Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tween Queens

Some of us remember the age when kids should be seen but not heard, or maybe even not seen that much. Youth was to be lived freely, spending hours outside with friends, hiding in the kitchen or upstairs as parents had the parties and went out. Those bygone days are long gone, with kids increasingly dominating parents lives from the moment of inception. Parachute parents, soccer moms and the many other monikers used to describe middle-class and rich parents today all conjure images of overplanned youth, living vicariously through kids, play dates, harassment of teachers that borders on assault, educational videos and software and, of course, fashion that can start in infancy. Many have decried the way we have deified youth in popular culture and the press, but we seem to be further going along the path of acceptance that every year of our lives moves us away from the apogee of youth and naivete. Yet the deification of youth has certainly turned toward the absurd in recent years. From boy and girl bands to teenager fashion lines to megastars like Hannah Montana, we have entered a parallel universe where teens and even preteens are becoming the biggest market for popular culture. Of particular concern is recent trends in film, television and commercials to show youth as the ones with all the wisdom and savvy and doltish parents led along the path of enlightenment by said tween sages (think Definitely Maybe among so many). Now the tween market has decided to label some of these young girls as fashion icons, who in some cases are starting their own lines: What does this say about our culture? One obvious thing is the idea that innocence and youth are the apogee of existence, and that aging is the process of moving away from perfection. That is obviously an old trend, but it's interesting to consider how this aligns with the sexualization and aforementioned push to make these kids grow up to fast. Is youth preferable because of the lack of responsibility and marring effects of experience or simply because they are less cynical and their bodies don't sag yet? Another related trend is the anti-intellectualism so endemic to American culture. All you need to know about the world is available to kids of 11 or 12, even before they've experienced it (in the case of Definitely Maybe, love and romance). So what use is school or education? Third, is the idea that youth is sellable, like everything else in the universe. Kids are a huge market and the idea that one should enjoy that youth has been largely supplanted by two trends: marketers desire to sell them cool (which usually means acting older and more cynical then kids would otherwise be) and an education system that makes it clear their futures are riding on getting the appropriate grades and test scores to succeed economically as adults. I wonder if the loss of childhood bodes poorly for the future of democracy, as these kids are brought into the adult world so early they never have access to the idealism and creativity that often serve as the foundation of hope in a better world. If the kids are indoctrinated into the new world order before they even know who they are, is there any "them" that exists outside that social structure?

On a completely unrelated note, I think it might be time to retire the "What would * do?" trope. It was funny for a little while mocking the "what would Jesus do?" movement, but it really has just become a phrase that, like "thinking outside the box," actually demonstrates the lack of creativity of the one using it. RIP WW*D, I hope.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Oped Objectivity?

Michael Bloomberg has just announced that he is adding an opinion section to his financial news organization: This opinion section will apparently offer only "ideology-free, empirically-based editorial positions about the pressing issues of our time." And what do "ideology-free" editorials look like? Bloomberg news editor in chief Matt Winkler argues they are "based on a sensibility that attempts at least to understand what are all the facts that we're dealing with when we bring our wisdom to an issue ... to look at things as they are and then to come up with a solution to make them better. It's a realistic approach." A realistic approach is what editorials try to do in general, isn't it? And as Bloomberg himself has made clear by touting his educational achievements based on flawed statistics and simply making state tests easier (the national NAEP scores in New York City are actual flat over his tyrannical stewardship of the NYBOE), facts and empirical evidence can be skewed to say just about anything we want them to say.

The deeper problem with the idea of "ideology-free" opinions is there adherence to a positivistic perspective that continues to dominate American research and epistemology today. By pretending at an objectivity that is impossible, it gives the imprimatur or reality without much to back up that claim. Beyond the ability of numbers to be manipulated is the ideology invoked in a "realistic" or "pragmatic" approach to policy and reform. Both signify an underlying cynicism of the possibility of radical change and an unspoken adherence to the status quo. At most, pragmatic policy advocates call for slow, incremental change -- even when the situation is dire. And though Bloomberg is certainly not the classic conservative -- as he is liberal on social issues, has occasionally raised taxes on the rich and sees a much more active role for the government in legislating healthy behavior -- he is, at bottom, a capitalist who is supportive of Wall Street, anti-union, pro-trade and bases his governing style on a mixture of tyrannical fiat (or bullying individuals or groups to his will -- as with the police, fireman, teachers union and city council on term limits) and scientifically-based efficiency, that tends to eliminate the human element from the equation. 

