OpEdge Redux: One lesson from the Tang Dynasty: the wealthy always find a way to control things

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on December 23, 2010.

I’ve been reading an excellent history of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled most of China from 618-907, during which time China experienced a Renaissance in literature and the arts, especially poetry.  It’s China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty by Mark Edward Lewis.

Many books pad their pages past the direct subject to one degree or another.  For example, one writer will relate her factual tale with her reaction to it, another will reference the rock music and movie stars popular at the time.  Lewis’s padding adds richness to his story.  He projects the narrative both backward to the dynasties before the Tang and forward to the dynasties afterwards, especially the Song and Ming.  The result is a wonderful encapsulation of all of Chinese history, which of course gives an added level of meaning to the story of the Tang.

What I love about reading history is the many parallels I find to our current society and situation.  I have written before, for example, about the similarities between the United States in the post-War era and Spain in the 16th century under Phillip II.

Here’s the most interesting parallel between Tang and our current society that I’ve come across so far:  It was during the 300-year reign of the Tang that examination replaced coming from a wealthy family as the primary means of attaining a good government job.  We could call it the ascendancy of the meritocracy and it sounds a little like what happened in the United States beginning with establishment of the civil service in the 1880s.  The SAT and other standardized tests have in many ways become a similar gateway to a promising career that the examination system was in Imperial China.

And yet by the end of the Tang, virtually all the good government jobs were filled by the children of the wealthy.  How did it happen that a meritocracy developed that resulted in rewarding the rich rather than the inherently talented?  Lewis says (pages 203-204) that:

  • The wealthy were more able than others to spend a lot of money preparing their children for the exams.
  • The exams were given only in the expensive and often faraway capitals, which put a financial burden on the poor students and their families, but not on the wealthy.
  • The little public education that existed in China eroded with the growth of the importance of the examination. Convenient for the wealthy, who were also starting to pay fewer taxes, we learn elsewhere in the book
  • Many of the examiners knew the families of the wealthy applicants taking the exams. Let’s call it the Imperial Chinese version of being a legacy at an Ivy League university.

Sounds familiar.  I imagine all the nicely situated but not super-wealthy Tang-era  families churning with anxiety as they tried to keep up with the wealthy in preparing their children for the examinations and ingratiating themselves with the examiners.  Do you think the mothers compared the benefits of the various private tutors over tea at the local Qĭ-Jiă (Star-buck in Chinese according to one online dictionary)? Do you suppose that among the voluminous output of poetry during the Tang there were guides to studying for the examination?

OpEdge Redux: We should be asking more of business owners and executives than merely creating wealth for themselves

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on October 21, 2010.

I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of business ethics, and specifically about the actions that ethical business owners should and should not take in the course of running their businesses.  I’m not talking about what’s legal, but instead about what’s right, which is something altogether different. For example, we know that it was mostly legal for banks and mortgage brokers to write all those subprime loans, but it turns out that it wasn’t right because it ended up hurting our economy and our society.  In the same way, businesses make all kinds of “business” decisions that are legal, but which may not be helping society.

All the time we read public businesses extolling the fact that their job is to maximize value for their shareholders. But don’t they have a responsibility to the communities that buy their products and services, build their roads, sewers and infrastructure, and protect their assets and employees?

Many corporations and businesses talk about their social responsibility, and what they usually mean is contributing to nonprofit organizations, serving on boards and exhorting their employees to do the same. All good, but what I’m talking about is not what a business does with its excess profits and the executives’ and other employees’ time, but how you run the business.

Those who have been following my blog for even a few weeks know that I take a fairly left-leaning stance on most political and social issues, and that I believe that as a society we need to address the related environmental issues of global warming, pollution and depletion of our natural resources.  So it won’t surprise you to see that a concern for social equity and environmental protection drives the following principles, which I am recommending to all businesses, large and small.

So here is the OpEdge “Pledge to America” that I believe owners of private companies and leaders of public companies should take:

  1. Subsidize mass transit for employees, but do not pay for parking for any employee who does not absolutely require an automobile to do the job.
  2. Recycle and insist that the buildings in which you have operations or offices be “green,” which means making the facilities more energy efficient, recycling building waste and using recycled and recyclable building materials.
  3. Pay all of the premiums for the most benefits-rich healthcare plan available for your employees.
  4. Make sure that it is clearly understood that the company will not tolerate any discrimination against employees, prospective employees, vendors or customers because of a person’s race, age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, disability, illness, obesity or lifestyle. By the way, besides being the right thing to do, it’s also the law of the land.
  5. Make sure that all employees, regardless of location across the globe, are paid the same rates for the same work and enjoy the same safety protections and that all facilities hew to the highest environmental standards, even if located in a country with relatively low standards.
  6. Do not mandate overtime as a way of life. Getting rid of overtime not only helps the employee, but it helps the business as well.  People who work too much get tired and start making mistakes.  Everyone needs to get away from the office or factory floor to refresh and pursue their own interests.
  7. Do not pay the owner or executives a total compensation package more than 20 times what the average full-time employee makes. That seems like a lot (and by the way, my share of the take is smaller than 20 times the average of my employees), yet the ratio is much higher than that in the United States.  In fact in the United States, the average CEO makes about 350 times what her or his employee makes; it was about 42 times as great as the average worker in 1960.

