New Yorker & Times writers use verbal selfies to communicate myth that science & math are hard & not fun

The epidemic of verbal selfies used to begin feature articles continues unabated. It seems as if every other feature article begins with something about the writer—personal struggles with the problem under discussion, an anecdote from childhood, a favorite professor’s lecture on the topic years ago, how the topic reminds the writer of another subject, the writer’s enthusiasm in broaching the topic, the means by which the writer travelled to meet someone in the article.

These verbal selfies are often laughable, but none more so than Alex Wilkinson’s first few sentences in “The Pursuit of Beauty” in the New Yorker. In sharing his attitude towards and experience with the subject matter, Wilkinson disqualifies himself from writing the article at the same time revealing he is a dishonorable person not to be trusted. 

The article is about a math professor who solved a math problem open for more than 150 years. To entice us to continue reading, which is the function of the first paragraph of a prose piece, Wilkinson writes:

“I don’t see what difference it can make now to reveal that I passed high-school math only because I cheated. I could add and subtract and multiply and divide, but I entered the wilderness when words became equations and x’s and y’s. On test days, I sat next to Bob Isner or Bruce Gelfand or Ted Chapman or Donny Chamberlain—smart boys whose handwriting I could read—and divided my attention between his desk and the teacher’s eyes. Having skipped me, the talent for math concentrated extravagantly in one of my nieces…”

The article is about advanced math. To write it will require the writer to understand some fairly complicated ideas, at least conceptually, and to understand them well enough to be able to translate them into journalistic English for the reader. Wilkinson disqualifies himself because he admits that he couldn’t even do simple algebra. What’s more, he admits he cheated to pass his math classes. How do we know he hasn’t fudged some of the facts in the article? How do we know his explanation of the problem the mathematician solved doesn’t smooth over with rhetorical lies those concepts Wilkinson failed to understand?

In short, Wilkinson embarrasses and disqualifies himself within the first three sentences. And an editor approved his copy!

Charles Blow tries but fails to pull the same anti-science crap in his article, “A Future Segregated by Science,” in the New York Times. He starts the article, “Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy.” But then Blow quickly admits he loves science (he just likes the arts more!) and even won a high school science fair with a research project. Blow continues his disquisition about his personal relationship with “science” with a shaggy dog story about an airline losing the winning project, preventing him from competing in an international science fair. All this personal stuff comes before a very good article on the racial and gender gap that currently exists in science and technology (STEM) careers.

At least Blow doesn’t disqualify himself from writing the article, since 1) he admits he’s actually pretty good at science and 2) the article is about analyzing statistics—his area of expertise as a writer—and not about science itself.

It’s rare for Blow to start an article with a personal anecdote, except for when the piece concerned Yale campus police stopping his son, a Yalie, without cause. He’s one of the most legitimately creative and interesting journalists with a regular column in a daily newspaper, one who rarely resorts to cheap, overused rhetorical devices.

Why then did Blow feel compelled to start the article by assuring us he’s “Not a science guy”? The article bemoans the fact that science work has become segregated and that few minorities have science and technology careers. He blames both schools for not producing enough STEM graduates and corporations for not hiring recent Hispanic and Black science graduates at the rate at which they do graduate. Blow ends his article with a call for more gender and racial equality in STEM careers.

Blow doesn’t realize that his beginning—“Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy”—is a small part of the problem. Week after week journalists interject snide asides about science and math: Science and math are hard subjects. They’re not fun. Those who like them are socially maladroit and unathletic. Science careers aren’t glamorous. Add to these articles the extensive coverage given to the truly small number of global warming deniers, those who would deny their children vaccines and opponents to evolution. No wonder so many kids don’t want to pursue science careers!

One weapon in this decades-long media war against science and math is for writers to distance themselves from the subject by saying they find it hard or they don’t like it. Some might say that the writers who express dislike or fear of STEM subjects are trying to establish rapport with their readers, who might not be adept at science or might be intimidated by it. But this hypothetical rapport is firmly based in the ideological premise that science and math are difficult and not enjoyable and thereby merely contributes to the anti-science mythology, which is part of the mass media’s larger anti-intellectualism.

Both the cheating poor student Wilkinson and the honorable good student Blow use this rhetorical device and put it at the very beginning of the article. In Wilkinson’s case, it disqualifies him from even writing the article. In Blow’s case, it merely postpones what turns out to be a fine discussion of a crisis.

The two writers are unified by their employment of the most overused rhetorical device in contemporary non-fiction to make a statement that contributes to the anti-science attitudes pervasive in the mass media. How American: narcissism in pursuit of anti-intellectualism.

The American approach to helping middle class always seems to help the rich more

When the Obama Administration announced plans to begin taxing future withdrawals from 529 college savings plans, those in favor played up the fact that 70% of all tax savings benefits from 529 plans go to families with more than $200,000 a year in income. The opponents of taking away this tax benefit to pay for other proposed educational reforms quickly pointed out that 70% of all 529 accounts belong to households with income under $150,000. Those opposed to reducing the tax benefit won the battle.

