Tuesday
Mar262019

Stop the Kindergarten Fighting

For two years the politically-oriented America public awaited the Mueller Special Counsel Report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the charge of collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign. On Sunday a summary of the report was delivered to congress. Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. On the question of the charge that Trump obstructed the investigation, the report was noncommittal and turned the evidence over to the Justice Department. Attorney General, William Barr and Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein promptly declared that there was not enough evidence to justify a charge of obstruction.

Reactions to Attorney General Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report have been swift and partisan. Both sides are in agreement only on the issue of their mutual desire to release as much of the original report as possible. Otherwise, Democrats and left-leaning media pundits provided no admission that they had been laboring under a false assumption for two years and quickly jumped to the fact that Mueller did not “exonerate” Trump on obstruction, and they accused Barr and Rosenstein of burying the evidence in a partisan decision to dismiss the charges and demanded that all the evidence be made public. Social media anti-Trumpers continued to believe Trump colluded with Russia, accused Mueller of burying the evidence to avoid provoking a civil war within the country, and declared that obstruction by Trump was a fact. The president has reacted by claiming that some of those who demanded the investigation and pursued leads such as the Steele dossier were traitors and should be charged with treason. Some senate Republicans have demanded another special prosecutor investigation of the FBI and the Justice Department (and perhaps Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party) who instigated the investigation.

Robert Mueller and his team were the ultimate arbiters on the question of Trump’s collusion with Russia. They found enough suggestive evidence to justify a thorough investigation, and they found no evidence that collusion happened. No one else will have the tools or expertise to investigate this question as well as Mueller did. It should be regarded as settled. With regard to obstruction, the evidence was not decisive either way and Mueller handed the final decision on whether to prosecute a case to the Justice Department, where it should be. Yes, they are Trump appointees, but that’s the system. Their decision stands. 

The Mueller Report may have found much other information about the activities of President Trump and his associates. Some of that they have forwarded to other federal or state prosecutors. It’s not clear how much of what was found, but did not lead to an indictment, is included in the report Mueller gave to Barr. It might be useful to see it, but a line-by-line examination of the raw report, especially one that is designed to embarrass the president or search for grounds for impeachment, will only prolong the vituperative war of accusations that now characterizes our congress and our entire political scene. 

It’s time for both sides to move on. It’s time for the media to move on. Our country badly needs a functioning congress and we need to heal some of the gaping wounds that keep our citizens from feeling any sense of unity with one another. Further bludgeoning of the issues examined by Mueller and further sowing of suspicion and distrust of one another while demonizing the other political party and its supporters will only undermine our country. We have real issues to face—healthcare,  a drug epidemic, global warming, the rise of bigotry, immigration, Korea, Russia and China, world trade, Jihadist terrorism, etc. We need a functioning government and a focused and informed citizenry who can express coherent opinions on these issues.

Enough with the playground fighting.

Wednesday
Mar202019

We Need a More Civil Union as Much as We Need Better Policies

Political fervor is rising as we approach the early beginnings of the 2020 presidential race. Among Republicans, President Trump is a shoo-in as the candidate for re-election unless a major revelation from the Mueller investigation leads either to a successful impeachment or blanket disavowal by his fellow Republicans, neither of which is likely. On the Democratic side there are already at least ten candidates either officially or unofficially running for the nomination. The nation has less than a year and a half to come to decisions on its nominees.

Putting aside the Republican decision, which, as I said, is already made, barring some new major development, the question is what kind of candidate is most likely both to beat Donald Trump and to make our country better.  In terms of the first question, to beat Trump means to attract not just dyed-in-the-wool Democrats but also independents and disaffected Republicans who see Trump and the current party leaders as not representing their values. To answer the second question, to determine who could make our country better, means defining what needs to be fixed in our country and deciding who could best fix it.

In my opinion, the biggest problem our country faces at the moment is a cultural split between those for whom issues such as global warming,  racial, gender, and religious inclusion and justice, income disparity and the power of big money, and a humane approach to immigration and refugee issues are the most serious problems needing to be fixed, and those for whom a strong and proud America, working class jobs, religiously-based values, affirmation of old-style gender identifications and sexual orientations, and unfettered freedom for business interests to pursue their goals without government interference are the crucial issues that need attention. Both sides of this split have their own sources of news and opinions that they listen to, their own social media and friendship circles, and often live in geographically different communities. 