Many point to Bloomberg as a model example of how to run a big city effectively, but that certainly depends on who you talk to. Rents continue to rise even as the non-Wall Street workforce of New York City suffers. He undertook an ambitious redevelopment plan for the city, with many of those plans left undone as the financial crisis hit. He has, in my estimation, worsened the education system in NYC (with some minor improvements to his credit) and created a general political climate that undermines the rather vibrant democracy that has always defined New York. And some of his bad decisions appear to relate to an immutable hubris that he is above political games and essentially right about everything (because he is rich enough not to be encumbered by special interests or ulterior motives). On the surface, there seems to be some merit in the ability of a billionaire politician to stay above the political fray and enticements of public office, but what is missing in this narrative is the biases that tend to come with being a billionaire to begin with.

Bloomberg believes he can run the government like a business, a now commonly held belief among most conservatives, and many centrists and liberals. But the problem with this line of reasoning is that private and public organizations have different aims, different strengths and weaknesses and different stakeholders. Where efficiency might be the main goal of private enterprise, other concerns influence decision-making in the public sphere -- for example positive and negative externalities and concerns about the common good. People and numbers are not the same thing and we can see on a global scale what the cost of business models of governance look like -- increased poverty, increased inequality, lack of accountability, major asymmetries in power and decision-making and environmental and health crises that seem without solution. "Objective" and "ideology-free" opinions sound wonderful on the surface, particularly in these partisan times, yet what is lost? A deeper structural analysis of problems and new, creative solutions. Moving beyond the what is to the what can and what should be. Any nod to utopian notions of a better, more just world. And too often the human element that should be at the center of any public policy decision.

Population Trends Favor GOP

The U.S. Census Bureau released findings today that show an expected shift away from Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest to warmer states including Florida, Texas and Arizona. The big winner is GOP stronghold Texas, which will gain 4 seats. Florida will add two and South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Nevada will each gain one. The losers include New Jersey (1), New York (2), Ohio (2) and Illinois, Mass., Michigan, Missouri and Iowa (1 each). Califronia broke even for the first time since 1920. The shift is amplified by the fact GOP governors reside over GOP state legislatures in six of the eight states that will draw new district lines for the 2012 election. So after a short-lived hope that we might be experiencing a political realignment away from the 30 years of conservative rule, it appears likely that they will solidify their hold on the House in the next election. As to the 2012 presidential campaign, the electoral college changes do not appear to be sufficient to affect Obama's chances of reelection, though things will most certainly change in the next two years.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fluoridation Conspiracy?

In the classic Stanley Kubrick spoof Dr. Stranglove, a mad general believes the Russians are contaminating our water to take over America. Fluoridation conspiracy theories have been around for decades, but what about a real threat to our water? One might remember the film Erin Brockavich, based on the true story of a woman that helped stop PG&E to pay more than $330 million to the families in Hinkley, California that had suffered through high cancer rates and other sicknesses. One would think after such a find, the EPA would test water to determine if Cromium-6 was present. But of course rationality has little to do with government regulation, particularly when big money and large corporations have a stake in the regulation. And so a just completed study by the non-profit Envionrmental Working Group found that 31 states have levels of the carcinagen that are dangerous to humans: Even drinking bottled water might not be safe as much of it is not properly filtered. Examples like this only amplify the need for the revaluation of values I mentioned in post below: a way to force corporations to measure their bottom line versus the social costs of their actions. On a more positive note, a week after the bill seemed dead, the Senate passed the first major food safety legislation since the Great Depression (arguably another victory for Obama):

DADT Finally Over ... Missile Treaty Might Die as Well

A piece of good news emerged today as Obama finally came through -- ending Don't Ask Don't Tell and hopefully putting a first nail in the coffin of the final form of acceptable discrimination in America. While Gay Marriage is still not legal in most of the country, this might be the start to ending the absurd anti-constitutional double standard when it comes to sexuality. Unfortunately, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConell appears to be ready to take out his anger at the decision by working to undermine the latest arms treaty with Russia: McConnel following the Republican penchant for going against perceived wisdom -- in this case that of the administration and nation's military leaders -- claims it could inhibit development of missile defense and that eight months was not enough time for adequate debate. This appears as disingenuous as arguments against global warming, but the truth has little to do with conservative orthodoxy these days.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What's at Stake?

As I contemplate the Republican victory in the election last month, it occurred to me what is at stake in a broader sense. I have often spoke of the environmental damage, of increased inequality, of growing poverty and of the possibility of America falling further behind its competitors to the East and West. In a broader sense, what is at stake is the moral and ethical foundation of our very society. Republican rule over the past 40 years has led to a profound revaluation of values that has placed the individual at the center of social and economic life. After the Great Depression, the government and community took center stage and led to a period of increased civic responsibility, government intervention, regulation and a sense that the common good trumped the interests of the power elites. This story, of course, simplifies history, but it was clear, as Kenneth Galbraith among many noted, that governments could work toward reflecting the interests of the common good.

