Electrical utilities lobby against solar energy instead of developing their own solar capabilities

The New York Times article on electrical utilities lobbying against government support of solar powered electricity didn’t surprise me. It did disappoint me, though.

You would think that given what electrical utility executives know about shortages of fossil fuels and global warming, instead of trying to scuttle solar they would develop products and services for the solar market. It doesn’t have to just be a central power plant using solar energy to generate electricity and then sending it to homes and businesses along the grid. The utilities could also lease solar panels to houses and provide all maintenance, servicing, repair and insurance. There all kinds of ways the utilities can continue to line the pockets of the executives and shareholders in a solar and wind world.

Didn’t any of these guys go to business school? One of the first things that business students everywhere have to read is the classic Harvard Business Review article on the railroad industry. The thesis of the article is that the railroads declined because they forgot that they were really in the transportation business and they didn’t adapt to the changing conditions.

Did Microsoft or Apple roll up their tents when tablets and portable devices became big?  No, they adapted. What did that typewriter and mainframe computer company IBM do when personal computers came on the market?

Electrical industry spokespersons complain that government assistance to people who convert to solar helps to shrink the market for their way of delivering electricity to homes, and that they will eventually have to raise prices. So what? The country has been paying too little for energy for too long, which is why we waste so much. (Of course it’s an illusion to think we have relatively low energy costs, because so much of what we pay for our oversized military is to protect the oil supply chain.) The rising price of fossil fuel generated electricity helps to make solar and wind more attractive. Isn’t that the point of the government support of solar?

Keep in mind that for many years into the future there will still be a market for electricity generated by fossil fuels.

For decades, government gave generous subsidies and tax breaks to electrical utilities, and they still do in the form of the annual rate approval systems and tax exempt bonds to back construction of new capacity.

It once made sense to provide government support for fossil fuels. But those days are long gone.  Now we as a society have a pressing need for government investment into developing and commercializing sources of electricity that depend on renewable resources. Biofuels seem less possible since the ethanol fiasco in which more energy has been consumed to convert corn to fuel than resulted from the conversion while food prices skyrocketed. Our best options are solar and wind.

If utilities don’t invest in these alternatives, they will end up like makers of buggy whips. But that’s their problem, not the government’s or yours. Our problem is to secure a source of electricity in a world of resource shortages and extreme warming caused by carbon emission.



Smarmy eHarmony commercial brings Big Brother into the bedroom

Do Americans want a “Big Brother” figure involved in their intimate relationships?

That’s what eharmony.com, one of the largest dating sites in the world, seems to be saying in a commercial that has been airing for many months now.

The imagery is a bit smarmy, because it suggests a wholesome threesome involving a man and a woman and a sage-looking elderly gentleman, who happens to be eharmony.com founder, Neil Clark Warren.

Here are the three vignettes that visually dominate this 30-second ad:

  1. A man gives a woman an engagement ring and the woman shows it to Warren who says, “We took the platinum setting.”
  2. A man and woman are getting cozy on a couch, about ready to watch TV when Warren sits down between and the woman offers him a large bowl of popcorn and starts munching.
  3. At the beach, a woman gives a man a drink with a little hat or umbrella in it and turns to her other side and gives a drink to Warren.

In all three, Warren has intruded on a romantic moment, making it a kind of ménage a trois.

Meanwhile, the voice over makes a completely grandiose and mendacious claim: “Chances are behind every great relationship is eharmony.com.”  Let’s take a moment for the meaning of this statement to sink in: “Chances are” means probably or almost definitely. The explicit statement here is that eHarmony.com is responsible for all great relationships (at least between men and women). Even if we believe the eharmony.com website when it says that a recent Harris Interactive survey found that an eHarmony match led to almost 4% of all U.S. marriages in 2012, that’s a long way from “every great relationship.” It’s also worth pointing out that not every great marriage involves a great relationship. The claim in the TV ad goes far beyond exaggeration. It’s an outright lie.

