Archive for the ‘Bias’ Category

Root Cause – Ferguson Riots

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

The death in Ferguson of an unarmed teenager and subsequent unrest raise a couple of basic questions.

The first is obvious. There is no question that a police officer shot an unarmed citizen multiple times. The teenager died from his wounds. What happened in the moments leading up to gunshots being fired are still in dispute. We have a legal process that assumes that people are innocent until proven guilty. A grand jury has been empowered to determine whether or not the officer should face charges. Until that grand jury brings back a verdict, there is not much more useful to comment on the incident.

The other equally obvious question is why did the residents of Ferguson react as they did?

The sad reality is that police are killing people at the rate of about 400 a year for the past five years according to the FBI. These are “justified” homicides. There aren’t any FBI statistics on unjustified homicides where police offices are put on trial and found guilty of a homicide.

An independent report assembled from media, obits, and facebook pages provides a little more detail.

ferguson graphic 1

There are additional statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that also have bearing.

44% of the contact that an African American has with the police is for a traffic stop. But African Americans are three times as likely as white drivers and two times as likely as Hispanic drivers to be searched during a traffic stop. Statistics also show that this higher rate of searches doesn’t result in the discovery of any more drugs or guns than the any other traffic stop.

These same statistics (compiled by fivethirtyeight.com) show that African Americans are three times as likely to be threatened by force during their encounters with police and twice as likely to actually have force used against them. A majority of those who reported force being used against them felt it was excessive. But the interesting final statistic is that when you break down all of those people who feel that they were subject to force, African Americans were the least likely of all of the racial divisions to regard that force as excessive.

ferguson graphic 2

But this is happening in communities across the country. Ferguson is no different than any of the larger cities profiled in these statistics. Why is it that only Ferguson burst into flames?

Here are some more statistics from Politfact.

Ferguson is 67% African American. Four decades ago Ferguson was 99% white.

The Ferguson police department is 94% white. The police chief is white. The mayor is white and the local prosecuting attorney is white. The judges are white. The school board is mostly white.

Even this isn’t that unusual in communities that have experienced rapid demographic changes. It takes a while for the new majority to assert itself politically.

Ferguson is special in a way not obvious from all of these statistics.

They are a classic speed trap complete with a predatory court system. But as the demographic in Ferguson changed, so did the targets for traffic enforcement. Instead of targeting out of towners, Ferguson targets its own population of poor African Americans. Fines and court fees are the second largest source of Ferguson’s revenue. According to a white paper by Arch City Defenders, in 2013 Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants for unpaid fines in 12,018 cases. That is the equivalent of 3 warrants per Ferguson household.

How can that happen?

Because the court system is rigged to benefit those who can afford a lawyer and punish those who can’t. According to the report, “the bench routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then locks the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly late receiving an additional charge for failure to appear.”

NPR goes on to report that those who can’t afford to pay the thousands of dollars in fines and fees associated with a single violation, are put on payment plans by the courts with interest rates sometimes as high as 12%. Even though the Supreme Court has ruled that people can’t be jailed for failing to pay their bills, Ferguson regularly issues arrest warrants for those who miss payments. It also requires those on payment plans to appear in court monthly. This inevitably results in missed court dates which create additional fines and arrest warrants. When people get arrested, they lose their jobs, which makes it all that much more difficult for them to pay their fines.

A community group has been organizing arrest warrant amnesties for these non-violent offenders. Earlier this month 3000 people in Ferguson, 15% of the total population of Ferguson, lined up to participate in the program.

The result is a deeply polarized and isolated community. Because so many residents of Ferguson have open arrest warrants, they fear getting stopped, resent the police, and feel imprisoned in their own homes.

“It’s a risk to go to the store,” says Ahmed. “Outside of that community, it’s a risk to go to any educational institution, to get a job, to go for job interviews. Especially since most of the jobs are maybe 5 to 10 miles away. So some of them just don’t even try anymore.”

The African American population in Ferguson not only distrust the police, but also the courts. They feel the system is deliberately rigged against them, and statistics suggest that it is.

It’s against this backdrop that two teenage African American boys were stopped by a white Ferguson police officer for walking in the street. They all knew what was going to happen next. The officer was going to check to see if the boys had any warrants. He would arrest them if they did, and issue them a jaywalking ticket if they didn’t. That ticket would cost each of them money that they didn’t have. They were going to end up in jail either way. These kids just kept walking. It may have been foolish, as young men often are, but they likely felt that they didn’t have many other choices. They challenged the police officer’s authority because they regarded it as illegitimate. According to one account, they also asked if he was going to shoot them for jaywalking – an obvious reference to Ferguson’s “speed trap” justice system. The officer responded by backing up his vehicle and confronting these two boys. That confrontation resulted in one of them being shot to death.

That death caused an outpouring of frustration, violence, and crime from a community that felt that it had no other options. Unfortunately, it is what humans around the world do when they feel their governments give them no other options.

That’s the root cause.

We believe in Science

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

“We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth.” Elizabeth Warren

This was part of a longer list of progressive values that Elizabeth Warren listed in a July speech to Netroots Nation.

I agree with her list, but I thought it interesting to dig into why progressives believe in science. It might also be interesting to compare those beliefs with the implied opposing conservative view. Since this is just my opinion, I’ll change this perspective from “we” to “I”.

Why I believe in Science?

Science is inherently about the search for truth. While any human endeavor is vulnerable to bias, the scientific community celebrates revolutionary thought rather than suppressing it.

These claims are the result of the modern scientific method.

That method employs what we would now call crowd sourcing as a protection against bias.

Science, at least the hard sciences, depends on mathematics. Mathematics has no bias.

There are two types of scientists in the world – theoretical and experimental. Theoretical scientists rely on mathematics to create new models to explain or predict experimental results. Experimental scientists test these theories through experiments.

All scientists publish the results of their work in peer reviewed journals. The scientific community engages through these journals to verify the math, confirm experimental results, and comment on new theories.

If the math behind the theories survives review by independent groups, the theories gain credibility.

If the theories accurately predict experiment results, the theories gain credibility.

If the experimental results can be duplicated by independent groups, they gain credibility.

As theories gain support in the scientific community, more scientists engage in exploring the boundaries of those theories. As the experimental evidence accumulates and the boundaries of the theories emerge, those theories become accepted by a majority of the scientific community.

That’s where we are with climate science. The boundaries are still evolving, but the basic assumption that the current changes in climate that we are seeing are caused by human activity is accepted by 98% of those qualified to have an opinion.

I believe in science because I believe in the purity of mathematics and reliability of the peer-reviewed crowd sourced model.

Why do liberals believe in science?

The answer here is more nuanced.

The facts are that we are all fundamentally emotional decision makers. That’s what moral intuitionism is all about. The difference is that when it comes down to a choice, it is easier for liberals to alter their views in the face of contradicting facts than it is for conservatives.

We’ve also talked about how liberals and conservatives operate emotionally from two different sets of moral foundations. Liberals focus on fairness and care. Conservatives share those foundations but are also concerned about liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Science is inherently fair. Liberals view science as a tool to determine how to best address the problems of those who need care and protection.

That isn’t to say that liberals don’t also have their biases and areas where these emotional moral foundation-based decisions cause them to be science deniers. Vaccinations, though not exclusively a liberal issue, is a good example.
Finally, studies also show that liberals are fundamentally accepting of change while conservatives fear it. If science has any bias, it is toward change. Scientists are motivated toward answering the unanswered questions. That inevitably leads to upending accepted theories and replacing them with new ones.

Why are conservatives science deniers?