Most polls and surveys indicate that the majority of Americans don’t fall into the extremes of either of the poles of the cultural split that I’m talking about. Most Americans are somewhere in the middle, although they may become activists on one or another specific issue that is important for them. At a national political level, the need for our elected representatives to be responsive to the extremists in their respective bases has led both houses of our congress to be ineffective. Instead of dealing with the real issues facing our country and coming up with bipartisan solutions, we usually get mutual backbiting and insults paired with ineffective or no legislation, leaving most decision making to the executive branch by way of presidential rulings. This was true under Barack Obama as well as under Donald Trump.

I align with one pole of the cultural split, and I believe that issues such as climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the plight of the poor, homelessness, and the need for international cooperation to prevent more wars, are of paramount concern. But I also believe that to refuse to cooperate or compromise with those who disagree with me, to engage in demonization of those who differ in their values from me or who have made mistakes in their past, and to live in a society where one-half refuses to talk to, listen to, or engage in cooperation with the other half is a grave danger to our democratic society. It allows fear and hate-mongers on both sides to become the voices that preach the loudest. It allows violence to be used in the so-called pursuit of justice by both sides (who define justice differently). It allows adherence to the “party-line” to be more important than adherence to fact and broad humanitarian principles.

I would like to see a presidential candidate who agrees with my liberal values and has the skills and personality to be able to turn those values into policies. But I don’t want that person to represent only the extreme of one half of Americans. I want to see a candidate who can truly heal our cultural divisions and get us to think as a nation again. I don’t believe that our government can enact legislation or policies that move us forward unless this cultural split is mended or at least lessened so that we all ending up agreeing on a shared vision of what our country is supposed to be.

Casey Dorman is the author of 2020, a political thriller, which can be found under Casey Dorman on Amazon

 

Wednesday
Mar062019

A Community's Response to Anti-Semitism

Two days ago my wife and I attended a Community Forum at Newport Harbor High School, in Newport Beach, the school that has recently attracted negative attention when photos surfaced of a off-school grounds weekend party where students from that school and two others played “Nazi beer pong,” which involved a Swastika symbol, and some gave a Nazi salute. The students also were reported to be drinking alcohol. The forum was convened in order to discuss the behavior at the student party. My wife and I attended the forum for two reasons: we live in Newport Beach and our niece goes to that high school (as did her older sister), and my grandson goes to another Newport Beach high school, and we wanted to show support for the Jewish community. The meeting was attended by the mayors of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, the two cities from which the students at the party came, principals from each of the high schools involved, school board members, and representatives of the Jewish community, as well as student leaders.

We expected a small crowd and that the attendees at the meeting might include many who defended the students in the photo. Neither of those expectations proved true. The auditorium, which holds 500 people, was packed, with people standing along the sides and flowing out into the lobby. The crowd appeared 100% in support of the Jewish community and of the need to rid the city of the kind of hateful gesture that the students at the party made. There were standing ovations for student speakers, several of them Jewish students at Newport Harbor High School. There was a standing ovation for the two Holocaust survivors in the audience. 

The OC Register ran an article about the meeting that was headlined “Swastika sparks outrage—including from a Holocaust survivor—at meeting in Newport Beach.” The headline implied that the chief reaction to the incident was anger. That was not the case. The behavior was roundly condemned and every speaker, from the school principle, to a local Rabbi to the school student body president said that it did not represent “who we are.” The student speeches were particularly moving. Jewish students recounted incidents of anti-Semitic jokes and comments at their expense, and swastikas carved into desks and in lavatories. One Jewish student also brought up the social separation between Mexican-American and White students at the school and said that such behavior, based on prejudice, also “has to stop.” Another Jewish student, whose grandmother is a Holocaust survivor and was in the audience, gave a particularly impassioned and thoughtful commentary. He said the partygoers “should not be condemned or harassed,” because their behavior represented ignorance more than malice. Their behavior should be condemned however, and the students needed to learn how it hurt others. It brought back frightening memories for his grandmother.