More disturbing than this false claim, which most will easily see as self-serving puffery, is the hidden message that eHarmony makes by injecting its founder—a white male dressed in a traditional formal suit—into the happy relationships it shows in the ad.  It’s an authoritarian symbol. It’s one thing to use eHarmony and its questionnaire as a tool to sort potential mates.  As a sort mechanism, it’s probably works as well as bar-hopping, joining singles clubs, asking friends for fix-ups, taking cruises, using personal ads or going to adult activities such as Scrabble clubs and singles nights at the symphony.  But the ad is not just saying, use us as a tool. It’s saying: interject us—as represented by our founder—into your life and your relationship. Let our “29 dimensions of compatibility” be your guide, your guru, your teacher, an integral part of the relationship with your significant other.

As many OpEdge readers probably know already, Warren is a Christian theologian who first marketed the eHarmony dating site on Christian websites and in other Christian media, touting eHarmony as “based on the Christian principles of Focus on the Family author Dr. Neil Clark Warren.”  EHarmony claims to be secular and now advertizes everywhere, but think about it: Isn’t one of the main principles of many right-wing Christian denominations and Catholicism that god is part of the marriage, almost a third person in the relationship. Whether taken on a literal or figurative level, “god in the marriage” represents both the person of god and the principles of action that supposedly lead us to god. One traditional image of god is as a wise old man. Moreover, a genial grandfatherly man has served as an image for pastors, rectors, priests and other figures of religious authority for centuries.

The hidden message of the ad then is that eHarmony will bring god (or the religious and ethical values god represents) into the relationship.  The assumption, of course, is that the god in question is Christian.

It’s all done so fast—three story lines, a voice over and all that feel-good gospel pop music in the background. Like all TV commercials, it goes by so quickly that we are unaware or only vaguely aware of the subliminal messages. But make no mistake about it—the ad is meant to appeal to those who want someone to tell them what to do, whom to love, how to get it right. Warren and his 29 dimensions of compatibility are a stand-in for an authoritarian, right-wing church.

Anthony Weiner’s lack of judgment makes him unqualified to serve as Mayor of New York

At the end of the day, what any politician does in his or her private life should not matter in considering his or her qualifications. None of us are without sin, and one would want one trait of any leader to be continued intellectual and spiritual growth from youth through old age. When the news media ignores past peccadilloes, it does the country a great service.

The only time the past matters is when the candidate or elected official was a hypocrite, broke an important law or showed a character trait that makes him or her unqualified to serve. Hypocrisy covers such diverse figures as Senator Larry Craig, a vocal homophobe caught soliciting men in a men’s room, and Elliot Spitzer, who prosecuted others for hiring prostitutes and then indulged in a high-priced hooker. Breaking the law covers Watergate, and should have covered the Iran-Contra arms deal and creating a torture gulag across the globe.

But in the case of Anthony Weiner, the issue is his character.

Hearing and seeing his apologies to his wife and the world on every media outlet over a 12-hour period made me think of my deceased father. He had so many ways of telling my brother and me to learn from our experiences.  He had his three mythic men—the wise one learned from the mistakes of others, the average one learned from his own mistakes and the dummy never learned.

Then there was his old saw, “Fool me once, your fault. Fool me twice, my fault”

Even his favorite joke about the old and young bulls standing on a hillside overlooking a pasture full of cows was about experience, for when the old bull suggested they walk down the hill, it always sounded as if he had tried running in the past.

Weiner did not learn from his mistake.  After being publicly chastised and publicly chastising himself for behaving like a high school freshman while humiliating his wife, he did it again.

I’m not saying Weiner is stupid. I’m sure he’s a very bright guy. But the fact that he committed the same social folly (which, by the way, was likely not criminal and really a private matter) after saying it was wrong suggests a compulsive personality under the sway of his emotions. If he had not resigned, if he had said, “It’s my business and I did nothing illegal,” then doing it again would not be as problematic. It would merely be the sign of a juvenile mind and perhaps a partially open marriage—permission to do 21st -century flirting. But he said it was wrong and he took his own job away—and then he engaged in the same behavior again. That’s an obsession and that’s an obsessive personality. That’s someone who can become out of control.

