Archive for the ‘Bias’ Category

Moral Intuitionism

Friday, February 8th, 2013

This is a psychology theory that has been promoted by John Haidt from the University of Virginia.  What it says is that, at least for some of us, our opinions are more heavily influenced by our emotions than our reason.  What it means is that when confronted by facts that may call one of our core beliefs into question, our immediate reaction is to question the fact rather than question the belief.

A new study by some UC Irvine psychologists measured how this particular behavior manifested itself across the political spectrum.

They did this by selecting four politically divisive issues.  The first two, the death penalty and waterboarding, are generally regarded by liberals as morally unacceptable regardless of the potential benefit to society.  The other two, sex education (specifically how to use condoms) and embryonic stem cell research elicit the same response from conservatives.

1500 randomly selected subjects were asked first about their moral beliefs regarding these issues.  For example, is the death penalty morally wrong even if it can be proved that it reduces crime? Or, is stem cell research morally wrong even if it can cure diseases like Parkinson’s?  Then they were asked factual questions like does capital punish reduce crime, or do condoms prevent pregnancy and the spread of disease.

What the researchers found is that everyone tended to discount the social benefits of the practices they found morally objectionable.   Some, however, were much more susceptible to this behavior than others.  There were three risk factors which determined the DEGREE to which individuals were willing to contort the facts to fit their beliefs.

The first risk factor is the strength of your sense of morality about the subject.  The second is how much you know about the subject.  In this case the MORE you know, the more you are likely to distort the facts.  The third is how politically conservative you are.

Yup, that’s right.

Conservatives tilted their views of the facts to favor their moral convictions more than liberals did on every single issue.   Even those issues that were hot buttons for LIBERALS were still shaded more strongly by conservatives than liberals.

Why?

For that answer and we get another phrase – cognitive closure.  That is the need for certainty in your life and the degree to which uncertainty causes discomfort.  The UC Irvine researchers discovered the conservatives scored much higher in the scale for the need for cognitive closure than liberals.  Rather than accept that the world is often ambiguous, conservatives are most comfortable with the concept that their moral systems and the facts about the world are in perfect alignment.  Liberals, on the other hand are much more willing to accept ambiguity both in their beliefs and the data.  They may, for example, still hold tight to the belief that stem cell research is morally acceptable, but are also willing to admit that facts don’t yet confirm that stem cell treatment consistently delivers improved clinical outcomes.

The net result is something called ideological asymmetry.  This is the idea that one side of the political spectrum, more than the other, shows a form of biased or motivated assessment of facts.  There is a lot of debate about this, but the results of this most recent study suggest strongly that ideological asymmetry DOES exist.

This whole area of study raises an interesting question.

If it’s true, those conservatives reading this article are likely to discount it because it challenges their core beliefs.  Liberals on the other hand are going to just nod their head and agree that this explains a lot of their personal interactions with conservatives.

In the next post, let’s examine how that affects some of the issues we are currently debating.

Open Letter to Obama Critics

Monday, December 17th, 2012

This is an open letter to all those who have criticized President Obama’s visit to Newtown, CT.

Some characterized it as a publicity stunt. Some suggested that it was evidence that he was a poor leader shirking his Washington DC duties. Some felt it was hypocritical to express such sorrow over the deaths of these innocents while supporting things like abortion or drone strikes. Some have even suggested that this is part of a larger government conspiracy to take away our guns and leave us vulnerable to invasion by the UN.

If you have entertained or expressed any of these opinions, this is not day for them. Pick another day in another week. But not this day, not this week.

Are you REALLY that cynical and heartless? Have you become so twisted by your hatred of this one man that you are blind to the purpose of his visit?

It isn’t always about you and your issues, and it isn’t always about politics.

This was a NATIONAL tragedy. It tore at the fabric of our society by suggesting that we can’t protect those that we cherish most, those that are most vulnerable.

President Obama was there carrying out his highest duty, which is representing us.

He carried our collective sorrow with him to CT. He was there to represent the empathy that we all feel for those who are grieving. He was there to offer help to those that survived, but now have to learn to live with loss. He was there to give voice to the questions we all have about what can be done to bring an end to these massacres.

This event demands more than a few days of headlines and news reports. It requires more than a moment of silence. In fact silence on the underlying issues of violence and mental illness and easy access to weapons designed to quickly kill large numbers of people lulled all of us into a false sense of security.

He was there to promise that we aren’t going to let this incident fade from our memory as so many others have. He was there to express our collective outrage that this is enough. We are better than this. We are more responsible than this. We are not going to allow our country to deteriorate into armed enclaves and raise a generation of kids who are afraid to set foot outside their door. We have to have a higher concept of freedom than the mutually assured destruction of the wild west or the false security of a police state.

Yet for you, this was just another opportunity to express some petty partisan political snipe.

Shame on you!

 

 

Shady All the Time

Friday, September 14th, 2012

I had the good fortune to count the late Steve Goodman among my circle of friends. Part of the lyric of his song “Looking for Trouble” fits this particular post.

The first time you shade the truth
You want to run and hide
Your tongue gets tied
Your throat gets dry
And you start thinkin’ that maybe no one knows you lied
And now you’re shady all the time

Truth has taken a beating in this election. What’s worse, there are many who suggest that this should not only be expected, but it is the new normal. Candidates are providing voters exactly what they have asked for.

One of the telling admissions of this political cycle that supports this view came from Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse. In response to criticism that a series of deceitful Romney ads about welfare received, Newhouse said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

This raises the basic question of how important facts are in a political campaign.

One opinion is echoed by Jack Shafer of Reuters who wrote , “I suppose fact-checking would matter more to voters if they expected honesty from their politicians, but most don’t. … Voters crave rhetoric that stirs their unfact-checked hearts. As long as the deception is honest, pointing in the direction they want to go, they’re all right with it.”

