Richard Berman, right-wing PR hack, tries “red baiting” proponents of raising minimum wage

Richard Berman is the kind of unethical public relations executive who gives the PR profession a bad name. His métier is to use right-wing money to establish and operate so-called think tanks that spew out spurious and misleading position papers, opinion articles and reports that support his clients’ positions on issues.

His Employment Policies Institute (EPI), for example, works diligently against raising the minimum wage, health care mandates for employers and mandatory sick leave. Berman tries to hide both the fact that his think tanks are propaganda machines and the names of his clients.  This deception often works, as he provides fodder for Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing media.

Berman and EPI hit a new low in a full-page article in the New York Times that takes the form of an open memo to President Obama about the 600 economists that the President cited as favoring raising the minimum wage.  The memo essentially repeats quotes from or about (we’re never sure) eight of the 600 economists that suggest that they are Marxists or anti-American.  The first six are identified as Marxists, where as the seventh makes the mistake of criticizing U.S. foreign policy and the eighth questions the official account of 9/11. A legend at the bottom of the ad says, “Many of the 600 economists you rely on are radical researchers or full-time employees working at union-backed organizations.

Calling opponents communists, Marxists or socialists is an old trick of the right wing that predates Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who provoked the country into a massive witch hunt against so-called communists and fellow travelers in the late 1940s and early 1950s with lies about identifying huge numbers of communists working in government positions. McCarthy’s red baiting resulted in large numbers of teachers, film professionals, lawyers and others losing their jobs because at one time or another they had joined or went to meetings of left-wing organizations.  It took a lawyer for the U.S. Army to jolt the country out of this “red terror” with his comment that McCarthy had lost all sense of shame by accusing the army of harboring communists.

The ad is odiously misleading on many levels. Let’s start with the simple fact that there is nothing wrong with having socialist or Marxist leanings. It doesn’t mean that you are anti-democratic or anti-American. It also doesn’t mean that your economic research or analysis is suspect. Samuel Bowles, Immanuel Wallerstein, Richard Wolff and David Gordon are all well-known 20th-century Marxist economists or economic theorists who have published viable research.

But even if you accept that Marxist economics is not a viable alternative to classical economic theory, the ad still smells like yesterday’s tilapia. For one thing, there’s the conflation of “radical researcher” and “union-backed groups.” Both radicals and unions are thrown into the same grouping. The not-so-hidden message is that there is something radical and inherently bad about labor unions.

Moreover, there is the use of the word “many” to describe the numbers of suspect economists on the list.  Why can’t Berman’s group give us an exact number? They found eight to smear, but that’s 1.33% of the 600. Take them off the list and there are still 592 economists who support raising the minimum wage. The ad is able to stipulate 45% as the exact percentage of those economists not labor specialists who support the minimum wage increase, leading me to believe that if there were many more than eight who had Marxist leanings, the ad would have used that number.

The ad’s implied accusation, of course, is that anyone who is on the left, has ever criticized U.S. policy or works for a union will “cook the books” in their research. All we have here is repellent name-calling, and is often the case, the name-callers are guilty of the crimes they accuse others of committing. Reputable academics have frequently found EPI’s research to be misleading or based on skewed or cherry-picked data.

What’s most interesting about Berman‘s pot pointing out the dirt smudges on the leftists’ kettles is that the people the ad implies are distorting their research all freely and openly admit the names of their organizations or political sympathies. Berman and his clients hide behind several layers of organizations.

This smear ad reflects the desperation felt by the right-wing and corporations. They know that the current minimum wage must increase by 47% for it to have the same purchasing power as it did in 1968. They know that a good part of the increased profit margins and profits that corporations enjoy compared to 30 and 40 years ago comes from squeezing down the salaries of all workers by suppressing adjustments to the minimum wage for inflation, killing unions and privatizing government jobs. They know that once the minimum wage goes up, they’ll have to give raises to other employees. They like the current arrangement in which a growing part of the income pie goes to owners and executives and a shrinking share goes to employees. They can see that people are fed up with the gutting of the middle class and ready to embrace a higher minimum wage. They understand that a higher minimum wage is probably inevitable.

As demise of Mt. Gox shows, anyone investing in bitcoins is a fool

Money has always been based on faith, even when it was theoretically convertible to gold or another precious metal. Throughout history, governments and economies have sometimes used gold, silver or copper as money, putting their faith in the value of these metals to others. But sometimes they have also used beads or shells or anything that can be counted, stored and transported without deterioration. It would be unwise, for example, to use raspberries as currency, because they spoil so quickly.

A better name for money is “currency,” because the word contains a definition of what money does—allows objects and services to flow without encumbrance between people and organizations. The current of these goods and services—their exchange from person to person—would be much harder if there weren’t some easy thing to count, handle and transfer to serve as a medium of exchange. I can’t negotiate with the supermarket, dry cleaner and bus driver to have them take something I’ve written in return for groceries, cleaning services and in-town transportation. They will take my money, though, and fortunately other companies will pay me the same to write articles, commercials, brochures, blog entries and websites.  Multiply my situation millions upon millions of times and you’ll see how much we as a society depend on having currency. Money is the lowest common denominator of exchange value.

Currency creates value relationships between different items. A loaf of bread may cost three dollars and a ticket to a first-run movie may cost twelve dollars, meaning that theoretically a movie ticket is worth four loaves of bread, except during a famine when four tickets to the movie might not even be tradable for a single slice of bread.

In using money, we engage in an act of faith—faith that what we accept will have just about the same value when we want to spend it.  Usually governments issue currency and our faith in the currency reflects are faith in the government and the economy it controls.