Weiner expects us to take his word for it that he’s over that kind of behavior, that he’s grown up or been therapized. But the events in question are only a few years ago.  It’s too soon to tell if he’s over his compulsive online sexual flirting or if he’s merely taking a break.  Or maybe he has replaced his sexting with other actions that he or many people find reprehensible. Worst of all—and also perhaps most likely—the obsessive part of his latest scandal may carry over into other parts of his life and negatively affect his judgment and actions as Mayor of New York City.

Weiner should leave the race for Mayor of New York.  He has demonstrated that he has a character flaw that leaves him unfit for leading and managing our nation’s largest city.

Concentration of news origination can lead to repeated errors in media

At first glance it looks as if Americans have an abundance of news sources at their fingertips—at least the majority of us with easy access to the Internet. But as other public relations professionals may have noticed, sources of real news have shrunk substantially.  Most of the news we see is repackaged from other sources, sometimes as a news story and sometimes with the spin of opinion attached.

A few years back, the Pew Research Center conducted an in-depth analysis of news reporting in one city, Baltimore, which found that daily newspapers are responsible for 50% of all original news reporting. Most of the local media would pick up stories from the local newspaper or from wire services. Today there are fewer wire services, but most significantly, there are many fewer daily newspapers and those still around have fewer reporters in search of original news.

As consumers of news, we easily and naturally overlook how concentrated the sources of news generation have become in recent years. As a public relations professional, though, I frequently see the results of news concentration. The other day it led to many news stories that were completely inaccurate and had the potential of harming the reputation of a very effective and responsible social service organization. The funny part, though, is that at the heart of the misinformation was a reporter misinterpreting a sentence written in the passive construction. It therefore took an act of bad writing to set off a chain of misjudgments and standard practices that led to erroneous information on several TV stations and in several newspapers.

Here’s how it happened: A child nearly drowned during swimming at a summer day camp operated by a social service agency. The child was fine and didn’t have to go to the hospital, but as is normal protocol, the social service agency reported the incident to the appropriate regulatory body. After an inspection, the regulator decided to revoke the license of the summer camp because not all the camp staff was following every safety protocol. The social service agency then decided on its own to close down the swimming programs of the other 20 some-odd summer camps it operates for a few days to do a thorough inspection of each, retrain all the staff and make sure that all the staff knew and were following all the safety protocols. Of course, a parent or two called the daily newspaper, which published an accurate report.

Unfortunately, that accurate report contained the sentence, “Each camp site must be inspected and approved before it can reopen for aquatics.” Note the passive construction, which does not require the writer to tell us who is doing the inspecting and approving. In point of fact, it was the social service organization, acting on its own behalf and through no request of any regulatory agency or pressure by any other organization, which decided to close the programs and inspect. No one had been hurt, but the organization was bending over backwards to protect the children in its charge.

Unfortunately, the rewrite professional at the Associated Press (AP) did not do any research or fact-checking when he or she abridged the story into one paragraph. That one paragraph claimed that the regulatory body had closed all the camps and had to approve them before they could reopen again. To avoid the passive, the re-writer had to attribute the actions to someone, and so he or she made an assumption that it was the regulator. Wrong information, and liable to give the public a false impression of the social service agency.

Several TV stations and many regional newspapers reprinted or read the Associated Press story during the few hours that it was posted.  The social service organization—a client of my company—called me at 10:00 at night and I had to call several local TV stations and the AP to get the story corrected. It was no problem, at all: everyone was very professional. They made the change once I had properly identified myself.  The TV stations dropped the story, because it was no longer newsworthy for TV. A regulatory body asking an organization to close down more than 20 camps is definitely newsworthy. But an organization volunteering to double-check or police itself may or may not be newsworthy; a newspaper may have room for the story, but local TV news likely won’t.

