Obama shows what unifies U.S. foreign policy since Truman: be a military power first and foremost

During the 2008 elections, when many people, including myself, heard Obama’s view on foreign policy, we focused on his vow to end the war in Iraq and dismantle the Guantanamo prisoner camp, a symbol of our inhumanity to other humans. We did not hear him speak of going to war in Afghanistan, or if we heard it, we thought it would be a quick surgical strike against a few terrorists.

We remembered his courageous stand against the Iraqi war in 2003 and that memory was reinforced when he won the Nobel Prize, a move that I’m guessing the prize committee is now regretting. I’m sure regretting that I supported that decision, though I did point out at the time that he won the award for not being George Bush the Younger.

So now when I contemplate my disappointment with President Obama for his latest militarism, I have to remind myself that he never said he was against war. I just assumed it.

I’m of course referring to the announcement that the United States is basing 2,500 Marines in Australia. Every news story about yesterday’s announcement mentioned that it was a message to China.

Barack Obama follows the same foreign policy that emerged among the American elite after World War II: to dominate the world by being the biggest and baddest bully on the block with the newest and most expensive toys. Even during the relatively peaceful Clinton years when we reduced military spending and enjoyed the prosperity that ensued, we projected military force from time to time.

In the context of this tradition of war as the primary tool of foreign policy, Obama is doing a great job, especially recently. Besides pursuing the Afghanistan war, here are some of the violent acts our president has ordered these past few months, some of which are against international and U.S. law:

  • The legal capture of the country’s most important enemy, but then he marred this victory through allowing, condoning or ordering the illegal assassination of the fiend.
  • The use of drone fighter planes to kill people in eight countries with whose government we have no official dispute without the permission of the official permission of the governments of those countries.
  • The illegal assassination of a U.S. citizen instead of capturing and bringing him back home for a trial.
  • Military support to the winning side of the Libyan overthrow of Qaddafi, an act that even a pacifist such as I am has trouble criticizing.

These acts of violence are all small flourishes, so in this sense, Obama continues in the less virulent Clintonian strain of militarism. There just seem to be so many of them.

It would take a less clever set of leaders than the current crew running China to be taken in by such a meager move as posting 2,500 marines in a country whose capital is 5,604 miles from theirs. I think they realize that this kind of small move characterizes a bluffer more than a bully, but neither matters: bluffers fold and bullies back down.

The Chinese are playing the economic game and the alternative energy game and kicking our asses in both. One of the reasons that the Chinese have money to spend developing solar energy and cornering the market on rare metals is that they have a small military budget. With more than triple our population, they spend a fifth of what we do on defense. We project our power by killing people or threatening to do so. The Chinese are projecting their power by making, buying and selling things better.

At the end of the day, I believe that the Chinese strategy has the advantage over ours in a global economy run by sophisticated technology and threatened by both resource overuse and resource shortages.

Congress prefers to help processed food industry than to help children improve their nutrition.

There was more in the news today than Republican candidates’ self-destruction by means of mouth opening and the idle speculation on what will happen to the Occupy movement now that local governments across the country have decided to clear the parks instead of waiting for the snow.

Buried in the back pages is the news that Congress has halted efforts of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches by refusing to fund the changes. 

The USDA had proposed to take a few small steps to make school lunches—and by implication the children who eat them—healthier: Limit the use of potatoes, halve the amount of sodium, provide more whole grains, raise the amount of tomato paste considered a serving of vegetables. This last proposal would have made it impossible to count the tomato paste on a slice or two of pizza as a vegetable.

The USDA plans were based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said they were necessary to reduce childhood obesity and future health care costs. 

There can be no doubt that childhood obesity and unhealthy eating are both a health and an economic problem. At last count, about 17% of children (and 34% of adults) are considered to be obese. Obesity has been linked to a large number of debilitating ailments, including heart disease, diabetes and (probably) some kinds of cancer.  The more people who have these diseases, the higher the cost of healthcare for everyone. Eating more fruits and vegetables helps to lower the amount of calories people consume, because they are full of fiber and water. Fruits and vegetables also contain nutrients like anti-oxidants that have been shown to help lower cholesterol and fight cancer.

Improving the nutrition of school lunches will help make healthier children in two ways: 1) They’ll eat more nutritious food; 2) They’ll see the lessons they learn about nutrition and health in their classes applied in the real world.

Why did Congress decide to ignore this grave heath challenge?

We all know the answer: The pressure of large companies. To quote the New York Times:Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals and require food that many children would throw away.” 

