The TV openings of both World Series and GOP debates overhype events as grandiose & historic battles of titans

Channel surfers exercise their itchy thumbs for three reasons: 1) To see what’s on TV; 2) To avoid commercials; or 3) To watch two things at one time.

It was to this last group I belonged last night when I clicked between the musical openings of the World Series and the third Republican debate, televised on CNBC. I must have flipped between the two montages to music eight times during the thirty or so seconds these grandiose introductions simultaneously unfolded.

Suddenly I had an epiphany—not the kind of epiphany when you see something new for the first time, but the epiphany is which something you already understand in an intellectual way reveals itself personally to you with raw emotional power.

The epiphany came as I pondered how similar the two openings were: The producers of both the World Series and the debate were saying practically the same thing using precisely the same visual, narrative and rhetorical techniques:

  • Heroic and uplifting music that crescendos at the end.
  • Montage of the people involved, in close-ups mostly taken at a low angle up to make the figure seem more daunting and powerful—a typical photo technique used to photograph rulers of authoritarian nations.
  • Quick cutting between shots, with an acceleration of the pace of new shots as the piece progresses.
  • Short, provocative statements from the people shown.
  • Special effects that I would call “techno-corporate” in style, with rows of columns and architectural allusions, blocks of video and straight lines running across the frame.
  • A ponderously stiff and stately attitude, as if the viewers are about to see history being made.

Aficionados of televised professional football games will recognize this approach to trying to get the audience excited about what they are about to see. It’s been used to introduce every televised professional football game for decades.

The epiphany then was the realization of how much the news media presents our political debates as an entertainment spectacle.  To the mass media, a political debate is no different from a baseball or football game or a reality show based on a competition. The issues don’t matter, only the battle of wills between two, or in the case of the Republican debates, nine larger than life figures.

These nine candidates, however, are not titans, but little minds dedicated to enriching their larders and those of their sponsors. The debate itself was a dreary affair, except for those who like to see moderators or event leaders lose control, which happened a few times. The moderators once again tried to pit one candidate against another, and for the most part the candidates refrained from taking the debate bait. Two candidates did go after their peers. At the beginning, Kasich begged voters not to support the crazy amateurs, by whom he meant Trump and Carson. Jeb Bush lectured Marco Rubio like a stern high school teacher on Rubio’s poor Senate attendance. Rubio’s answer was evasively punky and pissy—that Jeb never went after McCain for his poor attendance—what you’d expect from a teenaged boy. But the media and the audience liked it.

The dreariest part of the debate was the tedious comparisons of the various tax plans.  In every case, the candidate went out of his way to assure us that the rich were going to pay their fair share. An analysis of each plan, however reveals that all the candidates want the rich and the ultra-rich to pay significantly less in taxes than they do now.

Besides telling the same bold-faced lie that the wealthy will pay their fair share under their plans, the candidates make the same two conceptual mistakes. First, they assume that people who earn a million pay their fair share when they pay the same percentage of their income in taxes as do the middle class and poor. They forget that the government is providing the wealthy with more goods and services. Some examples: The middle class and poor don’t need the government to protect and assure the safe operation of financial markets and they don’t need the court system for commercial litigation. When the police protect property, they are protecting more of the property of the wealthy. Intellectual property law enforcement actually hurts the poor, while securing the rental rights of the wealthy.

The second fallacy is one of the fundamental principles of right-wing economics: If we lower taxes, the economy will grow. At this point, there have been so many studies disproving this false theory you’d think the Republicans would stop trying to present it.  What’s so irritating about the Republican insistence that lowering taxes helps the economy is that it goes against common sense. To agree with the Republicans you have to believe that rich folk grow the economy more by investing in stocks, real estate and art than the government does when it spends all the tax dollars it collects on needed goods and services or gives it to organizations with employees for various other goods and services. The wealthy remove money from the economy, government pumps it in.  Higher taxes for spending always help to grow the economy.

Carly Fiorina was the only one not to offer a plan to cut taxes, preferring to say that all the plans had merit, but what was needed was someone who could actually push a plan through. Carly implied that she was the gal to do it. After all, Fiorina was able to sell a very savvy board of directors on making one of the worst corporate acquisitions in American business history, so it should be a walk in the park for her to convince both houses of Congress to create a taxation system that is simpler and results in the wealthy and ultra-wealthy paying even less than the historically low amounts they now pay.

Unlike the World Series game, in which the Royals trounced the Mets, I’m not sure if there was a clear winner among Republicans in the third debate. I am suspicious of media speculation that Rubio or Cruz won. The mainstream media like Rubio and Cruz because they can’t like Jeb Bush anymore. Jeb almost disappeared from the proceedings, leaving these two first-term Senators from Southern states as the most prominent and highest ranking contenders not named Carson or Trump. But “highest ranking” doesn’t mean either is popular with voters.

Corporations, ideologues and craven academics all use grammar and syntax to distort meaning

Civic leaders and large institutions often use language to color or misshape reality, thinking that through the use of words they can turn chicken feathers into chicken salad. Most of the time, their attempts are chicken shit, as the public has become wary of the various ways that politicians and corporations distort reality. Most people laugh derisively when a bank brags that 1.05% interest on a passbook account will help a family accumulate assets for retirement. And people get suspicious when corporations call a product recall a “quality withdrawal.”