Having more than one kind of currency issued by more than one source by definition creates a value relationship between the different currencies, similar to the value relation between all products and services. Any value relationship is subject to change. For example, the euro, which serves as currency for 23 countries, may be worth $1.40 one month and $1.25 another. Political and economic events and decisions can affect the relationship between two currencies, just as it can affect the relationship between specific goods and services.

Without money, it’s impossible to conceive of any kind of complex economy. And yet only our collective faith in any specific type of money will enable us—society—to use it. If we didn’t believe that it would be accepted as exchange value by others, it would have no value to anyone.

Which is why anyone who invested even one dime in bitcoins was and is a fool.

The Bitcoin system is a computer-controlled private network consisting of s series of private enterprises that have agreed to follow the same protocols for “printing,” distributing and setting the value of bitcoins. The bitcoins exist entirely as numbers in accounts; there are no physical versions such as coins and paper bills. You can’t go to a bank and get a few bitcoins. Like all currencies, bitcoin value floats and is determined on the open market. If you bought one bitcoin a year ago, it’s worth more today—that is, unless you were holding it at Mt. Gox, which just went under. In that case, you may have lost everything. If an American bank fails, the money in your account is insured (up to $250,000 per person per bank). No such protection exists for those holding their bitcoins at Mt. Gox.

I fail to see any advantage of using bitcoins over euros, dollars, yuan or other currencies. All of these currencies are subject to failure—except that individual institutions and businesses fail much, much more frequently than governments do.  Dollars are backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government and euros are backed by the full faith and credit of the EU. What backs bitcoins? The full faith and credit of the Bitcoin system? What’s that?

Other than currency failure, there is another drawback to bitcoins: Organizations and individuals have to agree to accept payment in bitcoins, whereas they all accept the currency of the country in which they do business. Only if and when a significant number of organizations begin recognizing bitcoins as currency will it have a true exchange value. But the rampant speculation that makes bitcoin’s exchange value jerk up and down dramatically serves as an impediment for corporations to accept them as payment. Who wants to accept a bitcoin worth $579 the moment you sell your product knowing it may only be worth $400 in a week? That’s speculation, which, by the way, is a polite way of saying “gambling.” That’s what buying bitcoins has been from the start—nothing but a gamble.

Some may argue that one could use the bitcoin to hedge against a decline in all world currencies.  What they’re really saying is that an artificial currency that exists only as numbers in computers is a better hedge against a regional or worldwide economic disaster than gold or silver—things that are finite (you can’t print more gold) that you can hold, barter and use to make things.

People are attracted to the bitcoin concept because it represents the pie-in-the-sky ultimate in privatization. Instead of using government-issued currency, we’ll use private currency. But the bitcoin adds nothing to make the economy, society or individual asset holders any richer or safer. In fact, the unusual speculation in bitcoins makes it less safe as an investment. It may go up significantly in value, but it’s just as likely to go down.

People like to speculate, especially rich folk who buy paintings, baseball cards and vintage cars hoping they will increase is value. But if you buy a Manet and suddenly the world hates Manets, you still have a pretty picture. With bitcoins all you have is a bunch of numbers on the screen.

I’ll stick to dollars, euros and yuan—with an occasional Swiss franc thrown in for balance.

Wall Street Journal & New York Times cover same event. In one paper, audience loves Christie, in other they hate him

Today we saw a duel for spin control between our two most prominent newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The spin concerned how to interpret the response that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie received in his first town hall meeting since the Washington bridge scandal burst into national consciousness a few months ago.  It was the 110th town hall meeting Christie has held since assuming the mantle of Governor of the Garden State. These town hall meetings have come to symbolize the image of Christie that the mainstream media liked to portray before Bridgegate: open, direct, frank, straight-talking, action-oriented. This town hall meeting took place somewhere in Republican-leaning Monmouth County near the Jersey coastline that Superstorm Sandy battered.

The headlines in the print versions say it all:

WSJ: Christie Style Is on Display” (which in the Internet version became the more objective “Christie Hosts First Town Hall Since Scandal”)

NYT: “Christie Finds Hostility in Setting He Once Ruled (which was also changed in the Internet version to “For Christie, Awkward Return to a Setting He Once Ruled”

The first sentences of the respective stories—in print and online—seem to be describing different events:


He consoled displaced Superstorm Sandy victims, joked about his undying love for Bruce Springsteen and even used salty language at times as he bantered with detractors and admirers.

It was mostly vintage Chris Christie on Thursday at the Republican governor’s first town hall meeting since last June


When Chris Christie started to talk over a complaining questioner, a signature tactic of the bellicose, pre-scandal governor, the audience here briefly turned on him.

“Answer the question,” some shouted.

When he took a microphone from a long-winded speaker, the man startled Mr. Christie by snatching it right back.

Each story builds on the basic idea established in the print version of the headline and the first paragraph. The NYT version basically shows a hostile crowd fed up with Christie. The WSJ version depicts an accomplished and popular politician using his skills to have the audience eating out of his hand.

The rival newspapers even differ in where they say the meeting took place:  the dateline in the Times reads Port Monmouth, NJ, while the dateline in the Journal says the meeting occurred in Middleton, NJ. When you input the two place names into Google Maps, they show up as being about four miles away from each other, but we’re definitely talking about the same meeting. We can recognize three or four of the same people in the same position relative to the meeting room in the photos used in both papers.