Saying that many children would throw away the lunches is just silly. Children have always thrown away or traded all or parts of their lunches. And children have always frowned at trying new foods or foods prepared in an unfamiliar way, then tried them and liked (or tolerated) them.

The cost argument is profoundly obnoxious. The USDA proposal would have added 14 cents to the average cost of each lunch meal. 14 lousy pennies. The total cost over 5 years for these improvements is $6.8 billion, which computes to about $9.28 in additional taxes per year per federal individual and corporate tax filer (although we have to keep in mind that the additional amount might be paid in state taxes, so it might be slightly less or more). If Congress decided to fund these improvements by raising taxes only for individuals and families making $200,000 per year or more, it would increase the taxes of these upper middle class and rich people by about $309 per year. Congress could also cut one quarter of one percent from the Defense Department budget to fund healthier school lunches. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, the cost increase proposed by the USDA was trivial. 

No, the major corporations that lobbied against the proposed new rules for school lunches do not care about either costs or waste. And they evidently don’t care about the future of our children. They care about one thing and one thing only: keeping the money rolling in.

That Congress should succumb to their pressure shows once again that our elected officials care more about the interests of a narrow group of corporations and wealthy individuals than about the rest of the country. And it truly is befuddling: It’s not as if the proposed changes would have taken money from food producers, merely shifted it from those producing some kinds of foods to those producing other kinds of food.

Congress is always making (and has always made) decisions that favor one industrial sector over another. Congress routinely prefers the interests of oil companies to those of companies involved in solar, wind and other alternative energy.  It routinely favors automobile manufacturers over mass transit equipment manufacturers. And over the past 30 years, its tax policies have consistently favored the wealthiest Americans over everyone else. In each case, different policies would have had a negligible effect on the economy, merely shifting money from the hands of corporations whose products, services and actions were having a pernicious effect on the country to those whose products, services and actions could help to make us healthier, address global warming, clean the environment or lead to the more equitable distribution of wealth we see in Japan, Canada and most of Europe.

One of history’s great puzzles: what did people ever see in Ronald Reagan and the politics of selfishness?

The United States suddenly changed directions in economic policy about 1980 and in doing so transformed itself from a country that had a fair distribution of wealth to one in which the lion’s share of wealth now goes to a very small number of people.

The sea change affected everything. Our basic ideology changed almost overnight from looking to government to solve problems to distrusting government, from liking government intervention in the economy to preferring a deregulated free market with no government regulation. The “new Frontier” credo of asking “not what your country can do for you” withered, replaced by the politics of selfishness, that absurd notion that if everyone seeks his or her own selfish good, the overall community will prosper.  Seeking the good of the self served as moral justification for lower taxes and the resultant hording of wealth by the ultra-wealthy.

Although historians, such as Judith Stein in Pivotal Decade, have detected the first inkling of the new way in the mid and late 70’s, the election of Ronald Reagan serves as the symbolic turning point, the watershed moment when America became a harsher, less generous, more selfish country.

What made Reagan and Reaganism so attractive? I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately, given the current political environment in which I see Reagan’s disciples preventing the United States from addressing our severe economic contraction. I’ve read a lot of books on the 70’s and the post-war era over the past few years. I also have my memories of living my 20’s during that decade, although as it turns out, because I did not have a driver’s license until 1979 and did not own a car until 1981, I missed the central traumas of the decade, the two energy crises.

Reagan’s economic nostrums had been around for decades, serving as the rightwing’s alternatives to Roosevelt’s New Deal. All the principles of Reaganism were kept alive by the John Birch Society and a few conservative think tanks during the liberal post-World War II era.  It’s amazing to think that the 50’s Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was to the left of today’s Democratic President Barack Obama on economic matters. What a dark time that was for the right.

Why then did the right’s darling Ronald Reagan suddenly seize power in 1980?

A 20th century nation is far too complex to make a sea change for one reason.  I have identified three distinct causes that can help to explain why Americans embraced Reagan and the politics of selfishness in 1980:

  1. As Michael J. Graetz details in The End of Energy, the need to address inflation and two energy crises turned all the U.S. presidents of the 1970’s into scolding nags. Jimmy Carter is famous for turning off the country by blaming its malaise on the people themselves, but Nixon and Ford, too, asked Americans to make sacrifices that they didn’t want to make. By contrast, Reagan was optimistically touting a “brand new day in America,” a rose-colored vision of infinite growth without limits or any inconvenience to anyone. I think after 10 years of being told about the limits of growth, people were ready for the smile and the easy answer.
  2. Corporate America was facing a large increase in the cost of fuel, and was now willing to listen to the anti-union and free trade proposals that the right had broadcast for years. The idea, which Judith Stein details in Pivotal Decade but never comes out and expresses explicitly, is that to offset the increase in energy costs corporations wanted to lower labor costs. Thus the attraction to Reagan’s assault on unions.
  3. Racism, pure and simple. The right had attacked government programs that redistributed wealth for years, including relentless ranting by rural state legislators against the granting of huge sums of moneys by state legislatures to make a public university education exceedingly inexpensive. But once significant numbers of African-Americans began to take advantage of these programs, the attacks gained traction among a larger populace, especially in the South and the suburbs. Suddenly large numbers of voters listened to Reagan’s blather that all government solutions are bad.