I am guessing that many of my readers, including most of the business owners in the audience, are going to get angry at me for making these recommendations, especially the last one.  On the surface, it seems to be patently un-American to limit one’s pay, and almost all of these recommendations take money out of the pockets of owners and operators. After all, isn’t it the owner who invests in the business, takes the risk, knows the most, has created the product or service and has to take responsibility for what the organization does? Doesn’t the owner therefore deserve all she or he can get?

But how much is the business owner’s position based on nothing more than luck.  I’ve gone over this line of thinking before. Business owners work hard, but so do most other people.  The business owner, though, has usually had a lot of luck.  Here are some of the luck factors that make some people wealthy and others not so well off:

  • Having a wealthy or prominent family.
  • Being born with a special skill or more intelligence than the average person. No matter how hard a 5’0’’ male athlete works on his game, he’s not going to be able to keep up with the 7-foot Shaquille O’Neal.  No matter how much a person of average intelligence studies, he or she won’t be able to keep up with someone with a photographic memory.
  • Marrying into a wealthy or prominent family.
  • Growing up in a family that has not been devastated by substance abuse, criminality or mental illness.
  • Being in the right place at the right time.
  • Meeting a mentor or someone connected who will take a special interest.
  • Not having an accident or dying young in a war.

In other words, as the philosopher Daniel Robinson points out in Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application, very successful people typically deserve much less credit for their success than we give them.  Much of their success is based on factors beyond their control.

I’m really just asking the question that many ask all the time when hearing that Alex Rodriguez is making $25 million a year to play baseball or that Lady Gaga made tens of millions from a concert tour.  Does he, or she, deserve it?  And my answer is, yes, but only to a certain point.  After that, it’s a matter of the luck of the draw or the social conditions.

Another argument against my recommendations is that it will raise business costs so much that the owner or executive will have to lay off employees or even close down the business.   My answer to that is that in theory there may be some businesses that could be threatened if they implemented all my recommendations, and in those cases, I suggest that you start by limiting your income and then see what else you can do.  Remember: if your average employee is making $50,000 a year, I’m asking you to limit your total compensation to a maximum of $1.0 million a year.  I think that’s quite enough for anyone, even if the spouse isn’t working.

OpEdge Redux: Day after day, news and entertainment media make unstated assumptions which define the American ideology

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on August 11, 2010

Of the several definitions of ideology in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, one is relevant to a discussion of communications and propaganda: “a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.”

What I call the ideological subtext of communications, be it in a TV ad, a news article, a billboard, a website or a movie, are the unspoken “content of thinking” assumed to be true in these media.  We can also call them the basic beliefs and values that the mainstream media share and advocate.  These assumptions color the selection of details of virtually all the media that we experience.  They are hammered into us from childhood to the point of brainwashing.

Over my first year of blogging, I have uncovered eight ideological principles that writers, advertisers and other “media workers” want us to take for granted.  Often asserting one or more of these tenets is the true purpose of a story; for example, all those articles a few months ago advocating that people with money walk away from underwater mortgages were really thinly veiled attempts to uphold several of these core assumptions.

I’m not pretending that these eight core tenets represent the entire American ideology.  These are just the ones that I have discovered time and again in the news and entertainment media and have discussed at length in my blog entries over the past year.  If anyone knows some others, please send them along to me, either as a response to the blog or to the OpEdge page on Facebook.

And just in case it does not go without saying, I want to be clear that I in fact disagree with all of these core tenets, which may be the reason I have identified them so easily.

Eight Core Tenets of the American Ideology:

  1. The market solution is always good, whereas solutions to social problems involving the government are always bad.
  2. The best solution always is acting selfishly in one’s own best interest, whether it’s telling your kids to pay for their own college or walking away from a mortgage when you can make the payments; often called “the politics of selfishness.”
  3. The commercial transaction, that is, buying something, is the basis of all relationships, celebrations, manifestations of love, respect or all other emotional states, and every other emotional component of life.
  4. All values reduce to money—if it makes money it’s good and the only measure of value is how much money you have or earn.
  5. Learning and school are bad and all intellectual activity is to be despised or mocked.
  6. The most admirable people and most worthy of emulation are celebrities, especially movie, Internet and television entertainers.
  7. Suburbs are good and cities are bad.
  8. As a nation, we need the guidance of experts before making virtually all decisions, but only those experts whose advice is always the same: to buy something.

The fact that most of these core tenets have to do with money probably results from the source material: the news and entertainment media which to a large degree have dedicated themselves to selling the products and services of their advertisers and sponsors.

OpEdge Redux: Again a writer uses accurate facts to propose something that isn’t true

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on July 27, 2010.

Over the weekend, Yahoo’s home page linked to an article titled “The Middle Class in America is Radically Shrinking.  Here Are the Stats to Prove It.” on Yahoo! Finance.