Which story is true? As a progressive who abhors the crony capitalism at which Christie seems to excel, I want to side with the Times version of the facts and a careful reading of the two stories does reveal that the Times has more specific detail. But based on my decades as a news media analyst, I’m guessing that they’re both wrong—and they’re both right.

The centrist New York Times and the right-leaning Wall Street Journal are both trying to define the storyline going forward: The Journal wants Christie to recover and be the victorious GOP hero in 2016, whereas the Times—I’m not sure what the Times wants when it comes to the Christie story, but let’s assume that despite liking Christie in the past, it has turned against the big guy because of Bridgegate.

Different media and different political leaders and parties vie to control public perception of a story all the time. Centrists and left-leaners saw only the mostly good news in the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the impact of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour on various aspects of the economy, whereas right-wingers clutched to the probably wrong estimate that such an increase would lead to a three tenths of one percent increase in unemployment. The rollout of the Affordable Care Act and the investigation of the Benghazi incident are two other recent examples of different parties and media outlets trying to place a different spin on the same facts.

But just as often, the entire mass media goes with the same spin, and often it’s wrong. Let’s take two examples from four years ago:

  • All the media invoked the Glenn Beck rally on Constitution Mall in Washington, D.C. as proof of the ascendancy of the Tea Party in the lead-up to the 2010 Congressional elections and as proof that the media should be covering only Tea Party campaigns. But the most reputable sources estimated that the rally attracted 85,000, the same number who attended the mostly ignored and forgotten union-oriented rally in favor of progressive policies at the same location a few weeks later. Why was one the symbol of a political sea change while the other wasn’t?
  • A 2010 study by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that that more than 61% of all women live with someone else in a romantic or sexual relationship sometime in their lives without the benefit of marriage. All the news media, top to bottom, ignored or buried this finding, preferring instead to report that the study showed people who cohabit are 6% less likely to be together 10 years after marriage than people who don’t live together before getting hitched. Instead of presenting a truly dramatic change in social mores, the mainstream media preferred to depict a threat to the institution of marriage.

In both of these stories, myths and political desires superseded a concern for the facts or their real significance. These stories exemplify my belief that at the end of the day, most mainstream media really do agree on the big stuff. Before questioning this opinion, try to find the last time the Times published any story that supported or discussed lifting the cap off income that must be assessed the Social Security tax. Or go back to see how the Times initially covered the Occupy Movement or the proposal by New York Mayor (then candidate) Bill De Blasio to tax those who make a million a  year or more to pay for universal pre-K.   The Times’ position on Occupy and pre-K funding was similar to the Wall Street Journal’s until the people spoke and made their position clear.

What’s a poor truth-seeker to do? For one thing, we should be aware of the predilections and prejudices of all media. We should learn to suspect the reports when they seem to go against common sense or they don’t have a lot of specifics. Another sign that the spin is holding the facts hostage is a reliance on the use of the passive construction, because the passive doesn’t have to include attributions. Beyond that, it’s probably wise to read a variety of media from the left, right and center, and to make sure that the stories come from different sources. For example, you can typically read hundreds of versions of the same story using the same facts but with slightly different headlines every day, since most of the stories we see are reprints, interpretations or revisions of original sources. Quite often whether you read the story in the St. Louis Dispatch or the Los Angeles Times or see it on the local CBS affiliate in Denver, it’s the same story written by the same Associated Press, Gannett or Bloomberg News reporter. If you really want to know what the news is and what it means, you’ll have to consult several independent sources, something that’s much harder to do since the consolidation of ownership of media outlets.

CBO estimate on additional unemployment from raising minimum wage is probably wrong

The announcement by the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour will lead to 500,000 jobs disappearing is just wrong. Now I’m not saying that the report’s authors are lying or stupid, just that they are making the wrong assumptions or looking at the numbers in the wrong way.

The CBO admits that its numbers are a guess at best, but that admission is buried in the fine print.  In Appendix A to its report, CBO says that it reviewed a large body of research on what it calls “employment elasticity.”  In economics, elasticity is how sensitive one economic variable is to another. A simple example of elasticity is price and demand: If we double the price of a product, how many fewer people will buy it? Clearly, doubling the price of something that people need or want very badly such as milk or a college education will have less impact on demand than doubling the price of a luxury, such as a meal at a fancy restaurant or jet skis. Or consider what would happen if twice as many people suddenly wanted something of which there was a finite amount, like gold in times of economic turmoil. But twice as many people wanting Doritos might not lead to such a dramatic rise in the price of each box, because, as the man says, “We’ll make more.” Many factors go into creating a relationship between two economic variables.

One truism of economics is that the higher the price the lower the demand. Economists accept it as a given, much as mathematicians accept as a given that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But in some cases, demand is more elastic (stays the same or close to the same unless there is a steep price increase), as college education has proven to be.

“Employment elasticity” measures how the market will respond when the minimum wage is raised (or lowered).  But all the measurements use methodologies, each of which employs a different series of variables and makes a different set of assumptions. Appendix B of The CBO’s report lists dozens of methodologies and studies of methodologies that it considered. Some concluded that raising the minimum wage would have a negligible effect on unemployment; some said as many as a million jobs would be lost.  Instead of weighing the relative merits of each methodology, the CBO took an average. That’s what the 500,000 is—the midpoint in a bunch of numbers generated by a  bunch of different methodologies. And the methodologies only measure teen unemployment! CBO uses another set of methodologies to infer the effect of raising the minimum wage for the entire economy based on what happens to teens, our most inexperienced and unskilled workers.

