An Overt Display of Dishonesty

A while ago I expressed my concern about the cross-the-board spending cuts that are scheduled to kick in if a budget deal can’t be reached. As Republicans get ready to brazenly renege on a deal that they never really intended to keep, I find myself even more concerned.

But I was off on one point. I thought the most significant factors were that Democrats don’t feel strongly enough about cutting military spending and that Republicans are willing to sacrifice the military in order to cut vital services for the poor and middle class. As it turns out, the most significant factors are that Democrats don’t feel strongly enough about cutting military spending and Republicans don’t give a rat’s ass about keeping their promises.

I felt that Republicans would be more willing to let the cross-the-board cuts kick in than Democrats would because Democrats are more afraid of being branded as the party who weakened our national defenses than Republicans are afraid of being branded as the party who allowed people to die because they couldn’t afford shelter, food, or health care. What I didn’t realize is Republicans felt they could get whatever they want simply by lying.

Apparently the Republicans feel they can earn points by overtly behaving like charlatans, as long as the only people they’re lying to are Democrats. I hope they’re wrong. I hope that the Right wing base won’t actually cheer such a public act of chicanery because if it does, we will be at the brink of having a one-party government ruled by maniacs with the support of middle class citizens convinced that the reason they can’t get ahead is the poor have too much of their money. I don’t see such a future as being good for anyone but the ruling class.

Chess board and pieces

Don’t reward the criminals for their crimes.

Immediately the Republicans are blaming the mess they created on Obama the way a rapist might blame the ineffectiveness of the local police. Romney (via NPR):

“America’s creditworthiness just became the latest casualty in President Obama’s failed record of leadership on the economy.”

Romney is a lying, flip-flopping, soulless piece of garbage. He was always a liar and a flip-flopper but the loss of soul is a more recent development.

If you think there’s too much crime in your neighborhood, firing the police and putting the criminals in charge would be a bad strategy. But Republicans are expect the American people to put them in charge as a reward for the damage they’ve done.

Although the S&P press release does spread the blame around a bit, the overwhelming message is clear (via TPM):

The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.

And

Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues.

How bizarre it would be if the Republicans benefited by causing mayhem and then blaming Obama and the Democrats for failing to stop them.

If the crime rate rises in my neighborhood, my solution would be more cops, not more criminals. Elections are coming soon.

All you need to know won’t fit in this post

Daniel Mitchel wrote a post a few months ago, but I just came across it recently. Although it’s old news now, it illustrates something important enough to bring up: Simplistic factoids which are replacing real news.

The post is titled “The Chart That Tells You Everything You Need to Know About Whether Public Workers Are Over-Compensated”, and refers to the following diagram:

Chart showing monthly quit rate of 1.6 for private sector and about 0.5 for gov't

This “chart” consists of two big blue rectangles. This chart tells more about what Mitchell thinks of his target audience’s mental capacity than it does about anything else. It’s just two numbers, people. Does Mitchell’s readership really need a big blue and yellow diagram to explain two numbers? Do these two numbers really tell you everything you need to know?

Here’s a few things that the chart doesn’t tell you:

1) A lot of government workers do their jobs because they want to serve the public, even when it’s a public that doesn’t appreciate what they do. Government workers place special needs children in loving homes, defend innocent people who wouldn’t otherwise get a fair trial, help people find jobs, pull people out of burning buildings, remove dangerous people from society, and carry out other vital functions. They do these jobs because it makes them feel good, even though they might make more money fighting their way up a corporate ladder.

2) Almost nobody takes a government job expecting to get rich, but many people take government jobs expecting stability. They hope to do their jobs, get fair pay and benefits, and eventually retire. This kind of person doesn’t quit one job seeking a better opportunity in another.

3) As Sam Hananel, of the Associated Press noted, “A disproportionate number of federal employees are professionals, such as managers, lawyers, engineers and scientists. Over the years, the federal government has steadily outsourced lower-paying jobs to the private sector so that blue-collar workers cooking meals or working in mailrooms now make up just 10 percent of federal employees.”

4) Some private sector jobs really suck. Crazy, abusive bosses and business models that make a point of treating workers poorly because they want high turnover affect the size of the big blue box, but shouldn’t be counted as the standard against what any job should be measured.

You can agree with me or disagree. You can even bring up facts that you feel contradict mine. But at least admit that an intelligent person doesn’t need a bar graph to compare two numbers and, more importantly, two numbers isn’t all the information you need to know if you want to understand the appropriate compensation for government workers.

It would be nice if all of our questions could be answered with a “yes” or a “no”, or if policies could be substantiated with three-word-chants, or if everything we need to know about a subject could be illustrated with two pretty blue boxes on a yellow background. But some things can’t be properly understood without knowing the details. That’s why Herman Cain’s pledge not to sign any bill longer than three pages is an outrageous celebration of simple-mindedness.

All I need to know about astrology might be summed up in a little chart, because I don’t do anything that requires any knowledge of astrology. But if I was planning on making decisions based on the stars, I would read up on the subject. If you’re actually going to vote, or support political causes, you need to know more than what’s being told to you by people who don’t respect your intelligence. Don’t trust anyone who shows you a simple diagram and tells you that it’s all you need to know.