This goes along with the studies of a phenomenon called “motivated reasoning”. That says that because we as humans have a built-in bias to form groups, we also develop biases which discount information that calls our beliefs into question while seeking out information which supports our beliefs. This phenomenon explains why 15% of Republicans chose Mitt Romney over “don’t know” or “Barack Obama” in a recent poll in Ohio on who should receive credit for killing bin Laden.

This is also why right wing publications like the Weekly Standard and National Review have provided readers an excuse to disregard fact-checkers by claiming that they all share the some fictitious liberal bias associated with the “mainstream” media.

Political campaign managers would much prefer an atmosphere where they are not held accountable and truth is defined in the minds of the listener rather than measured against an objective standard. “Look, when people give speeches, not every fact is always absolutely accurate,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Piers Morgan with aw-shucks candor at the Tampa convention.

What started as a trickle with the Willie Horton distortions that brought down Dukakis and the Swift Boat attacks that tarnished Kerry’s military record, has become a veritable waterfall of propaganda and deliberate misinformation promoted primarily by the right wing media. First you had the release of Dishonorable Disclosures – an attempt to discredit Obama’s role in the killing of bin Laden. Next was 2016 Obama’s America which tries to build the case that Obama has some deep seated hatred of the United States because of slavery. Most recently we’ve had the disturbing political posturing of Mitt Romney trying to curry favor with those who dislike Obama because of the color of his skin and next reaching out to those 15% of voters who believe that Obama is sympathetic to radical Muslims because of his name.

I think that voters have a right and the media has a duty to hold politicians to a higher standard. The stakes are too high to let elections be decided on who does a better job of deceiving the public. Voters can choose to ignore those facts that make them uncomfortable, but hopefully these biased partisans on the right and left will balance each other out. Those remaining voters who approach elections with an open mind deserve a better fate. They should be able to honestly evaluate the facts and the details behind those facts before they place their votes. Otherwise we give ourselves over to a future where we are governed by those who stand to make the most money from promoting the biggest lies. That is certainly not the future contemplated by those who founded our democracy, enshrined the right to vote, protected free speech, and depended on a free press to inform the public and hold politicians accountable.

False Witness

Friday, August 31st, 2012

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16

“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” Proverbs 6:16-19

The Bible is pretty clear about lying.  It’s the eighth commandment.  Proverbs classifies those who lie and sow discord as “an abomination”.  Those who like to cite Bible verses about homosexuality place a lot of weight on the use of the word “abomination”.  Even Jesus, when asked by the rich man which commandments he should follow included the prohibition against lying.

I know that Mormons use both the old and new testament too.  So I’m also sure that Mitt Romney is familiar with the concept of false witness.  That makes the most recent turns of his campaign that much more distressing because they indicate that this man who claims to be a devout Mormon is either delusional or deeply cynical regarding the practice of his religion.

The Romney campaign has been running a  series of ads claiming that President Obama is gutting welfare.

These ads have been widely criticized as inaccurate and race-baiting.  It has been universally condemned by the fact finders.  Politifact gave it their worse rating, “Pants on Fire”.  The Washington Post gave it four Pinocchio’sFactcheck.org concurred.  All of the major newspapers echoed the fact-checkers.

The Romney campaign, however, seems undeterred.

“Our most effective ad is our welfare ad,” a top television advertising strategist for Romney, Ashley O’Connor, said at a forum Tuesday hosted by ABCNews and Yahoo! News. “It’s new information.”

“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” Romney Pollster Neil Newhouse said.

In other words, we don’t care whether our ads are factually accurate.  All we care about is how people respond to our ads.  This ad convinces more people to vote for Mitt Romney than any other ad that we have.  So we are going to continue to make this claim even though it has no basis in fact.

Further, we aren’t going to let ourselves be limited in any way by any other claims that we make. We are going to say and do whatever is required to get elected and we really don’t care what the consequences are for our actions.  If inflaming old racial stereotypes is what we need to do to drive more of our voters to the polls in November, we are going to do it.  This is a no holds barred campaign and we are in it to win it.

The big difference here is when the Kerry campaign suffered a similar fate; the perpetrator of the Big Lie was an independent group supposedly unconnected to the Bush campaign.  This Romney ad is not some PAC or other interest group shredding the truth. These ads are running with Mitt Romney’s personal endorsement.

The first question is why they think they can get away with this tactic and not suffer some consequence from voters?

The second is what the long term implications are if these sorts of political tactics are successful?

There are certainly the rationalizations that the right wing echo chamber have been making that the Romney campaign can use to justify their actions.  The Obama campaign has also been telling lies, but that’s not really the question.  The “Romney killed my wife” Obama ads were the product of a PAC.  Because of the public outcry including the fact checkers, those ads never did actually run.  If the Romney campaign took a similar stance on their “welfare” ads, they would defend their position but stop making the assertion and move on as the Obama campaign did.  In this case, the Romney campaign’s primary defense is that they aren’t going to stop running an effective ad even though it is inaccurate.

The Romney campaign thinks they can get away with this because Republicans have developed three effective strategies to minimize the impact of fact-checkers.

The first is the basic tenant of Big Lie politics.  That is to repeat your lie louder and more often than those objecting to it.  Eventually the lie drowns out the truth.  If you have the money and the determination, this tactic has already been proven effective in past campaigns.  Willy Horton and Swift Boat are just two examples.  There are mountains of campaign cash flowing into the Romney campaign and the shadowy unregulated semi-independent PACs supporting his campaign.  So the Romney campaign has the means to mount a sustained effort to establish their lie as the truth.