I’m inclined to believe the studies that show a minimal impact on unemployment by raising the minimum wage to $10.10 and seven Nobel prize-winning economists, four former presidents of the American Economic Association and more than 600 other economists agree with me.  The Nobel laureates and professors are going to give you their mathematically based models. Let me tell you what happens in the real world.

In the real world, a business increases its profit by either growing its market or lowering costs. Every successful company is constantly looking at both. Part of cost-cutting is to make sure your labor costs are as low as possible. So in theory—let’s call it the efficient company theory—no business ever hires someone they don’t need and can’t make money from because it would unduly raise costs.  In a like manner, no business ever lets someone go just because they cost too much without replacing that person because they need someone to do the job (having not hired too many to begin with).

Now the real world is a little messier, as the following examples suggest: A large business may reevaluate labor needs every six months (or two years) and within the six month period have too many (or too few) employees but hasn’t gotten around to making the routine adjustment. A small business owner may have lost a large share of her business, but is reluctant to lay off people in case business turns around in a month or two. A new labor-saving technology is on the market and a business is evaluating it.  A company has decided not to refill a position once someone retires in three months. Or how about all the employees of residential real estate companies at the very end of the bubble that was destined to end? In all these cases, companies are carrying excess labor, and a rise in the cost of labor may make them change their minds quickly.  These job losses aren’t caused by the increase in wages. The job loss was activated before the increase in wages. They were going to happen no matter what.

I would consider these job losses to be noise or leakage in the economic system, similar to the concept of the natural rate of unemployment, which is the unemployment rate that occurs with full employment, stemming from the fact that there are always people looking for jobs and employers looking for workers. I’ve read that the natural rate of unemployment used to be 4% but is now higher.

What I’m saying is that any increase in unemployment because of an increase in the minimum wage is nothing more than noise (or friction as Milton Friedman and others called it). I’m not saying that the noise or friction that prevents companies from being one hundred percent labor efficient is that same 4+% as the friction that explains why unemployment never falls below a certain floor. But even if it were only one tenth as much, that would still compute to hundreds of thousands of jobs that these methodologies may be counting as losses because of a rise in the minimum wage to $10.10. The noise factor almost certainly explains why some estimates are so much lower than others.

The 500,000 who CBO is predicting will lose their jobs if the minimum wage reaches $10.10 would raise unemployment by three tenths of a percent. That’s 500,000 out of more than 166 million jobs. So even if CBO is right, it sounds like they are measuring noise for the most part, which in this case means the number of jobs that would have been lost no matter what.

Conservatives play Limbo Rock with proposals to lower minimum wage

You can almost hear Chubby Checker intoning “How low can you go?” in the lowest register he could hit.

What made me think of Chubby’s hit, “Limbo Rock” is the limbo dancing that conservatives are doing with the minimum wage. It seems as if right-wingers are falling over themselves in advocating for a new minimum wage—that’s lower than the current paltry $7.25 an hour.  They want to reduce the incomes of our poorest workers as if the hourly wage were a Limbo bar and the object of the game was to lower it as much as possible.

In all cases, the right-wing Limbo-ists (or perhaps I should call them Limbaugh-ists) fervently declare that the lower minimum wage will benefit workers because it will enable businesses to hire more employees. The assumption—which common sense tells us is completely false—is that an employer will hire people they don’t need just because they can get them cheaply and that when wages rise, employers will fire workers whom they still need to operate their business.

How low can you go?

How about $5.00 an hour, which is what retired public relations executive Robert G. Strayton thinks the minimum wage should be. His expertise, which he touts in an article titled “A Minimum Wage that Can Work” in the Wall Street Journal, is as a volunteer interviewer of the poor at a religious charitable organization in southwest Florida. Strayton pulls the $5 an hour number out of the air, just as he pulls out $3 as the future price of the McDonald’s $1 menu if the nation adopted the modest $10.10 an hour minimum wage that President Obama has imposed on government contractors for future contracts. Strayton’s math is shoddy: wages are one part of McDonald’s costs, which also include rent, utilities, raw materials and marketing. By increasing this one factor by 40% ($7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour), he thinks the final cost will triple. I hope Strayton gets help with his taxes. If labor accounted for 75% of the cost of a $1 item (it doesn’t) and McDonald’s raised salaries 40%, then to maintain the same profit (not profit margin) would require Mickey D to sell the items for $1.30.

Strayton provides no basis for his economic argument except a tired old theory that was disproven years ago. He does give an ethical basis for lowering the minimum wage, which is as insultingly condescending to the poor as it is self-serving for employers: You’d think no one can value making $5 an hour. But for those in poverty, a primal need is immediate and reliable access to an income of one’s own. When one has nothing, anything becomes priceless. Watch the expression on the face of a poor person when you provide him or her with $2, $3 or $5 to put gas in a neighbor’s borrowed car so he can bring free groceries, clothing, linens, housewares or furnishings from our organization back home. You’ll see then the value of such a ‘trivial’ wage.”  That smile of a grateful poor person must make Strayton feel warm and fuzzy inside as he pours French Bordeaux into Baccarat glasses while enjoying the sunset from the deck of his yacht.

How low can you go?

How about $4 an hour, which is what Michael R. Strain is proposing in an article titled “A $4 Minimum Wage Can Get People Back to Work” published by Bloomberg News.”  Strain, a researcher at the notoriously anti-labor American Enterprise Institute, begins by bemoaning how little is being done by “our leaders in Washington” to address long-term unemployment in the United States, what he calls “the most immediate social and economic challenge facing the U.S. today.”