Since LBJ's Great Society, there has been constant pressure to reign in the size of government, to undermine the Keynesian goal of full employment and to deregulate the economy. At it's heart, neoliberal ideology is founded on the principle that the common good is best met by allowing individuals to act in their own interest without the influence of the government. Citizenship was rearticulated in consumption-oriented framing and attacks on the Nation-State and Welfare State sought to undermine the role of the government in regulation, ameliorating the deleterious effects of the market economy and ensuring relatively fair allocation of the costs and benefits of society. Thus ensued a period of privatization, dismantling of the social safety net, a shift from a focus on unemployment to low inflation, an anti-union and anti-labor stance, a backlash against feminism and civic rights legislation and a major change in tax laws that has resulted in one of the greatest transfers of wealth toward the top in history.

The new common sense is premised on the efficiency of markets and the relative ineptitude of government. It harkens back to the invisible hand of Smith without any reference to economic theory since the 70s, which has highlighted the flaws in this argument -- from asymmetries in power and access to knowledge, to barriers to entry for new firms, to market power and imperfect pricing mechanisms. While economists have recognized the necessity for government regulation of markets, conservatives have pushed for just the opposite, and have largely succeeded in establishing a society where corporations are responsible to no one but their shareholders. Yet history has consistently shown that government intervention not only protects citizens from the excesses of corporations, but tends to lead to more economic stability and growth. Even today, with the new realities of global competition, countries like China, India, South Korea, Malaysia and Brazil have all benefited from strong government oversight and planning of economic development -- while others that either embraced or were forced to accept neoliberal models of development have seen increased poverty, lower or negative growth and a general decline in sovereignty and quality of life.

So when I think of what is at stake, I believe it is the future of the globe and quality of life of its inhabitants. Are we to establish international bodies that can temper the excesses of the market system? Are we to find ways to more equitably allocate the costs and benefits of society (through a return to progressive income taxation and a stronger, more just legal system)? Are we to find ways to align corporate and social interests? Can we create a new ideology that places social responsibility alongside individual interest? Can a renaissance of democracy undermine the power of corporations to largely control public discourse and policy? Our collective futures are at stake, and I only hope that citizens wake up to the direness of the current situation before it is too late.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Extra Extra . . . Don't Read All About It

A Bloomberg poll on the eve of the election found that two-thirds of likely voters believed that, under Obama and the Democrats, middle-class taxes had gone up, the economy had shrunk, the billions to bailout banks were forever lost, that illegal immigration had skyrocketed and that the healthcare bill would increase the deficit. The truth ... 1. Taxes are lower for 95% of U.S. Citizens, 2. The economy has been growing for five straight quarters (though minimally) 3. Most of the TARP money has been paid back 4. The number of illegal immigrants has fallen precipitously (by over 1,000,000) and 5. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the healthcare bill will actually LOWER the deficit.

So what is the problem? Is it merely an ignorant, apathetic citizenry that's not paying attention? Is it Obama and the Congress failing to get the message out on their successes? Is it a media that has abrogated its responsibility to report the truth to the public? Is it the unprecedented hundreds of millions spent on this election cycle by corporations and Wall Street to ensure their interests are protected? Or is it a combination of all of these? I believe the truth is the last. People appear to be bamboozled by a power structure that always has them looking in the wrong place for the answers. From the right wing demagogues on the radio and television waves to fear mongering attack ads to a mainstream media even more feckless than the Democratic party, the truth has become too inconvenient for the power structure to abide. And one of the worst education systems in the developed world, backed by a media culture that celebrates stupidity and anti-intellectualism with the aplomb of Jerry Lewis fans, has created a populace that can't seem to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

What can be done? There are certainly no short term solutions to this problem, but it certainly points to the need for alternative news sources that can reach the masses, for real improvements in the education system that go far beyond constant testing and a focus on basic skills, community organizations that help inform local citizens of the truth and charismatic leaders that hold steadfast to their ideals, rather than being swayed by cynical management of image and popular opinion. At it's heart, the real issue is one that Clinton once argued for (even as he is one of the primary architects of turning the Democratic party to the right on the issues that really mattered) -- to get people to think. We live in a world where knowledge is more readily available than at any time in history, but people must seek out information less tied to particular ideological positions and scavenge through the piles of bullshit to find the truths that would lead them away from a party interested only in supporting a status quo that hurts the average citizen more and more every day. At a deeper level, we need a revaluation of values that fundamentally questions the ethics that dominate decision-making in the U.S. and world today. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some good news . . .