But what if the organization or speaker deliver the lies not with words and phrases, but baked into the relationship between the parts of speech? Ellen Bresler Rockmore, a lecturer in rhetoric at Dartmouth presents a truly odious example of using syntax and grammar to tell a lie in an article titled “Texas History Lesson” in The New York Times.    Rockmore provides a complete analysis of the following paragraph in a United States history book that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) publishes for Texas schools (I refuse to write, “for the Texas school market”!):

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.

As Rockmore ably details, when talking about what the text book is trying to present as the positive aspects of slavery, the sentences have “subjects” like masters who do good things and “objects” such as slaves to whom good stuff happens. Forget the fact that most of this good stuff never occurred since life was brutish for most slaves most of the time. The writers handle the “brutish” aspects in the second part of the paragraph, entirely without attribution. When it comes to whippings, brandings and torture, which historians know occurred far more frequently than kind treatment, we never learn who did it and to whom it was done. By draining both the actor (subject) and the acted upon (object) from these sentences, the writers make the actions abstract, almost dehumanized, which in this sense, means devoid of human activity or intervention. Of course we know which human beings did commit torture, whippings, brandings and other atrocities—it was the slave owners.

Later in her very learned article, Rockmore gives an example of the most common means by which writers use syntax and grammar to deform the truth: the passive construction.  Her example, “Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner” contains two passives: “were broken apart” and “was sold.” If we replaced these parts of speech which active versions of the verbs, the sentence might read, “Slave owners often broke apart families by selling a family member to another slave owner.” Removing the passive removes attribution and makes it seem as if the action of breaking apart and selling are abstract and perhaps even natural processes. FYI, conservative economists currently use the same approach when they blame lower wages on the fact that “jobs in unionized older industries have been replaced by jobs in newer non-unionized industries.”

Corporations will often use these inherently squeamish forms of speech even when they are not talking about anything controversial. Lawyers and accountants pretty much always write in the passive voice, as a means not to attribute cause or action, and that predilection infected marketing departments and the rest of corporate America decades ago.

I have made an excellent living for more than 25 years advising clients on crisis communications issues, and in every case part of my advice has been to turn some sentences written in the passive construction into active voices:  My staff routinely turns sentences such as “The fight was broken up in five minutes” and “A dozen people will be laid off” into the more direct, “Security broke up the fight quickly with no one injured” and “We will lay off a dozen employees.”  My theory is that by accepting blame, the company will establish its credibility in fixing the problem and assuring the public that everything is back to normal. By speaking directly, the company comes off as open and honest, instead of projecting the deviousness and concealment of the passive voice. Between crises and technocrats who want the public to understand them (instead of “want to be understood”), we do a pretty good business merely turning passive constructions into active ones.

When a corporation speaks in the passive voice and in other ways use syntax and grammar to distort meaning, they do it almost always for one of three reasons:

  1. Bad writers
  2. A desire to make something seem more abstract or scientifically based
  3. To hide something bad.

In the case of the HMH writers of the Texas American history book, we know they are good writers from the many finely-wrought sentences we see in the text book. Why then, do they resort to these devious rhetorical devices when talking about slavery?

We know the answer: They are cravenly putting money ahead of integrity by giving into the desire of Texas school boards to whitewash slavery.

But why do the Texas school boards want to whitewash slavery? None of the people on the school boards nor any of their parents or grandparents owned slaves. Slavery ended in 1865 (although a good case can be made that the denial of civil and economic rights to blacks after the brief Reconstruction era continued the spirit of slavery).

You don’t see positive references to Hitler or Nazism in the German history textbooks. The Germans as a nation and a civil society accept the horrifying fact that their ancestors participated in or condoned one of the worst atrocities in recorded history. Virtually every town of any size in Germany has a holocaust or a Jewish museum that reminds Germans of this indelibly monstrous stain on German culture and history. Instead of trying to hide the awful facts, Germans own up to their past and make sure everyone knows that what they did was unforgiveable. It’s a good start for ensuring no reoccurrence of the Nazi era.

What would be so wrong with Texas history books explicitly admitting that slavery was an inhumane foundation for an economy and society? Instead of trying to play down the worst excesses of slavery, Texans, other southerners and the United States in general should admit how horrible slavery was. The attitude of the text books should be “Yes we did bad stuff, and we learned not to do it again.” Denying the full horror of slavery only serves to justify it.

Netanyahu reaches a new low in shamelessness in trying to justify the unjustifiable

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sunk to a new low in shamelessness when he said that a Palestinian leader gave Hitler the idea for the final solution which, it is always instructive to recount, involved gassing and incinerating millions of people because they were Jewish.

This egregious rewriting of history, which came in a speech Netanyahu gave to Jewish leaders, was immediately lambasted as false by a wide range of Holocaust scholars and survivors. Many pointed out that believing that a Palestinian developed the idea for the final solution played into the hands of Holocaust deniers, because it absolves Hitler and the Germans of some responsibility.

Netanyahu was trying to demonstrate that Palestinian hostility towards Israel predates the 48-year Israeli occupation. Instead he hurt his own credibility, while insulting the memory of millions of victims and their families.

And what did Netanyahu hope to gain by telling a scurrilous lie? Even if Palestinian hatred of Jews extended back decades, it would not justify the brutal and unfair way in which Israel treats Palestinians in the occupied territories today. A large majority of Palestinians living in West Bank and the Gaza strip have only known Israeli rule. It’s the bloody incursions and retaliations, the illegal settlements and the discrimination that shape contemporary Palestinian attitudes towards the Israeli government and Israelis, not some decades or centuries old antipathy to Jews.

