in suburbs and that often infuriate the neighbors who sleep with artificial light in their eyes for six weeks or longer in the dead of winter. If that ain’t conspicuous consumption, I don’t know what is.

It was the early 20th century economist Thorsten Veblen who coined the term conspicuous consumption, which he said was how the leisure class jockeyed for status: by spending the excessive amounts of money they have showing their friends, neighbors and relatives how cool they are.

La plus ça change…