No one was asking why 529 plans are even necessary. The answer to that question is that the cost of going to college has risen precipitously over the past 25 years to the point that, without some assistance, large numbers of families can’t afford to send their children to college. The overwhelmingly most important reason for this rise in the cost of a college education is the withdrawal of federal and state support of higher education, starting in the Reagan years.

It’s a familiar pattern: A benefit meant to help the middle class address a financial challenge ends up helping the wealthy more. Most IRA money is in the accounts of people with the highest incomes. Remember that IRAs first came into existence under Reagan in 1981 as an alternative to traditional defined benefit pensions plans. In this case, it was the private sector retreating from its support of the middle class and poor—who primarily work for others—that led to the new need.

We see a similar pattern with the mortgage deduction. It used to be that all personal interest was deductible, but when Congress limited the interest deduction to home mortgages in 1986, again under Reagan, our leaders said it was to help keep home-owning more affordable. Again, even though affordability is not an issue to the wealthy, they are the ones to have benefited because they have larger mortgages. Politicians and pundits now associate the mortgage deduction with the middle class, but it’s the wealthy who benefit more.

It’s not just that the wealthy can deduct more from income because of these “middle class” deductions. It’s also the case that every dollar a wealthy person deducts is worth more in real money that isn’t taken away in taxes because the wealthy pay at a higher rate. These deductions may also drive other income below the threshold at which a higher taxation rate takes effect, thereby putting even more money in the pockets of the wealthy.

There are only three ways that government can address the lost revenue from a tax deduction:

  • Increase the deficit
  • Cut programs
  • Increase taxes on someone else

For most of the past 35 years, the federal government has preferred to increase the debt and cut programs. The net effect has been one more way of shifting income from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.

Thus we see time and time again over the past 35 years an institutional propensity to increase inequality of wealth in the United States, similar to the institutional racism that used to exist for decades throughout the country and still exists in the criminal justice system. Take something away from the middle class and poor, then give them a way to finance their new costs that ends up providing even greater benefits to the wealthy, who don’t really need the additional help. It’s a complicated shell game that has made a contribution to the dramatic increase in inequality of wealth and income in the United States over the past 35 years.

You can count on Wall Street Journal to deliver all the bogus facts rightwingers need to create an alternative reality

Conservative think tanks and business associations know that they can always plant a bogus survey or an opinion piece by a bought-and-sold expert in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. That is, as long as the study supports unregulated growth based on fossil fuels and giving the biggest rewards to large corporate and banking interests.

The latest proof that the Journal prints all the news that fits with its rightwing ideology is “Many Millennials Yearn for Suburban Homes,” which touts a shoddy survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) claiming to prove that 66% of the Millennial generation wants to live in the suburbs. The study results go counter to the common belief, backed by a myriad of attitudinal studies, that a large number of Millennials prefer city life, in part because they are rejecting private ownership of cars as environmentally incorrect.

This preference for the urban experience is one of the major ways that experts say Millennials differ from their predecessors, Generation X and the Baby Boomers. The Journal article holds up the survey as proof that Millennials really want more room and therefore pine for the car-and-mall-focused suburban life.

But as it turns out, the NAHB survey does nothing more than exemplify that—as either Mark Twain or Samuel Butler once said—“figures never lie, but liars figure.”

The NAHB mendacious use of numbers comes in how it defines the Millennial generation. It takes responses from 1,506 people born since 1977. The main reason to be suspicious that NAHB cooked the books is that it is impossible to find anybody who says the Millennial generation started in 1977. Most citations I found on the Internet identify 1982 as the start year for Millennial births. A Newsweek article of a few years back used 1989 as the start date and Pew Research generally goes with 1981. But virtually everyone else says it’s 1982. My own analysis of a line chart of total births against the average growth rate concludes that we should start counting Millennials in 1984 or 1986. But no expert I could find uses 1977.

The time between 1977 and 1982 is five years, or one quarter of the approximately 20 years that sociologists and demographers tend to view as defining Boomers, Gen X-ers and Millennials. We have no idea how many of the 1,506 surveyed were born before 1982 and therefore should probably not be counted as Millennials.

The other problem with the study is that the NAHB only asked about city versus suburbs to people who had first answered that they had either purchased a home in the last three years or intend to within the next three years. Eliminating everyone else almost by definition front-loads the age of the respondents, which in this case means that most of them were born too early to really be called Millennials. According to U.S. Census figures, for each of the past 25 years many more people aged 35-39 own homes than those aged 30-34; those aged 25-29—the heart of the Millennial generation—are almost half as likely to own a home than the 35-39-year-olds. In others words, adding five years worth of Gen X-ers to the study universe has a dramatic effect on the results, overestimating the desire of Millennials to live in the suburbs. Moreover, rejecting anyone who doesn’t own or plan to own a home in all likelihood skews the universe of respondents even further.

The Journal never addresses the issue of what years constitute Millennial births, but it does finally admit that selecting only those who own or will soon buy a home makes the survey unreliable. But the writer waits until the tenth paragraph to do so, in effect burying the information.