It took two and maybe three mistakes by two (or three) very reliable and professional organizations for incorrect news to get out:

  1. The social service organization and its PR counselor (my company!) may or may not have made a mistake by deciding not to distribute a news release that would have specified that it was the organization and not some regulatory body that acted. If and when to release information is the most difficult question for public relations practitioners. On the one hand, subsequent events revealed that it wasn’t much of a news story. On the other hand, if the organization had distributed a news release, it is less likely that a media outlet would have misreported the story. Never an easy call
  2. The writer of the original story made a mistake in style against which I often rage in print and with my staff: a passive construction that created a misleading sentence.
  3. The AP made an assumption from the passively-constructed sentence that was just inaccurate. The mistake was not taking the time to check the facts.

But let’s be clear, the harm to the organization came in not one story, but in many stories misreporting the facts. And the reason so many got it wrong is that so little original reporting is being done. Any of the TV stations or newspapers that ran the AP could have made a phone call to double-check the information (one TV station actually did call and got the story right). Yet it was not a mistake that these re-users of the AP story were making—it was business as usual.

One more proof that to a great degree, the news has become like casual dining restaurants: whichever restaurant you go to, you’ll have your choice of essentially the same menu. The name and brand are different, and maybe one has a spicy sauce and another offers something sweet, but the contents are the same.

The same is true of hard news today. We see it everywhere, but most of the people reporting or commenting on it got the information from somewhere else. Thus whatever the brand, you’re essentially getting the same news. Try reading daily newspapers from two different cities. You’d be surprised at how many have the same stories and even the same columnists. Or consider how all the media in one region cover the same story. Yes, sometimes the liberal newspaper will spin the story one way, while the right-wing radio station will spin it another, but the facts and quotes will mostly be the same. One media outlet does the story and everyone else just accepts its version and goes from there.


New York summer museum scene resembles an amusement park

That thousands of people would wait in line five hours or more for a 10-minute artificial experience of rain falling befuddles me. But that’s what they’re doing.

For days, the New York news media has been reporting that people are waiting five or more hours to walk through the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) “Rain Room.”

Rain Room is a dark alley way in which a heavy rain is coming down except where sensors detect people. People thus get the sensation of walking between rain drops. Whether or not it’s an aesthetic experience is open to discussion, as is the parallel question of whether Rain Room is a work of art. I haven’t been there and I won’t go, but my sense is that the installation would fit more easily in an amusement park or Universal Studios.  I had a similar feeling about the Punk fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I did see, but that was because of the exhibit itself. In the case of  MOMA, it is not the curator who has decided to present artifacts of culture in an amusement park environment, but the artists who have decided to conjure an amusement park experience and present it as art.

That “Rain Room” makes an interesting juxtaposition with a summer exhibit at another New York cultural mainstay—the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim, which is also generating enormous lines of paying customers. Turrell is a light artist, which means he makes boxes and other shapes in which all the color is provided by light.  The show includes a retrospective of light boxes meant to look like Joseph Alber’s paintings, but the center is a new piece called ”Aten Reign” that turns the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda into an enormous volume filled with light that gradually changes color.

Like “Rain Room,” the Turrell pieces depend more on technology than the individual hand craft of the artist. Mental skills such as manipulating light, small engines, gears and arrays of photovoltaic sensors replace the hand skills of applying paint, cutting shapes or molding clay. The raw materials tend to be pre-fabricated parts.

Of greater relevance is the similarity in the aesthetic experience between “Rain Room” and the Turrells: Both are primarily physical experiences, such as you get from a light show or an amusement park ride. The Turrell may make a much greater claim to being art because of the allusions to Albers and other artists, unless you consider his light versions to be similar to stuffed toy versions of the Mona Lisa or neckties with “Starry Night” printed on them.

The issue of what is or isn’t art has plagued critics and scholars since recorded history began. Dresses, scepters, bowls, jewelry boxes and advertisements have all laid claim to art, as have blank canvases, lumps of material and even jars of the so-called artist’s stool. At the end of the day, the question, “What is art?,’ can have as many legitimate answers as the number of people who ask it.

The more interesting question is not whether Turrell or “Rain Room” is art, but why at the same point of time, two of the most important museums in the United States have decided to have exhibits of art based on the amusement park values of physical titillation and the manipulation of engineering concepts at the same time as a third major museum in the same city is presenting an exhibit which is itself an amusement park experience.