In other words, when presented with choices, people chose to be selfish. 

Rather than submit to changes in their wasteful life of consumption, consumers chose to believe Reagan’s lie that they could consume endlessly. And soon their vehicles became larger and their houses more over-laden with gadgets than ever before.

Rather than cut profits, the corporations decided to take back from the workers.  And soon those take-backs felt so good, the execs decided they wanted to keep taking more and more.

Rather than see people they despised or feared get a good education and other basic benefits, many preferred to see those benefits end.  And soon, an ungenerous spirit descended upon the land.

Wealth gap between young and old widens, but so does gap between richest and poorest in all age groups

Pew Research Center today released a study showing that the gap in wealth between households headed by those over 65 years of age and households headed by those under 35 has grown substantially since the beginning of the great recession. 

The older households now have 47 times more wealth than the younger households, double what the gap was in 2005 during the artificially good times produced by the real estate bubble.

For the most part, the news coverage laid the groundwork for a war between generations.  Take, for example the Associated Press story about the study—the version that most people will see.   

The first expert made a kind of declaration of generational war by saying: “It makes us wonder whether the extraordinary amount of resources we spend on retirees and their health care should be at least partially reallocated to those who are hurting worse than them,” said Harry Holzer, a labor economist and public policy professor at Georgetown University who called the magnitude of the wealth gap “striking.”

Striking, but not surprising, seeing that young people have had less time to save, we are in the midst of a recession that has shrunk entry-level jobs, young households tend to have expensive children and the young carry more debt than they used to carry, thanks to raging inflation in the cost of college.

More instructive than demonstrating what everyone with eyes can see—that our young people face a tough economic future—is the little reported finding in the Pew study that in all age groups, the rich have gotten richer and everyone else has lost ground. 

I’m sure most of our elected officials and the rich folk they represent would love for the public to think there’s a generational war. It’s a better sideshow than the proposed, and nonexistent, class war between public workers and others in the middle class because it involves more people. Both nonexistent wars keep our minds off the real class war: the one that the wealthy have been waging for 30 years against everyone else, the one that the Occupy Wall Streeters have now taken to the streets.  In this class war started 30 years ago by Ronald Reagan and his cronies, wealth has been transferred from the poor and middle class up the ladder to the wealthy through cutting government programs, shrinking unions, cutting taxes for the wealthy and outsourcing traditional government services to private for-profit companies.

The Pew study states that the young have had more of their government benefits stripped from them over the past 25 years than the elderly have. Yes, they should get those bennies back. College should be cheaper, and would be if states and the federal government supported education at the same level as they used to. All children should have access to quality healthcare.  There should be lower student-teacher ratios in classrooms.  Unemployment benefits should be extended, particularly now that more than 50% of all unemployed people have used up their benefits and receive nothing.

In short, we do need to spend more on our young people.

But not by cutting programs for the elderly because they’re not doing so well either.

The Pew study found that the net worth of the average household in which the head is more than 65 is $170,494. So including the value of their home, that’s all the average retired household has to live on, other than Social Security. Let’s say Mr. & Mrs. Average can invest all of it in a diversified portfolio  and they take out 4% a year, as financial planners typically recommend. That means that other than Social Security, they have another $6,820 they can live on every year. And you want to cut Social Security?

No, the answer is not to transfer wealth from old to young, but to transfer wealth from the ultra wealthy to everyone else. 

So to Professor Holzer and anyone else who proposes that we pit the young against the old in a battle for pie share, I respond that the pie is too small because the rich are not paying their fair share into the pot, and what we need to do is make the pot bigger by taxing the wealthy.

I’m not calling for a financial guillotine. Let’s just return to the spread of wealth that we had in 1979, before the class war started.

Why the idea that people can learn from their mistakes doesn’t apply to Cain’s sexual harassment

In his attempt to address the charges that he sexually harassed three women while he was president of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in 1996-1999, Herman Cain keeps trying to misdirect the media into side issues.