We know why NAHB would construct and distribute such a transparently invalid survey. It’s less expensive to build homes in the suburbs, and that’s where most new homes are built.

But why would the Journal publish such dreck?

The answer is that the survey fits into it’s the Journal ideology in several ways: The Wall Street Journal believes that local economic policy should benefit developers, banks and corporations, and the study certainly shores up those interests.

But just as important, the Journal hates cities and what cities stand for. The Journal is a proponent of private property, private space and private solutions to social problems. The essence of the urban environment is the public space. Major cities need viable public transportation, whereas the Journal worships car culture and hates anything public. Cities thrive on cultural diversity, and the Journal loves the white bread, the middle brow and the middle of the road when it comes to cultural experiences. City voters are much more liberal than suburban voters. In short, cities such as New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Chicago represent everything that The Wall Street Journal and its owner Rupert Murdoch despise.

Paterno case raises a broader issue of praise and blame

The Rehabilitation of Paterno, Back at No. 1” read the New York Times  front page headline when the news hit of the settlement of the lawsuit brought against the NCAA for its sanctions of the Penn State football program because it turned its back while an assistant coach was sexually abusing children. This rehabilitation or vindication of Paterno in the eyes of those who never thought he did anything wrong brings up a broader issue of the praise and rewards we heap on some people.

In Praise and Blame, moral philosopher Daniel Robinson asserts that people get too much praise—and by implication too many rewards—for their accomplishments, which are too often the result of factors beyond the control of the individual. Some of those factors include the innate ability one has at birth and does nothing to get, wealth and social position of family, match of skills to what’s in demand, chance meetings with mentors and patrons and timing.

Applying the principles of Praise and Blame, it’s clear that Paterno always received too much credit for those victories, which resulted from a group effort of his football players, coaches, recruiters, alumni and university staff.

His first luck was to be born with high ability in the types of intelligence that leads to success in football—organization, strategy, communications skills, ability to predict change in complex patterns of motion. Like the basketball player Spencer Haywood, who was born with an extra set of knuckles on his enormous hands, or the physics whiz whose math IQ is so high that it’s virtually immeasurable, Paterno did nothing except be born to have his natural genius.

Paterno was also lucky that a rich guy agreed to pay his tuition to an Ivy League college, a place where he could get connected to a powerful network of contacts.

He was lucky to have a mentor who hired him to be an assistant coach at Penn State, lucky to have an alumni support system that helped to identify players and raise funds for state-of-the-art facilities, lucky that Penn State football is the big sports team for miles around, which it wouldn’t be if the university were located in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or New York.

That Paterno stayed in the same place that offered him his first real job may have stemmed from a personality trait, not the fact that he kept getting promoted. Lots of successful people flit around. Think of Larry Brown or Urban Meyer. If Paterno’s nature was to stay in one place, how lucky he was that place was Penn State. If his mentor took a job at Bowdoin or Grinnell, would Paterno have remained loyal to his first university job and had a long, but mediocre career?

Paterno was the commanding general and not the field general in the 111 victories returned to Penn State by the NCAA. The field generals were a succession of quarterbacks. Paterno not only taught, selected and advised the players, but he managed the other coaches, the medical staff, the weight trainers, the tutors, the recruiters, the statisticians, the caterers and the liaisons to the alumni and public. All these people—an ever changing cast of characters over decades—contributed to his success. Without them, he would have been nothing.

Let’s still admit that Joe Paterno was a genius football coach of mostly legitimate students. Probably most other people given the same set of breaks would not have done as well as JoePa.

But the luck part of it mitigates the position that every one of us holds in life, be it high, low or somewhere in the middle: what you accomplish should not really be used to judge the essence of any of us because so much of it results from circumstances beyond our control. Joe Paterno is a perfect example of the preponderance of factors beyond our own efforts that determine our lot in life.

What we’re left with then is not money, championships, fame or respect by which to judge a person, but those things which he or she can control. And in 1999, Joe Paterno had absolute control over how he was going to act after hearing from an assistant that Jerry Sandusky molested a young boy in the shower.  He was in control when he passed on a cursory report to the administration, and he was in control when he didn’t follow up to see what the administration was doing. He was in control when he didn’t make it an important issue, didn’t insist on getting the results of a real investigation. He was in control when he didn’t ponder the implication of the accusation against Sandusky, what it meant to the children in the programs the monster controlled. He was in control when he swept it under the rug like yesterday’s dust bunnies.

Thus while we can readily hold back the praise of Paterno’s successes, shaped as they were by luck, there is no way we can mitigate the blame he holds for the repeated rapes of young boys for more than 10 years because he failed to speak up aggressively to follow-through on a horrifying accusation.

What took Obama so long to address our unfair tax system? And why is his plan so complicated?

Barack Obama started with majorities in both the House and Senate. Six years later the opposition holds both.

Why did the president wait until he was in the overwhelming minority to push for higher taxes for the wealthy and lower taxes on the middle class?