Strain strains to show how much he cares about the unemployed. “Society owes these workers better — creative public policies to help increase their chance of staying in the labor force. They want to work; they want to earn their own successes, to help the economy grow, and to support themselves and their families. But they can’t, in large part because they happen to be alive and working during a once-in-a-generation economic downturn.”

His answer is to reduce the risk to employers of spending $7.25 an hour for someone who has been out of a job for months or years, thus making employers more likely to hire the long-term unemployed. Strain couples this lower minimum wage with expanded earned-income tax credit or wage subsidies—federal transfer programs that supplement a worker’s wages with tax dollars.

In other words, Strain wants the government to subsidize businesses by allowing them to pay their workers even less than they do now. Strain is certain that employers will increase hiring, but why would they? If a company didn’t need the additional workers before, why would they need them now? What is more likely is that wages will go down and more employees of Wal-Mart, MacDonald’s and other low-wage companies will receive government assistance.  Right now 52% of fast food workers are using Medicaid, food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit programs. Do what Strain wants and that number will increase.

Strain calls it public policy, but I call it welfare for the wealthy, the only kind of economic stimulus program that conservatives like.

Shoddy math, false assumptions and a smug, self-serving moral tone always characterize these arguments against the minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits and food stamps.  All of it so they can steal more money from the poor. It’s pretty low, if you ask me. And just when you think that a right-winger has debased logic, reasoning and common sense as much as possible, another one emerges to lower the bar even more.

How low can they go?

Mattel buys cover of Sports Illustrated in campaign to congratulate itself for the image of women it sells

Sports Illustrated and Mattel have entered into a relationship based on the exchange of money and sex. For those who haven’t figured it out yet, the whore is Sports Illustrated.

The transaction is what in advertising is called a “pay-for-play.” Mattel has bought four pages of advertising in the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and Sports Illustrated has inserted Mattel into the editorial content by putting Mattel’s popular Barbie doll on the cover of the issue, dressed in an updated version of the original swimsuit Barbie wore when the doll first hit toy stores in 1959.

News reports call the relationship between Mattel and Sports Illustrated a partnership, but it’s a partnership only in the sense that every commercial transaction is a partnership between buyer and seller. The buyer in this case is Mattel. The seller is Sports Illustrated, which has sold not only its cover, but also its journalistic ethics—if I can apply such a term to a parade of partially naked young women—for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver.  It makes me want to investigate the backgrounds of the live swimsuit models to see if perhaps one has rich parents who gave her a graduation present by buying into the issue.

Feminists have long campaigned against both Barbie and the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The short form of the argument made by many feminists (and I include myself in this group) finds that both objectify women into nothing more than bodies for display while creating an image of feminine beauty difficult if not impossible to attain for most women.

In Sports Illustrated, the objectification is explicit: no matter how accomplished the models are, they are on the cover or in the issue for one reason only—because they conform to the editors’ image of beauty.

Barbie dolls do their damage in a much more subtle way by presenting a woman in many guises—girlfriend, beach beauty, princess, model and stewardess to be sure, but also businessperson, teacher and scientist—yet always in a physical form that is virtually impossible to attain. There is nothing inherently wrong with a girl (or boy) having a doll that it dresses and takes to imaginary beaches or tea parties. The various incarnations of Barbies may skew towards the sexist, but they include the possibility of non-sexist female roles. The problem is that the doll represents and is sold as an ideal female form that is in fact impossible to attain because of the unnatural proportions of Barbie’s dimensions.

The other concern parents should have with Barbie is that this little doll with the enormous bosom—like all branded series of toys—trains children to become mindless consumers: to go for brands and brand extensions; to collect variations of manufactured sameness; to consider objects in everyday life as manifestations of fashion; to discard last year’s fashions; to express relationships through buying and consuming things. Barbie is all about buying stuff. A girl may not be able to achieve Barbie’s top-heavy figure, but she can buy the clothes, jewelries and other artifacts of the glamorous Barbie lifestyle.

By buying the cover of Sports Illustrated, Mattel’s strategy is an old one that usually fails: conduct a PR campaign about an advertising campaign.  Mattel bought the ads and cover in Sports Illustrated solely to talk about it to the news media and public. Here’s why I know it: there is hardly any market among readers of Sports Illustrated for Barbie dolls. Men mostly read it, not children, and certainly not girls of the age of maximum Barbie interest. Moreover, for both men and women readers, they are reading the magazine in a “sports” mindset; they’re not thinking about what to get their children for their birthday as they might in a TV ad during a House rerun.  All toy companies including Mattel tend to place virtually all their ads in media children use. In a sense, Mattel created a special event that nobody attends but all the news media covers.

Through the years, I have heard several hare-brained ad guys tell me they think a new advertising or marketing campaign is newsworthy and that it will get a lot of coverage in the mass media.  They are almost always wrong, but in this case, Mattel figured right, because it shaped the ad campaign for the sole purpose of getting publicity. Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated is the kind of bizarre pop culture story that few in the mass media can resist.  Once the PR campaign is established, the subsequent ads—all in the right places—should prove to be more effective because people will be familiar with the news story.

Symbolically Barbie as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model takes objectification of women to a new level.  It’s not a young woman corresponding to the current ideal of feminine form promulgated by the fashion industry on the cover. It’s a plastic doll version of a woman.

For women, the message is that you can never reach this ideal. Losing weight, changing your hair and cosmetics, getting a little plastic surgery and wearing the right clothes could get you close to a human swimsuit model, but no one can attain Barbie’s dimensions and still be able to stand without tipping over.