His first misdirection was to suggest that it was only because he was a Black conservative that these accusations were seeing the light of day, comparing himself to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose nomination was nearly scuttled because of accusations of sexual harassment some 20 years ago.  It didn’t seem to quell the outrage.

Cain’s second misdirection was to accuse the Perry campaign of disseminating the reports. This move made sense tactically, because Cain is fighting Perry (and Bachmann, Santorum, Paul and Newt) for the non-Mitt—AKA more conservative—position in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. It’s as if the Republicans are playing a game of high-low poker in which the high and low hands split the pot, in this case frontrunner status. Romney is going high and everyone else is going low. (Or more accurately, Mitt is going low and the others are going even lower!) Cain thus gains more by tearing down Perry than he does by tearing down Mitt. 

Blaming Perry worked in one way: most mainstream media gave more coverage to the Perry canard the day Cain made his statement than they did to the other big Cain sex news of that day—the discovery of a third woman claiming harassment. The effect lasted exactly one day, though, because the news of the third victim was just too big to contain.

So far, none of the politicians or pundits, nor Cain himself, has addressed the real issue: Do these incidents of sexual harassment disqualify Cain from the presidency? 

We don’t know the answer to that question because the facts of the incidents have not been revealed. We can, however, lay down some general guidelines for analyzing the incidents to see if they should disqualify the Pizza King.  Essentially, we have to ask ourselves three questions:

  1. What did he do? Did he make a few off-color or suggestive remarks, or did he constantly make such remarks, touch a woman inappropriately or make an explicit sexual proposition?
  2. What were the accepted social mores and laws of the time? What was considered standard behavior in the 50’s and 60’s would now be considered workplace harassment.  
  3. Did he learn from the experience? The initial assumption—three times and you’re out—might not apply if all three incidents came in one single week or month after which Cain was a perfect gentleman. In that case, the incidents could be considered as one lamentable but forgivable occurrence, that is, assuming that the incidents were all talk and no touch.

Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: Repeated and/or unrepentant sexual harassment of any kind should disqualify someone from the presidency for three reasons:

  • We want our president to treat all people equally, especially in the workplace.
  • Workplace sexual harassment is against the law.
  • Workplace sexual harassment also shows poor personal judgment and the kind of risk-taking that could be dangerous in a president.

But I want to illustrate how difficult it is to determine if Cain’s past harassment disqualifies him from presidential consideration by dredging up two embarrassing incidents from my own past:

As a 22-year-old, I taught a class in French literature at the University of Washington in which I often made off-color remarks or sexual innuendoes in class, but never directed at any of my female students. One day during my office hours, one of the women in the class talked to me about it. I’ll never forget her words because they hurt me like a series of slaps in the face—the pain, almost physical, was my own shame. Here’s what she said: “You are a great teacher. You treat women as equals and give us the same opportunities as men. I asked around and know that you have never hit on any of the female students. But your sexual remarks are bad—they make us feel uncomfortable, and they’re not appropriate.” My off-color remarks ended immediately. The year was 1973, and in retrospect, my student was brave and outspoken. My rhetorical question of course, is if this incident reflects on my current views and actions and therefore disqualifies me for president. Hell no, it’s like Obama admitting he smoked a little weed, except Barack did nothing to feel embarrassed about, whereas I did.

The second incident is a bit more subtle. It was the mid-80’s and I was working for a major public relations agency. A young female intern closed my office door one afternoon and started crying. One of the mid-level executives kept hitting on her and she felt very uncomfortable. She told me she had gone out with him once just to placate him, but that had only made it worse.  She wanted my help and my advice.  I told her that she didn’t have to put up with it and all she had to do was to harshly and directly tell him to stop asking her out and to leave her alone. 

She followed my advice and it worked, but I was wrong, wrong, wrong! I should have reported the incident to senior management and asked the company to begin an investigation of the matter, which eventually would have led to action against the harasser. The reason I didn’t act in the right, and legal, way was that I didn’t know what to do, and the reason I didn’t know what to do was because the company had not trained me. Nowadays all supervisors and managers receive training in how to identify and address harassment complaints in virtually all large and mid-sized companies, and many small businesses as well.

Of course, by 1996 when Cain joined the NRA, corporate America had made enormous strides in recognizing and addressing the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. As leader of a major corporation and then a trade association, Cain should have known what constitutes harassment, so it’s pretty hard to give him a pass, especially in light of the fact that there were three incidents. 

But let’s say the facts came out and it turned out that all Cain did was mouth a few awkward suggestions to the three women during a two-week period, before and after which he behaved impeccably. I would say that everyone makes mistakes, and this unfortunate incident (merging them into one) should not in and of itself disqualify Cain.