True, a few years back Democrats and Republicans kind of negotiated an agreement that raised taxes slightly on the top 1%, but it was accompanied with Draconian cuts to federal programs.  And it is true that the richer you are, the more you have to pay in taxes related to the Affordable Care Act. But neither of those moves had attached to them the grandiose notion of taking from the wealthy to give to the middle class.

The big picture of Obama’s current proposal sounds great.  But the details are not exciting, as Obama prefers to tinker with the tax code instead of just raising marginal tax rates. The New York Times said that Obama proposes eliminating a federal tax provision regarding inherited assets that shields hundreds of billions of dollars from taxation each year. The plan also raises the top capital gains tax rate to 28% for couples with incomes above $500,000 annually and places a new fee on banks with assets over $50 billion.

What the middle class gets is equally as complicated as what the rich pay: tax breaks for middle-income earners; a $500 credit for families in which both spouses work; increased child care and education credits; and incentives to save for retirement.

It’s interesting how many of the tax breaks Obama is proposing for the middle class facilitate and perpetuate the new world economy wrought by Reaganism.  It used to be that a family could afford to have only one spouse work, but now two incomes are absolutely necessary to maintain middle class status for tens of millions of families. $500 isn’t much, but it does help to some degree to keep the second spouse in the workforce, thereby keeping a lid on wages that would surely increase if fewer people wanted to work. Incentives for retirement are only necessary because defined benefit pensions are gone and people are on their own, sink or swim, except for Social Security, a program that many Republicans would love to dismantle. The increased education credit also responds to the new world reality of college costs made prohibitive to the middle class and poor because of the steady decline in federal and state support of higher education.

Obama’s noble gesture—calling for some fine-tuning of the system that has led to the greatest inequality of wealth in the United States since the Gilded Age—comes only after his only hope for controlling the direction of the government has become the veto and executive order.  It’s so much sound and fury, so much rhetoric meant to paint the Republicans into a corner, meant to draw a contrast between the Republican and Democrats for the 2016 election cycle.

Politics seems to enter into the decisions of all contemporary politicians. But politics aside, Obama’s decision to resume friendly relations with Cuba, his decision to grant papers to about 5 million illegal immigrants and his climate change accord with China all moved the country in the direction it needs to head, even if in the case of the environmental accord, it was only a nudge.  The decision to seek support for community colleges takes a realistic approach to giving more poor kids access to higher education.

But calling on Congress to end some tax breaks for the wealthy and give others to the middle class is nothing but grandstanding, given it will never pass.  I call it grandstanding because it creates a minimal distance between where he and other Democrats stand and where Republicans stand. This small distance is supposed to make the 99% want to vote Democratic, because the Democrats are going to reverse the 35-year flow of wealth and income up the ladder to the wealthy and ultra-wealthy. But what Obama is calling for isn’t even a start. It’s a quarter turn of a screw.

I would feel differently if Obama were calling for a large increase in the capital gains tax or lifting the cap on income assessed the Social Security tax.  Congress wouldn’t go for it, but at least Obama would be making a point.

Instead, he’s trying to further redefine the definition of what it means to be left in this country, moving it further to the right.

NCAA doesn’t exonerate Joe Paterno, it cuts a business deal to end a lawsuit

Some Penn State football fans are acting as if they won the national championship.

That’s the reaction I read in the quotes I’ve culled from news articles about the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) settlement of the lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania State Senator Jake Corman to overturn the heavy fines the NCAA placed on Penn State University for looking the other way while assistant coach and pervert Jerry Sandusky sexually abused a large number of boys.

Here is a sprinkling of what is being said (names omitted):

  • “Today is a victory for the people of Pennsylvania….The NCAA has surrendered.”
  • “This is significant.…This was a beat down on the NCAA, it really was.”
  • [Mr. Paterno’s reputation has been restored] “to a large degree.”
  • “I’m happy this wrong has been righted.”
  • “Vindication is Penn State’s. Vindication is Joe Paterno’s.  And the bullying NCAA walks away from its worst hour in utter disgrace.”

Except that’s not what happened. No matter what the extreme Penn State fans and sports pundits may want to think, the NCAA did not capitulate. It has not been disgraced It did not suffer a beat down.

What the NCAA did was settle an expensive lawsuit that could have dragged on for years. By settling, the NCAA makes sure that the $60 million it collected as a fine for Penn State’s role in facilitating Sandusky’s crimes goes to fight child abuse victims in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Otherwise, a lot of the money would have been spent on lawyers. In the news release the NCAA issued about the deal, Harris Pastides, University of South Carolina president and member of the NCAA Board of Governors put it well, “While others will focus on the return of wins, our top priority is on protecting, educating and nurturing young people.” As well it should be.

The NCAA made a business deal that was in the best interest of the organization and society. It did not admit that it made a mistake to vacate victories, nor that it overreached in its punishment.  “Today’s agreement with Penn State reaffirms our authority to act,” said Kirk Schulz, Kansas State University president and member of the NCAA Board of Governors, who also spoke for the organization.  The NCAA news release about the settlement went out of its way to mention that Penn State had cleaned up its act and thus deserved reconsideration. The implication is that the NCAA is still in charge.

