Journey into designer mac & cheese and vending machine food, and get an upset stomach just reading the menu.

I’m going to do in my blog life exactly what I do in real life: ignore (St.) Valentine’s Day, a minor Christian holiday with pagan roots that has developed into an annual ritual in which human beings buy unneeded luxuries to publicly profess a formal and commercialized version of love.  No holiday represents the commercialization of emotion quite like Valentine’s Day, especially for those who exchange hard-earned cash for pieces of stone set in various metal configurations for display on visible parts of the body of the beloved.  Oops, I guess I did say a little something about this commemoration of false and second-hand sentiment.

Let’s turn instead to the culinary nightmare I endured on an overnight to Boston last Friday to read poetry as part of the monthly Chapter & Verse reading series.  Don’t get me wrong—the food I actually ate was delicious, as it usually is when I make one of my frequent trips to Boston. But the food I read about and encountered in my hotel—that was an incredible array of bad nutrition and bad taste.

It started in the little monthly “What’s happening in City X” publication of ads and ad-like stories that you can usually find in most hotels in major cities.  One of the food stories was a comparison of tricked-out versions of macaroni and cheese that you can get at mid-range and upscale Boston restaurants.  First we start with the reference point, which was not the well of nostalgia that comes from thinking about from-scratch macaroni and Velveeta or mild-and-orange cheddar that I loved when my mother served it as a kid.  No, as the headline of the article proclaims, “Not Your Average Kraft,” the reference point was a boxed food product that, like all processed food (including my now-despised Velveeta), is laden with chemicals, extenders and salt. 

All of the mac & cheeses in the article were over-the-top concoctions loaded with calories and probably salt that combined two or more flavors that tended to blur—at least in my imagination, which is pretty good when it comes to food—into a mélange of salty and sweet.  Mixing ingredients in interesting combinations is the essence of interesting cuisine, but these recipes all suffered from too much of everything.  Some examples:

  • Small bits of fried chicken embedded in a Velveeta-style cheese sauce covering the macaroni.  I’m guessing that every one of these bites of chicken is completely covered with deep fried batter.
  • In a three-cheese sauce (meaning there are probably also extenders) in which swim chunks of ham and roasted jalapeño, all poured over shells.
  • A Gouda Mornay sauce (that means a cream sauce, which likely also means lots of extenders and substitutes) with crispy Italian bacon fondling elbow macaroni.
  • Macaroni coated with a béchamel sauce (again, more cream and cream substitutes) enhanced with two types of cheeses and truffle oil (in case you don’t have enough fat) and topped with crushed Ritz crackers, sea salt and thyme.

You can spot the common theme in all these (and the unmentioned) recipes of this article in virtually every fast-food and upscale chain restaurant ad you see on TV these days.  The key word is excess:

  • Excess in flavors that meld into a wash of salty sweet
  • Excess of the fried
  • Excess of calories
  • Excess of salt

I guess that’s why they call them food products.

The message that sells all of these recipes is part of the hidden ideology of American consumerism:  remaining in or longing for childhood.  Every family has its own “comfort food,” but what Kraft and so many of its competitors have done since about 1960 is to connect the nostalgia to processed mac & cheese to create another reason to buy the product.  It’s not just convenient and cheap, it also gives your children a childhood memory similar to your own…and helps you to remember your own.  To a large degree, then, the very feeling of comfort that you are supposed to get from mac & cheese has 1) been instilled in many by the great American dream machine, as opposed to being the natural outcome of childhood experience; and 2) serves as yet another way to puerilized adults, that is, keep them thinking, acting, buying (and voting) as children.  It’s this third-party perversion of nostalgia that these restaurants play upon in offering their upscale versions of this “American classic.” 

Now to the other part of my culinary nightmare, and we don’t have to spend much time analyzing this one, since it is, as educated Romans used to say, res ipsa loquitar, a thing that proves itself.