The second is the ongoing Republican campaign to discredit the mainstream media.  This has created distrust among conservative voters of anything in the mainstream media that contradicts their views or the views of their candidates.  Evidence of this is the Romney campaign’s suggestion that, “Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs.”  This is code for the claim that the fact checkers share the same liberal bias as the mainstream media.  One need look no further than the dust ups that Politifact.com has had with MSNBC and the Obama campaign to appreciate that these organizations are committed to holding ALL politicians and parties accountable to the truth.

The third is the conservative media who make huge amounts of money repeating right wing talking points and supporting conservative candidates.  They both spread the lie and create doubt about any sources who suggest the lie has no basis in fact.  Rush Limbaugh said, “But I have no reason to lie to you about any of this, and there’s nothing in it for me to be wrong.  It does not help me to be wrong about any of this.  There aren’t any lies in the Romney welfare reform ad.”  The next day he accused Obama administration of exerting undue influence on the government’s Hurricane Center’s prediction models in hopes of disrupting the Republican Convention.  Rush clearly has this figured out since his act generates somewhere north of $40M/year for him.

The result is a parallel Republican universe where anything is free game, pollsters and pundits can create whatever claim they feel will best advance their agenda, and where fact-checkers are irrelevant.

The implications for democracy are dire.  Democracy depends on informed debate and compromise.  We have elections (rather than civil wars) to decide those particularly troublesome issues where compromise fails.  We also have the balance of law and the judiciary to protect minority rights from being trampled by the majority.

Without a shared set of facts, you can’t have productive debates or effective compromise.  Instead ideology is allowed to trump reality and demonize compromise.  When that happens, we leave ourselves open to demagogues.  To quote Robert Reich, “A society without trusted arbiters of what is true and what is false is vulnerable to every lie imaginable.”

Crazy Train

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

This has been a remarkable week for exposing the crazy side of conservative Republicanism.

Women’s Issues
Suburban women were a significant part of Obama’s winning coalition in 2008 and were also the reason why so many Tea Party Congressmen were elected in 2010.  So how are the Republicans doing with this particular voting block this year?

Look no further than Todd Akin the tea-party backed Congressman running against Clare McCaskill in the Missouri senate race.  He referenced a loony theory created by Dr. Jack C. Willke, the father of the antiabortion movement, that pregnancy from rape is rare.  This theory is important to the pro-life movement because it allows them to argue that the current exclusions of rape from abortion bans are unnecessary.  Not only is this whole concept deeply offensive to women across the political spectrum, but the theory has no basis in fact.

It has also shined a light on Paul Ryan’s record regarding women’s rights.  Ryan and Akin co-sponsored a bill which attempted to introduce this concept of “legitimate rape”.  Ryan’s 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee is the result of his support for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.  Ryan and Akin were also co-sponsors of the Sanctity of Human Life Act which sought to give a fertilized egg the same rights of “personhood” as a human being and would not only ban all abortions but outlaw some forms of birth control.

Ryan has said he will support the Romney position of allowing abortions in the case of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother.  Some women are already wondering what would happen if Romney were elected and then could no longer serve?

Climate Change
We are going through the worst drought in 60 years which deeply affects famers.  New scientific studies are released almost every week attributing this drought specifically to climate change caused by human activities.  Yet, John Shimkus of Illinois who heads the house subcommittee on climate change says there is nothing to worry about.  “The earth will end only when God declares it to be over,” he said, and then he went on to quote Genesis at some length.

John Barton is on the same committee.  He’s the one who among other things apologized to BP because he felt the Obama administration was being too demanding following the gulf oil spill.  Barton cited the Almighty in questioning energy from wind turbines.  Careful, he warned, “wind is God’s way of balancing heat.”  Clean energy, he said, “would slow the winds down” and thus could make it hotter.  “You can’t regulate God!” Barton barked at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of discussion on measures to curb global warming.

Michele Bachmann and Jim Inhofe claim that global warming is a hoax.  Mr. Inhofe is a senior member on the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.

Romney’s energy plan calls for increased oil drilling and relaxation of EPA regulations on the use of coal.  He promises North American energy independence by 2020 (assuming Canada still likes us by then).  He depends on a study by the Citigroup for his data but ignores the portion of the study which also recommends dramatic increases in conservation standards in order to achieve energy independence.

Finally Romney also promises freedom from foreign oil and cheaper gas.  As long as oil is a globally traded commodity, he can’t deliver on either of these promises unless he is willing to restrict domestic oil exports.  He’s said he won’t do that.  So though the US balance of trade may improve when the US becomes a net oil exporter, prices will still fluctuate based on international events that could affect supply, and we will still be burning foreign oil.

Education
Jack Kingston of Georgia, a 20-year veteran of the House, is an evolution denier, apparently because he can’t see the indent where his ancestors’ monkey tail used to be. “Where’s the missing link?” he said in 2011. “I just want to know what it is.” He serves on a committee that oversees education.

Romney has taken the position that college students don’t need the loan supports they currently receive.  His advice to a college student asking about how they are going to afford the costs of college is that they shop around for a cheaper college or borrow the money from parents and relatives.

Taxes
Romney does not want this election to turn on whether or not he releases his tax returns.  However he continues to assist the Democrats in keeping this issue in the news.  The latest evidence of this is from a talk he gave recently to a small business group.

“We’ve got to make it easier for small businesses,” Romney told a crowd of about 300 people at a high-dollar fundraiser in Minnesota. “Big business is doing fine in many places -they get the loans they need, they can deal with all the regulation. They know how to find ways to get through the tax code, save money by putting various things in the places where there are low tax havens around the world for their businesses. But small business is getting crushed.”