The similarity between Netanyahu’s faux pas and the stupidities routinely uttered by American conservatives is obvious. The question is, will Netanyahu’s reputation and political viability suffer as has so many of the Republicans running for office who have uttered inanities?

Over the past few years, we have seen a wide range of Republican elected officials suffer after saying stupid things, some lies, some distortions and some even the true but embarrassing statements. For example, the campaigns of Michele Bachmann and Todd Akins fizzled immediately after telling absurd lies about medical issues, e.g. vaccinations and rape. Mitt Romney shot himself in the foot when he presented a distorted statistic—the 47% of takers who would never vote for him; those 47% of takers referred to the percent of citizens getting some kind of check from the federal government and included veterans who had put their lives in danger fighting our endless succession of ill-wrought wars, retirees who paid for their cash benefits with payroll taxes and the disabled. The most absurd example of a Republican elected official suffering from stupidly telling the truth is Representative Kevin McCarthy, who lost a chance to be Speaker of the House when he admitted that the purpose of the House Benghazi committee was to embarrass Hillary Clinton.

I keep writing about elected Republicans losing because they said something stupid because it doesn’t matter how many stupid things the never-elected Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina say. It doesn’t seem to affect their popularity among likely Republican voters. Bachmann was drummed in the Iowa race after lying about vaccinations, but Trump told the same lie in the first debate and saw his popularity increase. Fiorina’s lies about Planned Parenthood didn’t sink her, nor has Carson’s obnoxious statement that the Jews could have fought Hitler if they had guns or his denial of basic science outside his area of expertise.

Our decisions about the economy and society suffer when they are based on lies, distortions and character assassinations. It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway!) that when an elected official or candidate tells a lie or says something stupid not related to his or her personal background, it invariably supports a policy that is harmful to the economy or imposes a religious restriction on what is supposed to be a secular society. Romney wanted to fund further tax cuts for the wealthy by curtailing spending on social service programs. Bachmann and Trump used false science and a lie to pander to vaccine deniers. Carson wanted to justify looser gun controls, while Netanyahu wanted to justify an increasingly immoral policy of oppression and de facto apartheid.

It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will get the free pass so far given to Trump, Carson and Fiorina. Let’s hope that he suffers the fate of Romney, Bachmann, McCarthy and others. Perhaps then Israel will elect a government willing to end the bloodbath and make the compromises needed to establish a Palestinian state.

No Democratic candidate is proposing anything more than quick fixes to a broken system, not even Sanders

Progressives are delighted about the results of the first debate between the declared candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, but they shouldn’t be too happy. Sure, the candidates all expressed concern about income and wealth inequality, all favored paid family leave, all supported women’s reproductive rights and all want to do something about the high cost of college. Their biggest dispute, other than over gun control, was over whose proposals were tougher on errant banks and bankers.

That makes Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley far to the left of Republicans, but not necessarily progressives. All their proposals are quick fixes to a broken system. None of the candidates advocate radical change, not even the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders. They all avoid proposing real structural change.

Here is a short a list of proposals that should be part of the basic progressive platform that none of the Democrats would dare to support:

  1. Institute a graduated annual tax on net wealth of more than a certain threshold, similar to what exists in France. For example, at the end of each year, the federal government could assess a half of one percent tax on all household wealth of more than $5 million, one percent on all household wealth of more than $20 million, and five percent on all household wealth of more than $50 million.
  2. Remove the cap on income that is assessed the Social Security tax (AKA “payroll taxes”), which currently is a paltry $118,500.
  3. Tax all inheritance income of more than $10 million at 100% and dissolve all trusts of more than $10 million at the death of the trust founders and funders.
  4. Place a steep new tax on gas and use all proceeds to fund mass transit within and between metropolitan areas.
  5. Equalize what is spent on every student by placing a tax on all private school tuition and taxing wealthy school districts and giving proceeds to poorer school districts so that every school district in each state spends the same average amount of money per student.
  6. Place high tariffs on countries that do not meet our standards of employee, consumer and environmental safety and do not pay substantially the same wages and benefits as are paid in the United States.
  7. Unilaterally dismantle all U.S. nuclear weapons.
  8. End all private prisons and military outsourcing of personnel and services.
  9. End all right-to-work laws and force charter schools to hire teachers in teachers’ unions, if the public school system is unionized. Force all private schools—religious and secular—to unionize if they want to receive public funding, e.g., busing and participation in public school gifted programs.
  10. Limit the salary and benefits to all corporate executives to 30 times the average employee’s compensation package.
  11. Allow the federal government to negotiate with drug companies and establish single-payer healthcare administered by a number of competitive commercial and not-for-profit insurance companies.
  12. Limit all political campaigns to three months of primary campaigning and two months of election campaigning. Note that the Democratic candidates generally favor passing legislation to overturn the Citizen’s United

Many of these proposals fund the nebulous plans that all the Democratic candidates have to make college less expensive, increase the social safety net for children, the poor and the elderly, invest in new energy technologies and rebuild our aging infrastructure of roads, rails, bridges and mass transit systems. To a large degree, the Democrats are telling us how they will spend money while concealing how we’ll pay for it. For years, we paid for what the Democrats want to do with higher taxes. That was before Reagan.