For men, however, the message is just as pernicious: The swimsuit model defines what men should be pursuing, not only in looks, but in dress, demeanor and aspirations. The subtle message with Barbie is that you can not only have what the mass media tells you is a beautiful woman, but you can control her, too, just like humans control Barbies during play. The swimsuit model is at least a human being. Barbie is around for play purposes only.

More proof that adults are maintaining habits of childhood: adult fans of My Little Pony & Lego

For 30 years, children, primarily girls before their teen years, have played with plastic dolls called My Little Pony. The first My Little Pony hit the toy stores in 1983 as a single doll. Now manufacturer Hasbro sells dozens of models, each with its own name and distinct look; plus My Little Pony doll houses, board games, video games, movies, a TV series, live shows, apps, coloring books, stickers, ear buds, jewelry, calendars, party supplies, clothing, blankets, trading cards, sippy cups, toy cars and a series of female dolls called Equestria Girls. The movies and other narratives involving the little plastic equines take place in Dream Valley, an imaginary land of ghosts, witches and fairies. In these stories love and friendship conquer all and the good always win.

Every detail of every My Little Pony branded product is artfully designed to appeal to the traditional image of girls aged 4-11: the subject matter, the colors, the story lines in the narratives and every other element plays to the frilly and gentle conformist image of the traditional middle class American elementary school-aged girl.  Like Disney princesses, My Little Pony gives girls outlets for expressing and exploring the sexist values of traditional society while enforcing those values. More importantly, My Little Pony (and Disney Princesses) train young girls how to be brand-loyal consumers—they can practice their good consumer skills by collecting the myriad of My Little Pony products on sale once hooked on the brand.

What a bizarre variation on the theme of adult infantilization is the growing number of adult men who collect My Little Pony products. These men are called Bronies and evidently there are enough of them to form fan clubs and to mob Brony conventions in Baltimore and California last year. The Baltimore convention was called BronyCon and attracted thousands of adult males dedicated to the conventionally sentimental plastic horse culture. A news report quoted one avid fan as saying “It’s fun and it’s sweet, and it’s a strong moral thing.”

Yes, My Little Pony presents a sweet moral universe, but it’s an uncomplicated one in which there are only good guys and bad guys and strict rules of conduct that leave no room for the ambiguity that haunts the adult world and propels adult entertainment. The morality is what we want little girls to believe before they grow up into young women. That adult men feel free to cross traditional gender boundaries and enjoy entertainment once thought of as only for females is a good thing. But unfortunately, we’re not talking about reading Doris Lessing or doing needlepoint.  We’re talking about a series of branded products focused entirely on the mentality and emotional level of girls before puberty.

It’s another example of adults who haven’t grown up, what I have been calling the infantilization of American adults.

And here’s one more example of adult infantilization in the news: AFOLs, or adult followers of Legos.   Inputting “AFOL” into my Google Search engine yields 1.6 million results; “Adult followers of Lego” (without quotation marks) yields 106 million!  These references send us to articles about AFOLs, AFOL fan clubs and chat rooms and even documentaries about the AFOL phenomenon. AFOLs certainly must have contributed to the amazing first week success of the Lego movie.

Unlike My Little Pony, which I believe is a tool to indoctrinate young girls into being quiet and happy participants in the Great American Consumption machine, Lego is a great toy. It gives children the opportunity to build things and to follow printed directions, but also the opportunity to explore the processes of putting things together to create their own constructions. I have fond memories of my son loving Legos as a child; he was able to build the most sophisticated and expensive Lego sets so quickly that I figured out that this first use of the sets cost me about $60 an hour. Luckily, he also liked to build his own buildings, ships and cities using the tens of thousands of little Lego pieces we accumulated over the five or six years he played with Legos, so I feel we got good value out of the toys.

That was then and this is now—and in his case, now means conducting original research in the science of earth-quaking buildings en route to a PhD from Stanford. It’s obvious that his time with Legos helped him develop the intellectual skills he employs every day. I would, however, be concerned if he were still playing with Legos, went to Lego conventions or wanted to see the Lego movie.

Lego helped my son and many other boys and girls develop both intellectually and emotionally. It was the perfect toy for a pre-teen’s mentality and intellectual level. But it was and is a toy.  It frightens me to think that so many adults without children of their own are still fascinated by Legos.

Like the Brony, the AFOL reflects the infantilization of American adults. By keeping their old entertainment habits, infantilized adults remain in the intellectual and emotional world of the child.  It’s a trend that must warm the hearts of retailers, especially those of branded products. Whether it’s reading comic books, playing shoot-‘em-up video games, visiting Disney theme parks or playing with Legos or My Little Ponies, the infantilized adult is operating on the level of a child, and it’s far easier to manipulate a child into buying or doing something than to do so to an adult.

Joe Queenan’s narcissistic verbal selfie symbolizes what’s wrong with contemporary feature writing

How soon would you get bored if every other song on the radio station included the exact same guitar riff, usually at the beginning of the tune? Not long I imagine. Nothing to fear: music producers and musicians would figure it out pretty quickly and come up with new riffs and other ways to make their songs interesting. Too bad that contemporary writers of features for newspapers, magazines and Internet media haven’t figure out yet that if you use the same verbal trick in every article, you’re going to end up with something bland and boring.

The trick is using an anecdote from the writer’s own life to begin or advance the text. Writer after writer persists on injecting an anecdote about themselves into articles. Are these writers so uncreative that they can’t figure out another way to start or move a piece along? I’ve said for years that it’s easy to write about oneself, but the professional writer can also write about other people and other things.  Far too many prose writers today feel compelled—no, obsessed—with throwing a verbal selfie into the article.