The news reporting has focused on the fact that the NCAA gave Joe Paterno back the 111 Penn State victories the NCAA had vacated because they came after Paterno first learned that a key assistant was sexually assaulting young boys.

Also untrue.

The victories were not given back to Joe Paterno, but to Penn State. While the punishment was appropriate at the time, it also took something of real value away from hundreds of Penn State football players, who were innocent victims of the fallout from the mess. The NCAA does not even mention the former coach in its news release, although it does state firmly that it intends to continue its defense of the lawsuit from the Paterno family.

As a negotiating point, to give back those Penn State wins in return for keeping the $60 million looks like a complete victory to me.  If anyone put the beat down on the other side it was the NCAA and its executive committee who can walk tall today (for a change, as its record in administering sports for college students is execrable).

As for those grotesquely strutting peacocks spiking an imaginary football and declaring victory for Penn State and Joe Paterno, I would like to suggest that they conduct a thought experiment. Imagine what it’s like to be a 10-year-old in the process of being sexually violated. Think about the touching, the being touched, the insertion of various body parts, the uneasy feeling, the guilt that young children typically feel because they tend to blame themselves, the nightmares, the fear that it won’t be the last time.

Imagine yourself not as one boy, but as every single one of the many children Sandusky was able to violate over the more than 10 years that went by after Paterno first learned that Sandusky was taking boys in the shower.

No, Joe Paterno’s reputation has not been rehabilitated.  And yes, Penn State still has a lot of dues to pay.

Contrast in coverage shows how mainstream media trivializes big issues

This week both the New York Times and Nation magazine covered the continued ill will that the New York police department has been directing at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio since His Honor joined most New Yorkers in questioning police tactics and procedures after the deaths of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner.

The Times article details the missteps that it believes de Blasio has made in his interactions with the police department and police unions. For example, the Times claims that the rank-and-file felt that de Blasio displayed disrespect towards them by embracing the Reverend Al Sharpton, a critic of the police. Then they got pissed when de Blasio hired Sharpton’s former spokesperson as an aide; the cops supposedly didn’t like that her significant other (whom the Times chooses to label as a “live-in boyfriend”) was convicted of murder.

By contrast, Nation takes the long view, recounting the bad blood that the New York police had with past New York mayors going all the way back to Fiorello La Guardia, and including Robert Wagner, John Lindsay, David Dinkins and rightwing idol Rudy Guiliani. The Nation also demonstrates with solid numbers that none of these mayors suffered any vote loss in elections after having public spats with the NYPD rank and file. Nation examines the broader issue of the relationship between the police and the rest of government as a minor dynamic in New York City history

In the Times article, de Blasio comes across as stunned and dismayed by the rift. Nation decides not to characterize the mayor’s current state of mind, instead reminding both the mayor and all of us that New Yorkers appreciate and re-elect strong New York mayors who stick to their principles.

The Times reduces the story to personalities to inflate its significance. Nation places it into the broader context of history to demonstrate its inherent triviality. Both approaches to journalism and history go back a long way. Thucydides used the great man idea—this notion that the actions of a few individuals determines history—when depicting the Peloponnesian War in ancient times, and Victorian Thomas Carlyle proposed it as the explanation of all of history. Karl Marx and the Annales school of historians led by Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and others took a broader look at long-lasting trends and the movement, beliefs and actions of groups more than individuals.

Maybe it’s my leftwing bias, but I’m inclined to side with the Nation on this issue, both in its conclusions and the way it covered the story.

Unfortunately, the Times circulation is more than 1.8 million, approximately 14 times the 125,500 readership of Nation, plus Times articles are routinely published ubiquitously in hard copy and over the Internet, whereas mainstream media aggregators and reprinters assiduously avoid Nation’s articles. Thus many more people will read the Times sensationalized version of the relationship between the mayor and the police than the Nation’s studied analysis.

In a coda to this tale of dueling points of views—the personal versus the historical—Mayor de Blasio has subsequently said that he would veto a City Council law criminalizing the police use of chokeholds. It doesn’t mean that de Blasio is now capitulating to the police to curry their favor. De Blasio’s point is that chokeholds are already against NYPD regulations, so a law is not needed. Instead of seeking to wreak vengeance on a police department that has shown him uncalled-for disrespect, de Blasio is behaving like an adult and expecting the police department to behave in the same way. New York City doesn’t need a law if the department enforces regulations.

The key, of course, is to enforce the regulation and go after any offenders.

Warrior cops continue to destroy civil liberties and the lives of innocent people

I’ve been suffering a slight case of cognitive dissonance lately, a disorientation that stems from residing in two worlds at once. One world is the TV show “The Wire.” I’ve been streaming and watching all the episodes from beginning to end and just completed the second season. I love the show, which is more about the foibles of institutions than people—definitely one of the four or five best TV series of the past 50 years.