The article originally appeared in “The Business Insider,” and was written by Michael Snyder, editor of a website called theeconomiccollapseblog.com, which builds a case for a coming economic meltdown while selling survivalist paraphernalia.  The menu bar selections on Snyder’s website include Gold Coins, Silver Coins, Emergency Food and Water Filters, all leading to portals with links to articles and a display of products for sale, gold at Gold Coins, silver at Silver Coins, et. al.

The article lists 22 statistics that demonstrate that the middle class is shrinking.  While none of the stats cited references, I am fairly confident that all 22 are correct, as I have seen many of these facts before, for example at the Who Rules America website.

Some of Snyder’s stats:

  • 82 percent of S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
  • The top 1% of S. households owns nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
  • Only the top 5 percent of S. households have earned additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.

All well and good, until we come to Snyder’s conclusion, which is to blame the growing inequities in wealth in the United States on globalization and free trade.  For example, Snyder writes that “It turns out that they didn’t tell us that the ’global economy’ would mean that middle class American workers would eventually have to directly compete for jobs with people on the other side of the world where there is no minimum wage and very few regulations. The big global corporations have greatly benefited by exploiting third world labor pools over the last several decades, but middle class American workers have increasingly found things to be very tough.”

There’s one big problem, though: other Western-style industrialized nations have not seen the same growing inequality.  The economies in Germany, France and the other EU democracies are saddled with the same high labor costs and safety regulations, yet there has not been the same pulling apart of incomes, not the same gutting of the middle classes, not the same transfer of wealth upwards that we have seen over the past 30 years in the United States.  Even Japan, which has suffered through two decades of stagflation, still has less wealth concentrated at the top than the United States does.

Why is that?

Unlike these other democracies, the United States has been on an active program to redistribute wealth upwards over the past 30 years.  I’ve written about this trend before, but here are some examples of actions that our nation has taken that move money upwards:

  • A series of tax cuts, the most substantial of which being those of Bush II, have significantly decreased what the wealthy pay while giving only token cuts to the middle class and poor.
  • The outsourcing of government functions to private sector companies, whose executives tend to make more money than public-sector executives and whose lower level employees tend to make less money than public workers.
  • The gutting of our safety net for the poor.
  • The uptick in anti-union activity, such as the hammering of the air traffic controllers union, the reshaping of the National Labor Relations Board, the charter school movement (which seeks to substitute low-paid nonunion teachers for higher-paid unionized ones), and the current war on the salaries of public sector employees. Remember that unionization creates middle class jobs, especially for blue and pink collar workers.

None of these things have happened in Japan or Western Europe.  Looking at the pay of CEOs you can see clearly why there is a greater inequality of wealth in the United States than in any other industrialized nation.  These particular numbers come from a PBS special of a few years:

Nation CEO Pay Compared To Average Worker
Japan 11 times as great
Germany 12  “              “
France 15 “              “
Italy 20  “              “
Canada 20  “              “
Britain 22  “              “
United States 475!!  “          “

By the way, in 1960, the average CEO in the United States made a mere 45 times what the average worker did.

All of these other nations are among the wealthiest in the world.  All have willingly globalized their economies.  All pay higher wages and have higher safety standards than third-world competitors.  But it is only in the United States that there has been a significant redistribution of wealth upwards from the middle class and the poor.

Snyder got his facts right about the U.S. becoming a nation of rich and poor, but his explanation that globalization is the sole cause does not hold water.

FYI, the first time I wrote about the U.S. becoming a nation of rich and poor was in five-part TV news miniseries called “To Have and Have Not,” which I did while a television news reporter in 1982 for “Business Today,”  a now-defunct national business news show.

OpEdge Redux: What is missing in the new movie version of Robin Hood other than the original myth and lead character?

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on May 14, 2010.

I won’t be seeing the new Robin Hood until I can get it on Netflix, but people are talking about it now and I do want to get my three cents worth in.  I will refrain from comment on the quality of this new Robin Hood, except to note that for my money, the Errol Flynn version is the greatest adventure film of all time.  But I do want to comment on its historical place, and I mean beyond movies but in the history of myths.

Before anything else, Robin Hood is a myth.

Generations and societies reanimate specific myths when the myth reflects its current ideology and concerns.  Some myths are so powerful that all societies expropriate them, sometimes changing them completely.  The longer a myth is around the more likely it will mutate beyond recognition.

But every myth will have a classic retelling.  For example, the classic retelling of the Trojan War is Homer.  In the variation by Stesichorus of Sicily, the gods secretly transfer Helen to Egypt and send a dream version to Paris at Troy.  But in every version, a woman causes a war.

Let’s enumerate the central elements of the Robin Hood myth:

  • Steals from the rich and gives to the poor
  • Revolt against oppression
  • Loyal to the King, but not to the King’s ministers
  • Involves an interesting group of fighters, each of whom represents a different class in society, and in most retellings, different archetypal caricatures, e.g., the strong man or the man of the cloth who takes to action

Before moving on, I want to note that in one way or another, this enumeration of themes reveals how myths borrow from each other.  These four elements are central to the Chinese classic novel—and my nominee as the greatest novel of all time—Outlaws of the Marsh (also known as The Water Margin, Marsh Chronicles and All Men are Brothers.  In it, there are 108 finely etched Robin, Little John and Friar Tuck type characters.  Under their charismatic leader, Song Jiang, this ragtag gang remains loyal always to the Emperor while waging ruthless (and brilliant) war against his armies, which are controlled by corrupt and oppressing ministers.  Remember that Robin Hood and his men never waiver in their loyalty to King Richard the Lion Hearted.  The myths of Song Jiang and his bandits and of Robin Hood and his merry men emerged roughly around the same time, 1,000-1,400 of the common era.