There is anti-Semitism in Newport Beach, as there is nearly every place else in the U.S., The city is mostly White, very wealthy, and its students are privileged. I used to have a tutoring business and the students I tutored were mostly from Newport Beach high schools, including Newport Harbor High School. Yes, many of them felt entitled, and had little insight into the lives of others who weren’t like them. It is a situation in which all types of prejudice can take hold. But the schools themselves do a wonderful job of educating their students about racism, anti-Semitism, bullying, and the history of the Holocaust and the American Civil Rights Movement. Students read The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird and write essays about them. Obviously some students don’t get the message, and out of prejudice, ignorance, or just following along with the crowd, engage in anti-Semitic as well as other types of discriminatory behavior.

The community surprised and pleased me with its overwhelming response and its determination not to allow such anti-Semitic behavior to go unnoticed and uncorrected. Nine students who attended the party met with a Rabbi and issued an apology, after discussing the situation and the harm it caused with him. An equal number refused to do so, so not everyone was contrite or learned a lesson. It was a good learning experience for my 14-year-old niece, who spent her history class with the teacher leading a discussion of the Holocaust on Monday. Her other teachers also brought up the subject, and it led to a thorough discussion of Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust at home between her and my wife and me.

The Newport Beach community and the school district, as well as each of the high schools that the students at the party attend immediately seized the incident to come together, highlight the harm such behavior can cause and develop more plans to continue to educate their students about anti-Semitism in particular and prejudice and hate in general. Another community forum at another Newport Beach high school is scheduled for tomorrow night and this weekend there will be an interfaith forum to discuss the incident in nearby Irvine. No one has let the incident slide. Everyone agreed that what begins as a racial or anti-Semitic joke can turn into a normalization of prejudiced behavior, which in turn leads to discrimination and hateful behavior. Nipping such behavior in the bud is necessary. 

The Newport Beach community’s response is a step in the right direction.

Thursday
Feb142019

The Green New Deal is a Good Deal

There is a lot of controversy about the Green New Deal proposed by Senator Edward Markey and Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Is it the only answer for our country and perhaps our planet? Is it socialism in disguise? Is it affordable?

First of all, the Green New Deal is a nonbinding resolution in both houses of congress, so it is not a bill that commits anyone to anything. It is aspirational: a vision for the direction the country should take if we want to reduce greenhouse gases, rebuild our infrastructure in a way that doesn’t produce more environmental degradation, and solve several of the problems our economy has created for those with limited means. It is both Green, in the sense of aiming to stem global warming, and a New Deal, in proposing to use government interventions to solve problems associated with healthcare, housing, education and infrastructure that plague many citizens of our country, particularly those with lower incomes. 

The Green New Deal asks for a ten-year “national Green New Deal mobilization” to achieve its goals and projects. That’s where the “by 2030” wording has come in when the resolution is analyzed by critics, although such a phrase does not occur in the actual proposal. Some of its goals are phrased in terms that imply total achievement, e.g., “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, zero-emissions energy sources.” Many goals are phrased more tentatively by employing the wording, “as much as is technologically feasible” or saying “working to ensure,” rather than “achieve” some of the goals. The Green New Deal is a blueprint for a direction to follow, not a mandate for accomplishments.

The resolution does mix some provisions into its goals that are favorites of the left, but not the right, such as creating “high quality union jobs” and protecting unionization and collective bargaining, or obtaining “the consent of indigenous people for all decisions that affect indigenous people and their traditional territories.” The latter reflects some of the issues that surfaced at Standing Rock Indian Reservation with the Dakota Access Pipeline. Healthcare for everyone, a sustainable income, and “retirement security” for everyone, and "providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States,” which may or may not mean free higher education, depending upon one’s interpretation, are mainstream progressive goals. There is a paragraph that refers to "providing and leveraging, in a way that ensures that the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment,” which many have interpreted as meaning increasing at least partial public ownership of industries involved in achieving the goals of the Deal, but could mean payback on government investments, such as Obama achieved with the auto and banking industries federal bailout loans.