Here are some recent examples:

If you think I’m creating a storm from a few raindrops, consider that of the 20 non-editorials in the New York Times “Week in Review” section of February 9, 2014, nine included anecdotes from the lives of the writers.  One writer remembers his experiences skiing as a child in article about the scarcity of snow in traditional winter resorts because of global warming. Another writer remembers an ugly incident from her childhood in a discussion of the purported lack of multiracial characters on TV. A writer who’s a nurse mentions her own experience in an article about poor communication between physicians and their patients.  And on and on… Some of these “verbal selfies” are appropriate to the article, but many just slow things down or serve in place of what could have been a more apt or illuminating example.

There are many rhetorical devices that writers can employ to make their case or tell their story. Why do so many stick to this one tired trope? Some thoughts:

  • The writers are lazy or so overwhelmed with work that they look into their own often paltry experience instead of taking the time to do actual research and reporting.
  • College journalism professors have stressed this one technique of writing a feature article to the detriment of all others, and mediocre writers are unable to discover other techniques on their own (Hint: read Dante, Dickenson, Shui Hu Zhuan and other great writers).
  • The prevalence of injecting the self into reporting has increased in tandem with the growing selfishness of all of society and with the growing prevalence of adults continuing to enjoy childhood pleasures well into adulthood. The narcissism at the heart of the verbal or the photographic selfie also can explain the politics of selfishness and the desire of grown people to visit Disney theme parks and read Harry Potter fiction.

At least in all the articles I have referenced so far, the selfie that each writer throws into his or her piece advances the topic of the article.  But in Joe Queenan’s stunning display of narcissism in a Wall Street Journal article titled, “A Word to the Wise,” the selfie constitutes the entire article.

In “A Word of Advice…on Advice,” Queenan proposes that Americans love to get advice—from books, from newspaper columns, from the Internet, from experts, from other people—but that the advice often doesn’t help.  Queenan starts with three anecdotes of advice he did not take, followed by a glib anecdote of the last time he remembers taking advice: when he was hitchhiking at night and a trucker told him not to accept hitchhiking rides from truckers at night. Finally we get to an expert—the only expert he quotes in the article. The expert says that most people don’t take advice because they feel that the person giving it is acting superior or being high-handed. No studies, no reference to years of clinical cases. Just the statement. Of course, Queenan does qualify the expert for us: he’s psychologist who played guitar in a failed rock-and-roll band 43 years ago—with Queenan! I guess if he’s FOJQ (friend of Joe Queenan), he must know his stuff.

The remainder of the article drones on in the same vein: anecdotes from Queenan’s experience, advice Queenan has given others and glib statements that mostly support the conservative status quo that the Journal loves so much such as “At some level people know that, unless the good word comes from McKinsey or Warren Buffet, most off-the-cuff advice is useless.”  Queenan presents no reality on this issue outside of his own admittedly glib imagination. No studies. No textual analysis. No comparisons. No real world-renown expert. In fact, there is absolutely no content in the article. It’s a 2,329-word verbal selfie of Queenan.

After turning the article into his editor, I wonder if Queenan bought a pie from his local bakery, stuck his thumb through the crust, pulled out a plum and grinned broadly as he snapped a selfie with his smart phone.

Republicans are right when they say ACA will ruin their economy, but it will improve the economy of the 99%

If a business owner has three job openings and 10 people apply, she can pay less than if only two apply. It’s one of the most simple examples of the law of supply and demand—the less the supply or the greater the demand, the higher the price.

The law of supply and demand is a basic principle of western economic theory and explains why Republicans and right-wingers are sincere when they say that it’s an economic disaster that 2.5 million job-holders will probably retire from the work world when they have secure and inexpensive health care insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). It’s an economic disaster, but only for rich folk who do most of the hiring.

Certainly, the Republicans and other right-wingers lie when they say that 2.5 million jobs will be lost, but they are lying out of a sincere motive: they fear the impact of that many people exiting the job market on the economy. They don’t care about the size of the economy. They care about their cut. And with fewer people seeking or wanting to hold jobs, businesses will have to pay more to replace the 2.5 million who bid Sayonara to the rat race, but also to attract other workers.

Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think anyone has mentioned that the net effect of 2.5 million people leaving the workforce will be a decline in unemployment. It has to be, because employers will most definitely hire another 2.5 million to replace the ones going on permanent vacation. They’ll hire them because no matter what any right-winger tells you, very few if any businesses that last beyond a few months will ever hire an employee they don’t believe they need, unless it’s a relative. I think we can assume that the sibling, children, nieces and nephews are mostly already hired and that employers will replace most of the 2.5 million who quit their jobs or went part time.

A lower employment rate also leads to a higher price on the labor of one worker. Because 2.5 million now feel secure enough to retire from working a job, the people who keep working will see their wages and benefits increase. The decision of these workers to exit the workforce thus results in a profound redistribution of wealth.

It’s not that Republicans don’t like government to redistribute wealth. They understand that on the economic level, it’s the function of government—take money from some people and give it others. Unless a government is controlled by a dictator or King/Queen (who can funnel taxes to private accounts), it will eventually always spend every penny it takes in (and more). So every government is going to redistribute.

But the right is used to government redistribution taking money from the poor and middle class and giving it to the wealthy and very wealthy. That’s the flow of the cash for the past 30 some odd years. Financing the lowering of taxes on the wealthy by cutting programs redistributes wealth upwards. Privatizing government functions—the polite term for “crony capitalism”—redistributes wealth upwards. Passing legislation that hurts unionization efforts or takes jobs from union members redistributes wealth upwards. Deficit spending financed by bonds bought primarily by rich folk redistributes wealth upwards, especially when it’s done in lieu of raising taxes.  In short the entire right-wing program for government since the Reagan years distributes wealth upwards.