Brace yourself, those OpEdge readers who try to eat nutritiously and keep their weight at a healthy level:   In one of the vending-machine-and-icemaker nooks in the hallway of the hotel was a Tombstone Deep Dish Pizza vending machine that dispensed already hot food products.  The offerings included no pizza, but did run the gamut from the fat-and-salt-laden to the fat-and-salt-laden:

  • Fries
  • Chicken bits (battered and fried)
  • Chicken strips (again, battered and fried)
  • Chicken taquitos (chicken bits in a wrap)

Your humble writer did not partake.

The Kids are All Right is a step forward, but maybe also a step backwards for gays.

I finally saw The Kids are All Right the other night, thanks to Netflix, and I thought it was a good, but not great movie: a nice evening’s entertainment for adults with a message to convey, but not necessarily a work of art. As usual, Annette Benning was wonderful—I have long thought her America’s best film actress. Including The Grifters, Mars Attacks, Guilty by Suspicion, American Beauty, Bugsy, Regarding Henry and Being Julia, among others, she is almost always only in good to great movies and she’s usually the most watchable person or thing on the screen.  That was also the case in The Kids are All Right.


The politics of the movie is muddled, conveying a wonderfully positive message in favor of gay rights on the surface, but relying on a hoary and smarmy myth about gay women as the major device to move the plot along.

First the good news: the portrayal of the family of the two major characters really advanced the cause of gay marriage and gay adoption (even though the children are not adopted).  The parents are middle-aged gay women with two teenaged children, one born to each by the same anonymous sperm donor (who turns out to be a California-dreamin’, happy-go-lucky, skirt-chasing guy who, against all personality traits he displays, runs a successful restaurant.)  The family is completely normal and sane, upper middle class.  The two solid (and straight) teens are doing a good but not perfect job of working out their problems.  The two gay women project self-awareness and an understanding and acceptance of the other’s foibles, none of which is horrific or pathological.  In other words, happy but challenged at times.

It’s not a perfect family, it’s a normal family, and it may mark the first time in the history of cinema that we have seen a normal family consisting of two lesbian parents. And it’s about time, because lots of these families exist.   Besides creating some people that the audience can care about—an important factor in any domestic drama (unless the writer goes the other route and tries to make us hate everyone)—the writer/director is making an important message, especially to those ignorant and benighted people who are still opposed to gay marriage and gay adoption.

But why did the film have to make the central plot device a heterosexual affair that one of the women has with the sperm donor?  Doesn’t the writer/director know that many men still believe that myth that lesbians are just women who have never found a man who can satisfy them sexually?  I have heard many, many misguided men repeat this garbage to me—in locker rooms and bars, at card games and sporting events, hanging out listening to loud rock music, on the couch watching the World Series or Final Four.  

I’m not saying that this plot twist is unrealistic.  A 2002 National Center for Health Statistics survey found that about 2.8% of all women say they are bisexual and it’s therefore possible for there to be a long-term marriage between a gay woman and a bisexual woman.  It’s also possible that a straight or gay man or woman could become curious about other options, for any number of reasons.

But why go there?   Why play into the myths of ignorant homophobes?  Couldn’t the plot have thickened just as easily if the woman had her affair with the girlfriend of the sperm donor?  Or if the sperm donor had an affair with the daughter’s best friend, whose character definitely demonstrated she would be susceptible?

My point is that by selecting the plot device of an affair between the happily-married-if-stressed gay woman and her sperm donor, the writer/director plays into a stupid myth.  The portrayal of the family is a major step forward.  The portrayal of the stupid myth is at least a medium step backwards.

Do the attitudes on TV drama reflect or create public opinion? Let’s compare a scene in Kojak and Law and Order.

While riding my exercise bicycle the other day, channel surfing brought me to Kojak, a police series starring Telly Savalas popular in the early 70s.  A very short scene employed a standard convention of police dramas, the lineup, and the dramatic moment focused on the reaction of a witness to the lineup process.  Coincidentally, one of the shows from which I had clicked away was a Law and Order episode circa 2002-2005, and it had the same scene with the same approach.

Being able to see these two scenes side by side reminded me of how much writers/artists/creators use details to express ideology in a piece of art, entertainment or propaganda (and much art and entertainment is propaganda, from Virgil’s Aeneid to “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”).

