Hold your nose & vote Democratic if you want our elected officials to work for the 99%

Today’s the day for my annual Vote Straight Democrat essay. These past few years it seems to be an exercise in futility in every other area than social issues, as many Democrats are almost as right-wing as the Republicans on economic and foreign affairs issues, further to the right than the Eisenhower administration.

Most Democrats were once true progressives, which makes it doubly frustrating. The urge to stay home rather than vote for an Allison Lundergan Grimes or an Andrew Cuomo is strong.

But there are only two ways to influence elected officials, because those are only two things they want: votes and money. Correction—they want money and need votes. Unless you’re willing to cough up a few thousand—or a few hundred thousand—bucks, all you can offer a politician is your vote.

Votes don’t speak as loudly as money because you only have one vote and you can give many, many, many dollars. But the collective votes of demographic groups can speak loudly and clearly to the candidates.

Nothing short of an enlightened dictatorship will magically transform the United States overnight into a land in which all people get adequate health care, education and retirement as part of the social contract, there is an equitable distribution of wealth and income and we have secured our future as a species by slowing down man-made global warming and resource shortages.

In our system of government, movement in a new direction, or back into old and successful direction, comes slowly. We have to keep pushing, just like the 1%, social conservatives and gun manufacturers have kept pushing over the past 35 years, gradually increasing inequality, limiting the right to an abortion, weakening unions, lowering taxes on the wealthy, attacking any scientific theory that doesn’t support their views and making it easier to carry guns in the street and get away with shooting people in cold blood for flimsy excuses.

To turn back the tide may take as long as or longer than it took for the right-wing waters to gather and flood our country. The first step is for progressives to show our power, which we can’t do if we don’t vote, since we 99% don’t have the same ability as the 1% do to feed money to the candidates and parties. Until minorities, young people and the poor establish a track record of voting, Democrats will continue to ignore our pressing needs, make compromises with the right wing and pursue militarism and 21st century imperialism abroad.

Right now the best reason to vote Democratic is that the other side is so much worse. Let’s call it “voting on the Gore,” as we now know that progressives who voted for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore for president in 2000 are in a large part responsible for the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, the torture gulag, the disastrous federal tax cuts for the wealthy, racking up major debt and then paying for it by cutting funds for education, the poor and our infrastructure, the embedding of the religious right in key government posts, the curtailment of civil rights in the name of security—and, as it turns out, possibly the 9/11 bombings through deliberate ignoring of many warnings signs.

Today we have to vote, and vote on the Gore. But if we can swing the Senate for the Democrats, erode the Republican majority in the House and start to hand governorships and state legislatures back to the Democrats, we will be in a position in 2016 to move the party left—to insist on more progressive candidates, and to maybe get Elizabeth Warren, Bill De Blasio or some other progressive on the national ticket.

But if we stay home this year, the Democrats will once again treat 2016 as if it were Halloween and dress up as a bunch of right-looking centrists. And I’ll be back again telling everyone to hold their noses and vote straight Democratic.

Kellogg’s adds to infantilization of American adults with Fruit Loops TV spot

It’s Saturday night. The kids are in bed and their early-thirties parents are finally alone.  She slips into a negligee while he opens a bottle of wine. She turns off the lights and waits for him on the sofa by the soft flickering light of a few candles. He programs some smooth jazz into the stereo, then sits down beside her. He tells her how beautiful she is.

Sounds like a great way to spend an evening without the kids, doesn’t it?

But not if you’re in a TV commercial for Fruit Loops, a Kellogg’s dry cereal with toxic contents: sugar is the first ingredient and you won’t find a single fruit or fruit product anywhere in the list of ingredients on the side of the box.

The commercial starts with an attractively plain-looking man and woman pouncing onto a plushy sofa, both with smiles as large as a half moon now that the kids are asleep and they are alone. But instead of getting amorous, she frenetically grabs a joy stick and starts playing a video game on the flat screen, while he excitedly spoon feeds her Fruit Loops from a large bowl which may or may not contain milk. They are completely into it, but not in a sexual way, but gleeful, like children at an amusement park having fun.

They do what boys and girls of all sexual proclivities do before they discover sex.

Kellogg’s is obviously targeting adults, but in doing so, they offer not an adult pleasure, but a retreat to a pre-sexual childhood. Contrast with the TV spot for Post’s Cinnamon Toast Crunch of a few years back that equated eating the cereal to scratching a dog’s belly, suggesting it was the highest of sensual pleasures.

Kellogg’s is only one of many advertisers who infantilize adults or present a juvenile world as the ideal for adults.  Advertisers want adults to behave like children because it makes them better consumers. Children are more self-centered and find it harder to think long-term, so they are more likely to make an impulse purchase for themselves. Children have less sophisticated thought processes and are therefore easier to convince to buy or believe something. Children have not had rigorous training in economics, the scientific method and logic, all part of the core curriculum of any high school. Children tend to believe anything an authority figures says.