A new poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows that Obama holds an early lead over all Republican contenders in his presumed bid for reelection in 2012: On a particularly positive note for those of us who are sanguine of a return to sanity, Obama would beat Palin 55 to 33 percent in a head-to-head match-up. Obama also holds a 7 point lead over Mitt Romney and a 20 point lead over a generic Republican candidate. One only hopes that Obama reads the papers and recognizes that he does not have to abandon his base to appease the Americans who just flipped the house.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Facts Are Stupid Things

Reagan once offered this line and beyond absurd adherence to Reaganomics and trickle down economics, this appears to be another legacy he has left to the party he helped build. Two stories today offer further proof of the Republican dislike of facts and arguments that don't fit their corporate-sponsored ideology. In the first, we learn that Fox News execs informed anchors that they should not mention global warming trends without immediately acknowledging the oil-company sponsored research that questions these claims ( This came after an anchor had the gall to note that this decade is set to be the warmest on record. We recently learned that Fox reporters were also told to use "government option" instead of "public option" when covering the healthcare reform debate last year, based on research that the former phrase was less popular with the masses (remember the tollling bell "death tax" strategy?). The second story regards the ongoing debates about the fiscal crisis: Apparently the four Republicans on the commission to determine the root causes of the crash have decided that government, not Wall Street, is solely to blame for the housing bubble that led to the fall of the house of Lehman and the global financial crisis we are still living through today. CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, or predatory lending practices, apparently had nothing to do with the problem; it's just the Community Reinvestment Act myth that the government forced lenders to give out crappy loans -- which they then sold in secondary markets where they were bundled together and sold again, with insurance from AIG to back these crappy derivatives up if they happened to fail, which seemed unlikely given the AAA ratings they received. And of course it wasn't AIGs faul that they then sold insurance on these instruments/derivatives not once but up to ten times, or that Lehman and Goldman were selling CDOs to customers while buying the insurance and betting against them at the same time. No it has to be the governments fault because in Republican la la land, government is good for, huh, absolutely nothing, say it again. That's true, except when they are using the government to offer corporate welfare, pay off their corrupt benefactors or to legislate morality. Facts are, I suppose, stupid things -- unless one wants to save the country from the bloating plutocracy that seem intent on destroying us all in their ceaseless pursuit of more money than they could ever spend in 10 lifetimes.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Will to Act

In an interesting article in the November 25, 2010 New York Review of Books "The Way Out of the Slump," Paul Krugman and Robin Wells review three recent books from leading economists. The point of the article is that many economists recognize what is necessary to fix the domestic and global economies (or at least return to the growth of a few years ago, as "fix" holds broader connotations), but seem to lack the will to actually advocate for those positions. Among the obvious necessities at present is another Keynesian fiscal stimulus package. While it might not be politically realistic at the moment, it's hard to believe that Americans will readily accept 10 percent unemployment in the medium to long run (particularly when 10% really means closer to 16-20%). We also need to regulate banking/investment firms that continue to take huge risks, undermine the public good to line their own pockets, pay out huge bonus packages to CEOs who are essentially criminal in their disregard for the ramification of their actions (both to the economy and their own companies) and find ways to make companies spend and invest again. As I mentioned a few days ago, American corporations just had their most profitable quarter ever, but they have not started hiring new employees or investing.

The lack of political will to act is backed by the lack of will of experts to advocate for the necessary steps to actually start the economy growing again. Instead, they continue to focus on the threat of inflation (when the real threat is deflation) and on austerity measures that will only make matters worse. The same can be said of the global economy, which needs fundamental change to address growing poverty and inequality in the developed and developing world. The bankruptcy of ideas in the world today needs to be address or I fear we stand on the precipice of major global economic disaster.

Who America Voted For and What We're Getting

So Republicans will soon take over the house and use that position to enact their policy agenda. After the tax cut deal with Obama, two troubling perils loom in the future. The first is that the temporary payroll tax reduction (from 6.2 to 4.2%), which reduces revenue to Social Security and will cost the government $120 billion, might become permanent:  The recent trend to make tax cuts temporary and then call any attempt to return rates to their former levels a "tax raise" has been very effective at continuously lowering the overall tax rates in the U.S., and undermining the progressive nature of taxation. So the dream of destroying Social Security now appears within reach.

The second peril relates to state budget shortfalls: It appears the GOP is planning to stop providing funds to states facing growing debt and deficit burdens. This could cause states to declare bankrupcy, and thus destroy the public employee unions.