To convince me, however, I would have to see the complete reports and hear from at least two of the victims. I doubt that’s going to happen. Based on Cain’s cover-up attempts, it’s more likely that the reported harassment was serious and troubling. It’s likely that touching was involved or that the words crossed an unambiguous line, even for those times. It’s likely that the incidents occurred far enough apart to constitute three mistakes, not one. It’s likely that Cain did behave in a way that should remove him from presidential consideration. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he tell us what happened, admit he made a mistake and say he learned from the experience?

The answer to overpopulation is family planning and immigration to richer nations

One of the major themes of the news over the past week has been the public recognition that the population of humans is now hitting the 7 billion mark.  That’s a scary number, that has many worried, and with reason. Overpopulation is implicated in our environmental and our economic problems. Every one of us, from poorest to richest, has some carbon footprint and uses resources, leading to more global warming and greater resource shortages (which eventually leads to economic and often political tensions). 

There is more to addressing environmental and resource problems than reducing the population, to be sure.  Those in the wealthiest nations use more resources to create more pollution, while people in the developing nations are clamoring for a higher standard of living that will entail using more resources and creating more pollution.  We will therefore have to learn how to use fewer resources and those in the wealthiest society may have to lower their living standards; for example, by giving up second cars, using mass transit and car-pooling.  

But reducing the number of people in the world should nevertheless take a central place in any discussion of how to address global warming and resource shortages.

Most economists and politicians don’t like to think of a shrinking population, because growth in population is the easiest way to achieve growth in an economy, and both economists and politicians set economic growth as a primary goal.  What economists and politicians like about economic growth is that it’s an easy way to deal with the inherent inequalities of a free market economy.  As long as there’s growth, the unemployment and economic dislocation that ensues from money-saving technologies such as computerization and the Internet is hidden from view because growth creates new markets to soak up the newly unemployed. Growth, too, can conceal an active program to draw more of the wealth created by the economy to the wealthy.  For example, it is only since we have entered the greatest economic contraction since the Great Depression that the mainstream news media is talking about the growing inequality of wealth that has occurred over the past 30 years.  Before, economic growth hid the transfer of wealth upwards.  

When a population shrinks, it’s very hard to maintain economic growth.  But just because an economy shrinks does not mean that it cannot provide jobs and an adequate standard of living for the people which it comprises.  The belief that only a growing economy can thrive is just a myth, but one that’s accepted by the many economists in the pay of those benefiting most from growth.

In the past, famine, war and disease were the main ways that populations decreased, and if we do not act to stem the population rise, it’s almost certain that famine and perhaps war and disease as well will do the job for us.

I believe that the key to reducing the population without a great deal of suffering is eliminate the most wretched among us, the approximately 1.7 billion humans who  live in absolute poverty, which is roughly defined as living on the equivalent of $1.25 a day or less.  What if there were a painless way to totally wipe out this 24% of the population?  Wouldn’t getting rid of one quarter of the world’s population reduce our carbon footprint, even if it were the one quarter that uses the fewest resources?  And wouldn’t we also be removing a lot of human suffering by extinguishing the ultra poor?

Now I’m not suggesting a mass genocide against populations living in absolute poverty.  Rather I propose four simple policy steps to ease into population reduction. What I propose is to keep the populations of the richer economies at about their current size by migrating the poor into wealthier societies:

  1. Promote negative population growth in all countries by making birth control easily accessible and rewarding people for having one child.  For example, governments could agree to pay the complete costs for four years of college or career training of the first child of every citizen, while raising taxes on each child beyond one for any family. To those who say that this policy will negatively impact the poor since the wealthy will be able to afford the additional cost of having more children, I have two arguments: 1) we’re trying to avoid famine, war and disease, which usually kill more of the poor than of other groups; 2) whatever the rules of a society, the wealthy always have an edge.
  2. Create an open border for immigration from poor countries to rich countries.  If rich countries replace the hole in their economies created by a lower population with people from poorer economies, the world will gradually get wealthier. We can already see this process of replacing populations of wealthy nations with immigrants happening to a certain degree in Europe and the United States.  In both cases, unfortunately, local populations are resisting the newcomers, a short-sighted mistake that will make everyone suffer.  Instead, the industrialized nations should open their arms to immigrants.
  3. Develop a strong social safety net to alleviate the human suffering that population dislocations cause. At every step of the process of population decline, some people will be forced out of a job or profession, which is what always happens during all social change, for example, the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society at the end of the 19th century.  Those out of a job or career, be it temporarily or permanently, are in a sense sacrificing for the public good resulting from a declining population.  It only makes sense that they be compensated with generous and long-lasting unemployment benefits. Additionally, the new immigrants will need social services to get acclimated to the new society and economy.  Moreover, a strong social safety net will generally help minimize suffering during any social and economic transitions.
  4. Keep working on reducing everyone’s carbon footprint. That includes developing alternative forms of energy; making current industrial processes more energy efficient; spending more to clean up current industrial and electrical processes; and increasing use of mass transit, bicycles and other energy-efficient forms of transportation.