Now some might say that another element of the Robin Hood myth (again shared with the myth of the Chinese outlaws of the marsh) are the episodes that define its episodic quality—it is told as a series of “set pieces,” each one elaborating a different lesson or personality: Robin meets the Friar; Robin meets Little John; Robin wins the archery competition in disguise; Robin feeds the poor; Robin demonstrates allegiance to the King.  Another aside: demonstration of allegiance to the King is what makes the story palatable to the ruling elites: it’s not the system that’s corrupt, just a couple of bad apples.

I’m not sure if these set pieces are inherent to the myth or not.  What after all do we remember about Oedipus except that he killed his father and slept with his mother? What do we remember about Prometheus or Sisyphus other than their punishments?  Over time, most myths lose the messy details of the first or classic tellings and reduce, like a fine sauce, to one or a few symbolic themes.  The fact that any given retelling of Robin Hood does not hew to the episodes of the classic Errol Flynn version doesn’t  mean that the creators are not being true to the myth.

But it does do a great violence to the original myth by turning Robin Hood from proto-socialist to libertarian as the current Russell Crowe version does according to virtually every review (New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews).  It makes you wonder why they bother to deface the Robin Hood myth instead of selecting another myth more in keeping with the ideology of the creators and financial backers?  Or why not create a brand new story of a rag-tag group of citizens rebelling against steep taxation?

I think the answer is in the commercial need to keep cranking out new narrative art that can serve as a platform for selling a multitude of ancillary products.  The economics of the entertainment system return more to investors through creating a new Robin Hood—even one in which the character does not resemble the myth—than in rereleasing the Errol Flynn version.

The myth machine in our post-Industrial leisure society is voracious and takes everything, but remakes it into its own image.  The myth is sent through the Hollywood homogenization machine which involves:

  • Updating the ideology, which in this case Reaganizing it—the demons are not corrupt officials of the King who steal from the poor but an unfair taxation system
  • Expanding the market by using techniques of other genres, e.g., adding a strong woman warrior
  • Showing more explicit violence
  • Creating sequences that resemble video games.

The reviews tell us that the new version of Robin Hood has gone through this homogenization process.  The result of course is that the details of all these contemporary sci fi and adventure movies tend to resemble each other, just as the menus at Outback, Damon’s, Chili’s and other casual upscale dining chains tend to look alike despite the fact that one is vaguely Australian in its visual presentation, one Mexican, one “classic ribs,” etc.  The brand is nothing more than a name that conjures weak associations with myths that people associate with one sentence or one theme, or in the case of the restaurants, an ethnic cuisine.

OpEdge Redux: In Stouffer’s post-modern America, you don’t eat because you’re hungry, but to have a relationship with your spouse

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on April 8, 2010.

My entry into frozen food giant Stouffer’s “Let’s Fix Dinner” marketing campaign came via a two-page, full-color ad in  AARP Magazine, the bimonthly slick lifestyle magazine of the American Association of Retired People, which claims to have the largest circulation of any magazine in the entire world.  So before taking a look at why “Let’s Fix Dinner” is a  prime example of the commercialization of relationships in contemporary society, I want to first describe the ad, which is the sizzle to the sizzle, that is, the whistle-buzzer that makes us notice the twisted messaging that is supposed to entice us to buy the product.

The right page of this two-page ad is a sexy pose of an overweight couple in their 40s, fully dressed in front of an abstract aquamarine background, but looking like they’re about to take off their clothes and do it, except she’s wearing an oven mitt.  The “VH1 pop-up video” style headline is “Are oven mitts the key to a successful relationship?” followed by a smaller headline in another typeface and different pop-up balloon, “Dinner is a great time for couples to reconnect, and catch up with each other face to face.”  At the bottom of the page is a short paragraph that starts “Amazing the difference a real meal can make,” then proceeds to sell Stouffer’s frozen “Mac & Cheese.”  The most striking thing about the ad is the carnality in the expressions of these two truly chunky people.

In the left hand ad, Stouffer’s takes a more conventional approach to advertising prepared food:  It’s a very copy-heavy ad with a photo in the top third of another middle-aged couple—very fit, light-skinned African-Americans—in the kitchen embracing while she handles pair of tongs.  The rest of the ad is brimming with words, including four paragraphs about the four steps to connecting with your partner.  Here are the headlines for each step:

  1. Slow down to reconnect
  2. Make conversation
  3. Keep it simple, sweetheart
  4. Join the Stouffer’s challenge

“Keep it simple,” of course, means buy Stouffer’s “solutions for delicious, nutritious meals without the fuss.”  The challenge is to make a personal commitment to have dinner with your spouse more often.  For help in meeting this commitment, Stouffer’s sends you to www.letsfixdinner.com.  This left-side full-page ad also crowds in small photos of the frozen lasagna and the ever-popular, ever-chic macaroni & cheese.  As the ad says, “Add a little candlelight and you’ve got a romantic meal for two.”