The majority of the goals in the Green New Deal reflect what scientists and experts have said are necessary if we are to avert a climate disaster, and protect our most vulnerable citizens from the disasters that are already happening. They are not revolutionary in terms of ideas, but it would be revolutionary to actually try to achieve them by the time most climate scientists say we need to. Unfortunately, our political processes and our private industry, left to its own goals and priorities, have almost no chance of halting or even reducing the march of climate change unless goals such as those included in the Green New Deal are taken seriously and given shorter timelines. Government leadership is necessary for this to occur. The first step is to agree on the goals, which is what the Green New Deal tries to do. 

I hope that congress affirms the resolution.

Wednesday
Feb132019

Don't Blow the Next Election

A common mantra of Democrats and liberals is that Donald Trump’s policies and messages have been directed almost exclusively toward his base, and that that base has remained loyal, but not grown during his presidency. Because of this, the president’s support during the next election will be small, and he will be defeated. This reasoning was proven wrong in the 2016 election, where choosing a vulnerable and divisive candidate undermined Democratic solidarity against Trump, but it’s not clear that Democrats learned a lesson from that experience. None of the present candidates or potential candidates is particularly divisive, although Elizabeth Warren verges on being so, mostly because she has become a target of the president and the conservative media, who have tried to demonize and make fun of her, somewhat as they did to Hillary Clinton (more demonizing than making fun in Hillary’s case).

Between now and the 2020 election, it is the Democratic message that has the potential to be divisive, more so than any particular candidate. In the belief that it is necessary to play to a more extreme electorate during the primary election, potential Democratic presidential candidates are told that they can ignore their need not to alienate the vast (bigger than either base), number of independent voters who will swing the general election results one way or another.

NYT columnist Thomas Edsall recently cited a study by four academic scholars that found “that primary voters are similar to rank and file voters in their party” so that “the composition of primary electorates does not exert a polarizing effect above what might arise from voters in the party as a whole,” countering the perceived wisdom that primary voters are more extreme and the candidate must cater to them to win the nomination. However, there are vocal leaders within both the progressive and centrist divisions of the Democratic Party who loudly proclaim otherwise and warn candidates that either a too lukewarm or too extreme position will alienate primary voters.

Another finding, cited by Edsall, is that what the conservative media calls extreme progressive ideas, are in fact mainstream, both in the Democratic Party and among the larger electorate. The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study produced data indicating that the following so-called progressive policies were favored by an overwhelming majority of Democrats and also by a majority of the electorate at large (voters in a general election): legal status to immigrants, requirements for using at least a minimum amount of renewable energy, a ban on assault rifles, a ban on mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, raising the minimum wage to $12 per hour. Other research, such as a 2018 Pew survey, found that the majority of Americans (60%) feel that healthcare is the government’s responsibility, although only 31% favor a single national government program, while 25% favor a mix of government and private programs (4% don’t know). Even among Democrats and Democrat-leaning respondents, only 49% favored a single national government program. A 2018 Reuters survey found that 70% of Americans supported Medicare for All, although subsequent studies have found that many people mean different things for this concept (not all see it as eliminating private insurers, some see it as a public option). Free public college and university tuition gets mixed results, although among self-professed liberals and progressives, it is very popular. The general population is more skeptical, mostly with regard to the cost of such a program, but everyone is sympathetic to ways to reduce college costs and the debilitating effects of expensive college loans. With regard to increasing taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, a 2017 Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans thought the wealthy paid too little tax and 67% thought that corporations did also. In contrast, 48% thought lower income people paid too much in taxes, while only 14% thought they paid too little.