When James Ensor and Emil Nolde used amusement park imagery in their paintings and Fellini and Bergman did so in their movies, they were reanimating the tradition of their respective art forms, but the aesthetic pleasure of the painting or movie remained.  This current crop of exhibits takes not the imagery, but the techniques of the amusement park to produce the aesthetic experience of the amusement park. Entertaining, but probably not art.

But the very fact that one can find the amusement park experience at a museum probably is contributing to the popularity of all three shows. People may not want to stand in line to see a Titian or a Picasso, but they are used to long lines at Disney World.

How does McDonald’s sample budget for employees reflect consumer ideology?

McDonald’s created a sample budget for its employees to help them do better financial planning.  The budget is so absurd in its assumptions and serves as such ready proof that Mickey Dee’s doesn’t pay its workers enough that you would almost swear it was satire—something Jonathan Swift might conjure.

Other articles have pointed out the almost mocking lack of reality in a budget that starts off by depending on a second job that pays 85% of what you’re getting for flipping burgers for 40 hours a week—that is, if you’re lucky enough to have a full-time job at Mickey Dee’s.

What I find interesting is the degree to which the McDonald’s sample budget for employees reflects the ideology of consumerism.

We start with the fact that the second most expensive line item is the car payment. Note that McDonald’s is not talking about what one of its full-time employees might spend on operating the car each month—insurance, gas, maintenance. No, this line item of $150 is for paying the loan you took to buy your car. Not only does McDonald’s assumes that everyone has a car, but it also assumes that you borrow money to buy it, as opposed to running your car into the ground. These are two of the major tenets of American consumerism: 1) drive a car and 2) borrow to get what you want before you can afford it.

The budget offers the possibility that the monthly housing payment is a mortgage. Where can you get a house with a $600 mortgage (which must also include real estate taxes)?  McDonald’s knows that very few of its employees can afford a mortgage, but the possibility of being able to have a house sets a goal for the employee: home ownership, which is another tenant of American consumerism.

Note that the budget assumes that the employee will be completely middle class: have health insurance, cable TV service and a car. Of course the numbers they put down are phony: What health insurance plan is a mere $20 a month? How many people pay nothing for heating?  The $600 a month for rent or a mortgage payment must have seemed quaint to McDonald’s employees in San Francisco and New York.

But this low-balling of virtually every line item enables McDonald’s to give people the magnificent sum of $800 a month for the line item in bold: Monthly Spending Money. That’s $800, or $27 per day, that the employee can spend every month on him or herself. It’s called disposable income and it’s the lifeblood of consumer culture. Movies, clothes, vacations, gambling, jewelry, HBO, restaurants—all is possible with the $800 a month, at least on a small scale.

Except for three things:

  1. That $800 has to cover food.
  2. It also has to cover car maintenance and gasoline
  3. It also has to cover the difference between the low-ball estimates of the other line items and what they will really cost.

Nowhere does the budget let us know that Monthly Spending Money includes food, gas and car maintenance. Let’s hope that the employees who use this budget don’t buy season’s tickets to the Lakers before they figure out that they also have to pay for food with that $800 a month of spending money they get.

By constructing a budget that assumes a typical employee could live a consumer-driven life, McDonald’s not only asserts the consumer ideology, it also attempts to hide the fact that their jobs make it impossible for employees to live the American dream reflected in the budget.  McDonalds has fooled no one, though, as witnessed by the excoriation it has gotten from the mainstream news media.

The McDonald’s sample budget for its employees is new evidence that we need to raise the minimum wage and not marginally, but by a lot. After the initial jolt to the economy, a minimum wage of $15 an hour would drive up all wages and lead to more consumer spending.  It would give the McDonald’s workers twice as much money each month, which means they might not have to work a second job, or if they did, they could have some real spending money. Of course that would mean that McDonald’s executives and shareholders would have less money to plow into the stock market or expensive art.

In the Zimmerman case, the judicial system worked, but the law was wrong

No one can see into the mind of George Zimmerman. A lot of the people disappointed in the not guilty verdict in his trial believe that he went out hunting someone, just like Bernard Goetz did in the New York subway system almost 30 years ago. But they’ll never be able to prove it.