But as OpEdge has demonstrated in several columns, advertisers are not alone in supporting the infantilization of American adults. Year after year, the movie industry turns out movies about adults remaining children, behaving like children or returning to childhood. The “Harold & Kumar” movies,  “Old School,”  “Big,”  “Grandma’s Boy,”  “Ted,”  “The Wedding Crashers,”  “Billy Madison,”  “You, Me and Dupree,”  “Dodgeball,”  “”Step Brothers,”  “The 40-year-old Virgin,”  “Knocked Up,”  all three “Hangovers,”  the “Jackass” movies, “Bridesmaids,”  “Hall Pass”  and “Identity Thief” –these infantilizing movies dominate the playlists of the dominant cable networks. Marketers from the American Museum of Natural History to amusement parks are packaging childhood experiences for adults, as are makers of products for children such as LEGO and My Little Pony, who see a market in adult followers.

The 2006 satirical film, “Idiocracy,” depicts a future world in which humans have become stupid and illogical, basing most of their knowledge on what television commercials tell them. Thus they water their crops with Brawndo, a Gatorade like liquid they believe is good for everyone and everything because ads tell them “it has electrolytes.”  Of course the crops fail.

When I see commercials like the one for Fruit Loops and movies like “Ted,” I wonder how far off we are from the world of “Idiocracy.”  It wouldn’t be the first time that the educational levels and cultural sophistication has declined for a period of time. Think of the decline of knowledge and literacy in Western Europe after the death of Charlemagne.

It’s more than just the infantilization of adults in the mass media and mass entertainments that troubles me. There’s the virulent reaction of the religious right and their political factotums to scientific knowledge. There are the attempts by state school boards to sneak fake theories and false notions into curricula. There’s the retreat from modernism in poetry and other art forms.  There’s the almost plague-like spread of celebrity culture stealing more and more news media space and time from real news and the discussion of issues.

Many signs point to a new dark age of ignorance falling upon the United States.

Pennsylvania legislature & Governor join forces with NRA to put more guns in hands of criminals

On election day the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will most certainly sweep out of office Tom Corbett, their ultra-rightwing Republic Governor who drastically cut aid to public education, impeded implementation of the Affordable Care Act, kept taxes and regulations low on shale gas drillers, and tried to restrict voting rights.  But before they “throw ‘de bum out,” he intends to inflict even more damage on his constituents.

Corbett is expected to sign a new law that would allow the National Rifle Association (NRA) to sue local municipalities in Pennsylvania that enact guns laws stricter than the state’s. Once Corbett signs this odious sop to the gun lobby, the NRA is going to sue the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia over laws on their books that require gun owners to report when a firearm is lost or stolen.

One study counts 230,000 guns stolen in the United States every year in burglaries and property crimes. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia surely account for a share of those thefts. By definition, all 230,000 of those guns end up in the hands of criminals. I haven’t seen any studies, but I think it’s safe to assume that a significant number of lost guns also end up in the hands of the bad guys.

Police can’t go after stolen and lost guns unless the owners report the losses. Not having the report on file slows down the process of gathering evidence when they succeed in encountering or arresting a criminal. And let’s not forget that sometimes people who don’t report a “lost” or “stolen” firearm have in fact sold the weapon, possibly to a criminal.

It’s mind-boggling that in many places in this supposedly civilized country people don’t have to tell the police when a gun goes missing.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on this truly outrageous and dangerous legislation focuses most of its attention on the great drain on city treasuries that defending the lawsuits will make.  And it’s not just the big cities. Thirty other municipalities across the Keystone State have similar laws that the NRA could challenge or topple once Corbett signs the law.

What a win-win-win this law will therefore be to the broad spectrum of the right.

Taking city funds from fixing roads, clearing snow, educating the young, feeding the poor and ensuring public health and safety and giving it to attorneys certainly helps to give the rich a larger share of the income and wealth pies.

It must help gun manufacturers sell more guns, but I’m not sure I see how, unless they think they will benefit from an increase in crime rates, which may make more people buy guns for protection.

Finally, because of the widespread myth that most urban dwellers and recipients of government aid are minorities, the racists will be delighted to see city funds diverted from helping those whom they consider undeserving.

When Harry Golden wrote and Jay and the Americans sang, “Only in America,” I don’t this is what they meant!

Scenes from the class warfare the rich are waging against everyone else

For days, images of the Philadelphia public school system have haunted me. More than 30 children in one class share 11 math books. Bathrooms locked because there aren’t enough hall monitors. What’s most heartbreaking is to know that just a few miles away other school students attend some of the highest rated public and private schools in the nation, where they are lavished with cutting edge technology and enrichment opportunities.

Then there are the images of elected officials turning a deaf ear to the protests of the students, teachers and parents angered at the extreme cuts. And the image of the Philadelphia Board of Education voting to cancel the contract with the teachers’ union. Shame on the board and shame on everyone else who blames Pennsylvania’s and American’s crisis in public education on teachers or believe the solutions to the problem all involve taking money out of the pockets of these highly skilled professionals.