Other proposals on this list of progressive ideas that mainstream centrists looking left consider “untouchable” directly address inequality of wealth and income by preventing accumulation or reset our relationship with the rest of the world such as unilaterally destroying our nuclear weapons.

This list does not exhaust the list of proposals that would have the federal government manage the economy—much as it always has—but for the benefit of the people, not the weapons, automobile, real estate, oil and utility industries. Implement greater environmental regulations with strict caps instead of carbon trading. Develop a federal set of standards for voter registration and voting, including automatic “motor voter” registration.  End all development of fully automated weapons systems. Deny aid to any university that gave an admissions break to “legacies.” Withdraw aid to Israel unless it works towards a two-state solution. We could spin “unacceptable” ideas all day long.

And how do we know whether an idea is unacceptable to mainstream liberalism? If it truly addresses the vast inequalities that exist in today’s United States and the world.

Are we finally seeing the limits to gun madness in the United States?

No new gun control laws have been passed recently, but we may finally be seeing the limits of the gun madness that has gripped the country for the past few decades.

For a while now, every year has seen Republican state legislatures pass laws that loosen gun controls and Republican judges strike down existing gun control laws. Some of these new laws allow people new rights to carry guns in public—on university campuses, in restaurants and in employers’ parking lots. Other new laws give gun-toters new shooting rights, for example, stand-your-ground laws, which give people the right to protect and defend their lives against threats or perceived threats. These laws usually replace laws that require individuals to retreat from danger. Individuals have used these new laws to ostentatiously display guns and use them at will.

This week, however, saw what may be the beginning of a move to stem the slow but steady erosion of societal control on gun violence that these new laws have engendered.

In an important case in Milwaukee, a jury is making a gun shop pay more than $5 million in damages to two police officers severely wounded with a pistol purchased in the store by what is called a straw buyer. A straw buyer is someone qualified to buy a gun who purchases it for someone who isn’t qualified, in this case, for an underage male who fired his illegally purchased firearm against police a few weeks later.

Meanwhile, in Auburn Hills, Michigan, police are charging a woman who shot at a fleeing shoplifter posing no immediate danger to her or anyone else. The shoplifter hadn’t even pilfered anything from the shooter. Police in Elkhart, Indiana said they were considering filing charges against a man who did pretty much the same thing. In both cases, the shooter had absolutely no skin in the game. What was the motive then? I can only conclude that, like the legendary Bernard Goetz who went hunting muggers on the New York City subway in 1984, these people were wishing and hoping for an opportunity to take their guns out and shoot another human being.

The good news is that these cases suggest that America is finally drawing a line in the sand as to how much we are willing to endanger our population to accommodate the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) incessant need to expand gun rights.

The bad news is that we are drawing the line at a very dangerous place. We won’t allow obviously false gun purchases, while still accepting the ease at which people can purchase multiple guns, including military grade firearms, and as much ammo as they want. There are still stand-your-ground laws that allow stone cold killers like George Zimmerman to shoot freely whenever they say they feel threatened. Many states still allow people to carry guns on college campuses and in restaurants and other public places.

I would thus not yet consider these three cases of constraining gun proliferation as a watershed or turning point. Rather what we’re seeing are gun fanatics testing and finding the limits of their new freedom. Tragically, their freedom, based on a flimsy constitutional framework, endangers all of us and comes at the cost of tens of thousands of gun deaths a year.

Like Republicans in their 2 debates, the Democrats mostly agreed with each other in their first debate

There can be no doubt that the best moment of the debate between the five Democratic candidates for president came early when ex-Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley verbally slapped around Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on the issue of greater gun controls. O’Malley was right that the gun issue in America does not come down to rural versus urban attitudes as Sanders was stating.

This exchange between the handsome matinee idol and the old curmudgeon produced the best zinger of the campaign so far:

SANDERS: Well, as somebody who has a D-minus voting record…

O’MALLEY: And I have an F from the NRA, Senator.

SANDERS: I don’t think I am pandering. But you have not been in the United States Congress.

O’MALLEY: Well, maybe that’s a healthy thing.

But it was much ado about nothing, as all the candidates agreed that we need to tighten gun controls. Perhaps O’Malley and former First Lady/Senator/Secretary of State Hillary Clinton want more controls than Sanders and ex-Senator Jim Webb do, but they all want more gun controls and none advocated outlawing private ownership of firearms. O’Malley and Clinton approach the issue from the standpoint of public safety, while Sanders and Webb approach it from the standpoint of ensuring the right to bear arms, but they all have essentially the same plan of action.

It was that way about virtually all the issues. The candidates differed only in minor quibbles that often turned out to be definitional. And sometimes, they just agreed. In fact on every issue, O’Malley said he agreed with either Sanders or Clinton, and sometimes both.

They all agree that the Clinton email snafu is a distraction from the real issues of the campaign.

They all agree they support paid family and medical leave and a woman’s right to control her body.

They all agree that human-induced climate change is a major problem and all want to address it with regulation on fossil fuels and the development of renewable energy sources.