I see as the greatest impediment to pursuing this 4-step program, or one like it, is that every one of these steps leads to more of the two things that the rich who control our resources and government officials despise:

  • These steps almost by definition lead to a more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth, which means the rich will have less. 
  • These steps lead to more government interference in the marketplace, e.g., to encourage people to have one child only, to bring in immigrants or to make it easier for companies developing alternative energy.

It’s not a coincidence that in those countries in which there is a more equitable distribution of wealth such as China, France, Spain and Germany, the governments have put addressing global warming higher on the “to-do” list, while the United States with its growing inequality seems determined to act in the short-term best interests of major polluters and its car-crazed population.   The rich folk have a greater say in the United States than in Europe, and so far, they have cast all their votes in favor of continuing to pursue a growing economy fueled by irresponsible energy use and a rising population.  Hey, at least they’ll get to keep their low taxes and great profit-making opportunities—at least in the short term.

BP hollow advertisement for Gulf Coast beaches and seafood neglects what makes each Gulf state distinctive

While watching five minutes of one of the professional football games this past Sunday, I experienced a very bizarre TV commercial. 

On the surface, it had markings of a typical spot promoting tourism: people having fun doing things and eating. But right away, this commercial seemed different. The people in the ad joyously proclaimed that they were from four different states, all along the Gulf of Mexico: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.  They seemed to be engaged in a very friendly rivalry over which state was the better place for a vacation.

But something seemed out of place, something seemed strange: The Floridians weren’t talking about theme parks.  The Louisianans weren’t talking about either Cajun food or riverboats.  The Mississippians said nothing of casinos.  And the Alabamans breathed not a word about football.  No one was talking about what made their state distinctive.

Instead every image was of people doing one of two things:

  • Eating seafood, assumed to be locally caught.
  • Enjoying the beach and water activities.

This act of extreme homogenization of four very different states and the distillation of their similarities into two attributes seemed bizarre. It made me feel a little ill at ease because I kept wanting them to “show me the Mickey,” or at least a football play.  I would have settled for a shot of a jazz band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”   I just couldn’t believe that anyone would think they could sell people on traveling to any of these four states just for a sandy beach and fried shrimp.

But it all made sense at the end of the commercial when we learned on an almost empty still screen that BP Oil sponsored the spot.

In other words, running this spot is part of the reparations that BP is paying the Gulf states for the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill, which sent oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for three months.

It looks to me as if the committee that cobbled together the concept for this spot used the heavy-as-a-Mack-truck touch characteristic of BP’s interactions with the public during the three months in which nothing the experts tried could cap the leak.  Notice first, the avoidance of the problem, much as BP tried to avoid speaking about the leak: Nowhere in the commercial does anyone say that the Gulf of Mexico shore had a problem. Instead we get the squeamishly happy assertions by proud state supporters that their state is the best place to vacation, all exemplified by the images of succulent seafood and pristine shorelines that prove that the Gulf Shore is fine. Only those who remember the images of oil-covered birds and enormous slick floating ovals will get the connection.

Note, too, how narrowly the commercial addresses the unspoken public issue of the spill’s aftermath and nothing else.  That’s why there’s no room to mentioned Florida’s theme parks or Louisiana’s red beans and rice. Every image and statement focuses solely on how the public issue plays out for people who want to go on vacation: beach activities and seafood. A lawyer must have figured that one out. It was this kind of narrow response that made BP chair Tony Hayward look so uncaring and uninformed.

Finally, note that way the message—that Gulf waters and beaches are clean—is married to a product for sale, to wit, vacationing on Gulf beaches. Someone on the committee insisted that as long as BP was going to do “image advertising,” some industry should benefit. 

Of course, none of the states will benefit from an ad such as this one.  No one says, “Honey, let’s go to a Gulf beach this next vacation,” the way they may say, “Let’s go to Europe” or “Let’s go to Africa.” It will take many years and more money than BP will want to spend to establish the idea of the Gulf as a region to visit. And why would any of these states want to homogenize their image? Why would Louisiana want to tell people that it’s “just like Alabama?”  Meanwhile, all of these states already have their own clear image to tourists, which depends to a small degree only on seafood and beaches. 