In the same way, the district attorney was unable to prove that George Zimmerman committed either murder or manslaughter the night he shot Trayvon Martin. Six honest citizens weighed the evidence and found that there was reasonable doubt that Zimmerman committed a crime. Some are saying the judicial system failed in the George Zimmerman case, but they’re wrong. It worked just fine.  Both sides presented their case and the jury deliberated a reasonable length of time. Both the prosecutor and the defense team employed a lot of resources—would that every defendant could have access to such topnotch legal services.  The judicial system worked just fine.

What didn’t work and doesn’t work is the law itself. The extension beyond one’s residence of the right to defend person and property that Florida and many other (mostly Southern) states have made is wrong. It’s wrong because it’s based on another bad law: the one that allows private citizens to carry loaded guns in public.

Racism is not directly the issue in the murder of Trayvon Martin either, although as with most issues in America, racism is part of the backdrop, one of the reasons the issue exists. Gun culture is strongest where racism is strongest—that’s just a simple fact. But I’m not going to state or imply that anyone on the jury was racist. Unless shown otherwise in vivid detail, I’m going to believe that the jurors put aside their prejudices and rendered a decision to the best of their abilities.

George Zimmerman—now he’s a different story. I could believe that a hate or fear of African-American young men motivated him to pull the trigger.  It might have motivated his
desire to become a citizen vigilante. It might have motivated his desire to assert his right to fire under the law, his right to kill another man while still following the law. And it might have motivated him to seek a young black man as his target.

None of it would have mattered if the law were different.

From the start, the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin has been about one thing and one thing only—the need of our society to finally stand up to the gun lobby and outlaw possession of loaded guns in public places. .



Oregon plan to base tuition on future income could end banks’ college loan gravy train

The Oregon state legislature has passed a bill asking a state commission to consider an innovative plan to charge bachelor degree recipients from state schools no tuition or fees, but instead make them pay 3% of their salary for 24 years after finishing school.  It’s called “Pay It Forward,” based on the turn-of-the-century melodrama of that name in which people pay back good deeds done for them by doing good deeds for others. With the current conception of the plan, students would pay .75% of future earnings for each year of college they complete, so that someone receiving an associate degree at a community college would be responsible for 1.5% of future earnings for 24 years.

Someone did the math: the average recipient of a bachelor of arts from an Oregon state university would pay about $39,653 over a lifetime, about $7,000 more than the actual cost of tuition and fees. That’s not bad—my math concludes that it’s a break-even for a student considering a 10-year loan of $32,500 at 4%, the interest on which is the same $7,000.

Of course, that’s average, which is what I love about the proposal. People who don’t make as much money will pay less and those who make a lot of money will pay more. Paying more when you do better makes perfect sense to me—no attorney can be successful without a degree, because no one will use a lawyer who didn’t go to law school. Just as no one will hire a marketing assistant without a degree. Currently, both the marketing assistant and the attorney pay the same to go to a state school. Under the Pay It Forward proposal, the successful corporate attorney will likely pay more than the average, while the successful marketing assistant who never gets promoted will pay less than average.

The Pay It Forward plan thus automatically creates financial aid for students who can’t afford to go to college, and it seems to do it more efficiently and fairly than the current system. Universities could also continue giving academic scholarships to the very most outstanding students—the scholarships could involve not requiring payback of future earnings or payback at a lower rate.

The conceptual drawback to the plan under discussion in Oregon is that it would only cover tuition. Some students would still have to take out loans to cover living expenses. It seems to me that since colleges operate dorms, there is no reason why all college costs can’t be wrapped into Pay It Forward.

Some are already calling the proposal unfair to the very successful person—say the engineer or medical doctor—who is going to pay vastly more money for college than he or she would under the current system. But the current system isn’t working for most people, because most people have to borrow money to go to college. I see nothing wrong with continuing a full tuition system alongside the Pay It Forward. If a wealthy physician wants to send his brilliant girl to the state law school and pay full rate, no muss no fuss—more power to both of them. But the Pay It Forward system involves a social contract between the college and the individual—the school has no idea how financially successful the individual will be in the future. The school is therefore taking both current risk and part of the future risk. In return, it should expect the individual to take a portion of the future risk, especially since that future risk will always be commensurate with the individual’s reward, since the future payment will be based on salary.