While the two-page ad focuses on the romantic needs of the empty-nester, the website really is for families with children.  It is a very infotaining website, i.e., it mixes information and entertainment in a light-hearted, happy kind of way.  Among the whistles and buzzers are pages of factoids; features on real families in a kind of “reality” webcasting; a survey to take; and of course product information.  There is also a page to sign-up for the Stouffer’s “Let’s Fix Dinner” Challenge.  Once you’re signed up, you get points and entries into a sweepstakes every time you record another dinner that the entire family had together.  Last time I was on the website, it stated on the homepage that people in the challenge have reported making 98,974 family dinners.

The home page is very easy on the eyes:  the centerpiece is a rotating wide-screen box that consists of a happy image of a family or family member and three pop-up balloons, in which there are three pieces of highly structured copy, as we will see in this example:

  • Balloon #1/A provocative statement: “Can placemats keep your kids off drugs?”
  • Balloon #2/A factoid: “Studies show that teens in families that have dinner together five times a week are 45% less likely to drink and 66% less likely to take drugs.”
  • Balloon #3/A squib of real-life conversation from one of the “real” families featured on the website: “‘Okay, I’m resolving to clear all my stuff off the dining room table so we can actually use it!’ Sarah, San Diego, CA”

There are five of these billboards that rotate onto the home page, one after the other. Four of them focus on families with children.  The empty nester one features a photo of the chubby but horny couple from the AARP Magazine ad.

Stouffer’s and its advertising mavens and mavessess put a lot of work into creating a marketing campaign and website in which every detail down to the last factoid and image focuses on making the message.

And what’s the message?  That Stouffer’s frozen dinners are delicious? No.

That Stouffer’s meals are nutritious? No.

That these food products can contribute to a healthy weight-loss program? No.

That Stouffer’s gives you a way to feed a family cheaply? Again, no.

That Stouffer’s is a fast way to chow down? Not exactly.

No, in fact, the central message is not about food at all.  It’s about the benefits of the family eating dinner together (something that my always busy family did about six nights a week, both when I was a child and a father).  The way that Stouffer’s facilitates this togetherness is pretty much unexplained.  It’s taken for granted that the post-modern 21st century consumer knows the product-related benefits of frozen dinners, (which in the old days used to be called TV dinners because they were used to bring the family together for the Ed Sullivan  and Dinah Shore shows).

Once again, the U.S. people face an urgent social problem, or in this case a knot of related social problems that include the transmission of basic middle class values, school performance, teenaged substance abuse and conjugal sex.  And once again, U.S. industry and commerce come up with an answer.

And it’s always the same answer: Buy something.

Beneath Stouffer’s sophisticated attempt to attach the values of family life and interfamilial relationships to its frozen dinners is the basic ideological subtext that a commercial transaction will solve your problem, whatever it is.  And it’s so simple!  You don’t have to spend any time together chopping meat or sautéing vegetables.  No need to even boil water.  Just pop it in the microwave and serve, with candles or hip-hop music or maybe both.

And therein lies the significance of featuring macaroni and cheese so prominently.  Mac & cheese represents the epitome of comfort food that makes us feel nice and warm inside about family life.  It is also about the easiest meal there is to make from scratch.   But it does require boiling water, chopping cheese and measuring out some milk.  And those things can be great distractions when you’re trying to work on a family relationship.  But Stouffer’s makes it even easier than making mac & cheese from scratch.  All you do is pop it in the microwave.  And now you’ve got food preparation out of the way, that’s the hard part.  The rest of building strong family relationships will be easy, because you’ve done all the hard work already – you’ve bought something.

OpEdge Redux: The ideological subtext of just accepting that unregulated market forces rule the textbook publishing industry

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on March 19, 2010.

Most of the first round of hand-ringing about the Texas Board of Education’s decision to infuse inaccuracies in social science textbooks is over.  I’ve noticed a very interesting fact about the comments in the main stream news media.  Here is a sampling of what four mainstream and four regional media said about the Texas school board.  Most but not all are against the school board’s reckless pushing of one point-of-view, but for or against, they all make one assumption.

First the sample stories:

  • Washington Post reports historians hate the changes.
  • Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece by Thomas Frank that looks on the school board’s actions as a much needed anodyne to liberalism.
  • The New York Times bemoans the decision of the Texas School Board to introduce so many distortions into the study of history.
  • The Economist cheerfully reviews what happened in a half-satirical tone, ending with a note that even Texas Republicans are “growing weary of the board’s antics.”
  • Kansas City Star columnist also bemoans the decision.
  • Washington Monthly reporter gives a good history of what happened in Texas
  • Columnist for the Toledo Blade likes the move to reconsider standards but is concerned that the Texas curriculum was “deliberately dumbed down by hard-core ideologues tweaking textbooks to indoctrinate instead of inform.”