Conservatives weren’t always science deniers. The coalitions created by Nixon and Reagan, aligned conservatives with Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians ARE science deniers. The result has been the politicization of science because it calls into question beliefs that spring from a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Big Tobacco developed the political tools to cast doubt on mainstream science. It was the only way they could continue to sell a product that killed people. A long line of conservative political operatives have refined those tools to create wedge issues, build conservative coalitions, and attack liberalism.

Conclusion

Mathematics is one of the few things in our existence that is pure, absolute, and rational. That is not an indictment of emotion or belief. Science, because it is based on mathematics, simply stands in stark contrast to belief.

Those who attempt to base their lives on belief, for example, have no choice but to deny science. Science isn’t specifically attacking their beliefs. Science is simply creating theories to explain experimental evidence that is being discovered. Any damage that any particular belief suffers is generally unintended.

Here’s just a simple thought experiment to illustrate the point. If at some point in the future, science discovers that there WAS evidence of some “creative event” that could only be explained by intervention from a higher power, liberals would have no problem accepting that theory. Liberals would find themselves more closely aligned with conservative Christian beliefs on this particular topic. Atheists would then find themselves in the curious position of denying science in order to defend their position.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way and that’s the basic challenge of this age.

For liberals, science largely guides belief.

For conservatives, belief trumps science.

Immigration Hysteria

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Over the past two years, large numbers of unaccompanied mostly teenage boys from Central America entered the US illegally and immediately turned themselves over to authorities. The trip cost their families up to $10,000.

Why?

Poverty, violence, persecution, and exploitation in their native countries.

85% have family in the United States.

A 2008 Bush child sex-trafficking law requires a court hearing before non-border country children can be deported. The flood of non-border country children overwhelmed available judicial resources. HHS ran out of room to house children waiting for backlogged hearings. Immigration Control couldn’t legally deport them. So most of the children were placed with their relatives.

The good news is that the flow of children has slowed. Our government is successfully defeating the rumor in Central America that children receive amnesty.

Rumors aren’t as easily defeated here.

The Obama administration proposed a tardy but reasonable plan. Dramatically increase holding and processing capacity. Help Central American countries improve living conditions and political stability. Reform the 2008 child-trafficking law as part of a larger immigration reform package.

Republicans refused to fund any part of the plan.

Instead radical extremists whipped up xenophobic fears of child-terrorists to gain political advantage. The same Republicans who want to sue the President for lax law enforcement demand that he ignore the 2008 child-trafficking law. Texas governor Rick Perry sent 1000 National Guard troops to the border. Local officials complained. Since the troops can’t deport these kids without a hearing, they can only greet them, take them into custody, and scare away the tourists.

Those opposed to immigration reform will likely survive yet another election cycle by continuing to portray illegal immigration as an enforcement problem. Clearly these children are not criminals. They and their parents are risking their lives and savings for a better future.

It’s past time that we have a rational immigration policy that promotes our economic growth and regulates the flow of legal guest workers. We are a nation built on the promise of a better future for those willing to work hard, abide by our laws, pay taxes, shop in our stores, learn our language, and cherish our kids.

Immigration reform will happen when supporters punish the bigoted and fearful opponents of reform both in the pocket book and at the polls.

What Republicans view as an advantage in 2014 may set them up for another crushing defeat in 2016.

Magic Thinking and Personal Interest

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

We’ve talked about confirmation bias in the past and how we are all susceptible. Confirmation bias is when we accept those things that support our particular view of the world and reject those things which call that view into question. A version of this is Moral Intuition. That’s when we respond to a particular issue emotionally and then use our rational brain to create arguments supporting what we have already decided must be true because it aligns with our moral foundations.

These biases lead to Magic Thinking. That is when we invent or accept views completely unsupported by science or fact because this particular view is consistent with our world view.

Here’s an example of Magic Thinking.

God makes political choices
This is a simple one to work through. God, as described in the Bible, is all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfect. He created us in His image and likeness which means in His eyes we are perfect too. He supplies our every need. So why would this God involve Himself in politics at all? It is akin to praying that God influence the outcome of a sporting event. Why would He bother? It is our responsibility to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”. Then Paul goes on to say, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Events unfold to further God’s will, not to satisfy our own particular personal plan. That will is His desire for us to increase in grace and in our understanding of Him. So the unfolding of God’s plan is generally the path that does the most good and blesses everyone. There are no losers in God’s plan. Winning is strictly a human concept. It is Magic Thinking to expect a prayer for victory to be answered. A much more effective prayer is one that humbly seeks direction and alignment with the plan that is already in place for us.

Magic Thinking is dangerous for our democracy because it transforms important issues from facts to belief. Beliefs are highly emotional subjects. So any attempt to debate them is divisive. That’s because beliefs by their nature are personal. So when you question a belief, you are also calling into question the intelligence and honesty of the person holding that belief.

Some who seek to manipulate the public in order to advance their own agendas put a lot of effort into transforming political positions into beliefs.

Here are some other examples.

Climate Change
From a scientific perspective, there is wide agreement that the climate is changing and that the change is PRIMARILY caused by human activity. That doesn’t mean that all scientists agree on everything. There are certainly a small number of climate scientists who have dissenting views. It also doesn’t mean that the scientific models are perfect. They aren’t because our planet is a complex system. But those models continue to improve as climate scientists better understand how our planet is responding to the increased heat being retained by our atmosphere.

Magic Thinking claims that climate change is some sort of liberal conspiracy. The politics of personal interest is the best way to disprove that. Self interest in the scientific community is strongly biased toward disproving accepted theories. That’s how scientists make a name for themselves in their peer community. The scientific method REWARDS the person who is able to demonstrate that a popular theory is flawed. That reward is shared with those who can duplicate the experiments which support the new theory. In other words, a dissenting view supported by good research is always welcome in the scientific community.

There is also no proof that scientists who disagree with the generally accepted theories about climate change suffer financially. In fact, it is much the opposite. Those small number of dissenters from the majority view are richly rewarded for their positions by the powerful interests who oppose actions restricting the use of fossil fuels.

The politics of personal interest also provide a simple explanation for conservative opposition to any government actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The majority of the money financing conservative politicians who deny climate change comes from organizations linked to the Koch Brothers. Their wealth is based on fossil fuels. Their personal interests are opposed to any restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.

They have successfully deployed the same techniques originally developed by the Tobacco Industry to create doubt and confuse science and belief. If anything, it is testimony to the ethics of the scientific community that most climatologists have resisted the temptations of participating in the lucrative practice of junk science.

Free Markets
The Magic Thinking here is that free markets can regulate themselves. So any failure for free markets to operate successfully is attributed to too much government intervention rather than companies that have become too big to fail.

The reality is that while it is certainly possible for government to overreach, there is no evidence that free markets can effectively operate without regulation.

The politics of personal interest are a reliable measure of where this argument came from too. Who stands to benefit the most from a deregulation? Those entities that had been previously regulated, their management, and their stock holders. Who back the conservative politicians who promoted the agenda of deregulation? The same group.

One need look no further than China for examples of how industries behave in economies where there are no regulations. The environment is polluted. Workplaces kill workers. Products kill customers.

The Magic Thinking is on the part of individuals who have been convinced by these larger monied interests that deregulation benefits them. Just ask the people in Charleston, West Virginia where “business friendly” state regulations allowed a toxic chemical storage facility to be built upstream from their drinking water intake pipes. Magic Thinking in this case is the Libertarian view that the marketplace will punish bad corporate behavior. The facts are that at least in our version of capitalism, short term profits always trump long term unfunded liabilities (externalities).