So not only did he echo Obama’s remark regarding the private sector, and effectively take that off the table as a future talking point for his campaign, but one of his recommendation for helping small business appeared to be easier access to tax havens.  This remark came on the heels of several reports on Bain’s practice of setting up tax havens for their customers and additional analysis of Romney’s public returns suggesting extensive use of off-shore accounts to avoid US taxes.

Budget
Romney has promised to balance the budget, but recently he also said he was going to add back $700B in Medicare spending which the Obama administration had listed as cost savings in the Affordable Care Act.  This $700B, as many have already pointed out, is coming from reduced re-imbursements primarily to hospitals who have agreed to the cuts in return for seeing a reduction in their costs for caring for the uninsured.  The other major source of that reduction comes from reducing the rates paid to insurance companies for the Medicare Advantage coverage since the Affordable Care Act also addresses many of the gaps in Medicare coverage that the Medicare Advantage plans filled.  I’ll address the whole Medicare issue in another more detailed post.  But Romney also hasn’t said how he hopes to pay for this additional $700B in spending and still keep his promise to balance the budget and reduce the deficit.  His math didn’t work before.  It has only gotten worse.

Birtherism
Romney has said that he doesn’t dispute Obama’s citizenship.  At the same time, he met with Donald Trump during the primaries and recently made a joke about his own citizenship in a talk in Michigan where he said “no one ever asked to see my birth certificate”.

Welfare
Romney’s claim that the Obama administration is dismantling welfare work requirements has been widely criticized as a thinly veiled bit a race-baiting.  It is factually inaccurate because if anything, the states requesting waivers of the current work rules were attempting to put MORE people to work rather than less.  Instead it was an appeal to the portion of the Republican base who distrust an African American President and the motivation of the African Americans who support him.

Conclusion
There are a couple of things going on here.

There is a segment of the Republican party that hold beliefs well outside mainstream America.  34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.  51% doubt his citizenship.  50% feel that he is a socialist.  You can see that extremism in the Republican platform which includes a pledge to pass a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion without exception.  It includes the construction of a giant wall along the US border with Mexico, mandatory use of electronic verification by private employers, no support for a path to citizenship, the blocking of funds to universities offering in-state tuition fees to the undocumented, and an end to federal lawsuits against controversial anti-immigrant legislation such as Arizona’s SB1070.  There’s even language suggesting an annual audit of the Federal Reserve and a “gold commission” to investigate return to the gold standard.

Romney’s strategy to become President has shifted over the last month.  Some pundits say that his selection of Ryan had much more to do with needing to put Wisconsin in play than it did anything else.  That’s because many say that Romney can’t win Ohio.  Romney has to win one of the rust belt states to have any hope of a November victory and he was willing to put Florida at risk because of Ryan’s unpopular Medicare proposals in order to improve his chances in Wisconsin.

The other shift in Romney’s strategy is that he has refocused his attention on his base.  Selecting Ryan made it more difficult for him to win women, but it did guarantee a vigorous attack from Democrats.  That attack and Romney’s recent statements on energy, welfare, and birtherism all indicate that the focus of the rest of his campaign is going to be on turning out the Republican base.  He wants every Republican voter (including those with loony beliefs) so energized that they will be first in line when the polls open.  The added benefit is that a divisive campaign not only gets his base to the polls but also suppresses the less partisan undecided voters who may decide to just stay home because they are so disgusted with the whole process.

This scorched earth strategy  may work to get him elected.

It won’t leave much room for him to govern if he is successful.

Blessed are the Poor

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

What ARE implications of the Republican vision of individualism that is at the core of the current Republican campaign for the White House.

Let’s look at government programs to help the poor.

Social Safety Net

The Republican claim is that the social safety net put in place after the Great Depression and expanded by Medicare passed during the Johnson administration and other programs since has exacerbated the problem of poverty in this country rather than reducing it. Florida Senator Marco Rubio summarized that view in a speech at the Reagan Library.

These programs actually weakened us as a people. You see, almost forever, it was institutions in society that assumed the role of taking care of one another. If someone was sick in your family, you took care of them. If a neighbor met misfortune, you took care of them. You saved for your retirement and your future because you had to. We took these things upon ourselves in our communities, our families, and our homes, and our churches and our synagogues. But all that changed when the government began to assume those responsibilities. All of a sudden, for an increasing number of people in our nation, it was no longer necessary to worry about saving for security because that was the government’s job.

This line of reasoning is based on two assumptions.

  1. Social Safety Net money is wasted because it doesn’t reduce poverty and creates a culture of dependency.
  2. The private sector can do a better job than the government in administering these programs, so handing this over the private sector will reduce the costs to taxpayers who can then use that savings to more efficiently help those in need. This will eliminate the culture of dependency.

Let’s look at each claim.

The first one is simple.

Government programs to reduce poverty are working.

The poverty rate among the elderly was 25% before Social Security and Medicare. These programs alone have reduced elderly poverty to 14%. When you include all the other safety net programs, the elderly have the lowest poverty percentage of any age group in the country at 9%.

The Earned Income Tax Credit reduced the number of poor people by 6M, half of them children. Food Stamps come in a close second at 5M.

This table shows how all of the other programs have affected the poor.