The assumption all these opinion-makers take for granted is that the textbook industry will bend over and say “yes sir” to Texas.  The underlying ideological subtext is unregulated free marketplace in which it is natural and appropriate for there always to be a seller for the buyer.

Let’s take a look at that assumption: When a corporation or individual wants an attorney to help in creating a fraudulent business structure or covering up a crime, don’t we assume that virtually all lawyers will turn down the work?  What about when a client asks a PR agency to knowingly lie?  My agency would turn the work down and so would most agencies I know, which is the expectation stated in the industry’s ethical standards.  Accountants asked to fudge the numbers? An architect asked to cut costs by substituting unsafe materials?  A food store asked to sell unsafe food?  All against ethical standards of the industry, and mostly against the law.

Now I know that corrupt people and organizations can always find corrupt professionals to do their bidding, unethical and/or illegal as it might be.

But the textbook industry is much smaller.  There are perhaps a handful of publishers, whereas there are millions of lawyers, so many that you could even find one or two who would write that torture is legal.

Additionally, textbooks are typically written by experts in the field: historians, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists.  These professionals all have standards of ethics.  If the small number of textbook publishers hewed to these standards of expertise in the writing and revision of textbooks, then a body of elected no-nothings like the Texas Board of Education would not be able to dictate changes that introduce inaccuracies and lies into textbooks.

Companies and industries walk away from “bad business” all the time.  Certainly, if the textbook industry walked away from Texas, someone would fill the void.  But that would take time and a greater outlay of resources by Texas, as new books would need to be written.  The resulting impact on the rest of the country would be smaller, because the new or rogue publisher wouldn’t have the contacts and database required to sell to the thousands of school districts across our 50 states.  I understand that the voters of Texas hate new taxes more than they like right-wing myths and homilies, so facing the need to recreate the industry in its own image, there might suddenly be a lot of pressure on the Texas Board of Education to reconsider its lunacy.

But did one of these columnists chide the textbook publishers for rolling over and playing dead?  Did one of these columnists advocate that publishers close ranks against Texas?  Or did any of them suggest publishers’ create a voluntary set of standards that prevent any from publishing what are known to be historical inaccuracies in textbooks for public schools?  Did any of them call for associations of historians take action?  Did any even recommend that school districts outside Texas refuse to buy Texas-poisoned texts? No, no, no, no and no.

No, because to do so would be to question, even if it’s only in a small way, the total dominance of the free market ideology in all thinking about all social issues.  The assumption that everything is for sale and that the market dictates all decisions by economic entities is so engrained in the ideologies of those who write for the mainstream media that the idea of exercising a little ethical self-control would never occur to any of them.

OpEdge Redux: Praise and Blame is Harder to Assess than You Think

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared November 10, 2009.

Whenever Congress talks of raising taxes on the wealthy, as in the current House bill on healthcare reform, people complain that it isn’t fair for the government to take a greater percentage of wealth from people who are successful.  Inherent in these statements is the belief that at least in the U.S., if you earned it, it’s because you deserved it: you worked harder or came up with a smarter idea.

In any free market society, all values over time reduce to the lowest common denominator of free exchange, and that’s money.  And that goes for success as well.  In the U.S., we learn that to seek money is one of the greatest goods and that those who have more money or earn more money deserve to be praised and do not deserve to be punished through higher taxes.

I would assert that for virtually all people who have or have earned large sums of money, factors other than personal virtues, including the infrastructure of the society in which you live, are more responsible for your success than anything you do yourself.  My argument of course is that if you didn’t contribute that much to your own wealth, then to take more of it away from you to help people who weren’t so lucky is a proper role of government.  Maybe my own brand of weirdness deforms my perceptions, but I think that to most people, redistribution of wealth from the lucky to the unlucky sounds a whole lot better than redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.

But first I have to prove that most of success is luck and therefore deserving of no great praise or reward.  In doing so, I’m going to simplify (but hopefully not distort) the ideas that Daniel N. Robinson, a philosopher who teaches at Georgetown, expressed in Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application.

Here’s my short version of Robinson: There is more luck than individual effort in all success.  For example (and I’m sure I’m deviating from Robinson is some of what I list), here are some types of luck that contribute more to success than hard work:

  • Mental or physical talent with which one is born that some would call god-given. If you have it, you will be able to do something naturally that most others have to struggle to learn.  No matter how hard others work, they will have trouble keeping up with the talented person.  But keep in mind that there is less real talent, or genius, around than most people think.  My point is if it’s god-given, you did nothing to obtain it.  Even if you work hard to hone that talent, someone with less talent could work just as hard.  Wouldn’t he or she be just as deserving of praise, and reward?
  • Social-economic standing of your family: Over the 200+ year history of the United States there has been very little social mobility—which means people moving up or down from the class in which they were born—and recent studies show that there is less mobility today than ever before.  Rich families can pay for lessons, send kids to specialty camps, pay for private tutors and educational consultants, contribute sums to prestigious schools, call friends of friends of friends to introduce children to influential people in their chosen careers and finance business or artistic ventures.   Middle class families can do some of these things and poor families very few, if any.
  • Family’s Emotional Situation: The individual has no say in whether he ends up in a loving, stable family or in a family of drug addicts.
  • Secular conditions, referring to the social and economic conditions of the era: Imagine turning 20 in 1950 when the economy started booming and there was a dearth of qualified engineers? Or in 1970 when you could draw a low draft number and end up in Viet Nam? Or living in L.A. in the 30s when it was rapidly growing into the entertainment capital of the world? Would you rather be an African-American today or in 1850?  Would you rather be an astigmatic math genius during the days of hunting big game or today?
  • The value society puts on your talent: Bankers, attorneys, neurosurgeons, professional athletes, business owners—all these people get paid more than high school teachers, players in classical symphony orchestras and plumbers, who may work as hard and be just as talented in their field. That’s called the luck of the draw.  A plumber could work just as hard as an investment banker does and make far less money.  Does that make you less praiseworthy than the banker?
  • Just plain old “luck” luck, such as the luck to be in an intersection 10 seconds before or after an accident or for your professor to bring you onto his long-term research team.