Most people agree that the immediate cause of the public school crisis in Philadelphia is the extreme cuts—50%!!—to public education enacted by Pennsylvania under right-wing Republic Governor Tom Corbett. These cuts have led to resource shortages, less enrichment and larger classes throughout Pennsylvania.  According to polls, Corbett is going to pay at the polls for these Draconian cuts, his attempts to limit the voting franchise and his opposition to implementing the Affordable Care Act.

But all that means is Corbett will go back to some cushy job at a major law or lobbying firm. What about the tens of thousands of children who will receive inferior education because of his cuts?

The other thought that haunts my mind lately is a claim that I am unable to substantiate that a major nonprofit health institution in the western part of Pennsylvania makes job applicants pay the cost for background checks that are part of the hiring process. The checks cost $57.50 for a job paying $11.51 an hour, barely more than the purchasing power of the minimum wage in the 1960’s. I heard from several people I know that it is standard for some nonprofits to ask job applicants to pay for these security clearances.

I connect the charging of job applicants to the gutting of state support of public education. Both are little pieces of the wealth-and-income pie taken in the 35-year program to give a larger share to the rich folk and less to the poor and middle class.

The logic of cutting aid to public school makes perfect sense if you want to transfer wealth up the economic ladder. The cuts by definition will negatively affect teacher compensation, if for no other reason than it will increase the pool of teachers looking for jobs. The cuts will also make poor folk less able to climb the economic ladder because they will receive inferior education. Finally, it drives the middle class into private schools, translates into support of the education of the rich, who have always taken the private route.  That’s maiming three birds with one stone, the glorious topper to which is that the money saved from harming public education goes directly to the wealthy without passing Go. Brilliant strategy!

Cutting public education may be brilliant class war strategy, but making people pay to apply for low-paying jobs is merely sadistic. The message is, “we have the job and we can do anything we want.” It equates to Lebron James spiking the ball in the face of a fifth-grader.  Of course, anything to save a buck. That’s the excuse that Amazon.com gives for not paying its employees for the half hour it takes for each to go through the security screening process before and after work.

You would think that the extremity with which corporations and right-wing state governments are going would sicken the electorate. After all, 99% of us are not gaining from the continual grabbing by the wealthy of our government benefits and income. Now I know some vote with the right wing because of its 19th century views on women, gays and race. But all surveys suggest that number is decreasing rapidly in all parts of the country.

What I think drives the 99% away from the Democrats is that they aren’t much better than the Republicans. Massive contributions from billionaires and multinational corporations have colored the views of most Democrats on public education, tax policy and unionism. For six years now, President Obama has started negotiations on economic, taxation and budgetary matters by giving away the store, so eager has he been to make a deal—any kind of deal—with the factotums of the 1%.

It doesn’t help people trying to distinguish between Democrat and Republican that the Obama Administration continues to build on the Bush II security state and still uses bombing and troops as the primary tools of foreign policy—save the ending of the Bush II torture gulag.

Note how popular are the candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bill De Blasio who have articulated a progressive vision. But instead of following their lead, the Democratic Party in general is consolidating into a centrist position that resembles 1950’s Republicanism without the racism and sexism: in other words, more progress on social issues than economic ones.

USC law & business professor latest to pretend rich pay enough taxes in the United States

Reading Professor Edward Kleinbard’s opinion piece titled “Don’t Soak the Rich” in the New York Times reminds me of Mark Twain. Not that Kleinbard can write fluently and passionately in a variety of styles and dialects. No, Kleinbard makes me think of America’s greatest novelist because in Twain’s expression, “Figures never lie, but liars figure,” Kleinbard would be the liar.

I’m not accusing Kleinbard of telling out-and-out fibs, at least not more than maybe one. What the good doctor does is use figures to lie.

Kleinbard, a professor of law and business at the University of Southern California, manipulates statistics and gives only part of the facts to make his case, which is simple:  Government spending is the key to reducing inequality and social welfare programs help the economy, but we should finance them like they do in Europe, by raising everyone’s taxes, not just the taxes of the wealthy. Kleinbard reports that here in the United States, we pay on average 22% of our taxes, whereas in economically strong Germany, people pay 41%. He proposed funding more needed government programs by raising our average to match Germany’s. He never gives a reason why rich folk shouldn’t pay more than others except to say that a chief executive officer earning 200% more than her employees does not get 200 times the benefit from our investments in highways, which is a back-handed argument that the rich should pay less of a percentage of their income in taxes than the poor and middle class do.

It all seems to make sense if you look at his words uncritically. But take a closer look and you can quickly recognize four types of lies he tells to make his case:

  1. Kleinbard lies by omission: He advocates more government spending on social services and infrastructure without raising taxes on the wealthy, while forgetting to mention that we used to have a pretty good social service net and a wonderful research, development and infrastructure investment program back in the days when the rich were paying more in taxes than they do now. The two super trends of the last 35 years of Reaganomics are lower taxes on the wealthy and less government spending.  By not mentioning this history, Kleinbard can pretend that we have a clean slate and are trying to figure out how best to fund an increase in government spending.
  2. Kleinbard tells a straightout lie: Kleinbard’s explicit whopper is to assert that a CEO who makes 200 times what her employees does not get 200 times the benefit of government spending.  Dear Dr. Kleingloss—I mean Kleinbard—do you think that a CEO doesn’t benefit every time a consumer, employee or vendor drives to her facilities on a road paid by government spending? And do you think the CEO’s benefit is not greater than the employees who take a smaller piece of the wealth pie created by that economic activity? How about the spending on security that not only protects customers, but gives them the confidence to venture out and shop?  We only see a law of diminishing returns in benefits from taxes if we look solely at the individual and ignore, as Kleinbard does, the benefit derived by the individual through benefits to other individuals. As an economist, Kleinbard should understand this concept, which I why I believe he is fibbing when he avers that the CEO does not get 200 times the benefit from tax spending that her employees do.
  3. Kleinbard lies by his use of hypothetical numbers: As noted, in building his weak case for keeping taxes low on the wealthy, Kleinbard compares the income made by a hypothetical CEO to what her employees make. The problem is the 200 to one ratio is so far off the mark that it constitutes a lie because it makes us think that 200 to one is close to the truth. But it’s not. Recent surveys compute that U.S. CEOs make on average from 331 to 345 times what their average employees make, and CEOs of the l00 largest public companies make 774 times the minimum wage. By the way, in Germany, CEOs make 142 what their average employees make; in Spain it’s 127 and in Switzerland, it’s 147. Most readers will assume that Kleinbard’s 200 to one is realistic, when in fact it’s a gross underestimate of the enormous difference in earning capacity between those at the very top of the heap and everyone else in the United States.
  4. Kleinbard lies by making an incomplete comparison: Kleinbard compares the 22% that we all pay in taxes in the United States to 41% in Germany. But he neglects the other part of the comparison—that German (and other Western European and Japanese) executives get a smaller part of the income pie to begin with. You can’t just compare the apples to apples, you also have to compare the oranges, and when you do, it should rapidly become apparent that we can’t raise everyone’s tax load to 41% unless we also split the income pie more equitably so that CEO’s make a smaller multiple of their average employees.

To his benefit, Kleinbard never tries to make the disproven case that you have to have low taxes on (rich) job creators, so they can do their thing. But the case he does make—just raise taxes on everyone—is full of logical holes that he tries to cover with his multiple deceptions.

On second thought, Kleinbard’s essay reminds me less of Twain than of the French writer Julien Benda, who wrote “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals” in which he bemoaned the fact that so many intellectuals in western Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries went against what their expertise told them was true so they could support false notions such as racism held by the ruling elite. Kleinbard is one of a large number of mediocrities who prefer to propose specious arguments that support the 1% than to address our real economic challenges.   It’s the 21st century betrayal of the intellectuals.

In the idealized world of television commercials, we care at least as much about dogs as we do about children

Television commercials collectively present an idealized version of the real world. It’s the real world as imagined by the collective minds of the companies that advertise.  “Ad World” is primarily a suburban, middle-class world of two-car, two-parent families and affluent singles surrounded by great friends. The ads always make clear that buying products and services is the road to happiness. Even when depicting single-parent families as Wal-Mart sometimes does in holiday season advertising, the overtone is positive and happy in Ad World—if the family has any problems, they can all be solved in the usual manner: by buying something.

One big question for those who investigate the impact of advertising and other mass media on society in general is the degree to which the idealized version of advertising reflects the real world and how much advertising actually shapes the real world.

Whether descriptive of the real world or prescriptive of what advertisers want that world to be, the values depicted in Ad World can lead to some very disturbing conclusions about America and the American people.

For example, let’s take a look at dogs in current advertising. It’s almost impossible to find a TV commercial that features a family without a dog. Dogs also inhabit commercials that depict the lives of the singles crowd in Ad World. The broadcast of the most recent Super Bowl, for example, included television spots featuring dogs for Doritos, Cheerios, Budweiser, MetLife, Toyota and Audi.

The trend to feature dogs in TV commercials started about 20 years ago, and every year it seems to intensify. The past few years have produced a number of very disturbing spots in which dogs are equated to humans, as much a part of a family as children or as the most important loved one. There was the spot for Cinnamon Toast Crunch a few years ago in which a 30’s something single woman compared eating the sugary cereal to the sensual feeling her dog must get when its belly is scratched. Or Traveler’s Insurance longtime ad series in which a dog is not only part of the family, but a role model for how human beings should act.

Consider a current commercial for Budweiser that focuses on how important it is to come home for loved ones who depend on you after a night of boozing. The denouement of the narrative is when a sad dog perks up because its owner has come home after spending the night away. The owner explains that he stayed at a friend’s house because he had a little too much to drink and didn’t want to drive home.  Like many dog owners, the young man acts as if he believes that the dog can really understand what he’s saying.

This commercial could have featured a girlfriend, parent, roommate, brother or teenaged child as the symbol of “those we love who depend on us,” but the writers and the corporation that hired them selected a dog.

Are any of my dear readers—dog lovers or not—exasperated with me and ready to cry out, “They’re just trying to be cute”? Of course they are, but they are also communicating that dogs are as important as people, an ancillary message of so much TV advertising nowadays.