They all agree that income inequality is one of the gravest problems facing the nation, despite the snipping over whose plan was harsher on banks and bankers. Again, while they agreed what to do—raise minimum wage, invest in infrastructure, reduce cost of a college education, regulate the banks, they came at the problem from slightly different angles, Clinton and O’Malley as reformers of capitalism and Sanders as a democratic socialist who accepts capitalism. Kind of like the difference between FDR and Henry Wallace.

On foreign affairs, they pretended that Sanders was more dovish, Clinton and Webb more hawkish and O’Malley splitting the difference, but they all agreed that President Obama was doing the right thing in the Middle East, and specifically Syria, and that it was wrong to invade Iraq but right to go after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The one real difference in policy was that Clinton would impose a no-fly zone as part of a coalition and Sanders would not.

On all these, and every other issue, all of these Democrats are far more progressive than any of the Republicans, who would like to loosen gun control laws, implement policies that will increase wealth and income inequality, outlaw abortion, ignore climate change warnings, make the Clinton emails a central campaign issue and (excepting Rand Paul) employ more troops and planes in various Middle East hotspots.

Rarely have the differences between the two parties been so stark.

Another difference between the two Republican and one Democratic debates was that every Republican told a major lie having to do with policy, whereas all the Democrats stuck to the truth when it came to statistics and factual assertions not related to their own pasts.

Thus, just as in the Republican Party, deciding which Democrat to support may come down to the style of the candidate. Here is what this observer saw last night:

Webb appeared testy and sweaty-palmed, always at the edge of losing it. He demanded more time several times during the debate, and came off looking like the kid who’s mad he isn’t playing shortstop.

Chafee: He looked like he took one too many happy pills before the debate and they made him disconnected in a goofy sort of way.

O’Malley: He was a little stiff, like Bill Clinton when he first hit the national scene, and definitely not as smooth as his Republican equivalent, Mario Rubio. But then again, he has the burden of remembering facts, something that no Republican candidate seems to need this election cycle. On the whole, however, I think O’Malley did well and would make a fine vice presidential candidate for whichever Democrat wins the nomination or as a future presidential candidate.

Sanders: I love Bernie, but people are eventually going to get tired of being lectured by a cranky old man. Remember how Americans reacted to Jimmy Carter’s constant chiding about frugality and lowered expectations. The sunny-faced liar Ronald Reagan defeated him by selling a false vision based of the future.

Clinton: As always, Hillary Clinton showed herself to be controlled smart, quick on her feet and competent, if not as warm and friendly as her husband, Reagan or Bush II. She answered the concerns about switching positions on certain issues by focusing on her flexibility—she learned more information and changed her mind. Some may accuse her of ideological impurity, but her experience and skill set position her to bring into reality a much larger part of the Democratic agenda than any other current candidate. If Clinton has a lead in the polls and delegate count at the time, I may consider voting for Sanders in my state’s primary, just to keep the pressure on all Democrats to look left. But unless O’Malley suddenly catches fire with the public, Hillary Clinton remains the best candidate for the Democrats.

Imagine global politics as a competition of hegemons & Putin’s actions in Syria and Ukraine will seem defensive

Let me start off by saying that Putin’s use of force in the Ukraine and Syria is wrong on several levels. He’s wrong in principle to pursue a military solution, and even if we condoned his use of force, he would still not be acting in the best interests of his country.

If Putin wanted to keep the Ukraine in his sphere of influence, he should have offered it a better economic deal than the West did and spent more money influencing Ukrainian elections and politicians. That’s the way the game is played in kleptocracies, as Putin obviously knows.

The problem with his actions in Syria is that it’s as much of a quagmire as Iraq or Afghanistan. Syria has four competing forces: Kurds, Assad’s, ISIS (or are we calling it IS or ISIL this week?) and the alliance of rebels against Assad. Putin’s actions, if met by the West ratcheting up aid to the rebels, will likely lead to the country splitting into three parts, two of which may unite with two of the three parts that seem to be Iraq’s probable future. At the end of the day, it’s likely that instead of Syria and Iraq, we will end up with four states, ISIS, Greater Kurdistan, the rump of Iraq and the rump of Syria controlled by either Assad or some rebel group. It seems as if Putin has learned as little from the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan in the 1980’s as Bush II, Cheney and Rumsfeld learned from Viet Nam.

While I believe Putin to be—literally—a bloody fool, I also think that the American government and news media are being deceptive when they paint Putin as an aggressor. In both the Ukraine and Syria, Russia is reacting defensively to Western and American aggression.

Many Americans like to imagine the United States as the world’s cop. working selflessly to promote freedom and democracy. In fact, at any given time the political globe comprises several spheres of influence, or hegemonies, each of which projects its influence over part of the world, or over a client state in contested regions. Roughly speaking, today’s hegemons include the United States, Western Europe (often acting in conjunction with the United States), Russia and China. When we’re talking about the Middle East, I believe we should add Iran to the list.

As Stephen F. Cohen pointed out to much criticism after Russia took the Crimea by force, since the fall of the Soviet empire, Western Europe and the United States have been courting former Soviet client states, which effectively means that the West has gradually infringed on the former Russian hegemony, shrinking it slowly but surely. From the standpoint of Hungary and Poland, the economic benefits of joining the EU are many, but Russia does not look at things from the point of view of the Hungarians or the Poles. Nor does the United States or China, for that matter, which is why another word for hegemonic politics is imperialism. As Cohen suggests, the last straw for Putin and Russia was losing the Ukraine, and especially Crimea, which is more Russian than Ukrainian and only belongs to the Ukraine because of series of short-sighted administrative decisions.