What happens instead is that the offending company profits from their bad behavior. Those profits flow to company management and shareholders. When the externalities finally catch up with the company, the real costs of production are revealed. The cost of the damage done to either the environment, the workers, or the customers far outweighs the assets of the company. The company declares bankruptcy and taxpayers are often left holding the bill. Lawyers may make a little money attempting to recover some costs from those who profited, but most of those profits are long gone and will never be recovered.

Immigration
Just like climate change, this country is facing an undeniable demographic reality. Our population is aging. If we fail to embrace immigration, we will suffer the same bleak economic outlook that Japan has been struggling with the past decade. Combine that with the major demographic shifts in the electorate that were the foundation for Obama’s two Presidential victories and Republicans are facing a stark choice. Either embrace immigration reform or die as a relevant national party.

The Magic Thinking is that conservative Republicans can continue to be a force in the House because of gerrymandering and the lower voter turnouts during off year elections. As long as they can retain that majority, they don’t need the White House or the Senate. They can do this by suppressing the vote, preventing immigrants from becoming citizens, playing wedge politics with their base, and outspending the opposition.

The reality is that conservatives are simply going to run out angry white voters. When they do, it will be hell to pay for the tactics that they employed to hold onto the power that they had.

Abortion
The facts are the no one can say when life begins. We can recognize when something is living, but there is no agreement when something starts living.

The rest of the facts are that Roe V. Wade did not decide when life begins. It also had nothing to do with personhood. It was decided based on the rights of the mother. Her rights take precedence until the point in time that the fetus can survive independently. There is NOTHING that the current right to life movement can do to change that perspective short of a constitutional amendment.

Magic Thinking, however, suggests that the Justices make a bad decision. They simply didn’t have the facts that we have today. If we just get some different justices on the bench, the decision will get reversed. It’s not going to happen.

The politics of self interest call into immediate question why this issue continues to fester for decades after this decision was made. The people who benefit from this continued controversy are the advocacy groups (for both sides) and the politicians who are able to raise money by aligning themselves with one group or the other. It is not unlike divorce lawyers to make their money asserting the rights of their client, when they know full well that judges are loath to give one parent sole custody of the children, support an inequitable property split, limit child support, or these days provide alimony. If both parties in a divorce were told what the likely settlement would be, they would start to work out the details on their own rather than invest money in lawyers attempting to “win”. The same is true here. No one will win. It will instead be a trench war that will only stop when the next generation refuses to continue to fund special interest groups.

The Poor
Poverty is a complicated subject. The facts are that programs like Social Security and Medicaid have dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly. We already dug into the economic costs of poverty and the benefits to reducing it.

The Magic Thinking, however, is that poverty is the fault of the poor. They must have made a bad decision somewhere in their lives for them to end up in the position that they now find themselves. As a result, any attempt to help them escape poverty does nothing to resolve the more fundamental character weakness that got them in this condition to begin with.

Ayn Rand has written the “Bible” for this particular form of Magic Thinking. The challenge is that those who advocate this gospel of “personal responsibility” and “greed is good” are also dealing in belief rather than fact.

Conclusion
Magic Thinking masks the politics of personal interest. Those special interests are well versed in the tactics required to transform political points of view into beliefs. Once a political position becomes part of an individuals belief system, they are no longer open to a fact based discussion. Those who embrace these beliefs will only accept the facts that support their beliefs. They will reject the facts that call those beliefs into question. They will defend their positions using the stock arguments of Moral Intuitionism. Those include media bias, conspiracy theories, flawed polling, and junk science.

The result is an increasingly polarized electorate, gridlocked government, and crumbling economic and physical infrastructure. The only times that we are able to make any changes are during the first two years of any new administration when the majority party can actually pass parts of their agenda by imposing their will on the minority.

This is no way to run a country.

When Ideology Confronts Personal Reality

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Increasing Healthcare Costs

I was getting my hair cut the other day. The guy doing the work owns the salon. He was complaining that his bill for healthcare insurance almost doubled from last year. He purchases his insurance through a well-respected local insurance broker. He has conservative verging on libertarian political views, so his immediate reaction was to blame the Affordable Care Act in general and President Obama in particular.

He was also upset at what he felt was poor service form his broker. They met in November and the broker couldn’t provide any detailed information about what it would cost for him and his wife to renew their policy. The next thing he knew, he received a bill in the mail in late December that he had to pay immediately if he wanted to continue his coverage.

I asked him some questions about the nature of his previous coverage. From his description, the silver plans might work just fine for him. I asked if he had gone to healthcare.gov to check out other options. He was surprised that you could do that sort of comparison shopping without creating an account. I assured him that he could and that he could also probably cancel his existing plan if he found something better. We agreed to check back in a couple of weeks.

Just out of curiosity, I checked the site too. I found that the MOST expensive plan listed there from his current insurance company was $200 less a month than the bill that he received. I found silver plans from other companies could REDUCE what he paid LAST YEAR by as much as $300/month.

It will be interesting to see what he thinks about the Obamacare the next time I see him and who he feels is to blame now for the sticker shock he experienced in December.

Long Term Unemployment Insurance

As we’ve been discussing in previous posts, Republicans are opposed to extending long term unemployment benefits because they feel that those benefits reduce the incentive of the unemployed to find a job. They believe that those who are unemployed CHOSE to collect their benefits rather than look for another job. They argue that eliminating those benefits will be just the encouragement that the unemployed need to get back to work.

Republicans have been under a lot of pressure from Democrats who don’t share their beliefs and feel that cutting off benefits is both cruel and bad economic policy. Republicans said they would consider passing an extension if the Senate could find a way to pay for it. Senate Democrats did find a way to pay for it, but Republicans didn’t like it. So now I guess the Republicans are saying that they would consider passing an extension if the Democrats could find a way to pay for it that caused the Democrats some pain. The result is another impasse with more people every week finding themselves without any benefits. Not surprisingly, some of those people are Republicans.

Here are a couple of quotes.

The standoff infuriates people such as Lita Ness, who lost her job as a civilian contractor at Peterson Air Force Base in August 2012 and just received her final check from the unemployment office.

“I’m registered as a Republican, but if they continue to use this not extending our (aid) I’m probably changing to Democrat,” Ness, 58, said as she took a break from a computer training class at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. “People in our district who vote `No’ on this, I’m not going to support them.”

And

Others feel that after having contributed to society, they are now being abandoned by the government. “I paid my taxes. I’ve helped people my whole life,” said Barbara Greene, 59, who lost her job as a medical secretary in a hospital last year and expects her jobless benefits to end in March, “and now they’re just throwing me to the side.”

The spokesman for Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn who represents that district said, “It’s $6 billion, doesn’t do anything to create jobs. House Republicans remain focused on creating jobs and improving the economy.” It is easy for him to say this because he HAS a job. His constituents who are losing their benefits don’t share his belief that money spent on unemployment benefits is wasted on the unemployed.

The unemployed know this claim isn’t true. So do economists. The data that I quoted in an earlier post shows that unemployment insurance actually DOES create jobs. That’s because the benefits are spent immediately on goods and services. That spending flows into the hands of grocers, landlords, gas station owners, and other retailers. Every dollar of unemployment insurance generates $1.55 dollars of benefit to the local economy where that dollar is spent. No other private or government program is as efficient.

Rep Lamborn may still be re-elected to represent Colorado Springs in November, but fewer people are going to vote for him because they are beginning to realize that his ideology (smaller government and lower taxes) is not delivering the prosperity for middle class folks that he told them it would.

Climate Change

Three interesting studies came out recently with regard to climate change.

In the first, researchers found that opposition to the concept of climate change varied based on the weather. The hotter it was, the more support there was for the concept of human driven climate change. The colder it was, the more opposition to the concept. This has to do with the discovery that when it is hot, our memory reminds us of all of the other times we’ve experienced heat. Same thing when it’s cold.