The ineptness of the ad would astonish if BP did not already have a track record for awkward and rigidly controlled communications.  It seems as if BP has a tin ear to how the public reacts to anything other than the price of gasoline.

Congressional study shows rich have taken a large slice of the economic pie away from poor and middle class

Don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t know that a Congressional Budget Office study now confirms what so many other research studies have been telling us for years: that since 1979 there has been a redistribution of income and wealth up the economic ladder, with the poor and middle class getting less and the rich getting more.

Unlike  Rick Perry’s unveiling of his extremely regressive optional 20% flat income tax, which Google News reports was covered in 2,181 media outlets, the Congressional Budget Office Study, titled ”Trends in the Distribution of Household Income, 1979-2007,” Report has been covered by a mere 72 media outlets.

The main finding of the report is that the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s income over the last three decades. The report speaks eloquently of the growing inequitable distribution of wealth in the country, so let me just quote from it:  “…the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979: The share of income accruing to higher-income households increased, whereas the share accruing to other households declined. In fact, between 2005 and 2007, the after-tax income received by the 20 percent of the population with the highest income exceeded the after-tax income of the remaining 80 percent. In short, the richer you were in 1979, the more you have benefitted from 30 years of spending and tax cuts, and the poorer you were, the more you have fallen behind.”

The report blames the greater inequity of salaries and benefits in the private sector as the primary cause of growing income inequity. The weasel-like explanation provided in the executive summary manages to avoid all mention of either unions or union-busting.  The other big reason for the growing inequality in income (and wealth) mentioned by the report is tax and government spending policy. In short, the government taxes the wealthy less and gives fewer benefits to the poor and middle class than it used to do.

There have been many studies that have shown the growing inequality of wealth in the United States, but this one has a special stature because Congress’ own numbers-crunchers did it.

One of the 72 brave media to cover this report was The New York Times, which made it the lead story of its national news section.  For some reason, though, the Times thought this “smoking gun” of class warfare waged less important than another tedious survey showing growing distrust of the government, which managed to make the top left-hand side of the front page, a place reserved for the second most important news story of the day. 

Of course, the poll in question was sponsored in part by the Times itself.  

The Times/CBS poll shows that the public has less negative feelings towards our president than towards Congressional Republicans, which show that the voters get what’s going on. The poll also reports that about half of all Americans sympathize with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The Times handling of these two studies exemplify the basic approach of the mainstream news media in general to key economic and social issues in two ways. 

  1. Media hyping itself: The Times puts the trivial “survey-du-jour” that it co-sponsored in a featured position on the front page, while relegating a “competing” study to an inside section. The relative newsworthiness of the fifth or tenth study this month to tell us that we’re pissed at our elected officials is debatable, but the value to the Times brand of promoting a Times survey as newsworthy is unquestionable. Associated Press and others follows a similar strategy with the surveys that they sponsor.
  2. Preference of opinion over fact: The story that measures opinions is on the first page, whereas the story about facts is buried in the front section.  Time and time again, we can see the media preferring reporting opinions over reporting facts.  Opinions can be inflammatory. One of the basic principles of all drama is conflict, and when opinions collide, the news becomes dramatic. Giving an opinion also allows the media to float false or obnoxious ideas without having to back the ideas up with facts.  As an example, I think we can assume that more people know Michele Bachmann’s misinformed opinion about the vaccine that prevents cervical and other cancers than know about this important report. The report is based on facts and filled with statistics. Michele Bachmann just made it up, but it stirred a tempest in a teapot, and thus served as a distraction. If the news media and politicians didn’t have these sideshows, they might have to let people know that over a 30-year period Congress has passed a number of tax laws that benefitted the wealthy while hurting everyone else.

Banks turn away cash: another sign we should raise taxes and stimulate economy

Banks have too much cash and are taking actions to discourage savers from making more deposits. So reports The New York Times on its front page this morning.

Both big national banks and small community banks are concerned that they have too many deposits. Some banks are assessing fees on deposits. Others are dropping interest rates.

You’d think the banks would want the deposits, but the problem is that they have no place to invest the loot. The demand for loans is much lower than the demand for safe places to park some cash. The banks have to pay depositors interest even if they aren’t lending out the money, so when the banks take in too much money, their profits go down.

The fact that banks want to turn away cash proves two points:

  • We need to raise taxes on the wealthy
  • The federal government needs to stimulate the economy

The rightwing theory that lowering taxes puts money into the hands of job-creators just doesn’t work in the real world. When demand for goods and services is down, the rich folk (perhaps a more accurate term than the euphemistic “job-creators”) invest less in making goods and services and instead keep their money in their pockets—or in the bank. 