Robinson also spends pages demonstrating that those whom we blame—the bad guys—aren’t all that bad.  I recommend getting a copy of Praise and Blame, but be forewarned, Robinson writes in a precise, but tortuous prose that considers every aspect and condition of the topic of the sentence, engages in complicated thought experiments and references the thoughts of other philosophers on the topic.  It’s a hard read, but worth it.

If you want real-world proof that luck has as much to do with success as personal attributes such as hard work, select any profession and spend a week collecting the names of those under 30 who have been quoted in mainstream news media.  Then check their backgrounds and see how many are children of prominent people in that or another profession, or went to a prestigious college or come from an upper middle class or wealthy background.

I don’t want to demean successful people.  For one thing, it would be hypocritical of me, since I strive for success and enjoy the measure that I have achieved.  Yes, successful people often work hard.  Yes, they deserve to be singled out.  It’s okay to have winners and losers.

But we shouldn’t forget that so much of success is a matter of multiple kinds of luck, and in a real sense, society bestows success on successful people.  So when the government wants to tax rich (successful) people to make sure that nobody dies or suffers because of a lack of access to proper health care, then people with money should embrace the idea of giving back a small part of what society and that irrational chaotic force called luck have given us.

A modest proposal to end the Greek debt crisis: Let the rich pay the rich

Let’s face it, when we remove the complex financial structuring, the obfuscating economic theory and the strident political posturing and just look at the flow of money, the Greek debt crisis reduces to one kettle of rich folk owing money to another kettle of rich folk.  Kettle, by the way, is the name for a group of vultures.

Here’s the simplified version: The debt Greece owes is primarily in the form of loans from private (not state) banks and bonds. For the most part, rich folk own bonds and the stock of banks. So when Germany and the rest of Europe refuse to let Greece off the hook for this debt, they are doing nothing more than protecting the interests of the wealthy.

Let’s look at why the Greeks owe so much money. The primary reason is that the country has never done a good job of collecting taxes from the wealthy.  Tax evasion by the wealthy in Greece is notorious and has been covered in recent years by virtually every mainstream news media, Reuters, Bloomberg News, New York Times, The Economist, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Der Spiegel, all of them.

If these wealthy and upper middle class Greeks had paid their fair share of taxes, Greece would have the revenues to pay off the interest and pay down the principal on the loan and to make bond interest payments. Thus, it’s really the debt of the rich that we’re talking about.

My modest proposal is to have European governments and regulators get out of the way, and let the one kettle of rich pay the other directly. I’m fairly confident, that some part of this debt will cancel itself out, as some of those wealthy Greeks who avoided paying taxes invested their scofflawed income in Greek bonds and European banks.

Here’s how my plan would work:

  1. Freeze debt at remaining principal.
  2. Assess a special income and wealth tax on the top 1%-2% of Greek earners that is earmarked to paying off the principal on the debt and bonds over a 20-year period.
  3. To make the assessment work, Europe will have to agree that any wealthy Greek citizen living or working in another Euro country must pay it, as must any wealthy Greek who changes nationalities for 10 years after becoming a citizen of his or her new country. The Eurozone countries would also have to insist that the nations with which they trade agree to the same policy for wealthy Greek nationals as a condition of all treaties.
  4. Europe will also have to help the Greek government learn how to collect taxes more efficiently, with grants that pay for training, new technology and pumped-up enforcement.

With the debt spun off—in a sense privatized to the appropriate private parties—European leaders will be free to put together a package of loans to the Greek government to jumpstart growth and create jobs—technology investments, infrastructure improvements, product commercialization, foreign investment. It will represent a kind of reboot for Europe and Greece after the disaster that austerity induced.  Another way to look at my solution is to think not of Greece but of the Greek debt as the sick patient that needs to be isolated. My plan isolates this debt by giving it back to the people whose problem it would be if governments followed policies to help all the people, and not just the wealthy.