In a way, Pay It Forward concept is a mirror image of the highly successful Social Security program. What will happen under Pay It Forward is that those who went to college will pay for those who are going to college. With Social Security, those who will retire someday pay for those who are currently retired.

All of this talk of Pay It Forward is pie-in-the-sky, though. Does anyone think that the bank lobby would allow such a plan to pass and be implemented?

The student loan is the ideal investment for a bank, since it is the only type of loan that does not get wiped away in a bankruptcy! Roughly two-thirds of all students need to borrow money to go to college and college debt now averages almost $27,000 per borrower. That’s trillions of dollars in outstanding loans, and growing!

Banks will never go for a plan in which states finance college education and take away such a lucrative source of income.  And if the history of the government bailout of our economy post 2008 is any indicator, the big banks always get what they want.

Insurance companies may become quiet heroes in fight for gun control

Frequent readers know that one of my favorite hobby horses is to defend government solutions to social problems against the absurd claims that the free market will solve all problems better than the government.

Most of the facts are in my favor: our wars have become disasters since we started to depend on mercenaries and privately run prisons are a shameful shambles.  Social Security faces a manageable short-term financing problem because the ratio of workers to retirees will fall for a few decades; all that’s required is a quick fix or two. Compare the minor Social Security financing challenge to all the private pension plans that have gone belly up over the past 10 years or to the collective 401K plans of the American public. The public Social Security is on much firmer ground than private retirement solutions, which study after study concludes are severely underfunded.

Having now given one more screed in favor of government solutions, I must admit that the private sector may succeed where government has failed in one instance: in fighting the absurd idea that the way to make our streets safer is for more people to carry guns.

Since the Newtown massacre, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been campaigning to bring firearms into school. As usual, politicians of both parties have lined up to give the NRA what it wants: As the New York Times reported, seven states have recently enacted laws permitting teachers and administrators to carry guns in schools.

But it’s doubtful that any teachers are going to be carrying guns to class in any of the seven states.  The insurance companies won’t let them. For example, the Times reports that the insurance company that covers 90% of all the school districts in Kansas has told its agent to decline coverage to any school district that permits employees to carry concealed handguns. In Oregon, the association that manages liability insurance for virtually all the school districts will charge an extra $2,500 premium per year for every staff member carrying a weapon on the job.

The Times article does mention school districts that permit teachers to carry and have been able to get insurance, but for some odd reason the writer is not able to name any of the insurance companies providing the coverage to these gun-toting districts.

Insurance companies are often at the forefront of increasing safety, because improved safety leads to a decline in accidents, which in turn leads to fewer claims, which then leads to some combination of lower premiums. I have seen a number of businesses of all sizes improve safety protocols and policies at the insistence of the insurance company. When insurance companies walk away from business, it can affect the economy of a region, for example, in a flood zone. And despite the bad rap they get, health insurers have been at the forefront of preventive medicine, because it leads to healthier patients, which again, lowers claims.

The problem that our elected officials have is that they want to believe that wishing makes it so.  Many legislators and their financial backers wish that we could prove a divine hand created us or that global warming is not taking place or that lowering taxes on the wealthy creates jobs. All nonsense! In the same way, these benighted and corrupt legislators join the NRA in wishing that arming America to the teeth will make us a safer land. Lots of studies suggest otherwise.  In fact, most studies demonstrate that the more guns in a population, the more people will be injured or killed by guns.

Insurance companies do a good job of reducing all risk to money, including the risk of death and injury. When the insurance companies raise rates on school districts that permit gun-toting teachers, it’s because they know that they will have to pay out more claims because of death and injury.  They’ve run all the numbers and they know that more guns in a workplace will cost them money. Somebody is going to have to pay—some with higher premiums, some with their lives.