The Syrian situation is no different. Years ago, the Soviet Union was tight with lots of Middle Eastern countries, but at this point in time, the Assad government is Russia’s only real client state in Islamic lands. By openly supporting the Syrian rebels and insisting that the Assad government be replaced, the West is attacking a Russian ally. There can be no doubt that messing with the Russians had as much to do with the West’s decision to support the rebels as does its outrage at the brutal way that Assad has treated his people. There is no disputing that Assad is a butcher, but so were Suharto, the Shah of Iran, Samosa and many other dictators—excuse me, authoritarians, as former rightwing U.S. UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick once put it—whom the United States supported or still support, often against incipient democratic movements. Once upon a time we also supported Saddam Hussein and we still give millions in military aid to countries ruled by kings. Before we condemn Russia for backing Assad, we should take a gander at our own goose.

Putin’s moves will backfire, just as the U.S. invasion of Iraq was doomed to fail. A current Republican myth is that if the United States had kept our troops in Iraq, ISIS would never have been able to grab so much territory so quickly. Rightwing militarists thus attempt to shift blame for the current situation from the Bush II Administration to President Obama. This line of reasoning ignores that under Bush II we destroyed the country and its political infrastructure and shattered a nation that was really three nations held together by a strong dictator. It would have only made sense to remain in Iraq if the United States would have added more troops and been prepared to stay there for 40 or 45 years, at least as long as the Soviet Union was in Hungary, the Czech Republic and other East Bloc nations.

I don’t see any of the activity of the world’s hegemons in Syria or the rest of the Middle East to be in the best interests of the people of the region. By selling arms, bombing, putting troops on the ground and supporting one side over others (for future considerations), all we do is muck things up and prevent the people in each state from deciding for themselves how to live. Cutting off heads seems particularly savage, but launching an air strike is just as savage, and a quicker, more efficient way to kill. I also imagine that bleeding out after a bomb drops on your neighborhood is more painful than a quick and clean severation.

So by all means, let’s condemn Russia for bombing targets in Iraq and invading the eastern part of the Ukraine. But let’s also clean the blood off our own hands and elect American officials who will stop contributing to the bloodbaths in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Corporations don’t have to break laws as Volkswagen did to manipulate & cheat the public

Volkswagen’s use of manipulative software to conceal that its diesel engines couldn’t pass emissions inspections is far from the first time that a large corporation has broken the law to cheat the public, not even the first time this year. Cheating can show up in any industry, as demonstrated by the Peanut Corporation of America executives who knowingly sold the public peanut butter tainted with salmonella.

These companies knowingly broke laws that regulate the marketplace. Weakened as government oversight has been by the general starvation of all non-military government functions over the past 35 years, the American public is indeed fortunate we caught both Volkswagen and the peanut-mongers.

Most Americans, regardless of their political views, are appalled by Volkswagen’s treachery, although I have yet to see or hear anyone come up with a proposal to prevent these acts of corporate manipulation from repeating. The answer, of course, is obvious: spend more money inspecting products and facilities and more aggressively prosecute companies that break the law and their executives and directors. But common sense will often ruffle the feathers of large industries and their elected factotums.

Extremist supporters of the unfettered free market always assume that corporations will uphold the highest standards of ethical behavior and those that don’t will soon be unmasked and ultimately fail. This overarching theory gives no thought to what happens to the innocent people killed and hurt during the period in which the “marketplace” “naturally” removes these bad apples.

The more reasonable among free market advocates admit the need for regulations, but insist that the regulated industry must develop the regulations. It’s this approach that leads to phone tariffs and securities regulations that limit damages and emissions requirements that always go into effect years after the laws are passed.

In fact, industry has so many ways to manipulate individuals and communities that it’s surprising that a company ever feels it has to break the law to make a profit.

Industry has a great say on the overall policy and economic strategies that the federal government and the states formulate and implement. Reading Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars by leading transportation engineer Samuel I. Schwartz, reminded me of how much sway corporations and industries have over government. Take our spending on infrastructure improvement: Almost 80% of it goes to highways and only 20% of it goes to mass transit. Highway spending has established and now reinforces a way of life that is leading to resource shortages and human-induced global warming. Not good for the public, but a car-centric lifestyle helps the automobile industry, the oil industry and suburban developers.

By the way, Schwartz demonstrates that this enormous decades-long financial support of car-and-mall culture has not been enough to make living in car-centric areas less expensive. While people complain that cities with mass transit are the most expensive in which to live, as of 2010 the average person in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston all spent less of their household budget on housing and transportation combined than the average person did in Riverside, Miami, Jacksonville, San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta or Columbus, all of which have lower housing costs but much higher costs to travel from home to work, school and recreation. (Of course, San Francisco and New York have seen real estate booms over the past five years that may change the numbers somewhat). See p. 111 of Schwartz’s book for a chart with details.

Schwartz’s main interest in Street Smart is to advocate for a series of innovations that will help move people from place to place more quickly and create more mixed-use neighborhoods in which people can walk to retail stores, restaurants and other amenities. But along the way, Schwartz reminds us of other ways that large corporations manipulate the public for their own ends.