Calling for NPR to Support Themselves Misses the Point

I started reading Fox News so I can develop my own “fair and balanced” opinion of how biased their reporting is. Now WHRO, an NPR affiliate, has Fox to thank for getting me to renew my membership this year.

Fox News illustrates two good arguments for supporting NPR. One, as you might guess, is that Fox is such a source of misinformation that it’s important to have professional news sources to counter their right-wing spin. But Fox actually illustrates another good reason, and it’s one that you might not expect.

Most of Fox’s reporting is factual, with a right wing bias but not so distorted as to be untrue. Unfortunately, many of their articles are so distorted. An example of an article so misleading that it’s basically untrue is Fox’s reporting of Democrats opposing a troop funding bill. Democrats didn’t oppose troop funding, they opposed the anti-abortion and anti-environmental riders that were attached to the bill. The story didn’t mention the riders, and that information was too integral to the story to be left out without dishonest intent.

If Fox eliminated the overtly dishonest articles, they could still have a right wing bias. They could concentrate on the positive aspects of U.S. military actions, report gaffs made by Democrats, and point out the downsides providing medical care for poor children. But their reporting could still be factual and there agenda would, as it does now, lead them to occasionally pick up stories that other news agencies miss. Thus, even a news organization with an agenda can be a valuable asset to keeping the public informed, as long as the reports were honest.

Similarly, while we can debate NPR’s so called liberal bias, it’s still true that they pick up on stories that other agencies miss. No news source can report every story; editors have to make choices. And while some news agencies actually to try to be “fair and balanced”, it is impossible for any agency to block out self-interest from the decision making process. Thus, the source of funding in any news agency has an affect on the stories that agency chooses to cover. NPR’s unique funding model doesn’t make them liberal (imho), but it makes them different from news sources that rely solely on commercial funding.

Most news agencies are competing for the same corporate dollars. This doesn’t mean that commercial news cannot be trusted at all, but it means that the need to stay afloat will have an affect what stories they choose to report. Since the same wealthy companies advertise on different stations, it’s unlikely that any of the ad-funded news sources will put their heart into investigating a story that will upset their biggest sponsors. Additionally, newspapers and news stations are being gobbled up by corporate giants, so in reality there aren’t that many sources of news out there anymore. Thus, if we rely solely on commercially funded news, some important stories will go unreported or under-emphasized.

Another problem with commercial news is America’s shrinking attention span and addiction to entertainment. Today’s potential news customers need to have their attention grabbed by headlines, and the headlines that promote fear and anger are the ones that grab attention. Consider a scenario where a foreign leader makes vague remarks which may indicate hostile intent. The headline, “Foreign Leader calls for Destruction of America” grabs attention better than “Foreign Leader’s Words Constitute Possible Threat to U.S.” It is clear that in order to stay afloat with commercial funding, news agencies are forced to exaggerate threats and make people fearful or hateful of foreign nations, local crime, or poor people scamming the system and stealing tax dollars.

The solution is to have at least one news source that has an alternate funding model. Unfortunately, NPR depends so much on commercial funding that they’re not independent from corporate sponsors, but the money they get from contributers and the small amount of money that they get from the government has the effect of splitting their loyalty. They are obliged to serve the public good, not just to support commercial interests.

People who call for NPR to alter their content so they can fund themselves completely miss the point. As Donald Kaul notes, NPR can survive without government funding, “It’s not that much money”. But public funding “enforces a responsibility that private institutions don’t share.”

Even those who feel NPR has a bias know that NPR’s news staff is among the best in the industry. NPR doesn’t just reprint news releases; they send reporters out in the field and get eyewitness accounts. They run polls, examine documents and conduct extensive interviews. They analyze data, and produce the most in-depth reports of any news organization, such as their explanation of Mideast protests. Their funding model, part donation, part commercial sponsorship, and part public support, allows them more flexibility than any other news agency to follow information and report as they see fit.

A lot of stories that you’ve heard were originally broken by NPR, and might not otherwise have been picked up by other news agencies. As Paul Glickman wrote in the OCRegister, “NPR broke the story that the Obama administration was grossly underestimating the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf each day.” In that same article, Mr. Glickman quotes Ted Koppell, “I have been an unabashed fan of NPR for many years and have stolen untold excellent ideas from its programming.” Only NPR was brave enough to break the story about Trent Lott’s support for Strom Thurman’s presidential campaign (during which Thurman said, “… there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters …”), and NPR was the first news agency to explore illegal employment practices in the U.S. Justice Department. NPR just received awards for reporting on Pakistan, the injustices of the bail bond system, and an epidemic of rape on college campuses.