Let’s look at two other ads, both for dog products.  In one spot, by a company named Blue, a narrator talks to the audience while we see happy images of a mother doing housework and her son and dog at play. The narrator is directing his words at the mother and by implication to all mothers. The message of the narrator is that you (mothers) care about all the people you love and want them all to eat nutritious food. Then the narrator goes on to explain all the great nutritional advantages of Blue dog food in language that out of context we would assume applied to humans. While the spot for Budweiser uses a dog symbolize all loved ones, this spot for Blue avers that the dog is as much of the family and as loved as the child.

The same sentiment equating (and I would say conflating) dogs with children takes place in a Pet Smart ad which discusses and displays the various treats one can get for one’s dog at Pet Smart to celebrate Halloween.  Dogs after all are part of the family. You wouldn’t want them to be without their treats. I wonder if the people who buy Halloween-themed food and costumes for their dogs also take them trick-or-treating?

We all know cat ladies, but in the idealized world of television commercials, only dogs attain the special place in people’s hearts of children or friends.  The number of commercials for food and other products for dogs far outnumber the number for cats. More significantly, cats never appear in commercials for other products, whereas you can see dogs in TV commercials for everything from laundry soap to automobiles.

It’s easy to figure out why corporate America would want to put a pet every yard, to join two cars in every garage and five cell phones in every house. Whatever the pet, the more people bond with the animal, more likely they will purchase goods and services for the animal. The pet becomes another thing to spend money on, and better than a car or a wardrobe, the spending is for someone you love, creating a strong emotional dynamic to the commercial transaction.

But why dogs?

I would hate to think that Ad World reflects reality accurately. I would hate to think that large numbers of people actually do prefer dogs to humans, or treat their dogs better than they treat the people they know. I would like to think that Ad World is an unreal place that only describes the aspirations that corporate America has for all of us. To my mind in a world in which people have food insecurity and public high schools have to give their pupils obsolete text books, all pets are a frivolity. I would be happy to see a small tax placed on all purchases of pets and products for pets, with the funds earmarked for programs to help poor and disadvantaged children.

Such a tax would be impossible in Ad World, of course, because in Ad World there are no poor people and the only hungry people are those about to sit down to a fast-food meal, pizza and beer or a bowl of chips.

Let’s distinguish between sentiment against the actions of the Israeli government and pure anti-Semitism

The current wave of anti-Semitism in Western Europe is much more complicated than traditional European hatred of Jews, but it is also much less virulent and much less widespread.  Thanks to the efforts of virtually all governments and the European equivalent of the mainstream media, anti-Semitic feelings are marginalized in all of the states of the European Common Market with the possible exception of Hungary.

The complications derive from the split of the population of anti-Semites into two parts, one of which also distrusts and looks down upon the other. I’m talking of course about the growing Islamic minorities and the very small fringe of right-wing anti-Semites who continue the secular anti-Semitic traditions that dominated the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries in Europe.  The traditional anti-Semites dislike Muslims as much as or more than they hate Jews.

A further complication is the political situation in the Middle East. Whether inclined to support the countries which supply Europe with oil or disturbed at the growing list of Israeli atrocities against Palestinians, a pool of fellow travelers stands ready to join the small fringe of Jew haters at any particular time or to respond to any specific issue involving Jews.

Of course, anti-Semites have always been able to find reasons to hate Jews—first for their supposed role in the death of their god, then for being usurers and the agents of exploitation (e.g., for the Hanseatic League in the Polish wheat fields), and then as the quintessential “other” during the early modern era when racist philosophies dominated so much western thought. Now it’s possible to hate Jews because they support Israel and are equated with Israelis and Israeli policies.

The conflation of Jews with Israel is a mistake made by both Islamic and Christian anti-Semites. Progressive Jews such as me are disappointed when we see disappointment in Israel mentioned as a reason for the rise in anti-Semitic activity. We want the mass media to make a distinction between anti-Israeli opinion, which is often based in fact, and purely irrational Jew-hating.

Unfortunately, no such distinction is made among Jews either, at least in the United States. A major part of the education of Jewish youth in both after-school and day school programs revolves around connecting the Jewish religion and Jewish people with not just the land of Israel, but with the state of Israel as well. There are many programs that bring teens and young adults to the mother land—called “birthright” trips. The indoctrination doesn’t end with adulthood, as synagogues and Jewish federations all over the United States sponsor frequent tours and missions to Israel, all of which contain several appeals for funds to support the Israeli state. The mainstream American Jewish media questions Israeli actions in the occupied lands about as much as the U.S. mainstream media questions the assertion that the Ukrainian situation is all Russia’s fault. In virtually every Jewish setting, Jews are constantly barraged with twin ideological premises: 1) There can be no Judaism without Israel; 2) Israel can do no wrong.

How can we expect those susceptible to the siren song of anti-Semitism not to use every transgression by Israel as a reason to turn against the Jews when they see the Jewish establishment everywhere knee-jerk approval of every Israeli action, no matter how cruel or bellicose?  And how can we blame the anti-Semites for hiding behind Middle East politics as their excuse for Jew-hating when we see so many frequent anti-Islamic comments made in the news media by ultra-right and religious Jews?