Although there is broad support for progressive policies among the general electorate and even more so within Democratic Party voters, it is how such ideas are labeled that causes the problem. President Trump has zeroed in on “socialism” as a threat to the country. In his State of the Union message, he described it as  “government coercion, domination, and control” and the enemy of “liberty and independence.” He vowed that “America will never be a socialist country.” For decades, the label “liberal” was treated as an epithet by the right and by many centrists in both parties. Now liberal is denigrated as too middle-of-the-road by progressives, and “socialist” is a label embraced by many. It’s a confusing label, which people such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (at least some of the time) mean to signify support of more wealth redistribution through a steeper progressive income tax system and a wider social safety net, which includes healthcare, college education, and government intervention to combat global warming, but not government takeover of private industries (except, perhaps, health insurance). Their socialism is modeled on the Nordic countries of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, which are usually described as “Social Democracies,” and have systems that are thoroughly capitalistic, but have comprehensive government-funded social welfare programs covering health, education, and unemployment, supported by progressive tax systems. Some other European countries, such as Germany, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the UK, have many components of such programs.

Unfortunately, strident progressive voices, some who favor more traditional socialism or a model labeled “Democratic Socialism,” such as in countries such as Venezuela and Brazil, often push for candidates to embrace this model, which curtails private industry in favor of government-administered businesses, something which scares the majority of the American population, especially after watching Venezuela implode in recent years. Other voices have assumed a role of watchdogs over political correctness, searching out candidates’ histories and public statements for evidence of racism, misogyny, or sexual orientation bias, resulting in public figures issuing more apologies than they do policy statements.

Most Americans support policies that will move the country toward greater wealth redistribution through higher taxes on the wealthy, greater government intervention in healthcare and funding of higher education, regulation that protects the environment, greater emphasis on integration of immigrants into our society (even those who may be undocumented), and less onerous treatment of people, especially people of color, in the criminal justice system. Most want to limit the role of money and corporations on our elections and policy-making. Most are tired of treating every politician’s statement as a potential “gotcha” moment. These can be seen as progressive ideas, but they characterize most citizens of our country. Some people want more and their aims and their voices are legitimate, but it’s important that strident voices neither scare away more moderate supporters nor push large numbers of progressive supporters to view both parties as the same, all candidates as the same, and the system as so corrupt and rigged as to not make voting for one of the major candidates worthwhile. What we have now is worse than what might have been and we can do better.

 

 

 

Monday
Jan282019

Has Assimilation Become a Dirty Word?

Tom Brokaw just got into trouble with his comments on Meet the Press that Hispanics in America need to work harder at assimilation and “make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English.”  He was called a “white supremacist;” his words were labeled a “racist rant” and “reprehensible” and an example of “xenophobia in action.”  Some critics claimed that he was ignorant about the degree to which "Latinos absolutely assimilate,” while others claimed that assimilation means "denying one culture for another." Brokaw was quick to apologize for his words.

The media furor over a prominent figure’s use of language that some people found offensive is par for the course in today’s society, where misspeaking and apologies proliferate and navigating what is permissible to say is like walking across a minefield. One media commentator excused Brokaw because “he's probably not up to speed as to where things are today,” presumably because of his age and the generation he represents.

Truth be told, not only Brokaw’s words, but also his critics’ responses represent an unfortunate side of what our media and political spokespeople present us with every day, which is a knee-jerk reaction to trigger words and little knowledge about or motivation to understand the deeper issues related to a subject. “Assimilation” has become one of those trigger words, which evokes totally opposite reactions depending upon to which end of the political spectrum one belongs.  Some conservative pundits were as quick to defend Brokaw’ s words as other commentators were to attack them.

Assimilation needs to be understood, not just attacked or defended. I have discussed this topic before and it’s worthwhile to borrow from my analysis of the subject. Most people still consider assimilation to mean replacing one’s native language with the language of the dominant culture, becoming better educated, increasing income, learning the cultural ways of the dominant culture and moving from ethnic/national enclaves into the broader society. This was the pattern of acculturation that characterized Europeans who came to the United States in the past. But in 1993, Portes and Zhou proposed “segmented immigration theory,” which suggested that new immigrants may take many different paths to assimilation, often to a subculture within the country, rather than explicitly to the dominant culture. Segmented immigration leads to at least three possible outcomes: The first fits the traditional model, in which both the immigrant and his or her descendants begin to use the dominant language, become better educated, move toward the middle class, and completely integrate with the dominant society (which remains European-based, English-speaking). The second pathway is acculturation to a, usually urban, economically challenged subculture where their native language (if not English) is spoken as often as English, educational attainment has a low value, and use of government social safety net programs proliferates. In such subcultures, gang and drug activity may or may not be prominent. A third alternative is acculturation to a economically successful subculture in which education has a high value, traditional language and traditions are valued and maintained, but succeeding generations become English proficient, well-educated, and financially well-off. Members of the succeeding generations may or may not move from the ethnic enclave into the mainstream society in terms of residence, but nearly always do so in terms of work. Each of these pathways is considered a variety of assimilation. 