What climate scientists predict, however, is that climate change will drive more extreme weather. Here in the upper Midwest that means MORE precipitation particularly in the winter and particularly at night.

But clearly that didn’t stop climate change deniers like Donald Trump who proved the studies point by tweeting, “We are experiencing the coldest weather in more than two decades-most people never remember anything like this. GLOBAL WARMING anyone?”

The reality, however, is that climate change is threatening Donald Trump’s home in NYC, his Casino’s in Altantic City, and his golf courses in Florida.

A second study documents the dramatic rise of sea levels on the east coast. They rose eight inches over the past 130 years. They are projected to rise another eight inches in the next 35 years. By 2100 that eight inches will become 36-39 inches.

Hurricane Sandy had a peak storm surge of 14 feet and caused $65B in damage. As the sea levels rise, less powerful hurricanes will cause similar damage more frequently.

Rising sea levels have already inundated barrier islands which protect the mainland from storm damage. An additional three feet of sea level change will eliminate most of the barrier islands on the east coast including Hatteras.

We are already seeing the financial consequences of this creeping disaster. Those with property in the expanding flood zone can’t get 30 year mortgages. Flood insurance has already going up dramatically and in some areas is no longer available from private sources. The federal flood insurance program is $24B in the red. Some Republicans, in an interesting turnabout, are demanding that the government DO MORE to protect commercial and residential interests in their districts.

The reaction in states like NC is to simply deny these changes. In 2012, the state legislature passed a bill banning state agencies from reporting sea-level data. Two weeks after that bill passed, a study from the US Geological survey documented that sea levels along the coast line from Cape Hatteras to Boston were rising at four times the global rate. You may have guessed by now that since 1980, NC leads the world in disappearing shoreline.

Same thing is going on in Virginia where the legislature budgeted money to study the problem, but only after all references to sea-level rise and climate change had been removed. In towns like Norfolk — where neighborhoods are already flooding repeatedly even in the absence of storms, and where some homes have become unsaleable — people are starting to pay attention.

“In the last couple or three years, there’s really been a change,” said William A. Stiles Jr., head of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk environmental group. “What you get now is people saying, ‘I’m tired of driving through salt water on my way to work, and I need some solutions.’ ”

In the third study, an Iowa state poll of farmers added a question last year about whether or not farmers believed that climate change was real and human caused. Clearly this is a group that is politically conservative, deeply religious, and highly dependent on weather patterns for their living. Last year 67.7% answered yes. This year that jumped to 74.3%

Conclusion

We are finally seeing what happens when political positions arrived at through emotional decisions based on moral choices confronts undeniable reality.

Obamacare DOES save people money regardless of whether you are a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian. The only difference is that it is difficult for conservatives and libertarians to accept that fact.

The unemployed AND the economy benefit from assistance. During times of economic downturn when job seekers outnumber jobs, unemployment benefits do not increase the unemployment rate. Putting money into the hands of the unemployed actually REDUCES the unemployment rate. Unemployment benefits help everyone regardless of whether you are a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian. The difference is that it becomes increasing difficult for conservatives to claim that the long term unemployed have only themselves to blame, when they themselves join the expanding ranks of the long term unemployed.

Increasing sea levels is a fact. The sea doesn’t care if you are a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian. The people who do care are those who finance and insure property. Their actions speak volumes about whether or not climate change is real. Property values in the affected zones are dropping. Banks are unwilling to make new long term loans. Insurance companies are raising rates, or canceling policies. Conservative evangelical Iowa farmers are including climate change predictions in their agricultural and livestock planning. Conservatives and libertarians are having to come to grips with the reality that ideology cannot hold back the tide or make it rain no matter how hard you try.

Villain of Choice

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

Let no man deceive you by any means: II Thessalonians 2:3

This is the final installment in our attempt to answer how the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression fueled by decades of financial deregulation turned into a full-throated defense by the Tea Party of the free market economy.

Capitalism

Capitalism can be a wonderful economic system. One of its weaknesses, however, is the boom and bust cycle. If you look at the economic history of this country, we have had boom and bust cycles since the beginning of our democracy. Some blame the cycles on the Fed, but the modern Federal Reserve Banking system was created in 1913 in response to the Financial Panic of 1907. Before the creation of the Fed, the country experienced 25 depressions. Since then, we’ve only had one. So the Fed must be doing something right. We DO continue to experience periods of expansion and contraction (recession) – 40 in all since 1940. Some recessions are mild and some, like the financial collapse of 2008, are catastrophic.

These cyclic economic periods are primarily triggered by private sector investment. As the economy grows there are natural pressures on prices, wages, and capital. Those inevitably lead to inflation and rising interest rates as demand exceeds supply. That increases the costs to expand as well as making it more expensive for consumers and businesses to purchase goods. As demand and expansion slow in reaction to increased prices, investor and consumer confidence wanes until expansion stops. Businesses cut back, individuals spend less and contraction begins. Businesses reduce their labor force. Prices, labor costs, and interest rates come down as supply exceeds demand. The contraction continues until costs become so low that new investment and a new cycle of growth starts. Recessions driven by contraction in the financial sector take longer to recover from because access to capital is a key factor in our investment driven economy.

Democracy and Capitalism

The problem that capitalism presents for a Democracy is that these cycles of expansion and contraction in an unregulated market can be extreme. Expansions can turn into economic bubbles. Economic bubbles are highly speculative periods where expansion is being driven by trading activity rather than production or consumption. When these bubbles inevitably burst, as was the case in the housing bubble, many innocent people can find themselves out of a job for no fault of their own. There is also an understandable outrage that the unregulated and sometimes illegal activities of a few greedy speculators end up hurting the much larger number of hard working people who WERE playing by the rules.

The normal reaction in a democracy is that the injured demand that the government do a better job preventing the sorts of excesses that lead to these severe economic downturns. The New Deal is a perfect example of this trade off. In return for preserving the basic tenants of capitalism after it ran amok in the 1920’s, FDR promised workers a social safety net. He also created a set of banking and investment regulations that until the 2000’s effectively prevented speculative bubbles to grow to a size that would threaten the economy.

The Great Recession

The financial collapse of 2008 was the result of a deregulated financial industry that created a bubble in the mortgage market. Financial deregulation started with Reagan, but continued in every subsequent administration through Bush II.

The 2008 financial collapse was broad, deep, and terrifying. The expected response from those who lost their jobs and their homes would have been a populist uprising against the free market economy in general and the deregulated financial industry in particular. Those individual traders whose irresponsible actions caused banks to stop lending would also have been in the line of fire. If it had followed the arc of the Great Depression, there would have been universal agreement that the free market was not able to regulate itself. People would have looked to government to step in and make sure something like this never happened again. Even Alan Greenspan who famously ignored all of the warning signs of the impending collapse because of his belief in the self-regulating forces of the free market, had to apologize to the American people.

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?”

Mr. Greenspan conceded: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

The populist outrage did occur. It began with the election of Barack Obama, but it got hijacked by movement conservatism and became the Tea Party.

The Wrong Villain

In the 2008 Presidential election, the Republican Party and the whole politics of free markets and deregulation were rejected by the voting public. The Republicans were famously the party that drove the economy into the ditch and had the temerity to ask for another turn behind the wheel. There were many who said that it would take decades for the party to earn back the trust of the voters. It was so bad that even the reliable Southern Strategy and wedge politics failed to prevent an African American liberal from Illinois from winning.

In the aftermath, the Republicans had a choice. They could move more to the center and remake themselves as a more moderate party, or they could double down on the methods that had worked so well for them in the past and become even more conservative.