Effect of Specific Adjustments to Income on Poverty Counts, 2010, in Millions
  Age Group
  All Under 18 18-64 65+
EITC -6.1 -3.1 -2.9 -0.1
SNAP (food stamps) -5.2 -2.2 -2.5 -0.4
Housing subsidy -2.8 -1.0 -1.3 -0.5
School lunch -1.2 -0.6 -0.4 0.0
WIC -0.3 -0.1 -0.2 0.0
LIHEAP (energy assistance) -0.3 -0.1 -0.2 0.0
Child support paid 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.0
Federal income tax before credits 1.2 0.2 1.0 0.1
FICA 4.3 1.4 2.9 0.1
Work expense 4.6 1.5 2.9 0.1
Medical out-of-pocket expenses 10.1 2.1 5.4 2.9
         
Number of People in Poverty 49.1 13.6 29.2 6.2

 

You can see that the table also lists those things that exacerbate the problems of the poor. Those include FICA deductions, childcare expenses, and that largest contributor to the ranks of the poor, uninsured medical expenses. The Affordable Care Act will provide a very high percentage of these people insurance coverage that they can’t afford today. The net effect is that 32M who don’t have insurance today will be insured and be able to afford care.

This graph also demonstrates the effects of commitment at the federal to reduce poverty.

People Living in Poverty

 

The other side of the equation is easy too because it is just math.

The question is can the private sector really take up the slack and provide better services to care for those in need than what is available at the federal level? The graph demonstrated that before the social safety net was expanded and charitable institutions were bearing more of the load, the poverty level was at 23%.

There are currently 45M people in poverty.

There are currently an estimated 335,000 churches in this country.  Roughly 59M people attend church regularly and the average size of a congregation is 75 people.

Here’s how the math works out.

If we depended on churches to deliver the same level of support that the government current provides, each church would be responsible either directly or indirectly for 137 people.

If you assume that the average household size in country applies to those who attend church regularly that means that there are 22M households where church going is a regular activity. Each household would be responsible to support two more people. How much would they have to pay?

The cost for our social safety net (excluding unemployment) in 2010 was $365B. As this graph shows, the majority of that increase as for Medicare.

Growth in Safety Net Programs

Math again comes to our aide. The amount of money we are spending per poor person is a little over $8K. Using our previous figures, every church would need to come up with an additional $1M a year. On a per family basis, every family would need to come up with an additional $16K.

Where is that money going to come from?

The conservative claim is that tax rates would go down and the private sector would give more.

However, simple math can help us with this claim too since we have already determined that the average family would have to contribute an additional $16K a year to make up for the support currently coming from the government. The average individual tax (federal, state, and local) paid in 2010 was $10,549. The social safety net spending represents roughly .3% of the federal budget.   So even if we extrapolate that savings to the total tax burden rather than just the federal tax, the reduction each individual would see is $31.64. With that savings comes the burden providing the equivalent of $16K in services to the two poor people they are responsible for.

Why the Math Doesn’t Work

The math doesn’t work because in a tax system, the government receives contributions from everyone.

In a private sector system, contributions only come from those who are motivated to contribute. There just aren’t enough willing to contribute to cover the gap. Today, the average charitable contributions are shown in the following graph. You can see they are all in the mid to low single digits. Adding another $31.64 in tax relief isn’t going to dramatically increase this contribution.

Dependency Culture

Conservative logic is faulty on this count too.

Their claim is based on a simplistic view of the situation.

Because they are looking at this through the prism of conservative values, conservatives have a difficult time understanding why anyone would take money from the government rather than taking the initiative to improve their lives themselves.

Rather than go into the details of why people are poor, or cycle in and out of poverty; let’s just address the question of dependence.

The key question here isn’t even whether dependency exists because the data also doesn’t necessarily support that bit of common wisdom either.

The only real question that conservatives are raising is whether dependency is a function of getting help from the government rather than the private sector because in both cases the poor are getting services they didn’t pay for. If anyone has had any personal experience with the challenges of getting money from the government, you know that it is infinitely more complicated to satisfy government requirements than it is to get help from a charitable organization.

So if there is a culture of dependency that exists among the poor, changing the source to one that is easier to deal with would logically INCREASE dependence.

Yet Paul Ryan and others claim that this is the problem. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute he said our safety net, “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.”

Conclusion

And therein is the rub.

The bottom line when you deconstruct this whole argument is that conservative Republicans object to the very CONCEPT of providing assistance to the poor.

Mitt Romney summarized the current conservative Republican view when he said, “I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have the safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them…The – the challenge right now – we will hear from the Democrat Party, the plight of the poor, and – and there’s no question, it’s not good being poor and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor.”

But when you look at the Ryan Budget, which Romney also supports, it does not repair the safety net. In fact it includes steep cuts to food stamps, school lunches, crop subsidies, Supplemental Security Income for very poor seniors and disabled people, unemployment insurance, veterans’ pensions and refundable tax credits to the working poor. Even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, though they are unhappy with the current administration over health care reform, wrote a series of letters objecting to the Ryan budget. They reiterated our national responsibility to protect the poor and said the proposed GOP budget “fails to meet these moral criteria.”

The bottom line is that government through the tax code is able to step in and spread the cost of programs for the poor over the whole taxpaying population.

The program generates positive results at a cost of approximately $30 per tax payer.

Without these programs the number of people in poverty would increase and the cost for those willing to provide services for those in need would increase dramatically from what they are paying today.

Those are the facts.

What we have from the Republicans is a thinly veiled attack on the poor. They feel that the poverty is the appropriate punishment for those unwilling to work for a living and any attempt to help those in need only encourages those who have already made bad decisions to continue their pattern. Since the poor clearly have earned their condition, Republicans feel perfectly justified in turning their back on them in the interests of debt reduction.

But that doesn’t make sense either, because when you take out Medicare, poverty programs represent only .3% of the federal budget.

So why bother?

It’s because Republicans are terrified of taking on the REAL problem of Medicare and jobs. Instead they are trying to convince voters that liberals have been running up the deficit by wasting money on poor people who don’t deserve it.

This “big lie” politics is a method of distraction that Republicans appear to be much better at that Democrats.  In future posts we’ll try to figure out why.