The easiest way to reduce anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere is for the American and European Jewish establishments to start criticizing Israel when it is wrong and to put real pressure on Israel to settle their differences at the negotiating table, not with armed conflict that sacrifices innocent victims and policies that deny people basic human and civil rights.  Splitting anti-Israel sentiment from anti-Semitic sentiment will reduce anti-Semitism as many begin to realize that it’s not inherent for Jewish culture and the Jewish religion to create and enforce apartheid-like conditions or to care little about harming civilians in an armed conflict. Rather it’s the actions of a governing elite hounded by special interest groups and in power for too long that has led Israel to its current predicament. Sounds like what happens all the time in the good old U. S. of A.!

People around the world don’t hate Christians because of American actions in Viet Nam, Central America and Iraq, but many people do hate Muslims because of the actions of a few terrorists and rogue governments such as Syria. That’s wrong, and it’s equally as wrong to hate Jews because of the actions of Israel. But if Jews want this wellspring of anti-Semitism to dry up, their actions must support their belief that Israel  does not equal Judaism. And that means criticizing Israel when its bombs indiscriminately, kills masses of children or begins building a new round of settlements in the occupied lands.

It will take many steps to re-instill progressive values into American politics, but the start is a democratic sweep in November

It’s becoming increasingly hard for a progressive to like the current run of Democratic candidates. So many of the candidates running for Congress, Senate and statewide offices are centrist or right-wing whose politics are not even barely acceptable to the traditional progressive wing of the Democratic party.

So why should progressives, liberals and traditional Democrats vote if their choices are such pro-business, right-leaning centrists Dems as Andrew Cuomo (New York), Andre Romanoff (Colorado) and Ann McLane Kuster (New Hampshire) or obnoxiously right-wing Republicans?

For one reason—making the Democratic party beholden to progressives is the first step to re-instilling progressive values into our political system.

The right wing didn’t build the conservative fortress that is the contemporary American political scene in one day or one decade. They started whittling away at basic Democratic ideas from the time of Reagan and before—taking a few steps at a time: first one tax cut for the wealthy, then another, and then another. First crushing the air traffic controllers, then weakening rules that help unions organize, then going after public school teachers and the pensions of all public workers. Flooding the media with misleading studies falsely claiming that lowering taxes on the wealthy increases employment; falsely claiming that extending unemployment makes people want to stay home; falsely claiming that businesses don’t need regulation to do the right thing regarding safety and the environment; falsely claiming that moving to renewable fuels will shrink the economy; falsely claiming that returning the minimum wage to its buying power in the 1970’s would cost jobs.  Bit by bit, ever so slowly, the right wing pushed the country to the right.

And it’s only this gradualist approach that’s going to work if we are to return the country—on a 35-year binge of bad ideas—back to on the progressive path of the 1930’s-1970’s.

And it starts with this November’s vote: Politicians care about two things and two things only—money and votes. The more progressive the position, the less money the 1% will put up, but we can still beat them by getting out the vote.

If we can achieve the voter turnout of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the Democrats will keep control of the Senate and eat into the Republican House majority (gerrymandering after the 2010 elections may make the House a lost cause until 2016). Everyone will know that it was turn out of traditionally Democratic groups such as the poor, young and minorities that swung the 2014 election to the Democrats.

In short, the Dems will be beholden to progressives.

Then comes the second step—insisting that every Democrat in office or running for office in 2015 and 2016 espouse basic progressive principles.  It is imperative that progressives start a letter-writing program to all their elected Democratic officials giving them an ultimatum: support these causes or else we will vote for someone who will.

It would be wonderful it the most progressive government officials such as Elizabeth Warren and Bill De Blasio should steal a page from New Gingrich circa 1994 and put together a new Contract with America and make a public display of asking every Democratic candidate to sign it.

If I were to write The Progressive Contract for American, it would contain the following basic legislative and regulatory demands:

    1. Pass laws that overrule the Citizens United decision that unleashed the ability of large corporations and wealthy individuals to turn elections through massive infusions of money.
    2. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour
    3. Develop regulations that make it easier for unions to organize workers and harder for companies to stop them.
    4. Raise taxes on incomes of more than $250,000 and place an annual wealth tax on all personal assets over $10 million, including fine art and real estate.
    5. Add a small transactional tax to all stock trades.
    6. Raise tariffs on select foreign goods so that they get no price advantage because their countries of origin have lower worker wages or lower safety and environmental standards.
    7. Pass legislation that ends harmful corporate practices, including pretending the company is headquartered in another country, reclassifying U.S. income as foreign income and outsourcing basic operational jobs to lower wage and benefit costs.
    8. Begin a massive investment in repairing our roads, bridges and public school buildings.
    9. Begin a massive investment in solar and wind energy, advanced technologies to increase energy efficiency, technologies to mitigate the most severe effects of global warming, space exploration and medical research.
    10. Go to a single payer system for purchase of prescription drugs for Medicare and Medicaid.
    11. Create an immigration policy that includes a road to citizenship and lifts quotas across the board and not just for high-salaried workers.
    12. Invest in vocational training programs at public high schools and community colleges so that those who are not suited for jobs that require college degrees can get low-cost training.
    13. End all federal and state aid to charter schools that do not perform better than their neighborhood equivalent in two years or who lose 30% of their teaching staff within any 12-month period; put a cap on what charter school executives can make and a floor equal to the pay of public school teachers in the region on what charters school teachers make.
    14. Pass federal and state laws permitting gay marriage and protecting the right of a woman to have an abortion.
    15. Stop allowing arms sales to any foreign governments and stop loaning foreign governments money to buy U.S. arms.