But I only watch the TV screen about two hours a day and during some of my other waking hours, I’m reading Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko. Both “The Wire” and Balko’s book spend a lot of time detailing anecdotes of police raids on homes, but the differences are so stark that it’s sending my head into a deep and befuddling spin.

In “The Wire” and most other urban cop dramas, the drug dealers always have guns and are often ready to shoot. The cops never raid the wrong place, always respect the rights of the drug dealers, shoot to wound when possible and often take a bullet from the bad guys. The weapons the police bring seem appropriate to the dangerous situation, especially when you consider that the drug dealers are always packing major heat. The cops are heroes.

In Rise of the Warrior Cop, which traces the gradual militarization of American police departments since the Nixon Administration, the cops seem always to hit the wrong location, often kill or injure innocent people, trample on basic constitutional rights and behave offensively even after they know someone is innocent.

When I think of 20 years worth of “Law and Order” episodes in which prosecutors have gone after bad cops, my cognitive dissonance grows even larger. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, prosecutors always defend the actions of the police, no matter how violently inappropriate they were, and both prosecutors and judges rubber-stamp “no-knock” entries with SWAT teams whenever the police ask for them, no matter how tenuous or incomplete the evidence.

The difference between the TV shows and Balko’s book is that Balko backs up his litany of horrifying anecdotes with statistics that suggest that police departments are out of control—they have too many weapons not appropriate for use in civilian situations, they call in SWAT teams way too often and they injure and kill too many innocent people.

Balko traces the growing militarization of the police since the Nixon Administration used the war on drugs to justify “no-knock” warrants and the arming of local police with military-grade weapons. Balko cites statistics that show the inexorable turning of the police from a community resource that keeps us safe to a military operation that often treats the homes and neighborhoods like an army of occupation treats the region it has conquered:

  • Every decade more cities have SWAT teams, which are military-style units that assault urban locations, to the point that 77% of all cities with more than 25,000 has one.
  • Every decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of SWAT raids conducted in the United States. For example the number of SWAT deployments grew by more than 937% from 1980 to 1995!
  • Every decade the Supreme Court has eroded the “castle doctrine” (which prevents the police from storming a domicile without due cause) by redefining exigent circumstances, expanding the proper use of “no-knock” warrants and diminishing the time police have to wait between giving notice and breaking down the doors and barging in guns roaring.
  • Every decade, the number of incidents of police raids of innocent people has increased, a natural function of the increase in SWAT raids and the shoddy handling of police raid requests by judges.
  • Every decade, the U.S. Department of Defense has dumped more tanks, weaponry and other military equipment on police departments.
  • Balko also follows the development of the shoot-to-kill mentality among police officers, the “us-and-them” thinking that may be appropriate to a war situation but doesn’t belong on the streets of a free society.

Before 9/11, the war on drugs was used to justify arming the police with military-grade equipment and playing fast-and-fancy with the Third and Fourth Amendments. But even after 9/11 and the rise of the specter of terrorism, virtually all uses of this equipment across the country have been to raid homes suspected of harboring drugs and drug dealers.

Democrats and Republicans have tripped over each other to see who can scare the public worse and call for more funding of the unwinnable drug war. For example, Clinton put a retired military officer in charge of the war on drugs and started the active recruitment of former military personnel for police departments. Raids on medical marijuana facilities and on illegal immigrants increased significantly under Obama.

The following set of numbers from 1972 that Balko gives us exemplifies the way that politicians representing all parts of the American political spectrum have jumped on the bandwagon to make local police military units: In 1972, President Richard Nixon declared that heroin addicts stole $2 billion each year to support their habit. Democratic ultra-liberal presidential candidate George McGovern said heroin addicts really stole $4.4 billion a year. A Nixon administration drug treatment expert said it was $6.3 billion. Illinois Senator Charles Percy upped the ante to $10-$15 billion. Still 1972, a White House briefing book distributed to the press put the amount stolen by heroin addicts at $18 billion.

By the way, the total value of all property reported stolen in the United States in 1972 was $1.2 billion, a lot less than the lowest of these ridiculous estimates.

In the typical raid described in Balko’s book, the police obtain a “no-knock” warrant based on information from an informant who has proven to be unreliable in the past and then barge into the wrong home with less than 15 seconds’ notice, pistol whip people, shoot to kill if anyone makes a false move, rip the place apart looking for drugs, arrest people even if nothing is found, never apologize when they finally discover they hit the wrong house and are never reprimanded or face any consequences for their mistake. Prosecutors and judges take the attitude that the police can do no wrong, which partially explains why police departments and unions absurdly believe that even the mildest of criticism threatens not just the ability of the police to maintain order but the safety of individual police officers. (FYI, the murder rate among cops is far lower than the general murder rate in every state.)

Even when the police hit the right house, the SWAT approach of overwhelming a house or a neighborhood with no prior warning is almost always overkill, since the average drug dealer is not dangerous and typically carries no weapons. Smaller dealers get it far worse, since the courts have ruled that while a large drug distributor could not possibly destroy the evidence in a few minutes, small dealers could—therefore let’s not give them any warning.