Next let’s deconstruct the Ryan budget and determine how effective it is in reducing debt.

 

What’s going on?

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Marvin Gaye released an album and a single by this name in 1971. It was a combination of concern about the Vietnam war and the ongoing racial tensions at home. Now more than forty years later we’re facing conditions in the African American community that don’t seem that different from those Marvin Gaye was singing about.

Almost half the nation’s murder victims are African American, even though they only represent 13% of the population. The majority of those victims were between 17-29. Almost 93% of those victims were killed by other black people.

Less than half of the African American high school population graduates. The national average for all students is over 70%. 22% of all African American students were suspended at least once from high school. Compare that to 5% of white students.

22% of blacks live below the poverty line and 72% of all African American children are born to unwed mothers.

The national unemployment rate for African Americans is 13%. The unemployment rate for young black men is over 40%.

There are now more African American men in prison than were enslaved in 1851.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since Barak Obama’s election, radical right wing militia groups have grown ten fold after a long period of decline.

A group of Mississippi teenagers beat and killed an African American auto factory worker in the parking lot of a local motel just because of the color of his skin. The 19 year old driver of the truck that ran over and killed the African American man was recently sentenced to two life sentences for his crime.

White Plains police officers broke down the door of an ill 68-year old African American man who had inadvertently pressed his medic alert button. It took them an hour to gain access to his apartment. After attempting to subdue the man several times with a taser the police shot him twice in the chest. The police claimed that the elderly man picked up a butcher knife and charged them after being tasered.

And we have the case of Trayvon Martin which seems to finally have received sufficient national attention to call all of these issues into question.

Like Marvin, I don’t have answers, only questions.

Why is our educational system failing young African American men?

Why is it so difficult for African American men to find a job?

Why are so many African Americans in prison?

Why are so many African American kids killing each other?

This is a national tragedy that is exacerbated by poverty, politics, and racial bigotry.

This is what we reap when we decided to unravel the social safety net for the most vulnerable in our country.

This is what we reap when we consider gun ownership a basic human right.

This is what we reap when we accept the dismantling of our manufacturing base and assume that all must be well because the rich are getting richer.

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

Through the Looking Glass

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Olympia Snowe just announced that she isn’t going to run for office again this year.  She is one of the few Republican moderates left in the Senate.  Her decision is based on what she described as, “an overall process that lends itself to dysfunction and political paralysis that doesn’t allow problems to be solved.”

This was after yet another example of political theater in the Senate.  The Republicans had attached an amendment to a popular transportation spending bill.  The amendment would have allowed employers to opt out, based on religious objections, of a new federal health-care mandate to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees.  The amendment had nothing to do with transportation.  Both the Republicans and Democrats knew that the amendment would not pass.  So why was the amendment proposed at all?

Its sole purpose was political.  Both the Republicans and Democrats feel that this issue works to their advantage.  Democrats wanted to force Republican Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts to vote for the amendment in order to provide his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren another opportunity to criticize Republicans for their votes against women’s health issuesThe Republicans wanted the vote so that they could continue to suggest that the Democrats in general and President Obama in particular have overstepped their constitutional authority and are waging a war against religion.  In the meantime, the transportation bill which provides sorely needed funds for highway and bridge repair is stalled.  This bill could create or save as much as 2M jobs.

That leads us to the real issue.

The Republicans have a big problem and passing the transportation bill only makes the problem worse.

The economy is getting better and unemployment is going down.  The stock market just broke through the 13,000 point psychological barrier.  Auto manufacturing is booming and the hiring associated with that growth is driving recovery in the rust belt states that were already in recession toward the end of the Bush administration.  Unemployment in Ohio is now lower than it was when Obama took office.

Obama’s message in manufacturing states is easy.  He and the Democrats saved the domestic auto industry over the objections of the Republicans.  That industry is now leading the economic recovery that is driving down the unemployment rate and driving up the stock market.

This blows a big hole in the Republican strategy that the nation needs a successful business man in the White House.  Supposedly this business man knows something that Obama doesn’t, but he also opposed the auto bailout and supported the Wall Street bailout.  With the economy recovering, auto manufacturing booming, and unemployment going down – all Romney is left with is the weak argument that it would have been even better his way.  Obama on the other hand is able to make a simple direct statement that frames the choice for voters when he says, “I placed my bet on the American worker.”  

The bottom line is that the economy IS getting better and the Republicans are losing their biggest issue.

Unfortunately in the sort of political climate that we have today, facts on the ground have very little to do with political arguments.

Here’s just a small sample from non-partisan fact checking sites to illustrate the point.

From Factcheck.org

The exaggerated Republican claim that the new health care law “kills jobs” was high on our list of the “Whoppers of 2011.” But the facts haven’t stopped Republicans and their allies from making the “job-killing” claim a major theme of their campaign 2012 TV ads.

Does insurance coverage for contraception save money? We find lots of evidence. But it’s conflicting, and inconclusive.

A conservative group exaggerates the number of “Wall Street executives” in the Obama White House. In a major TV ad buy, the American Future Fund lists 27 people it claims are part of “Obama’s Wall Street Inner Circle.” But the ad is either flat wrong or greatly exaggerated in more than half of those cases.

Rick Santorum is off base when he criticizes college as a place where young people lose their “faith commitment.” In fact, the percentage of those with weakened religious affiliations is higher for those who don’t go to college.

Rick Santorum misrepresented what John F. Kennedy said in 1960 about church-state separation. According to Santorum, Kennedy said that religious people could “have no role in the public square” and “should not be permitted . . . to influence public policy.” But Kennedy didn’t say those things. He said he wouldn’t take orders from the Vatican if elected president.