National atheist association shouldn’t resort to cheap rhetorical tricks

The full-page ad by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the July 4th edition of many national news media, including The New York Times (where I saw it) does a great job or reminding us that our founding fathers were not religious men; and that to the extent that they did have religious beliefs, they tended towards deism, which rejects revelation and faith as the essence of religion in favor of reason and empiricism.

With so many right-wing politicians falsely claiming that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Franklin and the others were devoted bible-thumping Christians, it’s good to see what they actually said in print. The FFRF ad demonstrates that, in fact, the founding parents questioned the existence of god, disdained organized religion and believed neither in miracles nor in the truth of the Bible.  FFRF chose an auspicious day—July 4th, a favorite time for wrapping the American flag tightly around the Bible.

The headline of the ad says it all, “Celebrate Our Godless Constitution.”

The call to action in virtually all issues advertising is to send viewers to the website. Here FFRF disappoints by telling us an extended fib in its mission statement:

“The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.  In modern times the first to speak out
for prison reform, for humane treatment of the mentally ill, for abolition of capital punishment, for women’s right to vote, for death with dignity for the terminally ill, and for the right to choose contraception, sterilization and abortion have been freethinkers just as they were the first to call for an end to slavery.”

What? Most social and moral progress brought about by atheists?

Was Gandhi free of religion? Was Martin Luther King free of religion? St. Thomas Aquinas? The Quakers in the abolition movement? Erasmus? Epictetus?

Believe me, I’m no fan of organized religion, which has been used to inflict a lot of harm on people and countries.  But that does not mean that people with religious beliefs have not made major contributions to ending slavery, having a secular government, giving women and minorities the vote, curtailing discrimination, enfranchising LGBTs and all the other steps we humans have made towards moral and ethical perfection.

Both atheists and the religious have contributed to our moral progress, and in implying otherwise, FFRC overplays its hand.

The second and more disturbing overplay is to use the term “free-thinking” in opposition to “religious.” FFRF wants us to be free-thinking, by which they imply that only people free of religion can be “free-thinking.”

But free thinking refers to a mode of thinking that atheists, agnostics and the religious can all have. To my mind, the free thinker can see into the minds of others; take the point of view of others; look for new ways to solve a problem when old ways aren’t working; appreciate new music, cuisine and other entertainments; and have opinions that continually evolve as opposed to being set in stone at the age of 21.

A free-thinker often thinks situationally, as do the many Catholics who condone abortion if a woman is raped or if it’s a 13-year-old girl with mental disabilities.

While it may be more likely for a religious person to have a rigid thought process, I have known more than a few atheists who have been such rigid thinkers that they could not see the value that ritual plays in organizing the lives of people simply because rituals usually reflect a religious context.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the efforts of FFRF to make sure that our government spends no money promoting any religion. But while protecting the separation between church and state, FFRF does not have resort to distorting the role of atheists or the religious in pursuing social change.

Instead, FFRC should tell us what it does best. The website features an impressive list of accomplishments in defending the public and public spaces from the intrusion of religion. Listed among FFRF wins are:

  • Winning the first federal case challenging “faith-based funding” of a pervasively sectarian social agency
  • Winning the first court order to a U.S. Cabinet revoking federal funds to a pervasively sectarian agency
  • Halting federal funds to a bible school offering no academic classes
  • Ending “parish nursing” faith/health entanglements at two state universities
  • Halting a government chaplaincy to minister to state workers
  • Winning a legal challenge ending 51 years of illegal bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton, Tennessee) public schools
  • Winning a federal court decision overturning a law declaring Good Friday a state holiday
  • Barring direct subsidy to religious schools, in a federal lawsuit upheld by an appeals court
  • Declaring unconstitutional the creation of a state post to “assist clergy” to save marriages
  • Stopping public financing of an annual nativity pageant at a state capitol
  • Ending commencement prayers at a Top Ten University
  • Halting religious postal cancellations

Note that in all these cases, the organization did not promote atheism or agnosticism, but rather defended all of us against those who would use public funds and public venues to proselytize their beliefs. It promoted free-thinking by removing the official stamp of approval from one type of thought.