Studies of Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese enclaves, as well as some African immigrant enclaves, have shown that the children of immigrants who maintain their culture within the U.S. outperform the children of native-born Americans both educationally and financially, even if their immigrant parents were less educated and less financially well-off than the average native-born American. It is these parents and their children who have fostered the term, “the immigrant paradox” in which immigrants with fewer apparent resources than most native-born Americans produce children who are more successful. A strong subculture, which maintains its cultural roots, is part of this pattern of success.

Many immigrants continue to speak their native language as their first choice, and some never become proficient in English. Asian and African immigrants are more likely to arrive being near-proficient in English. Hispanic immigrants are the most likely to not become proficient in English, but the longer they are in the U.S., the more proficient they become and their children virtually all are English-language proficient, a fact which demonstrates that Brokaw’s factual knowledge of young Hispanics was in error. Furthermore, maintaining proficiency in one’s native language while learning English can be superior to forsaking one’s native language entirely. Studies have shown that those immigrants’ children who are proficient in two languages do better in school than those proficient in English only.

One of the issues in the conversation about assimilation is whether or not maintaining cultural enclaves in which one immigrant ethnicity dominates in terms of residents, businesses, and language (e.g. Little Havana, Little Saigon, Koreatown, Chinatown etc), is helpful to assimilation or harmful. The answer is not simple, but appears to be that if the ethnic culture is close-knit and supports education, civic participation, and lawfulness, the children who grow up in that culture tend to do better than most native-born Americans in terms of education and jobs, even though they are likely to leave the enclave after they are adults.

What about those who assimilate to subcultures that are, by almost any standard, less successful in terms of educational and financial achievement, both among new immigrants themselves and their U.S.-born children? Studies of such communities have shown that the same factors that promote success in other immigrant subcultures promote success in the less successful subcultures, i.e. social cohesion, pressures for civic responsibility, local institutional leadership, and absence of discrimination. If these factors are present, then the next generation of these immigrants will also be successful in the wider society, although at lower rates than from other immigrant communities. 

The community into which one attempts to assimilate makes a tremendous difference, but that community, in turn, is strongly affected by the social, legal and economic policies of the larger society. Assimilation into a subculture that is a product of discrimination, which offers flawed institutions such as schools, banks that discriminate in terms of loans to businesses or for home mortgages, and which are poorly and sometimes prejudicially policed, offers little opportunity and certainly much less than is available to other immigrant groups or the majority of native-born Americans (except those who continue to suffer from ongoing racial prejudice and discrimination, i.e. African-Americans).

Assimilation isn’t a dirty word, but ignorance about the reality that there are different patterns of assimilation is not conducive to having an intelligent conversation about the subject. Assimilation is not simply a choice on the part of the immigrant, it depends both on the nature of the subculture to which one belongs and to the behavior of the larger society toward that subculture, so prejudice against and stereotypes about it can be harmful to those who live within such a subculture. There are as many instances where belonging to a cohesive subculture within the United States, even one in which the elder members continue to speak their native language and where the younger members become multilingual as a result, can produce better educational and financial outcomes for those young people than being from the larger society. There are other instances where remaining in a subculture that is discriminated against and is characterized by crime and poverty can hinder young people’s development. Learning English is crucial for most pathways to economic and educational success in the United States, but virtually all young people who grow up in this country, whether from an ethnic subculture or the larger culture, learn English today.

The words of media figures, such as Tom Brokaw, could provide the basis of an informed discussion and debate about the issue he brought up. Instead, all further discussion was squelched as the debate centered on whether, by bringing up the topic of assimilation, he was branding himself a racist and white supremacist. This kind of reaction is hardly conducive to public enlightenment, and so long as we react to such a wide range of ideas as forbidden topics that trigger accusations rather than discussion, we will remain an ignorant nation.