Progressives may not agree with everything I am proposing, but there is plenty of time to hash over those details. The main thing now is to vote on November 4 and vote for the only party that listens to the 99%—even though at the current moment it is listening with one ear closed and the other also hearing hedge-fund billionaires.

Proctor & Gamble’s attempt to rebrand Metamucil will likely get mired in deep you-know-what

In the world of marketing, the second hardest thing to do is to establish a brand. The hardest is to change the brand.

But that’s what Metamucil is trying to do with an integrated marketing campaign that includes placing ads that look like teases for articles on the Yahoo! homepage and airing television commercials starring Michael Strahan, former professional football star and morning talk show host.

In the TV spot, Strahan talks about the Meta effect, which for him means that he doesn’t get hungry between meals. He mouths the campaign’s slogan “See how one small change can lead to good things” and applies it exclusively to the challenge of not getting hungry between meals. The implication, of course, is that Metamucil will help you lose weight. (Is it time for a joke yet?—something like: “Yeah it will help you lose a lot of weight…and quickly!)

When you hit the link in the Yahoo! “sponsored content” ad, it takes you to a web page with a photo of Strahan next to packages of Metamucil and a large circle within which we can read the entire branding message:  Experience the Meta effect. See how one small change can lead to good things.

Below this billboard is another one with a headline in a circle “Make a Change with Meta” next to which is text: “Try Meta products and you might be inspired to” followed by a list of other small changes one could make to improve health, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or eating only half a muffin.  The billboard asserts that one small healthy choice often leads to another. The implication is that taking Metamucil can be the start of many small changes, which together will transform the individual.

Next come lists of the health benefits that three Metamucil products provide: the standard product, Metamucil bars and a new product, MetaBiotic. The three lists cover a wide range of benefits, including:

  • Helps you feel less hungry
  • Helps you maintain healthy blood sugar level
  • Helps lower cholesterol and promote heart health
  • Helps promote digestive health
  • Maintains digestive balance
  • Helps satisfy hunger as a healthy snack (the bar)

Anyone notice what’s missing?

Nowhere in any ad does Metamucil talk about the one thing that people know about it: It’s a laxative!

This lack of connection between Metamucil and what people already know about it dooms this rebranding campaign.

Metamucil holds a firmly-established place in culture and our cultural vocabulary. (By cultural vocabulary I mean the cultural artifacts like entertainment, art, commercials and historical moments that virtually everyone in a culture recognizes and uses).  Metamucil will make just about everyone think of constipation, especially as it affects the elderly. If you don’t believe me, try googling “jokes about Metamucil.” I did, and here’s what I found in the first few pages of search results:

  • Did you hear about the new Matzos? They’re made from Wheat and Metamucil. They’re called, “Let My People Go.”
  • The 77-year-old senator John Glenn said this time in orbit, he’s got more food choices—he can mix his Tang with Geritol or Metamucil.
  • You know you’re old if your house catches fire and the first thing you grab is your Metamucil.
  • Yo mama so old, she eats Metamucil for breakfast.
  • A writer reviewing the movie, “The Expendables,” which stars a large number of aging action stars, states: “Judging by the reviews, the latest entry in the Metamucil Squad franchise is only good for laughs of the unintentional variety.”
  • The 10 least popular Halloween handouts: # 3: Metamucil in a straw.
  • You’re so old you sprinkle Metamucil on your Metamucil

When someone mentions Metamucil, virtually everyone cracks a smile and thinks of constipation, and particularly as that dreaded ailment affects the elderly.

I understand the Metamucil strategy. By broadening the reasons to take Metamucil, Proctor & Gamble hopes to expand the market base and move more product more quickly (and maybe more easily). The problem is that the existing perception of Metamucil is strongly engrained in our culture.  I’m certain that many people when they see Michael Strahan talking about not getting hungry between meals make such jokes as “that’s because he’s too busy in the bathroom” or just exclaiming,” He’s full of it.” The many clever if scabrous ways that people can mock a nostrum for constipation are just too tempting.

Replacing one brand message with another is never easy. The classic example occurred decades ago when Anacin realized that its little pills had more painkilling ingredients than other over-the-counter remedies for minor aches and pains. It dumped millions in a pilot marketing program to tell one metropolitan area that it had more painkiller. And sales went up in the region—by about 17%. Unfortunately, the public already thought of a competitor’s product as having the most painkilling ingredients. Without spending any additional advertising dollars, the competitor increased sales by more than 30%. Anacin was able to make people care about painkilling strength, but unable to overcome the public’s prior perception of the brands.