In the Kojak lineup scene, the foreign-accented witness says (and I may not have the words exactly right), “I can recognize the guy who did it and I’m ready to help get this killer off the streets,” with a kind of earnestness and enthusiasm whose subtext is, “I’m meeting my responsibility to my community.”

In the Law & Order lineup scene, the witness first expresses reluctance, makes a tentative ID of the one who turns out to be the killer and then backs down because he fears for his safety despite police assurances.

As it turns out, we see neither witness again and neither is crucial to the narrative.  Both flesh out the story with detail and attitude.  So in both, the handling is completely arbitrary. 

Now it’s only a detail, but doesn’t idealistically wanting to help the community sound like the 60’s and early 70’s?  And isn’t being so concerned about the self that one forgets or neglects community a basic premise of the current era?  I have often labeled our current epoch, “The Age of Reagan,” because Reagan was the earliest national leader to symbolize the turn from public concerns to selfish ones, from building up public assets such as schools and mass transit to privatization, from tax and economic policies that equalized wealth to those that lead to a nation of rich and poor.

The question is, of course, do these scenes promote ideas about our role in society or do they merely reflect the actual situation? 

One of my basic theories of communications is that it is in the arbitrary detail that ideology is revealed.  While all art, even of the abstract variety, reflects reality to some degree (as Aristotle, Stendhal and others have noted throughout the ages), art never conveys every detail of a reality, not even those tedious Warhol movies of mundane activity like sleeping or the “Sekundestyl” German prose writers of the late 19th century who tried to capture every detail of a second.  Artists consciously select the details they will use and those they will not; or to close this paragraph of critical allusions, “what to leave in, what to leave out,” as Bob Seger puts it in his rock anthem, “Against the Wind.”

My point is that while the character traits of a minor character may reflect our current attitudes towards civic duties, they also help to create and promote those values.  Since the action of the narrative did not pivot on witnesses not coming forward, the writer and director had the option of giving any number of salient traits to a minor character, whose only purpose in the narrative is to provide a moment of “local color” to the proceedings.  They could have created a character with some interesting twitch or used the character to reference current events.  They could have created a character that did not understand the lineup procedure.  They could have, as Kojak used to do, use the opportunity to gently and lovingly make fun of a New York type.  They could have even created two characters—one who was too frightened to make an ID and one who recognized that we all must stand up to criminals and bullies.  Or the characters could be a husband and wife who argue like cats and dogs.  All of these would have deepened the narrative and provided audiences with entertainment, while maintaining the serious dramatic tone.

What the Law and Order writer and director chose, however, was to make the character self-centered and frightened enough by the world to forget his social responsibility.  In doing so, they gratuitously presented a model for irresponsibly selfish behavior. 

OpEdge gives out the first (and maybe last) annual Ketchup Awards for misapplication of labels.

Words or phrases often acquire values that most people or a specific group of people find attractive or dislike.  When the word or phrase is associated with a number of sharply distinguishing values it enters the lexicon of labels and brands.  One of the tricks of propaganda and marketing is to label an idea, product or service with a word or phrase, which, by implication, imbues the product or service with the values associated with it. 

The result of this process can lead to some of the most devious statements ever perpetrated on the public, as when Ronald Reagan’s Department of Agriculture tried to get ketchup relabeled as a vegetable for the purpose of the federal school lunch program.  By making ketchup a “vegetable,” the hard-hearted Reaganites thought they could cut the school lunch program.  On a “values” level, it meant the transformation of ketchup from something you could easily avoid if you wanted to lose a few pounds to something considered important for all diets.

It is in the spirit of Reagan’s ketchup gambit—or against that spirit, perhaps I should say—that OpEdge announced the creation of the Ketchup Awards earlier in the year.  The Ketchup Awards honor the most egregiously deceptive bending of language, and in particular in the application of labels. 

You know, like the restaurant that says the fish is local because it buys from a local distributor of fish caught thousands of miles away.