In a broader sense, I must again ask what the long term goals of the party are? Without social security, an increasingly large percentage of our elderly would fall into poverty. With states in bankruptcy, the U.S. would fall further behind in the global markets many of them covet. If we continue to increase the gap between rich and poor, social unrest and poverty will only increase, making our streets less safe. If we continue to ignore the cost of environmental neglect, the planet could someday become uninhabitable. And if we don't regulate banks and investment firms, we continue to allow sociopathic personalities to hold inordinate sway over the economic and political worlds.  In the end, it appears the Republican party has become the apocalyptic party -- willing to destroy the country in pursuit of an agenda they don't themselves seem to really believe in.

So the bankruptcy of their ideas could ultimately bankrupt America, and in the process go a long way to make the position of the average citizen in the globe even worse.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Obama/Bush Tax Cuts Extended

One of the signature elements of Obama's campaign for change was to repeal the Bush tax cuts, which exacerbated a 30-year trend toward increased income inequality. However, along with a much less ambitious healthcare bill, concessions on the relief and recovery bill that received no Republican votes, escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the inability to pass substantive financial and banking reform, Obama has again relented -- showing that change was merely a strategy for election, not a call to arms for the administration once it reached office. 

There were early signs of commitment to the rhetoric, but the just passed election seems to have dissolved all of his resolve and we now find ourselves with yet another Democratic president largely capitulating to Republican ideology: Apparently, this is the latest installation in what has become one-way bipartisanship:, with Democrats folding to Republican demands even when they are in the majority while Republicans make few or no concessions under any circumstances. Maybe it should be renamed as biRepublicanism -- a nod to the Clinton years and continued Democratic fecklessness. Income inequality not only brings up questions of morality and justice, it leads to economic inefficiencies and undermines democracy. Essentially we have set up a system here and globally where economic growth and profits are largely allocated to those at the top as unemployment increases, poverty and quality of life worsen, wages remain stagnant or fall, people in developing countries suffer or die prematurely and policymakers simply reflect the interests of these elites. As Stiglitz and Krugman among many have so aptly argued, this inequality undermines the economy and creates havoc that could see even worse systemic collapse in the future. If you haven't already, I highly recommend the documentary Inside Job to give you further insight into the crash and what was behind it. In any case, let's break down the numbers on income inequality in America today (more to come in future postings):
  • Top 1 percent of income earners made 8% of total income in 1980 and 16% in 2004. The numbers are even higher today 
  • Top 20 percent control 80% of wealth. Here are the number in 2001. They are much worse today
    Top 01%  -  33.4% 
    Next 09%  - 38.1%
    Next 10%  - 12.9%
    Next 20%  - 11.3%
    Middle 20% - 3.9%
    Bottom 40% - .3%
  • Between 1972 and 2001, real wages grew overall, but were relatively flat for the average worker. Productivity and profits increased, so where did the money go?
-          Top 1% saw 87% gain ($402,306)
-          Top .1% 181% gain ($1.7 million)
-          Top .01% 497% gain ($6 million)
  • CEOs to average worker salary30x in 1970 to
    116x in 90s to
    over 300x today

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Absurdity of Conservative Discourse

Missouri state treasurer Sarah Steelman, announcing her intentions to run for the Senate in 2012, made the following comment,

""We need jobs - urgently. We need to balance the budget - urgently," she said. "We have to fight if we're going to save this country for our kids and grandkids. There is no time to wait."

On the surface, this reads like a sensible soundbite. But what is she really saying? Most respectable economists agree that to stimulate the economy, we probably need another stimulus package -- though most lose the will to actually advocate for what they believe. In other words, the government has to spend a chunk of money to stimulate consumption and business investment (particularly as corporations that just had their most profitable quarter ever still refuse to hire workers). So a stimulus costs money and undermines the ability to balance the budget. Further, they want to balance the budget but make the Bush tax cuts permanent, costing the government trillions of dollars in lost revenue and further exacerbating the growing inequality between rich and poor.

To put it more simply, statement one and two stand in stark contradiction to one another. If you want to do the first, the second becomes a longer term goal. If you want to do the second, you can do little to work toward the first. Yet this sort of tautology tends to work with the American people because they don't have a basic understanding of economics. They simultaneously want  the government to intervene and hate when it does. They want lower taxes and have somehow lost faith in the progressive tax system that actually works toward the very liberty they are so inured to. And they blame the government for not fixing problems without giving them the resources to actually intervene. Thus Republicans might continue to win office working against the interests of everyone except their corporate sponsors.