The most frightening trend that Balko details is the push of police departments towards focusing on these military-style operations in their recruitment efforts. Instead of trying to attract people interested in “serving and protecting,” current police marketing materials all too often appeal to those whose like to fight and shoot off guns. They make great soldiers but trigger-happy police officers.

The biggest absurdity of course is that the goal of this over-arming of the police and stripping of constitutional rights is to stop a victimless crime.

Balko is a libertarian, a hired gun of the Cato Institute, which probably explains why he doesn’t explain what I believe is the main reason for the militarization of American police departments: racism. Remember that the original Nixon push to erode constitutional rights and turn the police into an occupying force came at the height of the civil rights movement after a number of riots broke out in our inner cities. Drug laws have always been stiffer for those drugs used primarily by Afro-Americans than those used in white suburbs, and the criminal justice system has applied much worse punishments to blacks than to whites convicted of the same drug possession and dealing offenses. Balko’s horde of anecdotes of wrong raids and raids gone wrong is color-blind, but we know that the percentage of raids on minorities has always been far, far greater than their representation in the general population. We also know that blacks are over-represented in the numbers of people killed by police.

The other factor in police militarization is the lobbying effort of military contractors. Our federal, state and local governments have collectively spent billions of dollars on equipment and weaponry that is pretty much inappropriate for most domestic policing. But the suppliers of these armaments have been minting money and using quite a bit of it to influence politicians in both parties to support this dangerous and un-American domestic arms race.

The print version of the New York Times now looks like a great regional newspaper of 1990

I couldn’t help but notice the sudden outcrop of advice columns in the printed edition of The New York Times. The Times now has five weekly advice columns, one each for etiquette, job issues, ethics, real estate matters and consumer complaints, at least to my count. Who knows, maybe I’m missing one.

These columns are cheap to produce—the readers create half the content with their questions and the other half—the answers—are almost always warmed-over information or packaged homilies. There is no difference between these columns and the syndicated columnists like “Hints from Heloise” or “Dear Abby” that local newspapers have published for at least a century. I can remember when the Times had no advice columns, which typically are a staple of local and regional newspapers. Then for years the only advice column in the Times was the “Ethicist” in the Sunday magazine.

The front page of the Times is now also different from what it used to be, focusing very little on breaking news except for the very big stories like the Charlie Hebdo massacre or revelations that the Times investigative reporters have dredged up like the collapse of the market for taxi medallions. Instead, the front page contains analysis of news that happened earlier in the week, investigative pieces and high-end gee-whiz features. I suppose that the assumption of the editors is that you already know what the news is from perusing the Internet.

The print edition of the Times carries less news than ever before, and for most international and real non-political national news, is relying more on the Associated Press and other wire services than ever before.

Pick up a Times and if you’re older than 40, the first thing you’ll feel is the lack of heft to it. It kind of feels like a good regional newspaper from the 1990’s. You know, something like the St. Louis Dispatch or the Syracuse Post-Standard, with lots of local columns, frequent award-winning investigative reports and advice columns from national and regional experts. Of course, these regional papers typically used columnists from the Times, Washington Post and other national newspapers, whereas reading the Times, you got to see Charles Blow, Paul Krugman and Gail Collins a day early. No more, since you can easily find their columns on the Internet the day before the print version hits the streets.

I was enumerating these signs of the decline of what was once the greatest mainstream newspaper in the United States to someone the other day when she asked me what I would do differently if I owned the Times.

My response is that the Times management made all its mistakes early in the Internet game by buying into the nonsense that just because it’s on the Internet, it has to be free. If I had operated the Times at the dawn of the information age, I would have done the following:

  1. Charged the same amount to see the newspaper on line as to receive a home delivery.
  2. Not given any free samples to visitors to the website.
  3. Offered the newspaper or selected articles to various Internet news portals such as Yahoo! and Google News on a strict pay-for-usage basis.
  4. Hired a bevy of sharp minds to surf the net for copyright infringements and prosecute all of them aggressively. By copyright infringement, I don’t mean referencing articles or quoting from them in other news media and blogs, but printing an article verbatim without permission and payment.
  5. Given free subscriptions to the online edition of the Times to every public library and public school library across the country.

In other words, I would have defended the castle, which in this case means asserting that the basic value of the newspaper is not in its paper or electronic imagery, but in the information it contains. In effect, I would have had the Times say, “We can and will translate the value of the information we gather to dollars and cents and set a price on it. But we will always provide those who can’t afford direct access to the newspaper a free way to still get the information.” Sounds like the traditional relationship that news media has had with the economy and the community.

Taking the approach I suggested might have hurt the Times profit margin for a while, but newspaper profit margins were notoriously fat, so I imagine the owners could have afforded it. I’m convinced that the rest of the publishing industry would have followed this same strategy for transferring the media to the Internet, if the Times and other big media players would have shown them the way.