Or the prominent priest who compared the bad press the Catholic Church has suffered because of its abuse of children to what Jews have suffered through the centuries from anti-Semites.

I asked for nominations three times, but only received one, from a gentleman named Paul Anater.  I added Paul’s to the 11 mislabelings I nominated and then selected five finalists.  Because I didn’t get many responses, I may not continue to give the award, although I will continue to collect examples of deception by mislabeling and share them with OpEdge readers.

Here then are the Five 2010 Ketchup Award Winners, in reverse order to build the suspense…

Fifth Place: Quality Withdrawal

The Girl Scouts issued a quality withdrawal in February when batches of the Lemon Chalet Crème cookies its girls were selling started tasting funny because the oils in them were decomposing rapidly.  Trying to pretend that it was related to a quality initiative and not a full-fledged recall of low-quality cookies stank worse than the cookies themselves because deviousness in communications is not a good role model for young girls.

Fourth Place: Class Warfare

We’re not talking about the 30-year class war that has led to a redistribution of wealth up the ladder from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy by means of low taxation, union-busting and privatization.  No we’re talking about the use of class warfare by two mainstream print columnists last August, Los Angeles Times Tony Petruno and New York Times’ Ron Lieber, to describe the new battle between those who have great public pensions which our politicians forgot to fund and the rest of us with lousy pensions because we’ve worked in the private sector. These reporters want to divide and conquer two parts of the same social class that should work together (and in the Western Europe of lifetime medical, unemployment and other benefits they do work together). 

Third Place: The Jamestown Socialists

Dick Armey always starts with the premise that anything bad in society must result from socialism and that the fount of all good is free-market capitalism.  No wonder then that in March this Armey of one Dick called the early example of industrial capitalism we know as Jamestown an example of socialism.  It failed, and therefore it must be socialistic, as were, we can presume, the 1962 Mets and the bridge that collapsed in the Minneapolis area a few years back.

Second Place: Vessels of Opportunity

In June, Paul Anater pointed out that BP’s program to employ Louisiana fishing and shrimp boats—put out of business at least on a temporary basis by BP’s reckless oil spill—was called Vessels of Opportunity.  The opportunity for these vessels was temporary work as oil skimmers.  We can suppose that BP executives sincerely believe that when a door closes—such as the destruction of your livelihood by an oil spill—a window really does open.

Grand Ketchup Award Prize Winner: The Self-Made Multi-Millionaire

It is the American tradition to admire the self-made millionaire and to look slightly askance at the achievements of someone born with a silver iPhone in his or her hand tricked out with every app and a packed address book.  And so when The Economist was doing one of its many encomiums to Mitt Romney, whose father was both a Governor and a multi-millionaire car-company CEO, the writers described Mitt as a self-made multi-millionaire, hoping that the self-made part would make the multi part admirable or more admirable.  Despite the fact that Mittman was born on third base, The Economist wants us to think he hit a triple.  We are ideologically programmed, almost from first grade, to admire the self-made person like Andrew Carnegie who started in poverty with no social connections and rose to riches and fame.  The Economist wants to extend that admiration to Mittman, but it’s a rank distortion, because even though Romney made hundreds of millions through the purchase and sales of corporate assets, he is in no way, shape or form “self-made.”

That’s it for the 2010 Ketchup Awards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media use census data to divide the country and keep its focus away from more important issues.

In yesterday’s OpEdge entry, I analyzed how the media covered the release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s recent voluminous report.  I found it strange that the New York Times decided to focus its coverage on the fact that the suburbs have seen a large increase in the percentage of foreign-born residents and not on the fact that virtually everywhere across the country, households have less income than they did five years ago.

I want to do what I call thought-process analysis, a kind of deductive reasoning that tries to construct a likely thought process that people may go through when reacting to something or given some information. What I want to analyze is how people react to reading, seeing or hearing a certain piece of news.

Let’s start with the emotional level. When you read, see or hear news, the emotional part of the reaction reduces down to a simple and immediate decision—is this good (for me) or bad (for me).  That’s the first emotion and everything else plays off of that, even if you change the emotion once you get more facts.