And at least painkilling was what everyone always knew Anacin did. For decades, we’ve been told that Metamucil does one thing and one thing only—helps you go #2. We hear it in the commercials and we hear it in all the jokes.  Now we’re supposed to believe that Metamucil does a bunch of other stuff, and that probably isn’t going to happen, no matter how much P&G spends.

The makers of Metamucil may have been better off coming up with a new name for a new line of products that might have the same contents as Metamucil, but would not be tied to the meaning conveyed to most people by the word “Metamucil.” Meanwhile, P&G could have done maintenance advertising for the Metamucil line and tried to squeeze as much profit as it could out of the old brand—quickly and without much effort.

It wasn’t a natural law but human greed & disregard of suffering that led to today’s great inequality of wealth & income

The past few days, OpEdge has been printing excerpts from the article I wrote on Thomas Piketty’ Capitalism in the 21st Century, which appeared in the most recent Jewish Currents

This final excerpt from the article discusses my criticism of Piketty’s postulation of r>g as a natural law that over time tends to create ever greater inequality in capitalist economies.

While Capitalism in the 21st Century is a delight to read and has many important insights, it is not without its faults. For one thing, Piketty says that r>g is a natural law, meaning it is not a theoretical construct but a law that describes an inevitable economic process.

There are two problems with this assertion. For one thing, Piketty’s history begins only in 1800; the obvious question is whether his rule applies before the Industrial Revolution. Is it possible that social breakdowns such as the French Revolution, the fall of the Tang and Song dynasties, and the decline of the Roman Empire came about because the rich had finally taken too much from the economy, i.e.,  r>g produced such a great disparity of wealth that the economy fell apart or people rebelled? Did catastrophic events such as the Black Plague or the Little Ice Age of the 17th century create instant resets that ameliorated wealth inequality? Barbara Tuchman reports in A Distant Mirror that after the Black Plague, the price of labor in Europe soared to a record high (still not surpassed in world history) because of a shortage of workers. All of this predates Piketty’s history and goes undiscussed.

A more significant flaw in Piketty’s postulation of a natural law is that it attributes growing inequality to blind forces inherent in capitalism and market economies. But the increase in inequality between 1970 and the present day ensued as a direct result of specific actions by groups of human beings. These actions included: shifting the tax burden away from the wealthy and placing it on the poor and middle class; union-busting policies by governments; allowing the minimum wage to lag behind inflation; privatization of government services and wealth throughout most of the world; lowering taxes while cutting government spending on education, retirement and social-welfare programs; and funding wars not through taxation, but through debt held primarily by the wealthy.

Real people — most of them in the pay of the wealthy and corporations — enacted these policies. They were not the result of some natural force, except the natural tendency of humans to think only of their own short-term interests and not in the long-term interests of the community.

Most quibbles about Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century are criticisms of Piketty’s unrealistic solution for reversing the trend to ever-greater inequality of wealth and income throughout the world. He proposes a worldwide annual tax on extreme wealth by all governments, plus a very steep, progressive worldwide income tax on top of current income taxes. Based on his analysis of past income tax rates, Piketty proposes that we could implement a marginal rate of 70 percent on income above $500,000 or a $1 million. The government would transfer this wealth back to the poor and middle class with government programs. Piketty says that unless all nations of the world agree to these taxes, the wealthy will transfer their income and wealth to those that don’t agree to the plan. It is, however, pie-in-the-sky thinking to imagine that all the countries in the world will get together and suddenly decide to play Robin Hood.

It might be more realistic to take the same kind of gradualist approach that the wealthy have taken since the mid-1970s to take a greater share of the wealth-and-income pie. The 90 percent could grab back a little at a time by gradually changing policies in the industrialized world. For example, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich proposed ten incremental changes we can make in the United States in a recent article by Robert Reich in The Nation (“10 Practical Steps to Reverse Growing Inequality”), including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, unionizing low-wage workers, making the tax on Social Security and Medicare progressive, raising the estate tax, and eliminating big money from politics.

I also believe Piketty is wrong to view the diminishment of economic inequality as a primary goal of society, as wrong as those who propose freedom from government regulation as a goal. To my mind, we would be far better off if we instead based the constraints we put on the “free market” on the idea that all human beings deserve a minimum standard of living, which includes free health care and education, a living wage, a safe work place, an unpolluted environment, and a comfortable retirement.

Certainly, ensuring that we all enjoy these economic basics will require us to raise taxes on the wealthy. Where else will we get the funds to do it? But to hold shrinking inequality as a goal in and of itself doesn’t directly address the myriad problems we face. Martin Feldstein is right in his criticism of Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century when he says that the problem is not inequality but the persistence of poverty. Of course, as a defender of the interests of the ultra-wealthy, the solutions that Feldstein proposes will only lead to greater wealth and income inequality.

As I write in the article, Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century is a formative and groundbreaking work that will be studied and cited by economists and will direct the political discourse in democratic countries for decades to come.  I highly recommend to all readers.