 

 

 

Friday
Jan252019

What Are We Doing in Venezuela?

By any standard, Venezuela is a mess. People are starving, medicine is unavailable, and millions of people, mostly poor, have fled the country. All this despite Venezuela having been South America’s richest country in the past and with it still having sizeable oil deposits to export and sustain its economy. Having visited Venezuela in the past, I also know that it is a beautiful country, fronting on the Caribbean, with beaches, mountains and forests. In terms of natural resources, it remains a rich country. It’s government, plus an international oil market that has faltered, has ruined it.

Hugo Chavez was popular, particularly among his country’s poor, but his policies weakened his country’s economic state and he allowed corruption to dictate way too much of what went on and how the government operated. Nicolas Maduro is worse than Chavez, despite claiming to be his heir. Maduro came to power by assuming the presidency after Chavez’ death. Maduro had been vice president under Chavez. He then won a close election, which observers say was so filled with fraud that it was illegitimate. As president, he had the country’s constitution rewritten and a new legislative body filled with his supporters installed. Neither the United States nor many South American countries, including the Organization of American States, recognized his election or his claim to be president. 

This week, Juan Guaido, the recently elected head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, its main and legitimately elected legislative body, announced that he was claiming the interim presidency of the country and declared Maduro’s election as illegal. He was immediately recognized by the same groups that declined to recognize Maduro, including the U.S., Canada, and the Organization of American States. Maduro ordered U.S. diplomats out of the country and so far they have refused to leave. President Trump has not ruled out military intervention in Venezuela.

Chavez and Maduro belong to the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and are avowed socialists. They were and are both supported by Russia, China, Cuba and other Communist countries. Many of Chavez’ policies were blatantly socialistic. Anti-Communist and anti-Socialist forces within the U.S. are strong supporters of Maduro’s ouster, as many of them were of forcing out Chavez. 

We should not be confused by Maduro’s socialist label. He is an autocrat who has subverted his country’s democratic processes, fostered corruption, and has been totally inept at managing his country’s economy or infrastructure. He was elected by his people, but the legitimacy of that election is in doubt. His failure has not been because of his philosophy of governance, but his dishonesty, ruthlessness and ineptness. What is going on in Venezuela is not a contest between capitalism and socialism. 

The United States has a deeply marred history of interfering in the internal affairs of South and Central American countries, either overtly or covertly. Most of the governments we have helped to overthrow have been leftist ones and most of those we have helped to install have been right wing dictatorships. Our motivations have been ideological and protectionist for American economic interests—preventing nationalization of industries dominated and controlled by American companies has been a guiding principle of our interventions. This is a historical pattern that all South American leaders are aware of, as are their people, and one that we must be extremely careful of not falling into again in the case of Venezuela.

As Americans, including our elected leaders in congress and in the administration, observe what is happening in Venezuela, we have to be cautious in how we frame the conflict going on in the country and how we see our role in it. We must not absorb what is happening in Venezuela into our own ongoing political contest between progressives who are friendly toward socialist policies and conservatives who defend capitalism at every opportunity and are horrified of anything that has a socialist ring to it. That’s not the issue in Venezuela right now. We also cannot put protection of American economic interests ahead of regard for another country’s sovereignty. We cannot afford to frame this as a contest of influence between America and Russia or China. And a bottom line is that we cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into a military engagement, which decimates another country’s people and infrastructure and brands us as international bullies.

Juan Guaido and the forces he represents may turn out to be a good interim answer in the quest to get Venezuela back on its feet. We can support him if he gains the presidency or if his party succeeds in ousting Maduro. We can’t become the deciding factor in replacing Venezuela’s leader, because that role needs to come from the people inside the country. Our efforts for regime change in Iraq and Syria and Libya ought to have taught us that such a mission is fraught with danger and leads to disaster. Let Venezuela take charge of is own effort to solve its problems. 