They chose to double down on their old strategies. Minority leader Mitch McConnell said that his goal was to make Barack Obama a one term President. This appealed to his base on both racial and political terms.

Republicans thought they could use the government’s recovery legislation to accomplish that goal but they also needed someone to blame. They found the villain in all of those victims who lost their homes.

The famous Rick Santelli rant from the floor of the Chicago Board and Trade was the spark that lit this particular fire. He didn’t mention the mega-billion dollar entities that had conspired with government to rig the system in their favor at the expense of ordinary Americans. Instead the Santelli rant was directed against a (quite modest) government program to help distressed mortgage holders and against the so-called “losers” who couldn’t pay their mortgages. In Santelli’s self-serving logic, the traders on the floor who helped create this mess were the real victims.

This was a triumph of the old Big Tobacco PR tactic and the tried and true “Willie Horton” strategy. When your side is unpopular seek to redirect public ire toward other villains. Reagan’s fictitious welfare queens reappeared as poor black people who were sold “liar” loans.

Even though the TARP and other financial recovery methods were originally crafted by the Bush White House, Obama was held responsible because he implemented these policies in the first few months following his election.

Even though it was unscrupulous predatory mortgage lenders like Morgan Stanley who broke the law, lied to their customers, and recruited people who clearly could not afford mortgages with the promise of home ownership – conservative ire was redirected. It was focused squarely on greedy neighbors, buying too much house; or on the liberal state, which according to myth forced banks to hand out bad loans to poor people; or on society generally for tolerating debt at every level.

As Thomas Franks summarized:

The (conservative) movement succeeded by capturing completely the one part of the story that was very clear: the bank bailouts, which instantly eclipsed the financial crisis proper when they happened and which immediately got people out of their armchairs sputtering with rage. The bailouts were not confusing. They were very clearly the deed of the federal government, apparently being operated by cronies of Wall Street. It was a spectacle of almost unbelievable corruption, the kind of thing that crushes the faith of a nation. What the public craved at that moment was a form of idealism that would allow us to scream a convincing “no” at the whole thing, and the free-market people—spotting the opportunity like any good entrepreneur—immediately stepped in and delivered exactly such an idealism. (Because, in a pure free-market system, they said, government would never rescue or bail out anyone. The market would decide who prospered and who failed.)

It didn’t matter that the bailout strategy actually worked. The global financial market melt-down did not become a depression. Trust WAS restored relatively quickly. The insolvent institutions were merged with the remaining stable institutions. The domestic auto industry was saved. The restructured companies led the country back out of recession. Five years later the stock market is hitting record highs. The government has fully divested itself of the remaining GM stock. The net cost to the taxpayers was a remarkably low $60B. In comparison, Reagan’s S&L crisis which was significantly less damaging to the economy cost six times as much to clean up.

But it didn’t matter. The Tea Party rage over the financial bailouts spilled over into deep opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the debt that the country was piling up as a result of high unemployment, low taxes, two wars, and an unfunded expansion of Medicare.

It also didn’t matter that the real financial risk was the 3x GDP growth rate in the cost of healthcare. The Affordable Care Act was the only option on the table to reduce this rate of growth and as a result reduce our potential long term unfunded liabilities. The Tea Party viewed it as another irresponsible expansion of government even though it actually saved $109B in its first decade.

It also didn’t matter that this administration committed to ending the wars that were putting a huge strain on our military and on the budget.

The Tea Party was focused on the poor and big government as the villains of the financial meltdown. The fantasy of a utopian free market promised equity, justice, and prosperity for those who played by the rules. The fact that we weren’t seeing this utopia emerge was the fault of government. Worse yet, our exploding debt was at least in part due to the burden that the poor and unemployed were placing on the social safety net.

Tea Party Irony

What should have started out as a populist backlash to the failure of our decades-long experiment in free market deregulation was transformed into a protest movement demanding MORE of the free market that caused the problem and even LESS of the government that is the only solution.

Rather than complain that the government failed to keep the FDR’s promise to workers, this protest movement rejected whole premise. It wasn’t that the social contract the FDR made with the prosperous to support a social safety net wasn’t working. It was that the prosperous were able to convince those who benefited most from the social safety net, that it wasn’t fair to continue to expect the “winners” in our economy to pay for it.

Movement conservatism was able to convince small business owners that they were the backbone of a sort of free market populism instead of in a life and death struggle with larger and better funded competitors. In this conservative scenario, it’s the heroic small business person pitted against the parasitic elites who acquire their power through education or unfair government influence. It was the elites that were making it difficult for all businesses, large and small, to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The practical effects of this free-market idealism, however, is to bolster the power of big business. Big business is the real beneficiary of small business’s long war on organized labor and government regulation. It is big business that regularly feeds at the trough of government contracts, subsidies, and tax breaks that the rest of us including small business pay for. It is also big business that seeks to create monopolies which make it impossible for small business to compete.

The ultimate irony is that the Tea Party’s drive for fiscal responsibility has hurt the very people who support that movement. The states with the greatest concentration of Tea Party participation are the states that get the most money from federal programs. These are the states that have the highest numbers of people receiving Social Security and Medicare. These are the states with the largest amounts of people dependent on defense spending. These are the states that send the least amount of federal taxes to Washington and get the most amount of money coming back into their economies. These are the states where according to Thomas Frank, voters to struck a blow against elitism and received in return a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

The ultimate irony is that in the Tea Party’s eyes, CEO’s are the heroes and government is the villain. The reality is that the majority of the unprecedented growth in wealth that has occurred over the last 25 years has been in CEO pay. That pay came from a direct transfer of wealth from working people into CEO salaries combined with historically low taxes on the wealthiest people in this country. Those statistics are not an accident. This is the direct result of government policy. Government has in fact done exactly what the Tea Party has requested. It allowed the free market to operate without limit. That free market methodically suppressed middle class wage growth even though productivity, working hours, and profits hit all time highs. Under free market rules, CEO’s decided to keep all of those gains for themselves because they could.

Summary

The Tea Party is the construct of the same political operatives and tactics that gave us decades of tobacco company products that both those companies and the government knew were addictive and deadly. It is the same political operatives who promised from Reagan to Bush that showering tax breaks on the rich would result in economic gains for everyone else.

The Tea Party professes a deeply flawed looking-glass ideology that is ultimately the product of big business self-interest. That agenda is a continuation of the same unregulated free market capitalism that caused the Great Recession, unprecedented growth in wealth, and the largest income inequality in our history.

This agenda includes policies which have lead to an economy where only the very rich prosper, yet those supporting the Tea Party continue to insist that government is the problem.

Government is not the problem

Government is the solution. It is the only power left in this economy to oppose the influence of corporations and the wealthy. You don’t get to vote for how a corporation operates. Yet the agenda of the Tea Party trusts these corporations more than the only organization that they CAN influence – our government.

They portray government as the big evil, when in fact, government is us. It is teachers, first responders, and any number of middle class people trying to do the best job that they can. None of those who make up our government even come close to the 100 million dollar salaries of our top CEO’s.

Instead the Tea Party has allowed themselves to be manipulated by the same forces which caused government to relax regulations and implement a policy of allowing the free market to govern itself.

The ultimate irony is that Karl Rove, who helped create the Tea Party, no longer has use for them. While libertarian Koch money continues to support Tea Party causes, Tea Party shutdown and default tactics have terrified business leaders. As a result, Rove’s Crossroads fundraising juggernaut has announced that they will support moderate Republican candidates to oppose Tea Party incumbents in the 2014 and 2016 elections. It appears that at least Republican business interests have found a new villain.