Now taking into account all the rhetoric that politicians and pundits have thrown around recently about immigration, the economy and the American dream, ask yourself this question:

Will most people view the fact that household income has shrunk almost everywhere in the U.S. as a good thing or a bad thing?

Virtually everyone will view it as a very bad thing that household income has shrunk (except perhaps for those few who realize that the shrinkage has resulted in more profit for owners and investors and like that fact).  The very idea that incomes are falling even as fewer people can find jobs is a rather severe indictment of our economic policies, which remain anchored in the idea that the unregulated free market solves all problems.  The various responses that people will propose to address this trend will tend to fall on either side of the left-right divide.   But in all cases, the focus will be on the “how,” because virtually everyone agrees that we have to change the “what.”

Let’s go through a similar analysis for the trend that the Times decided to feature and make into the key fact to remember about the report:    

Will most people view the fact that a greater percentage of suburban residents are immigrants almost everywhere in the U.S. as a good thing or a bad thing?

No need to go to the studies—we know the verdict is mixed.  Many of us just don’t care who our neighbors are as long as they cut the grass and keep the noise down.  Some embrace the idea of a more diverse society. But many will see the news as another sign that immigrants are taking over and ruining our country.  None of my thousand independently operating minds (joke) is in the anti-immigration campaign, and I consider the common arguments that immigrants take jobs that Americans could/would fill while depressing U.S. wages to be specious and proven false by real economic research.  To my way of thinking, direct analogues to the anti-immigration stand exist in both those who deny global warming and those who believe in Creationism.  Be that as it may, the collective reaction is different from the news that household income has shrunk in two ways:

  1. The country will be divided on how they react to the news about immigration.
  2. The issue is a matter of “is this good?” and not “what do we do?”  Put in another way, we are discussing a religious issue, not a scientific one.

We’re wading in a little deep now so hold on steady: “How” is what science and the scientific method is all about.  We know global warming exists, how do we slow it down and protect people from its harmful side effects?  No one likes to see incomes shrink, how do we get them growing again?

The discussion of immigration typically conjures deep-seated and irrational beliefs that societies have always held regarding the mysterious “other.”  Is immigration good or bad? To a great extent, it often depends on what you believe. Thus, the immigration story inherently revolves around “belief,” which, of course, means that we have entered the realm of religion. 

Issues of belief often create a kind of intellectual gridlock that prevents action by society.  We can see this syndrome most clearly in the global warming debate.  Because the news media keeps alive the debate “does it exist” (similar to “is immigration good?”), we never get around to discussing the scientific question of how to address it.

In the case of the immigration issue, the Times presents a story that has no inherent value-system attached to it—more foreign-born are living in suburbs—so the natural reaction is that people use the fact to support their own deep-held beliefs.  It helps them to dig in and creates intellectual gridlock.

There is a value-system inherent in the decline in incomes and everyone agrees about it—it’s bad.  So the impact of replacing the real news—people are making less money—with a less newsworthy item—more immigrants in the suburbs—is to divide the country more than it is already divided on an issue that is no doubt of less importance to everyone in the long run.  The dividing action leads to a kind of paralysis in the nation’s will that mirrors the gridlock that we see in Congress on a growing number of issues.

I’m old enough to remember where I was the night John Lennon died.

Thirty years ago on the evening of December 8, I was working as a fill-in writer for the award winning 10:00 pm news show on KTVU, the independent Oakland, California broadcast television station. 

(To give you a flavor of what it was like to be in TV news in the early 80’s: a month earlier, I had been the producer of NBC’s coverage in San Francisco of the Reagan-Carter election and six months later I was an on-air reporter for the first nationally broadcast business news show on TV.) 

I was sitting at my shared space typing away on the rewrite of an A.P. story when the blond kid who worked the assignment desk starts to shout and wave around some perforated paper he had just pulled from the wire machine.  I can’t remember his name but he was a beefy offensive lineman kind of young man, whose open and friendly facial characteristics suggested he would be embarrassed saying a curse word. Like everyone who worked for KTVU news at that time, he was idealistic, hardworking and dedicated to the news director.