The ACA gets the money flowing in the other direction, from wealthy and upper middle class to the poor and lower middle class. That benefit to the lives of 99% of all Americans may be as important as the fact that the new law will extend healthcare insurance to 30 or 40 million people who couldn’t previously afford it.

It also explains why the Republicans are correct when they say the economy will suffer. They mean their economy—the economy for the one percent.

New book by G. William Domhoff traces control of country by corporate elite since 1930’s

Here is an abridged version of my review of G. William Domhoff’s new book, The Myth of Liberal Acendancy: Corporate Domination from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, which appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Jewish CurrentsCheck out the longer version online and buy the issue, which has a lot of other interesting articles in it!

Many contemporary progressives look back at the 1960s and early ’70s as a golden age when the United States was supposedly a much more politically liberal land. Sometime in the mid-’70s, the commonly believed story goes, corporations started working together to move our nation. After thirty years of union-busting, elimination or privatization of government functions, and lower taxes on the wealthy, we have devolved into a society of rich and poor with a shrunken middle class, inadequate tax revenues, a frayed social safety net, and the most inequitable distribution of wealth since the Gilded Age.

Many progressive writers and pundits, including myself, have recently taken to reciting this brief history of class warfare in America with some frequency. But as G. William Domhoff reminds us in his latest masterpiece, The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy, the class war perpetrated by corporations and their owners against the rest of America predates the Reagan Era and, in fact runs all the way back to the New Deal and earlier. In his new book, Domhoff establishes the peak of liberal-progressive influence in the United States not in the 1960s and early ’70s, but during the last two years of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, 1935-1937.

Domhoff, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California-Santa Barbara, is one of the most important sociologists and progressive thinkers of the past hundred years. His specialty is the sociology of power: who has it in America, how they got it, how they keep it and how they use it. His seminal Who Rules America Now?, now in its seventh edition, builds on and broadens the scope of C. Wright Mill’s classic, The Power Elite, in its analysis of the power structure in America. Domhoff and his collaborators keep the world updated on new research on who has power and wealth in America on his website,

In The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy, Domhoff tells a stirring tale of class struggle between four power groups:

  1. The liberal-labor coalition of lefties and labor unions, formed during the early part of the New Deal years.
  2. Corporate moderates, from the New Deal to the oil shocks of the 1970s, believed in using Keynesian techniques to combat recessions, and recognized the value of full employment.
  3. Ultraconservatives comprised two groups that always planned and voted together: the rightwing ultra free-marketers, and the Southern, primarily agrarian, racists who were opposed to any kind of desegregation or granting of voting or workplace rights to African-Americans.

In Domhoff’s telling, these three groups have been the major power players on the national level since the mid-1930s. On the local level, however, he points to a fourth group, real estate and development interests, which dominated regional policy decisions and often made deals on a national level with any and all of the three primarily national power players.

Domhoff’s history runs through the formation and passage or failure of major legislation from Roosevelt’s second term until the Reagan years and beyond. He inspects how these three and sometimes four power centers viewed each piece of legislation, and how the legislation developed or stalled based on their push-and-pull.

In the end, the corporate moderates win — every battle, all the time. Gradually and inexorably, the power of unions is weakened, taxes on the wealthy decrease, the purchasing power of the minimum wage declines, and the wealthy control a greater share of income, wealth and power. The story of each policy decision comes down to the policy groups, experts and lobbyists who define and discuss the issues, promulgate the solutions and help create the laws. Corporate moderates spend far and away the most money forming these groups and supporting economists and other scholars who formulate the policy and advise the various presidents.

Domhoff makes a very convincing case that the liberal-labor coalition reached a pinnacle of power in the mid-1930s and has been losing ground ever since. The high-water mark came in 1935, after Democrats had swept the midterm elections. After about 1937, even when the liberal-labor coalition got an occasional win, it was incomplete or tainted. Take Medicare: Despite the protests of labor unions, private insurers were allowed to have a large role administering the program. This led to rampant medical-cost inflation, as predicted beforehand by labor experts. If the corporate moderates were going to let taxes pay for medical care for senior citizens, however, they insisted that the private sector be able to enrich itself in the process.

Two dynamics seem to predict and direct the move rightward that corporate moderates took in the 1970s: First, they have always hated unions as much as the ultraconservatives have, and always have had curtailing the power of unions high on the policy agenda. Second, unions were too often unsupportive of the efforts of minorities to gain civil and workplace rights, and, in fact feared and distrusted minorities and the organizations representing them. Anti-unionism thus drove conservative moderates into the arms of the ultraconservatives, while racism fractured the liberal-labor coalition.  Tragically, the left contributed to its own demise.

After chewing my way lately through the annoying personal anecdotes and trivializing analogies that clutter many other recent books of social science and science, I found The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy refreshing for its sustained focus on the subject, and its breezy and direct but non-patronizing style. I found no jargon and little if any academic circumlocution.

As an electorate, we currently stand at the dawn of what progressives hope is a new day for the United States. Voters seem sick of Tea Party nihilism and understand that the government must get involved to jump-start our economy, provide medical care to all, educate our young and protect our environment. Domhoff’s book is a prescient reminder, however, not to become too enthusiastic about a Democratic sweep in 2014 and 2016 if the Democrats elected are centrists and look to the corporate moderates for legislative direction.