The uncomfortable truth is that, though Republicans had both the motive and the means to hijack the populist uprising caused by the 2008 financial meltdown, the Democrats deserve some credit for the birth of the Tea Party too. Next up, how the Democrats fumbled what should have been a golden moment to reassert the basic tenants of Democratic Populism. In other words, we have met the enemy and he is us.

John Birch, Big Tobacco, Young Republicans and the Birth of the Tea Party

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

The John Birch Society

The John Birch Society was founded in 1958 in Indianapolis, IN. One of the founding members was Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries and father of David and Charles Koch. The Birch Society was viewed as a radical right wing organization because it espoused fundamental changes in government, eliminating institutions that they felt threatened their values or economic interests, and prosecution of those people who disagreed with them.

They opposed civil rights movement and subsequent legislation calling it communist. They opposed the United Nations calling it “one world government”. They opposed immigration reform and all free trade agreements. They accused both Eisenhower and Kennedy of being communist agents. They espoused a particular form of “frontier mentality” which incubated a virulent strain of reactionary thought.

Now, fifty years later, the Koch brothers are still the major funders of conservative and libertarian political movements including the Tea Party. The difference is that these organizations, who continue to advocate for smaller government, elimination of civil rights legislation, opposition to the UN, opposition to immigration reform, elimination of free trade agreements, and support of an unregulated free market; are now regarded as part of the mainstream political fabric. When they call a democratically elected President a socialist, a fascist (not sure how you can be both), or an illegal alien; it’s now accepted as part of normal political discourse.

What happened?

Big Tobacco

One of the lobbying strategies of the Big Tobacco in the 70’s was to assert that big corporations should have more political power. This strategy is reflected in the “market fundamentalism” that is one of the major pillars of Tea Party philosophy – unfettered capitalism is the best economic philosophy. This libertarian philosophy was embraced by Big Tobacco in an effort to prevent the sort of regulations that eventually limited their right to promote an addictive drug that kills people. One of the groups supporting this position and the Tobacco industry was Citizens for a Sound Economy founded by the Koch brothers in 1984. The primary funders of the Tea Party include FreedomWorks which is a spin-off of Citizens for a Sound Economy and Americans for Prosperity founded by David Koch.

Young Republicans

Karl Rove rose to fame in the Republican Party because of his reputation as a master of dirty tricks. Among other things his campaign for chairman of the College Republicans is legendary. It was during this period of time that he because friends with both the Bush family and Lee Atwater. Lee Atwater was an expert in the Southern Strategy that was the bulwark of successful national Republican campaigns starting with Nixon. That strategy was in stark display in the 1988 Bush election when Atwater said he would defeat Dukakis by making “Willie Horton his running mate”. Late is life, Atwater apologized and asked forgiveness.

In 1991 Rove began to work for Big Tobacco. In that role, he spearheaded a tort reform movement to weaken the ability for states attorney generals to litigate against the Tobacco industry. It was these legal cases that eventually brought down Big Tobacco. Rove’s activities included setting up state chapters of a tobacco industry funded astroturfing organization called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. The Texas chapter of this group under the direction of Tom Delay was particularly effective in getting conservative judges elected and ultimately pushing through the gerrymandering that supported the 2010 Republican Congressional landslide.

The CALA blueprint honed in Texas included running TV and radio ads warning that the legal system was out of control, affecting the economy and the pocketbooks of average people. This blue print included generous funding from the Texas Chamber of Commerce and corporations seeking protection from consumer law suits. The Chamber of Commerce was running ads supporting Big Tobacco as late as 2002. This followed classic Tobacco Industry public relations rules – When your side is unpopular, as the tobacco industry is, seek to redirect public ire toward other villains – in this case, trial lawyers, taxes and big government. When the words “trial lawyers” are spoken in a spot aired by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the screen shows a black stretch limousine passing by the Capitol.

Finally Rove was also credited as the architect of the wedge politics that propelled George W. Bush into the White House. Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, summarized those politics.

Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

It was this policy of “deceive, divide, and conquer” that also sowed the seeds which later grew into the Tea Party.

Summary

The Tea Party and to a large degree the dysfunctional politics that the Tea Party represents were a long time coming.

It started with Big Tobacco’s desperate attempt to save themselves from the inevitable outcome of selling an addictive drug that kills people. They developed many of the political techniques now in common use particularly by movement conservatism. Those include Partners in Crime, Astroturfing, Junk Science, and Lobbying.

Radical conservatism in the form of the John Birch Society eventually joined forces with the Tobacco Industry. The common interest here was a particularly twisted form of libertarianism called free market capitalism. This appealed to the Tobacco Industry because they wanted to be able to continue to sell their products even though they were addictive and deadly. The libertarian capitalists liked the money that the Big Tobacco brought with them. They and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce were happy to make a deal with Big Tobacco if it meant advancing their own cause of smaller government and fewer regulations.

The Koch family has been underwriting libertarian and conservative causes for two generations. They are really the invisible hand manipulating this whole political movement. Fred Koch was a founding member of the John Birch Society. David and Charles Koch have become the bankers of the Tea Party movement, major funders of the movement to oppose climate science, and promoters of libertarian free market philosophy. Their fortune is closely tied to the fossil fuel industry.

Karl Rove became the chief apparatchik of this new philosophy of politics. He refined the political use of the tools that Big Tobacco created. He added Lee Atwater’s racial politics and expanded it with social issues which appealed to the evangelical right. He wrapped it all up in the flag and the Bible (even though he himself is an admitted agnostic) and used it to win two national elections for George W. Bush. In response to Obama’s election in 2008, Rove went to work for Fox News and helped start the astroturfing opposition movement that later grew into the Tea Party.

Next up, we’ll try to connect the dots to show how these historical forces have twisted an otherwise completely predictable populist uprising into what has become radical conservatism and the Tea Party.

Big Lies and Big Tobacco

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

I am a big believer in democracy. What often baffles me though, is why we go through periods of time when a large number of people believe things that aren’t true.

I can appreciate how people might have believed that the world was flat, because until people were able to sail around it, astronomers where the only people with personal experience to dispute what the senses told us. Very few people could actually read and fewer still had access to a telescope.

But science and the personal experiences of sailors soon convinced everyone else that the world was in fact round and orbited around the sun. Those who continued to dispute that fact were ridiculed.

That’s not the case today. Information is widely available. Most people, at least in this country can read. And most people in this country get a basic education that includes mathematics and science. Yet we seem to be living in age when facts are optional and science is relative.

What happened?

I believe that it has a lot to do with politics and in particular the strategy called the Big Lie.

John Boehner’s quote about the US health system being the best in the world is an example of the Big Lie. It works because those who already agree with his position that Obamacare is ruining the country will accept also accept this lie without question. It also works for those who inherently fear change, because Obamacare is all about change. Finally it works because those who stand to lose money or power as Obamacare rolls out are happy to support the claim that the current system is a better choice.

It didn’t use to be this way though. In the 50’s when the John Birch Society claimed that Eisenhower was a communist agent, the vast majority of the country just laughed. Now when the Tea Party (direct decedents of the Birchers) claimed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya – almost half the Republican Party agreed with them.

This is going to take a couple of posts to work through, but I think the train started to jump the track, in terms of these Big Lies, when tobacco companies realized two things – their products were killing people and if voters found out, they were out of business.

Background

Excerpts from a Stanford study by historian Robert Proctor

Cigarettes are “the deadliest artifact in the history of civilization” – more than bullets, more than atom bombs, more than traffic accidents or wars or heroin addiction combined. They are also among “the most carefully and most craftily devised small objects on the planet.”

“The industry has spent tens of billions designing cigarettes since the 1940s – that’s from the industry’s own documents,” he said.