The big objection to my plan is that after having to settle for the return of principle over an extended time frame, the rich folk who are creditors won’t have enough money to invest in new jobs. We hear that excuse for lowering taxes in the United States all the time, despite the growing evidence that in most cases, raising taxes on the wealthy produces more jobs, because the government spends the money, which boosts the economy.  While not the enormous gap we have in the United States, Europe has nevertheless seen a large increase in wealth and income inequality over the past 30 years. Like everywhere else, the ultra-rich and the merely wealthy have so much new money that they have been piling it away in cash and bloated assets. They haven’t been investing it because of market conditions. If and when market opportunities exist, the rich folk hurt by having to absorb the entire brunt of the Greek fiasco will still have plenty of cash on hand to take advantage, and thereby create jobs.

Of course, given the fact that most elected officials in Europe, as in the United States, vow their fealty to the interests of the wealthy, my modest proposal has less chance of being enacted than Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal of 1729 to ease the economic troubles of the Irish by having the poor sell their children to the wealthy for food. After all, we are used to sacrificing children and young people to war. But it’s a rare occurrence in history for rich folk to sacrifice to solve any problem, even those of their own creation.

Mainstream media help to establish Koch-financed professor as an economic guru

I have been scratching my head as to why the mainstream news media has seemed to lionize George Mason professor Tyler Cowen over the past few years. It seems that everywhere you turn—Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsweek, New Republic—you can see an article by Cowen.

Stupid me, I just wasn’t digging deep enough into Cowen’s professional background. I want to thank Twitter follower Alan Parker for his tweet to me that states flatly that the Koch Brothers “bought and paid for” the university at which Cowen teaches, the ostensibly public George Mason University.

As it turns out, “bought and paid for” is not entirely hyperbolic: Koch gave $30 million to George Mason in the mid-80’s (roughly $66 million today) and in return, George Mason took over a right-wing think tank now called the Mercatus Center. The Kochs, and other ultra-rich ultra-rights, continue to fund Mercatus, which means “market” in Latin.

The Center comprises more than 70 professors and an additional staff of more than 50, all dedicated to churning out research and reports that “advances knowledge about how markets work to improve people’s lives,” as the Mercatus mission statement puts it. In other words, all Mercatus work begins with the false premise that free markets can solve every social and economic problem.

Here are some examples of untrue assertions by Mercatus scholars:

  • Three years ago, Charles Blahous infamously predicted that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) would worsen federal deficits. In reality, ACA has saved more money than was originally anticipated.
  • As I have reported on OpEdge, Tyler Cowen continually argues for a deregulated free market by focusing on individuals and ignoring large groups, as when he claims that workers have nothing to worry about in the shared economy since a few of them will flourish economically or when he states that because individual families gain and lose wealth over generations inequality of wealth has not increased.
  • Richard Williams ridiculously compares trans fats to water in an opinion article that appeared in The Orange County Times. Both are bad for you in large amounts, so why ban trans fats from foods until we know for a fact that they are bad for you in small amounts. What a completely scurrilous analogy, especially considering that 50-75% of the body is water. Unlike trans fats, we have no reason to test to determine whether water is inherently safe before we allow it to be consumed, although we do demand tests that it be safe water! Just as we demand our food be safe.
  • Four Mercatus scholars combined on a white paper that asserts that consumer rating systems provide enough protections that Internet, smart-phone and shared economy markets do not need consumer protections. The paper calls for an end of consumer regulations, ignoring the fact that consumers may not be aware of what safety or quality entails in a good or service.

Let’s take a look at a small excerpt of this last example of Mercatus twisted reasoning to support a one hundred percent free market:

“Regulations…are not as effective as market solutions, and may harm consumers instead of helping them. Regulators can be influenced by regulated industries, erecting barriers to keep out new competition, stifling innovation, and imposing higher prices and reduced quality on consumers. By making it more difficult to do business, regulations can have the unintended consequence of entrenching already-established businesses while closing the market to entrepreneurs with innovative ideas.”   

Pure rhetoric that we’ve heard from conservatives since Congress passed the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906. This standard rightwing cant ignores the cost to individuals and societies when vendors sell substandard goods. The public is willing to pay more for safety.

I’ve given just a few examples of bogus “analysis” and “research” I found on the Mercatus website. There are literally hundreds of published opinion and analysis pieces, white papers and books spewing out of Mercatus “scholars” every year.

And who is the chair and general director of Mercatus?

Yes, you guessed it. It’s Tyler Cowen.

We have to wonder, then, whether there is a connection between Cowen’s consistently weak arguments and the fact that he’s on the payroll of Koch Industries?

Nothing would delight me more than making a case against George Mason’s involvement with Mercatus, but they can’t censor these guys, and plenty of scholars spin fantasies and garbage in the social sciences and humanities; it even happens from time to time in the natural sciences. There is nothing wrong with rich folk giving money for university research, as long as the money is earmarked for answering questions and not asserting conclusions. But what we have with Mercatus is rich folk paying for an elaborate academic cover for a bunch of policies that hurt everyone but them.

I can make a good case against the mainstream media for publishing the claptrap of Mercatus employees while pretty much ignoring the solid research of legitimate scholars who either self-identify as progressives or demonstrate progressive ideas. It just demonstrates that 1) the mainstream media seek out research that will confirm their existing prejudices, even if the research is suspect or ultimately financed by special interests; and 2) far from being liberal as politicians often aver, the mainstream media are at best centrist looking right.