Let’s start with suppressing the competition. Schwartz is far from the first to write about the two companies formed by General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil of California and other large companies in 1936 that bought electric train and trolley systems in at least 45 cities, including Los Angeles, St. Louis, Baltimore and Newark, and then shut them down in favor of oil-burning buses. The federal government finally realized that the series of ostensibly legal actions like forming a company, buying other companies and reallocating assets constituted a conspiracy to restrain trade and indicted one of the shell companies in 1947. The corporations were convicted of some crimes, but not others, and had to pay fines of $5,000 per company and $1 per chief executive officer.

Schwartz also alludes to companies putting out false propaganda and supporting phony research. His examples, all financed by the Koch brothers, are climate change (a term I have come to despise, because it is so squeamishly euphemistic), healthcare reform and the United Nation’s nonbinding blueprint for sustainable development called Agenda 21. Without consulting sources, we can quickly add Coca Cola, the tobacco companies, pharmaceutical companies and automobile companies to the list of companies supporting false research, on such topics as the benefits of exercise versus calorie-counting in losing weight; the health hazards of smoking; the efficacy of a number of prescription drugs; and the real cost to install safety measures in vehicles or meet emission standards.

Perhaps the most disturbing way that corporations manipulate the public, individuals and the government to make more profit is to write legislation and spend money to defeat or pass laws. We know generally that the American Legislative Exchange Council routinely produces model bills which are introduced in state legislatures by the elected officials they control. This legislation generally hurts the public, and includes new laws to reduce corporate regulation and taxation, loosen environmental regulations, make it harder to vote, weaken labor unions and promote gun rights. In Street Smart, Schwartz gives some disgusting examples of what Americans for Prosperity and the Reason Foundation—two Koch Brothers-financed organizations—and their millions did in one year alone, 2014: undermined a Nashville plan for dedicated transit lines; forbade Indianapolis from studying a light rail system; killed Florida’s plans for a high-speed rail system which voters had overwhelmingly approved; and unsuccessfully opposed the expansion of the Washington DC Metro and the LA Exposition Line rail system.

We haven’t even mentioned how corporations control the political process with political contributions and influence over the news media through advertising and ownership.

With all these legal ways to fix the game in their favor, it strikes me that only the most venal and stupid of corporate executives ever explicitly break the law the way Volkswagen and Peanut Corporation honchos did.

10 more innocent victims sacrificed to a misreading of the 2nd amendment

As of this writing, the unanswered question is how Chris Harper Mercer obtained the gun he used to kill 10 people at Umpqua Community College.

The police easily reconstructed a profile of Mercer, and it’s a chillingly familiar one: Young male, antisocial, withdrawn, without real relationships, mental problems that his family and others recognized.

So how did he get his guns? Did he buy them legally? Did his mother get them for him?  The New York Times reports that when a reporter asked a neighbor whether he ever saw Mercer with a gun, the reply was “I’d rather not say,” which sounds like he was thinking “Yes, I saw him with a gun and I knew he was crazy and now I feel like dog meat.”

“I’ve been waiting to do this for years,” Mercer told a professor before gunning him down, according to a CNN report.  Combine this statement with the ease at which he operated his firearms and the fact that he had three with him: two handguns and a long gun, which is a gun with an extra-long barrel. Consider all these facts and we can only conclude that someone who knew he was unbalanced also knew he liked to pack. It defies reason to believe that none of the people who suspected this kid was mentally ill knew he liked guns and had a few.

We cannot, however, blame mental illness for what Mercer did. Nor can we blame his parents, do-nothing neighbors or guidance counselors at whatever schools he attended. We shouldn’t even blame the gun dealers who sold the weapons, assuming that they followed all existing laws at the time.

The blame falls fully on the laws themselves—correction, the lack of laws regulating the sale, ownership and use of guns in the United States.

Even though the federal government banned the use of tax dollars to study gun safety years ago, enough research exists to state unequivocally that the more guns there are in a society, the more people will die and be wounded by guns. Nations in which there are few guns have lower rates of gun deaths. The United States with the highest number of guns in the hands of its citizens has the highest number of gun deaths per capita a year.

It’s true that criminals will get guns no matter how few guns there are afloat in society. It’s also true that no one can stop the psychopath or spurned lover who wants to take out a dozen or more people with a spray of bullets

But if we had fewer guns, we would have fewer deaths, fewer mass murders and fewer crimes committed with firearms. That’s tragically clear from the available research.

We need to act on virtually every front on the local, state and federal levels to control the distribution and use of firearms. Here is what I would propose:

  • Increase the wait time for firearms purchases to a month and make the application process more rigorous.
  • Require gun owners to get a license with testing requirements at least as rigorous as those required to drive a car; include a psychological test as one the requirements.
  • Ban the sale and use of all automatic weapons and ammunition.
  • Make all states participate in a national gun registry and implement an active campaign to improve the information in that registry.
  • Ban private citizens carrying firearms on all college campuses and in all public buildings, modes of public transportation, arenas, movie theatres, other entertainment venues, restaurants, malls and retail outlets.
  • Ban carrying firearms by employees in their places of employment or their employer’s parking lots, unless as a requirement of the job.
  • Repeal all “stand your ground” laws.

Evoking the Second Amendment has always been a canard. The National Rifle Association and others opposed to gun control laws make two mistakes: 1) They wrongly infer that infringe means “can’t regulate”; 2) They misunderstand that the stipulated purpose of private ownership of firearms in the Constitution was to allow participation in a militia (volunteer army).