The politicians who call for defunding NPR are, for the most part, the same politicians who’s popularity depends on same fear and hatred that commercial news agencies depend on. They are the first to call for military action; the first to call for eliminating aid to the poor; the first to call for deregulation, etc. Sometimes those viewpoints are correct. Sometimes war is necessary. Sometimes aid programs cause more harm than good. Sometimes regulations are too restrictive. But military action might be ill advised, and mire us in long wars in nations that were never really much of a threat to begin with. Pulling aid to the poor is not only mean, it’s sometimes short-sighted and self-destructive. Enforcing regulations might prevent environmental or financial disasters. If we’re going to make intelligent decisions, we should hear different points of view.

You don’t have to like NPR to acknowledge the professionalism of NPR’s staff. You don’t have to agree with NPR’s choices to understand that without an alternatively funded source of news, many important stories will go unreported. We are smarter when we have more viewpoints to consider.

The bottom line is, politicians who call for defunding NPR are trying to make us more ignorant by eliminating one of the only news agencies not funded by the same sources that fund the others. We would all suffer from the loss.

World Hunger: One Solution is a Leading Cause

I submitted the following for one of my classes. The assignment was to write a “Cause and Effect” paper.

World hunger persists despite tremendous scientific advancements. A person might think that we haven’t yet figured out how to produce massive quantities of food. That belief, if it were true, would explain why the government continues to provide billions of dollars to large corporations to find cheap and efficient ways to produce food and food-like substitutes. But in fact, we don’t have to produce more food, and corporations like Monsanto and ADM, far from providing solutions, divert critical resources from promising efforts while becoming , themselves, a major cause of world hunger. The lucrative experiments of highly connected agribusinesses are unnecessary because we already produce enough food to feed the world. Instead of asking how we can punish the ground to force out more crops, we should be asking how to raise adequate quantities of healthful food, consistently and sustainably, and do so in places where people who need it have access to it.

World hunger has never been caused by a lack of world food supplies. It has always been caused by the inability of some to gain access to food while others have more than enough to share. In fact, even successful efforts to increase food production have actually contributed to the food crisis. The so called “Green Revolution”, a campaign to implement new farming technologies in poor countries, was celebrated for its improvements in agricultural production but displaced millions of people, caused ecological harm, and did not halt the rise in world hunger (Gimenez, 5).

The good news is some people are asking the right questions. Organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are not asking if we can produce enough food, but if we can do so using organic methods that allow crops to be raised by local farmers without harming the soil. The answer is yes. Organic agricultural methods produce more nutritious food than industrial methods and can improve access to food “outside the mainstream markets, where most hungry people are found”, according to a presentation to the FAO by the Rural Advancement Foundation (Sigh and Christman, 1).

Still, billionaire executives continue to profit from government research grants by claiming that they’re fighting world hunger by increasing production. What they’re actually doing is using American tax dollars to drive traditional farmers out of business and corner the market on food distribution. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database, the U.S. government spent more than $177 billion in agricultural subsidies during a twelve year period, with seventy five percent of that money going to less than ten percent of the recipients (EWG 1). The results of this expenditure include the disappearance of the traditional farm, huge quantities of nutrition deficient food substitutes, and a less secure world where people are becoming dependent on fewer and fewer sources of nutrition which, in many cases, are inaccessible to them.

But the corporate executives and their government allies are not just undercutting regular farmers with low-priced industrial food substitutes; they’re actually creating laws that make it illegal to farm. When asked what some of the “biggest challenges” he faces are, Joel Salatin (a hero in the sustainable farming movement) replied “The on-farm hurdles we’ve faced, from drought to predators to flood to cash flow, are nothing compared to the emotional, economic and energy drain caused by government bureaucrats” (Phelps, 3). By passing laws that make it illegal to process meat on the same land that the meat is raised, by requiring slaughter houses to actually provide exclusive facilities for inspectors, and by the ominous NAIS, which should be killed, our government is using it’s authority to kill the small farm business.

As Americans discuss the evils of “redistributing wealth,” and consider the Randian philosophy that it’s wrong to help the poor, we should realize that wealthy executives and their government counterparts talk about letting taxpayers keep more of their “own money” while diverting billions of dollars to themselves and exacerbating the impoverished conditions that they claim to be solving. We don’t have to spend more money than we’re already spending to make a difference. If we spent that money supporting small farmers in our own country and throughout the world, rather than the corporations that are driving them out of business in an effort to monopolize the world’s food supplies, we would begin to make progress towards solving world hunger, rather than making the problem worse.

Works Cited

“EWG Farm Subsidy Database Update”, Farm Subsidy Database. 14 April 2008. Web. 28 Feb 2010.
http://farm.ewg.org/farm/

Eric Holt-Gimenez “Food First”, Institute for Food and Development Policy. October 2008. Web 1 March 2010.
http://www.foodfirst.org/en/about/who/staff/eholtgim

Phelps, Megan. “Everything He Wants to Do is Illegal.” Mother Earth News. Byran Welch, 1 Oct. 2008. Web. 2 Mar. 2010.
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/Joel-Salatin-Interview.aspx

Michael Sigh and Carolyn Christman. “Organic Agriculture and Access to Food.” Rural Advancement Foundation International. Web. 3 May 2007. Web. 28 Feb 2010.