Now I’m not saying that all the deposits in excess of loan demand in banks come from the wealthy, but since the wealthy own most of our savings, a good chunk of bank deposits must be theirs. Instead of letting them continue to accumulate cash because of the lowest income tax rates on the wealthy in the history of the western industrialized world, let’s use that money to pay off our federal deficit and strengthen the healthcare and unemployment benefit safety net for those victimized by the long economic contraction that the world is undergoing.

The federal government could also stimulate the economy using funds raised from returning tax rates on the wealthy to the standards of the 1980’s. The private sector does not seem to be up to the task of creating jobs, despite what Republicans say. If we keep taxes low or lower them more, the owners and executives of corporations will just keep more money. If we lower their cost of doing business by continuing to gut environmental regulations, they will pocket that difference, as well. If we want to climb out of the deep economic hole we’re in, it will take government stimulus, including:

  • Redistributing income from the people who save it (rich) to those who spend it (poor).
  • Rebuilding our ailing public infrastructure.
  • Setting higher safety and environmental regulations, which will create new industries to meet the new needs of keeping people safer and trying to impede global warming.
  • Supporting growth industries such as alternative energy with loans, grants and purchases of finished products.

With the government stimulating demand, the banks will benefit from both fewer deposits and greater demand for business loans. 

It sounds like a win-win-win-lose, as follows: Win for banks, win for American economy, win for poor and middle classes; lose for the richest one percent, who have won the economic equivalent of the World Series 30 years in a row! 

A little secret: even after paying more in taxes, our wealthiest will still be rich or very well off.

Another bad idea from the lone star state: only serving prisoners two meals a day on weekends

It’s one bad idea after another coming from the state of Texas over the past few years:

First its governor said that Texas had the legal right to secede from the United States and might do it under certain conditions.

Then the state school board mandated inaccuracies be inserted into history texts for school children.

Along the way, various local municipalities have voted to build pleasure palaces of $30 million or more for their high school football teams, while the lone star state ranks 44th among the 50 states on spending per child on education.

And we can’t forget that Texas leads the states in the barbaric custom of executing prisoners. The other 35 states which have the death penalty have killed 789 men since 1976 (an average of 22.5 per state), whereas Texas all by its lonesome star self has killed 472.

The latest bad idea arising from Texas is not feeding its prisoners.  The New York Times reported this morning that since April, Texas has stopped serving lunch on weekends to about 23,000 prisoners in 36 state penitentiaries.  Prisoners in these prisons now have to go without lunch two days a week. 

The action is only part of efforts to save $2.8 million in food-related state prison expenses; these efforts also include ending the practice of letting prisoners about to undergo state assassination select their final meal. 

While some of the cost savings comes from not having to staff two meals a week, the article suggests the only way for this move to save money is if the prisoners get less food.  The article reports that prisoners with money have been purchasing food from the commissary, but low-income prisoners don’t have this option and are going hungry.

We start with the humanistic concept shared by most citizens: I believe that every living human being deserves to be free of hunger or food anxiety.  One goal of government policy should be to ensure that everyone has access to three squares a day, including the most wretched and disreputable of our lot.  We shouldn’t lavish prisoners, to be sure, but we should not exclude them from the human species by treating them inhumanely.

Moreover, consider the fact that there are more than 16,000 people incarcerated in Texas jails for drug possession—not selling, but simply for having drugs.  Now not all of these prisoners are among the 23,000 who have to fend for themselves two meals a week, but some and perhaps many are.  There is no question in my mind that two days per week of reduced calorie intake constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” for those unlucky souls caught holding a bag of pot or a toot of coke.

A standard analogy in public discussions of issues is to say that an action takes the first step in a slippery slope towards some universally recognized evil.  The slippery slope in the case of the move to reduce the calorie intake of Texas prisoners leads to the Nazi concentration camp and ghetto food regime that measured exactly the amount of calories to keep people from starving to death immediately; about 250 calories per day in the case of the Warsaw ghetto.

That $2.8 million in savings that Texas hopes to achieve by cutting a food budget that was certainly already skimpy is only two-thousandths of one percent of the proposed Texas state budget, and a little less than one-hundredth of a one percent of the proposed cuts to last year’s state budget.  This $2.8 million is approximately 11 cents a year for every resident of Texas, and remember that skipping the meals is only part of the cost-savings.  If I lived in Texas I would willingly give 11 pennies a year to make sure that my state was treating prisoners in a humane fashion.