From Politifact.com

The U.S. military is at risk of losing its “military superiority” because “our Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.” Mitt Romney

This is a great example of a politician using more or less accurate statistics to make a meaningless claim. Judging by the numbers alone, Romney was close to accurate. In recent years, the number of Navy and Air Force assets has sunk to levels not seen in decades, although the number of ships has risen slightly under Obama.

However, a wide range of experts told us it’s wrong to assume that a decline in the number of ships or aircraft automatically means a weaker military. Quite the contrary: The United States is the world’s unquestioned military leader today, not just because of the number of ships and aircraft in its arsenal but also because each is stocked with top-of-the-line technology and highly trained personnel.

 

The Obama campaign said, “Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich all say they would cut foreign aid to Israel — and every other country — to zero.” We find that a ridiculous distortion of their positions on this extremely sensitive issue.

 

Mitt Romney continues to repeat the talking point that the United States is “only inches away from no longer being a free economy.”

It’s true that the government’s footprint on spending has grown over the past few years, due in large part to the recession. But while the statistics show that the government continues to have a large influence on the economy, there is little indication that the government’s role has risen dramatically enough over the past few years to threaten the kind of free market that the U.S. has operated under in recent decades. And international comparisons show that the U.S. ranks low in both total tax burden and high in economic freedom — at least as measured by a prominent conservative think tank.

And so it goes.

The basic question that each campaign should be asking the country is what is the role of government?

Do we want a government that bails out the auto and financial industries or do we want a government that depends on the free market to sort out economic winners and losers?

We should be asking the voters to choose which we should do first, create jobs or reduce debt?

If it is jobs, voters should choose between direct action by the government through investment in things like infrastructure (which is the single most effective job creating thing government can do) versus reducing taxes and regulation on employers and investors.

If it is debt, voters should choose between reducing spending and increasing taxes.

Unfortunately none of these issues will be framed in this simple a manner.

Instead the Republicans will continue to paint the Democrats as untrustworthy immoral big spenders.

The Democrats will continue to portray the Republicans as the heartless party of the special interests – out of touch with the working man.

The campaign will turn on misrepresentations, gaffes, distortions, and narratives unsupported by the facts.

Ultimately the candidate who spends the most money and is most effective in getting their message out will win.

Not a good way to run a country.

Socially Dysfunctional

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Well it appears that the Republican nomination process, which had so much interest and promise at the start has devolved to the same old name calling divisive tactics we’ve grown to expect from the current crop of conservatives.

Romney is outspending his rivals at the rate the three or more to one, and still can’t seem to close the deal.  That’s because he continues to remind the working class voters he is wooing that he is a rich country club guy.  He offers Perry a gentleman’s bet for $10,000 in an attempt to call Perry’s bluff.  He claims not to be worried about the poor.  He defends the personhood of corporations.  He says he likes firing people.  He disingenuously pretends to sympathize with those who have been laid off while defending policies at his own company which laid off thousands.  He claims to understand the needs of Michigan while at the same time defending his op ed which called for the government to let domestic auto manufacturers go bankrupt.  He demonstrates his support of GM by declaring that his wife drives “several Cadillacs”.  He tries to reach out to the NASCAR crowd by showing up at an event and then admitting that his only connection to the sport is that some of the wealthy folks who own some of the cars are friends of his.  He even manages to upset dog owners by defending his mistreatment of the family pooch.  Finally he defends his wealth saying that if someone has a problem voting for a successful (read wealthy) person, they should vote for somebody else.

Socially conservative Republicans have taken his advice to heart and ARE voting for somebody else.

The problem is that the “somebody else”, at least in the form of Rick Santorum, is even crazier than Mitt.

Santorum has done the impossible (contending for the Republican nomination) by giving voice to the unspeakable (the deep biases of social conservatives).  He took advantage of a bad Gingrich debate performance in Florida to leapfrog Newt in the “anybody but Mitt race”.  Gingrich was counting on Florida being the knockout blow for Santorum which would allow Newt to become the sole standard bearer for the conservative vote.  Instead, Santorum is filling that role because he has been willing to take public positions that are even more radical than Newt.  Now that’s saying something.

Santorum is proposing nothing less than a religious take-over of government.  This has allowed him grab the radical right standard from Newt and take Mitt on in the celebrity death match that social conservatives have been waiting for.

The Republican establishment can’t believe their eyes.  This is their Frankenstein nightmare.  The Tea Party that they used to gain a House majority in 2010 has turned on them with the full force of self-righteous fury.

“It makes the party look like it isn’t a modern party,” Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Erin Burnett, fretting about the candidates’ Cotton Mather attitude about women and gays. “It doesn’t understand the modern world that we live in.”

After a speech in Dallas on Thursday, Jeb Bush also recoiled: “I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective.”

Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, recently called Santorum “rigid and homophobic.”

Arlen Specter, who quit the Republicans to become a Democrat three years ago before Pennsylvania voters sent him home from the Senate, told MSNBC: “Where you have Senator Santorum’s views, so far to the right, with his attitude on women in the workplace and gays and the bestiality comments and birth control, I do not think it is realistic for Rick Santorum to represent America.” That from the man who accused Anita Hill of perjury.

The fact that Romney eked out a slim victory in Michigan over Santorum really doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the social conservative Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to reject Romney.  If you add up the votes for Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul – Romney lost Michigan.

The Republican social conservatives may not have enough votes to win the nomination for Santorum, but they do have enough influence to force Romney into a very difficult choice.  If he hopes to unify the party, he is going to have to move so far right that he becomes unelectable in November.  Some are saying that this has already happened.