The cigarette represents the perfect business model. “It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive,” says investment guru Warren Buffett. Proctor notes that “by artfully crafting its physical character and chemistry, industry scientists have managed to create an optimally addictive drug delivery device, one that virtually sells itself.”

Operation Berkshire

In 1977 the CEO’s of all of the major tobacco companies met in secret in the UK to “develop a defensive smoking and health strategy, to avoid our countries and/or companies being picked off one by one, with a resultant domino effect.” They created a front organization first called International Committee on Smoking Issues (ICOSI) (renamed the International Tobacco Information Centre, INFOTAB, in 1981), to prevent efforts to reduce smoking. That included not only identifying opposition, but promoting research supporting their position, and rebutting the claims of research opposing their position. This organization, code named Operation Berkshire, continued to operate in secret for twenty years. In 1998 as part of a Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and states attorney generals the activities of this organization came to light.

The plan formed when major tobacco companies met together to form a unified defense against anti-smoking legislation. They agreed that they would not voluntarily make certain concessions about smoking and, if legislation was passed to force them, they would agree to sue. In particular, they decided that they would not concede the point that smoking has adverse health effects and would instead attempt to create controversy, lest they be held legally liable for the deaths of smokers. They also formulated coordinated activities to promote the social acceptability of smoking.

Similar behavior was demonstrated by the top seven biggest U.S. tobacco company CEOs, dubbed the “seven dwarfs”, testifying together before the U.S. Congress during a hearing on the regulation of tobacco products on April 14, 1994, in which they collectively denied, under oath, the addictive nature of nicotine, despite at least one published New York Times report at the time claiming that it has the ability to be more addictive than heroin, cocaine or amphetamines.

Here are some of the strategies described in the documents shared with the courts.

Partners in Crime

Co-operation between the manufacturers of tobacco and candy cigarettes to effectively promote smoking in children is described by Klein and St Clair. They show that some tobacco companies granted confectioners permission to use cigarette pack designs, tolerated trademark infringement and suppressed research showing the potentially harmful effects of candy cigarettes in promoting smoking to children.

Astroturfing

This is the process of creating fake grass roots organizations to suggest that a particular political position has strong support among the people.

As health advocates began winning legislation to raise taxes and increase regulation of smoking in the US, Philip Morris, Burson-Marsteller and other tobacco interests created the National Smokers Alliance (NSA) in 1993. The NSA and other tobacco interests initiated an aggressive public relations campaign from 1994 to 1999 in an effort to exaggerate the appearance of grassroots support for smoker’s rights. According to an article in the Journal of Health Communication, the NSA had mixed success at defeating bills that were damaging revenues of tobacco interests.

Junk Science

A small group of retired cold-war libertarian nuclear physicists pioneered the political use of junk science. They developed their techniques in defense Reagan’s seriously looney Strategic Defense Initiative. Their techniques included demanding equal air-time in the media every time a mainstream physicist or engineer criticized SDI. They also published fear mongering articles in conservative publications suggesting that within 5 years the US would suffer an ICBM nuclear attack. As a result of their success, several including Fredrick Seitz were hired by RJ Reynolds. They perfected their doubt-mongering strategy defending smoking. They insisted that the science was unsettled and therefore that it was always premature for the US government to act to control tobacco use.

As one tobacco company memo noted: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

Lobbying

“My own view is that in many ways, the tobacco industry invented the kind of special-interest lobbying that has become so characteristic of the late 20th- and earlier 21st-century American politics,” said Allan Brandt, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Tobacco companies not only spent boatloads of money supporting politicians. They also sponsored game shows, cartoons, and sports. They hired celebrities, dentists, and doctors to endorse their products.

Altria (Phillip Morris) has spent more money since 1998 lobbying Congress than any other single business. In 1998 the Tobacco industry spent $125M lobbying for the defeat of the McCain Tobacco Control Bill.

Conclusion

The result of this campaign is that the rate of smoking in the US did not start to decline until 1985. It was as high as 45% in 1955. It is now at 19%. 2011 was the first time a majority of people supported banning smoking in public places.

In 2013, tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable death in this country. Tobacco kills more people than AIDS, Alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combines. The 400,000 people who die and the 8.6M more who are ill cost the US $96B in healthcare costs and $97B in lost productivity.

But the tobacco industry was able to continue to produce and sell its products for decades AFTER the Surgeon General’s first report that smoking caused disease. Millions of people died. Several Trillion dollars were spent caring for those whom these companies killed. And they are still killing people today even though, at least in this country, their activities are severely limited.

That’s how effective their strategies have been.

These strategies are part of the reason why the Tea Party and movement conservatism exists today.

Next up, how some of those who learned these skills working for Big Tobacco, used them on behalf of the conservative political movement.

Personal Responsibility

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.  Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.  Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?  When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?  And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Matt 25:31-40

For Christians, I don’t know how the message could be any clearer.  This is about salvation.  In my reading, those that provide for the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the sick, and those in prison will be welcomed into heaven.

It is also instructive that Jesus directed this advice specifically at those he called “the righteous”.  These are the people who aspire to perfection, go to church, and keep the commandments.

During Jesus time, many pious Jews thought that bad things happened to bad people.  So they felt no compassion for those that Jesus described.  Instead most blamed the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, and those in prison for their plight.  The self-righteous Jews figured that these people were being punished by God for something.  And clearly who are they to question God.

Jesus was very clear in what he said.  He didn’t qualify those in need in any way.  Instead he said that their NEED is the only relevant qualification.  It doesn’t matter why someone was hungry or sick or homeless or in jail.  Our response is all that is important.  That response will determine how we are judged in the afterlife.

We find ourselves in a very similar situation today when we attempt to have a conversation about race, poverty, and crime.

First a few facts.

According to the Census Bureau, fully 38% of African-American children under 18 now live in poverty.

67% of African-American children live in single parent households, and nearly all of those doing the actual parenting are women.  The courts, according to HHS, have awarded child support to 45% of these African-American mothers, but less than half actually get any money.   Doing the math, that means that 80% of those custodial mothers get no funds from the fathers of those children.  About half of white women actually receive the support the courts have awarded.

This raises the obvious question of where the African-American men are.

A million of them are in prison.  That’s 43% of our prison population even though they represent only 13% of the population.  One out six African American men have at some time been incarcerated.  Even that is a decrease from the past decade.

Maybe because they commit more crimes?

Not exactly.

African-American defendants are more likely to be given jail or prison time for the same or similar offenses for which white folks are given probation. African-American men also receive longer sentences than white men sentenced for the same or similar offenses.

This is, in part, the sorry legacy of our failed war on drugs.  In the 80’s, “ghetto” drugs like crack cocaine carried penalties up to 100 times more severe than a similar offense for a similar amount of the “yuppie” powder version of cocaine.  When these drug laws were originally passed in 1986, the thought was that crack was more potent and addictive.  Studies have since disproven that claim.  The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled the sentencing disparities unconstitutional.

On the employment front, only 52% of African-American students graduate from high school and the rate for African-American boys is even worse according to the Department of Education. The economic consequences of that lack of formal education are well known – lousy jobs with lousier pay and a downward economic spiral from which there is no escape.  The economic consequences of an arrest record are also severe.  70% of employers run criminal background checks and 50% won’t hire those with a criminal record.

New research also suggests that children raised in poverty actually suffer physician damage to their brains which impair their cognitive abilities as adults.  Testing has already discovered that rich kids perform better than poor kids at a number of standardized cognitive tests.  Researchers have now discovered at least one cause.  During the first couple of years of life, our brains “wire” themselves based in part on the stimulation that we receive from our environment.  Stressful environments inhibit the full development of this wiring.  Even the tone, language, and vocabulary that a young child experiences during the first weeks and months of life can have a profound effect on later academic success.