Although implementing this harsh approach would cost billions more today than it would have if the news industry had started with it 18-20 years ago, it could still be done. But instead, the Times and virtually all other American newspapers prefer to continue to slide—following fewer news stories, doing more rehashes and relying more on news services. It wouldn’t matter if Internet media were replacing the traditional print and broadcast media in covering and uncovering the news. But it’s not. The Internet relies more on quoting secondary news sources and giving commentary than even the daily newspapers.

The result is that newspaper revenues and readership continue to decline, while Americans are more ignorant of the world around them then they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago.

New Yorker story tells anecdote that seems impossible on the surface

Sometimes you just know that either the reporter is lying or has been hornswoggled by the person she/he is quoting. Maybe it’s because everything seems so pat and happens in accordance with commonly held ideas including false ones.

Or in the case of Andrew Marantz’s article titled “The Virologist” in The New Yorker, you smell a lie (as Joseph Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness) because the facts are not verisimilar—they do not correspond to what happens in the real world.

Here’s the quote—and anyone who has ever played, had a child who played or coached Little League baseball will immediately recognize how unlike reality it is. The article, BTW, is about Emerson Spartz, a 27-year-old wunderkind who uses his so-called natural genius and some software algorithms to make the articles that he posts on websites—mostly plagiarized—go viral on the Internet:

When Emerson Spartz was a child in La Porte, Indiana, he had the highest batting average on his Little League team. “I quickly started seeing patterns,” he told me. His coach instructed only the fastest players to steal bases. Spartz was not fast, but he noticed that the catchers were unpracticed at throwing to second base, allowing runners to advance. “I started stealing pretty much every time,” he said. “It worked extremely well, but that wasn’t what the coach cared about, apparently.” To punish Spartz for disobedience, the coach batted him eighth. “I gave him a statistical explanation of why it made no sense to put your best hitter at the bottom of the order,” Spartz said. “You can imagine how that went over.” 

A load of hooey.

Little League, for the uninformed, is for 10-12 year olds. In the Minor and Intermediate leagues for kids under 10, no stealing is allowed. By the time the kids get to Pony and Colt leagues (for the kids older than 12), everyone but the real players have dropped out of organized baseball and so most teams have a pretty good catcher.

But in Little League, every manager knows to have every single player try to steal second base until the catcher demonstrates that she-he can make the throw and the shortstop demonstrates he-she’ll be there to take the catch and tag the runner. The catcher can often be so shaky and the pitcher’s move to home plate so slow that everyone runs—until the other side starts to gun ‘em down.  It’s not even a strategic consideration, such as whether to play your fifth best player at third or in center field; or when to bring in the fast pitcher who may walk a lot of hitters or the control kid whom the other side is definitely going to hit. I coached in two Little Leagues and my son played in three (including an all-star league) and every single manager ran his players until one or two kids got caught or until they knew the capabilities of the other team.

What that means is it’s unlikely Spartz’ coach told only the fast players on the team to run against weak-throwing catchers. Everyone was running until the other teams showed they could stop it.

The other false note in Spartz’s story is that his punishment disobeying the coach was to bat eighth. It would never happen that way. Never. When coaches on any team in any youth sports want or need to discipline a player, they bench the player. Sometimes coaches are too slow to bench, sometimes too fast, sometimes they are inconsistent in their pattern of discipline—but no coach chooses to punish a player by dropping him in the batting order. You reserve dropping in the batting order for good players who are in a batting slump; or when another player is hitting so well you have to move him-her up; or when a player is coming back from an injury or other layoff. Again, I’m not talking about strategies about which there is any dispute. Everyone does it.

Assuming that he didn’t fabricate it himself. I can see why Marantz wanted to believe Spartz’s tale of Little League rebellion. It fits the character that Marantz is so assiduously drawing in the rest of the article:

  • He uses math…
  • …to figures out stuff…
  • …that other, more experienced people miss…
  • …with a courage of convictions to keep doing what he knows is right…
  • …with disdain for the authority…
  • ..who doesn’t like that his rebellion is a success.

The incident encapsulates what Marantz spends more than 5,500 words trying to say, but it couldn’t possibly have happened the way Marantz says Spartz describes it. Even if Marantz didn’t play Little League ball as a kid (or any sport, since all youth sports punish through benching), he should have known enough to ask someone. Isn’t that what fact-checking is all about? And what about Marantz’s editor or the stable of fact-checkers The New Yorker must employ? Were they all so dazzled by the idea of a rebellious boy genius seeing what adults missed that they didn’t think to ask someone what really happens in a Little League game?

This obvious whopper of a whopper throws into doubt all the other facts about Spartz’s life and business. But the article is nonetheless worth a read as it encapsulates the end game of the capitalist approach to entertainment and the arts. The end goal is not communicating a message—lofty or false—or even entertaining. No the end goal is to get eyeballs to see the piece, so that advertisers will pay to be on the website that sponsors the article, photo array, or in the case of much of Spartz’s content, list (of celebrities with something in common, the most or least of good and bad attributes, the cutest, the sexiest, the oldest, et al.).  All artistic success reduces to eyeballs on the page, which we can then transform into the lowest of all denominators—cash value.