Despite what the gun lobby says, the gun control issue is not a matter of personal freedom, unless you propose that people should have absolute freedom to do whatever they like with no constraints regardless of the impact on others. No, gun control is a matter of safety and the social contract by which we all agree to follow certain rules for the good of all of us.

As it turns out, only about one third of American households own guns, down from more than 50% in 1978. Almost 90% of all Americans and three-quarters of NRA member support stiffer gun control laws. Thus, less than one third of the country is bullying the rest of us to accept guns and the death and destruction they bring.

It’s time for the voters in the two-thirds of all households without guns to let their elected officials and the candidates know that if they want the vote, they better support implementing tough gun control laws.

Pope is right to hate cap-and-trade, which is akin to the Church selling indulgences

Yale economist William Nordhaus writes as if he wants to address human-induced global warming—euphemistically called “climate change” even by the most ardent environmentalists—but I think he loves what he calls “the market” more than he does the environment.

You can see him grasping for straws to balance his love or humankind and other living things and his greater love for the “market” in his recent New York Review of Books critique of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment and capitalism. While he applauds the Pope’s concern for the environment, he essentially condemns the Pope for specifically rejecting the use of carbon credits. To do so, he has to take a leap of faith similar to the one taken by Pascal and Kierkegaard. But instead of leaping towards a silent, hidden god, Nordhaus leaps towards the infallibility of “markets.”

Nordhaus does a good job of describing how the carbon credit system, also called cap-and-trade, operates, so I’ll repeat his brief explanation: Cap-and-trade begins with actions by which a country, through its government, caps or limits its carbon dioxide emissions. The country then auctions or issues a limited number of ‘emissions permits.’ These convey the right to emit a given quantity of emissions. Firms that own the permits can use them or sell them on carbon markets, while firms who need them can purchase permits. The advantage of establishing a market in permits is that it ensures that emissions are used in the most productive manner.”

The Pope rightly asserts that the trading of carbon credits can lead to speculation and enables countries and industrial sectors to buy the right to pump excessive pollution into the environment. The Pope doesn’t mention another problem with trading carbon credits: it give these dirty industrial companies and utilities absolutely no incentive to clean up their acts.

It makes sense that the Pope condemns markets. Markets by their nature are brutal, because they reduce everything to money, and not to the well-being of a community and its members. The market assumes that all market players are individuals, responsible for their own selves. Market theory further assumes that the mostly unguided action of all these individual players will lead to the greatest good for all. This basic premise strikes me to be as much based on faith as is the idea that a half god-half man born of a virgin died for our sins and came back to life three days later. I have a feeling that Pope Francis would rate the absurdity of the invisible hand much lower.

I’m uncertain why Nordhaus has so much faith in markets, when it is the market economy that has helped to create the environmental mess in which we find ourselves in several ways: 1) The market hides the social cost of pollution by reducing the value and cost of producing goods and services to dollars and cents; 2) The market mentality has contributed to the rampant consumerism that has infected all western-style economies, thereby driving the rapid rise of greenhouse gases, resource shortages and other environmental challenges.

Like all those who believe in the religion of free markets, Nordhaus has to construct an overly complicated argument for why the current market does not work to benefit the environment. Basically, he (and others) say that environmental degradation results from “distorted market signals” that put too low a price on environmental effects. The good professor uses as his examples the water shortage in California and people dying before their time because of small sulfur particles in the air. In both cases, he blames underpricing—if people paid more for water or air pollution, they would use less. That argument ignores the fact that the wealthy won’t care what they pay, which will engender an inequality in resource access similar to the gapping inequality in wealth that currently exists throughout the planet. It also ignores the fact that water and some of the products made in processes that emit sulfur particles are necessities for human life.

Nordhaus is talking in convoluted euphemisms. What he means to say is that the market isn’t working because it’s leading to the carbon-loading of the atmosphere and oceans.

And his solution for something that isn’t working? Create another thing just like it. A market for the right to pollute.

Wouldn’t it be much simpler just to set limits for each industry and make companies pay huge fines and shut facilities if they can’t meet the standards? Sure prices will go up, but I assert that instead of raising prices, corporations could absorb some of the costs to pay for pollution controls, more fuel-efficient processes and alternative energy. All they have to do is shrink the profit before paying executive salaries, bonuses and benefits. In other words, executives could choose to pay themselves and shareholders less.  That certainly won’t happen with cap-and-trade.

The essence of cap-and-trade is a dirty company paying a clean company so that it can keep polluting. The immorality of this market solution will leap into focus when you think about rich folk paying people to serve in the military in their place during the Civil War. What about someone who paid the Catholic Church money to receive absolution for sins or a church office for a ne’er-do-well nephew in the 15th and 16th centuries?  These situations rightly offend us. Cap-and-trade is the very same thing. Nordhaus’ argument that cap-and-trade enables society to use its carbon emissions most productively would apply to the wealthy draft dodger or church manipulator. Why get the wealthy banker’s son shot up when he could be making lots of money that he will use to build an art collection to donate to a museum for a tax write-off?

In both the analogies I gave, an informal market was created: Buying and selling humans for slaughter. Buying and selling church favors. Buying and selling the pollutants that are rapidly degrading our planet. Do you see a difference?  I don’t, nor does Pope Francis. Only a true believer in markets blinded by the invisible hand would.