It’s a statistical avalanche of negativity – grinding poverty, early developmental deficits, poor educational opportunities, failing schools, few jobs, and way too much interaction with the criminal justice system.

We cannot and should not ignore that some of this is self-inflicted even while we acknowledge the historical and socio-economic hurdles faced by African-Americans. Whether or not you respect the women trying to raise you and the young women around you, or if you stay in school, or take responsibility for your own children are all choices that can be made regardless of external pressures.

But it most certainly is not all self-inflicted.

There has to be some other reason why, for example, if a white man and African-American man with the same educational credentials apply for the same job the white man is twice as likely to get the job. Or why, when both African-American and white little girls were given a choice between a white doll or one of color, even the African-American girls preferred the white doll. Or why we still have such a profound ignorance of Africa and African-American history.

There also has to be a reason why race and poverty have become so politicized.  Why African American voters, for example, voted in higher rates than whites in the last two elections.  One opinion is encapsulated in a Romney quote that became a pivotal moment in the 2012 election.

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Romney was correct in suggesting that 47% of those who file income tax forms pay no net income tax, though that doesn’t mean that they aren’t tax payers.  Two thirds of those paying no income tax did pay payroll taxes (FICA and Medicaid) and virtually everyone pays some state and local taxes/fees.   He was also wrong in suggesting that this cohort votes primarily democratic.  55% of the “47%” are elderly.  They voted 56% to 44% for Romney.  Roughly 60% of the “47%” had incomes above $50,000 a year.  They supported Romney 52% to 46% and those with incomes above $90K supported Romney 54% to 44%. 

So what segments are left that voted for the president no matter what?

The voter segment that gave Obama the largest margin of victory was African Americans (93% – 6%).

Even though Obama won two elections, this open issue has not been resolved.  It remains the most difficult one that I think our democracy faces.  One only need look at the range of responses to the Treyvon Martin killing to understand the depth of the division.

What do we do as a country to deal with the stark realities of institutional poverty, crime, and violence in the African American community?

One choice is to blame African Americans for their condition.

This view was summarized by Ted Nugent in his comment about problems of crime and violence in the African American community.  He said African Americans could “fix the black problem tonight,” if they would put their “heart and soul into being honest, law-abiding, [and] delivering excellence at every move in your life.”

And

“racism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late [19]60s” and by the 1970s, “nothing of consequence existed to deter or compromise a black American’s dream if they got an alarm clock, if they set it, if they took good care of themselves, they remained clean and sober, if they spoke clearly, and they demanded excellence of themselves and provided excellence to their employers.”

There is great risk, at least for Christians, in this choice as Jesus explained.

The other choice is to follow Jesus recommendations.  Feed the hungry.  Help the stranger.  Clothe and shelter the homeless.  Heal the sick. Care for those that are in prison.

That’s not to say that these aren’t complex issues.  They are.

This is also not to say that all people need to develop individual responsibility.  They do.

But Jesus said clearly that the individual responsibility He is concerned about is that of the righteous.  THAT responsibility is to care for the less fortunate regardless of how they got there.

Jesus never said this would be easy.  But he did promise that the reward for those willing to take on this task would be great.

He provided every righteous Christian a choice.

Just like any other issue of personal responsibility, how you respond is up to you.

Clown Politics

Monday, August 12th, 2013

This past weekend, a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair wore a mask to mock President Obama.  Apparently the performance went well over the line between the sort of slapstick humor typical of rodeo clowns and mean spirited racism.

 

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Here’s a description from one of the members of the audience.

“It was the usual until the very end at bull riding,” he said. “As they were bringing the bulls into the chute and prepping them … they bring out what looks like a dummy. The announcer says ‘Here’s our Obama dummy, or our dummy of Obama.

“They mentioned the president’s name, I don’t know, 100 times. It was sickening,” Beam said. “It was feeling like some kind of Klan rally you’d see on TV.”

Unfortunately, this Missouri rodeo clown is part of a vocal minority who feel that the man who has won two national elections fair and square somehow doesn’t deserve the office that he occupies.

This is driven by an unprecedented assault on both the man and the office by the Republican Party.

Paul Ryan recently responded to Obama’s latest proposal for a corporate tax cut.  Obama was offering to work with Congress to overhaul business taxes in exchange for a guarantee that the revenue gains be used create new jobs through spending on roads and infrastructure.

“The president claims his economic agenda is for the middle class. But it’s actually for the well-connected…There’s no doubt that it works well for them. But for the rest of us, it’s not working at all.”

Ryan further protested that Obama is “interested in tax reform for corporations — but not for families or small business.” He also accused Obama of implementing health care and regulatory policies that favor big businesses and big banks.

Paul Ryan struck a different tone during the 2012 Presidential campaign.  He accused Obama of “sowing social unrest and class resentment,” of supporting “a government-run economy” and of “denigrating people who are successful.” He has charged the president with leading the nation toward “a cradle-to-grave, European-style social welfare state.”

So which is it?  Is Obama a class-baiting socialist or a corporate sellout?

Boehner, asked at a news conference about Obama’s series of speeches on the economy, replied: “If I had poll numbers as low as his, I’d probably be out doing the same thing if I were him.” Obama’s job-approval rating is 46 percent. Boehner’s is half that.

Mitt Romney called Obama a “weak president,” and Newt Gingrich, during the 2012 campaign, called Obama “so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong.”

Yet in January Boehner said that Obama planned to annihilate the Republican party, ““[G]iven what we heard yesterday about the president’s vision for his second term, it’s pretty clear to me and should be clear to all of you that he knows he can’t do any of that as long as the House is controlled by Republicans,” Boehner said. “So we’re expecting over the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party. And let me tell you, I do believe that is their goal. To just shove us in the dustbin of history.”

Rep. Issa said Obama is guilty of “imperial behavior” and “abuse of power.” Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, asserts Obama is “someone who wants to act like a king or a monarch.” And Rep. Louie Gohmert, of Texas, says Obama is “a tyrannical despot.”

So which is it?  Is Obama a weakling or a tyrant?

During the intervention in Libya, Gingrich demanded in early March 2011 that the United States should “exercise a no-fly zone this evening.” Two weeks later, after Obama took the action that would bring down Moammar Gaddafi, Gingrich said, “I would not have intervened.”

After the Benghazi attacks, Republicans lined up to criticize the President for not having enough security at the embassy in Benghazi and ignoring the mounting tensions Ambassador Stevens was documenting.

Fast forward to this month when the administration closed embassies across the Middle East in response to an intercepted al Qaeda communication.  “Terrorism works — because we’re closing all of our embassies and consulates on one day,” said Rep. Ted Poe, the chairman of the House’s terrorism and nonproliferation panel.  “Our embassies cannot operate with a bunker mentality in foreign countries,” he said. “Our embassies are there to interact with the people of that country. I hope we don’t get into this bunker mentality mode.”

So which is it? Is Obama a tone deaf risk taker or a terrified bunker dweller?

I could continue for quite a while, but the picture is clear.

The only consistent message coming from Republicans is that Obama is always wrong.  He is wrong if he acts.  He is wrong if he doesn’t act.  His ideas are always wrong even when he borrows them from Republicans (Obamacare, corporate tax cuts, and no fly zones).

Republicans may feel that tearing down the President is an effective strategy to get them back into the White House.  The problem is that if they demonstrate that this is an effective strategy, it will be used on them too.  And if they do ever return to the White House, they may not recognize the smoldering ruin they had to create to get there.