So our beefy tow-headed nighttime assignment editor starts yelling, “John Lennon was murdered.”  And there is a strange mixture of terror and delight on his face, the terror telling everyone that John Lennon was one of his biggest heroes, but the delight expressing what all of us knew: that we were going to destroy the competition in the ratings that night because everyone else had an 11:00 show and ours started an hour earlier.

And we did destroy the competition.  I was part of a team of several writers and editors who used file footage and news morgues to put together a 10 or 15 minute news story and retrospective on Lennon.  The KTVU 10:00 pm news experienced one of the highest ratings it ever scored.  If I remember correctly, by 10:30 pm the local NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates had all begun to change their regular programming in some way to make room for the monumental news story.  Remember Lennon was assassinated at the very dawn of the expansion of television media by cable and satellite TV and long before the eruption of cable news on Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the Internet. 

Memory plays out in the mind in a series of facts and images, many faded, many distorted by one or two attributes that tend to dominate the remembering of the moment over time.  But sometimes a memory bursts inside the mind that is so crystal clear that it becomes an imitation of reality.  You think of the moment and you remember all of it and experience it again—the constant backbeat of the typewriters and TV monitors, the smell of coffee and cigarettes, the way all heads turned to the assignment editor’s sudden urgent shouting of the news, the way the overhead florescent lights glared off his solid yellow shirt with a fly-away collar, the fold of the paper in the large hand he was waving over his head.

But most of all I remember the two emotions that flickered across his face, seeming to dance together or battle for dominance.  Should I mourn this unspeakably horrible tragedy?  Or should I joyfully exult in my team’s impending victory? 

And that’s where I was the night John Lennon died.

If the federal debt is such an important problem, why are we extending temporary tax cuts to the wealthy?

Most of what we hear out of Washington, from Republicans especially but also from Democrats, is that the federal deficit has grown so much that if we don’t address it now, our economy will enter rapid and permanent decline.  And yet our elected officials are negotiating to extend temporary tax cuts, not just to the middle and working classes who at least would pump most of the money from an extended tax cut into the ailing economy, but for the wealthy, who judging from the past, will invest it in ways that do not create additional wealth, e.g., into hedge funds, the stock of existing companies and art created by deceased artists.  To get this new tax cut, Republicans and some Democrats are holding hostage an extension of unemployment benefits, a necessary expense in a moral nation that wants to keep large numbers of its citizens from losing their homes.

The biggest farce of all is the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which officially announced its plan to “lower the deficit” last Wednesday.  Funny, the commission calls its report, “The Moment of Truth,” when in fact it is full of distortions in its overall strategy and the rationale for its specific proposals, especially regarding our only financially strong program, Social Security.

Most commentators and politicians are giving the co-commishes a large “attaboy” or three for taking on the onerous task of addressing the deficit, but then wring their hands that Congress won’t pass the plan because of political gridlock and short-term thinking and isn’t that too bad. 

For example, in the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times, Matt Bai postulates that the report will go nowhere and then asks why Americans who long ago sacrificed to win wars don’t want to sacrifice to eradicate the deficit.  His answer: “What makes this case for sacrifice so much harder to embrace, perhaps, is that it goes to our national psyche, threatening our self-image as a land with limitless potential. While past generations have readily sacrificed for national greatness, debt reduction — at least in the gloomy way its advocates argue for it — feels like a call to sacrifice in the name of our national decline.”

Bai’s article explores this hypothesis with broad-stroke history and standard ideological assumptions about the free market and lifestyle expectations.  He proposes that the problem is merely that advocates of deficit cutting must repackage their proposals by focusing on the assumed positive outcomes.

But that dog won’t hunt, it won’t bark and it won’t even roll over to scratch its back against the carpet, because anyone who reads the plan will see its not-too-hidden agenda is not to address the deficit but rather to reduce taxes on the wealthy.