If he abandons the conservative wing of the party, they may run their own candidate (Sarah Palin) or become so disgusted with the nominating process that they stay home in November.   It also doesn’t help Mitt that his backers in the Republican establishment continue to whine that they don’t have a more likeable guy like Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels to turn to.

At least in Michigan, Santorum effectively poisoned the water for Romney in the fall already with a simple question which Romney never answered.  Why did Romney support the Wall Street bailout while opposing the auto bailout?  This wasn’t lost on Obama either, who gave a barn burner speech to the UAW in Washington on the same day that Michigan voted and asked the same question.  If Romney does eventually win the nomination, you can bet that this question is going to continue to be asked all the way until the vote in November.  That’s because it cuts right to the heart of why people just don’t trust Romney.

In the meantime, this primary continues to grind at the fabric of this country.  The claims against the President become more and more extreme.  Gingrich who managed to skip Vietnam calls Obama “the most dangerous President in modern American history” because he is “incapable of defending the United States.”  Perhaps Newt missed the headlines about bin Laden, al-Awlaki, or the scores of other al Qaeda leaders that have been killed or captured.  That sort of language may work with the Republican base, but it is going to alienate mainstream voters who still possess a sense of fairness.

Obama may end up with an easier victory this fall than he anticipated, but he will have to deal with an even more deeply divided country than when he first took office.

Prostitution to Falsehood

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Jefferson commented on media bias two hundred years ago.  He admitted that media is going to behave unethically if profit was their primary goal.  He recommended what later became part of the journalistic code of ethics, but also worried that ethical media was going to struggle in the marketplace because readers prefer information that re-enforces their own individual bias.

Here’s what he wrote to John Norvell in 1807.

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.

That seems to be the state that we are in today.  Truth does appear to be hard to come by because there is so much suspicion regarding its source.

I’ve posted in the past about why we find ourselves in this state.  It is an outgrowth of the generational dynamics described in the book The Four Turnings.  The book predicts the current conflict in the phase the authors call The Unraveling.  It’s why we have the growth of narrow cast unethical media and the general distrust of any information source that may call you own personal beliefs into question.  It is much easier to simply discount news sources that you don’t agree with as biased rather than dig down into an issue to determine what the facts really are.

When we speak of media bias, I think there is a practical response and a philosophical one.

The Practical

There is a spectrum of news sources.  There are unbiased sources.  There are sources that have a point of view but also adhere to a set of journalistic principles that require them to determine what the facts are and report on them.  Then there are sources with no journalistic principles that appear to be driven only by the profit potential of appealing to a particular audience.

Unbiased Sources

The CS Monitor does not have a political point of view.  They are probably the only major US newspaper who has publically taken that position.

FactCheck.org and Politifact.org (and its spinoffs) are unbiased websites who also have taken a public politically neutral position.  Their funding is transparent so you can make sure that they aren’t being influenced financially.  They also have a transparent review process to make sure that they don’t suffer internal political “creep” based on the issues that they are addressing.  These are NOT news sites.  They are sites that hold politicians and the media accountable for factual accuracy.

Ethical Sources

Most of the major newspapers in this country can reasonably be considered ethical sources.  Exceptions include those owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  The code that the ethical sources follow means that they are only going to report as fact those things that they can corroborate from multiple named sources.   They will do their best to give those with a point of view an opportunity to tell their side of the story.  The paper expresses its opinion on the editorial page and that is clearly a separate section of the newspaper.  Opinion columnists are clearly labeled as such so even casual readers don’t mistake a columnist’s opinion for a news story.  Media organizations who adhere to this ethical standard earn the right to have an opinion because that opinion does not bias the way they report the news.  I also suggest that NPR follows this ethical standard.

Unethical Sources

These are organizations where the lines between opinion and fact are deliberately blurred.  From their perspective, everything is opinion and everything is fact.  Murdoch is a pioneer in this form of yellow journalism and it has made him a wealthy man.  That’s because there is a hunger in the marketplace for media sources which champion conservative causes.  In my opinion, though, no matter how noble the end might be, it can’t justify the means of unethical reporting.

The whole “birther” movement is a perfect example of an Internet conspiracy theory that had no basis in fact, needlessly divided the country, and was the subject of supportive “news” stories in the Wall Street Journal (a Murdoch property), The Washington Examiner (owned by conservative billionaire  Philip Anschutz), and the Investor’s Business Daily (another news source that jumped on the anti-Obama bandwagon).

Philosophical

The claim that there are no unbiased news sources is a red herring that basically serves the interests of those who would prefer that condition.  Claiming that all news sources are biased frees unethical sources to continue to blur the line between fact and opinion without the fear of being held accountable.  Just one example of this tactic is described in great detail at factcheck.org regarding a claim of bias at snopes.com.

It also frees those who happen to share the opinions promoted by unethical media sources to discount the criticisms/corrections coming from unbiased fact checking organizations or ethical sources.  The “Obama is a Muslim” movement is a great example.  That particular conspiracy theory was widely debunked and discredited years ago by unbiased and ethical sources.  It still is a regular topic of conversation by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and even some Republican presidential candidates.  This whole conspiracy was able to protect itself from the unanimous distain it received from the unbiased and ethical media because those invested in this conspiracy believed that all opposing sources were politically biased.  The only shred of fact in this whole “big lie” is that President Obama has a Muslim-sounding name.

Truth and Democracy

Jefferson believed an informed electorate was key to an effective democracy.

Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

I believe that the dysfunctional government that we have today is a direct result of our failure to hold unethical news sources accountable for their actions.

It is our responsibility as a society to demand media sources that meet Jefferson’s criteria of “true facts & sound principles”.  It is also our responsibility to hold accountable those who fail this measure because their actions DO weaken the fabric of our democracy.