A brief look at the plan should be enough to convince most that the commission should change its name to “National Commission to Lower Taxes for the Wealthy.”  Throughout the document it calls for sacrifice, and yet it proposes to give a bonus to the wealthiest of Americans.  Why don’t rich folk have to tighten their rather large belts with everyone else?

In the latest Nation, Professor Leon Friedman of Hofstra Law School estimates that if the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform’s plan becomes law, the top income group will get a reduction of 12% off their taxes.  Friedman, by the way, proposes a one percent annual tax on the wealth of anyone with $5.0 million or more in assets, something they do in France.  That sounds like a reasonable way to reduce the deficit and invest in our infrastructure and economic future without hurting anyone, since $50,000 a year is not a lot of money if you have five million tucked away.

Voters reject Tea Party extremists but embrace mainstream media’s glorification of Republicans.

I am dismayed by the number of house seats that fell to Republicans in yesterday’s election, and a little surprised.  Although I study the impact of propaganda every day, it still befuddles me whenever I see people falling for a line of hooey, even if it is fed to them in large doses day after day, by the news media.

And make no mistake about it: the single largest factor contributing to Republicans recapturing the House of Representatives so emphatically is the mainstream news media, which for the past 18 months have told the story of national issues and the election campaign completely from the Republican point of view. 

Here are some specific actions that the mainstream news media took to help Republicans, all of them documented in the OpEdge entries over the past year and a half:

  • Reported on health care reform and other issues from the Republican point of view.  Let’s take healthcare reform as an example: the news media did not clearly explain what the legislation would do; reported false information about death panels and loss of benefits; highlighted side shows such as covering abortions; defined the terms of the debate in ways that would help the Republicans; and did not educate citizens on the degree of private sector involvement in current government healthcare programs.
  • Gave more coverage to right-wing rallies and widely reported the outlandish estimates for these affairs, while providing minimum coverage to rallies of progressives and Democrats. 
  • Focused coverage on right-wing anger, e.g., at healthcare reform, and not on left-wing anger, e.g., that reform did not go far enough.
  • Played into the short-term thinking that gave Republicans a free pass for 8 years of destructive policies, but blamed our economic woes on less than 2 years of Obama rule.
  • Covered only the Republican primaries in national news, virtually ignoring all Democratic races.  For some reason, national media could find not one Democratic primary race that had any national significance or unusual angle.
  • Gave much more extensive coverage to the Republican candidates during the election season, especially in human interest stories. 

What the news media couldn’t do is prettify the extremist statements of the most prominent Tea Party candidates.  I have identified 10 Tea partiers who received extensive coverage in national news media and strong backing from Sarah Palin. Their record: 3-7, with all the women going down to defeat.  For Republicans, though, it’s a little better, since one of the Tea Party’s “Big 10” lost to a Republican.

Here’s the tally:

Angle/Senator Nevada – LOSE

Fiorina/Senator California – LOSE

McMahon/Senator Connecticut – LOSE

Miller/Senator Alaska – LOSE to Republican Murkowski

O’Donnell/Senator Maryland – LOSE

Paladino/Governor New York – LOSE

Paul/Senator Kentucky – WIN

Rubio/Senator Florida – WIN

Toomey/Senator Pennsylvania – WIN

Whitman/Governor California – LOSE

The less extremist Republicans who did win are still to the right of where most voters stand on particular issues, such as specific clauses in healthcare reform, the need to provide continuing unemployment benefits and the role of government in repairing our frayed infrastructure.  But the Republicans did not win on issues; they won on a big-picture message: The Democrats made the recession worse than it could have been by expanding government interference in the economy.

For those who are blaming the Democrats for failure to make their basic messages—and there are many on both sides of the aisle making that claim—I respond: isn’t it the mainstream news media that rejected the Democrats’ basic messages?  Of course it is.  The messages that the recession would have been worse without government intervention and that we need more financial regulation were fine and accurate.  They would have resonated with voters if allowed to get through to them.  Instead, the news media preferred to present unmitigated anger and frustration, proposing in the commentary that these emotions were only bubbling up on the right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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