 

Thursday
Jan242019

America First in the Era of Cyber Connectivity

Russian and Chinese agents and hackers, intruding into U.S. social media such as Facebook and businesses such as Marriott Hotels, have heightened Americans’ awareness of the vulnerabilities associated with our modern methods of exchanging information. The Internet is a worldwide system. Access to content from outside of one’s country is common and necessary for anyone in business, academia, healthcare, defense and a variety of other fields. The companies that do our business are often international in operation. Undesirable information from outside a country is problematic for countries that restrict freedom to gather or convey information for their citizens. China, Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and many other non-democracies attempt to severely restrict Internet access and the types of information available to their people, while their citizens and information providers continually attempt to circumvent such controls. For democracies such as the U.S. and European countries, more open access allows terrorist groups and foreign agents to reach their citizens with information that is potentially dangerous or destabilizing for their countries. 

Democratic countries struggle with how to restrict potentially dangerous information while maintaining freedom of expression, and companies such as Google and Facebook struggle with whether they should agree to restrictions on the types of information they can provide when they operate in countries such as China or Vietnam. They have even been asked to provide information on their users’ activities in those countries, and, as we have seen from Facebook revelations, they have provided information either to the government or to other commercial companies on their users’ activities even in our own country.

The 5G network, which is rapidly coming to most developed markets, will increase most of the problems cited above, with greater opportunities for hackers to enter the system because of its greater number of access points.  Because of its vastly increased transmission speed, cars, medical devices, and almost any type of robotic or data collection device will be connected to the system. The companies that provide the 5G equipment, are also under suspicion, particularly Huawei from China, about installing means for agents, in the case of Huawei, the Chinese government, to use their equipment for spying. 

This week cybersecurity experts from around the world are meeting in Lille, France  at the International Cybersecurity Forum, and at the same time the World Economic Forum is being held in Davos, Switzerland. Both conferences have generated calls for international cooperation and greater international regulation of the use of our new information technology. Not all the recommendations are for common standards or regulatory actions. China is asking for some common regulatory standards but wants to protect its ability to restrict its citizens access to information. France has discussed “cyber defense” as a new type of warfare and announced its intention to use “cyber arms as all other traditional weapons… to respond and attack” its enemies. In other words, hacking and otherwise intruding into the cyberspace of enemies is a legitimate, perhaps necessary form of offensive weaponry. The U.S. notoriously, and successfully, used a cyber offensive to disrupt Iran’s nuclear facility and, according to Edward Snowden, infiltrated Chinese mobile phone providers and Huawei headquarter’s servers. China has been accused of hacking into Google and other U.S. companies to steal intellectual property as well as hacking into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to steal personnel records of U.S. government employees.

As businesses become more dependent upon super fast networks to conduct their international operations, there will have to be agreed upon rules for how information is delivered and shared or security issues will rapidly get out of control. These same networks, used for news and social media, will increase their disruptiveness of the political and domestic lives within countries. It will be hard to enforce different standards for different regions of the world.

Although repressive governments such as China, Vietnam and Russia may seek to wall themselves off from the worldwide web, the very nature of cybercommunication and the common use of the Internet make this a case where “build a wall” makes even less sense than it does as a method of keeping people out of a country. The alternative is international cooperation and agreed upon regulations, probably as few as are necessary to insure a minimum, but safe level of security. Cyberwarfare, at its worst, can rob a country of its power, its healthcare, its transportation, its financial resources and its ability to defend itself. International rules, such as apply to chemical warfare, need to be enacted to restrict the actions that can be taken using cyber weaponry. Everyone needs to agree to punish a country that violates international regulations and every country needs to agree to punish their own citizens for illegal actions that disrupt other countries or their citizens.

A connected world cannot act as a conglomeration of independent states, each with its own set of rules and regulations, since by its very nature, the new internet and communication technology will not stay within a country’s borders. As we all become even more Internet dependent, this will be true of more and more areas of our lives.

 

Saturday
Jan192019

Does Free Speech Have Territorial Limits?

Recently, demands by foreign governments, such as China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia that U.S. owned internet sites, including Google, Twitter, Facebook and Netflix conform to these countries’ laws on censorship have produced a lot of controversy, both within and external to the companies who are deciding how to respond to such demands. Among those making comments, a strong voice is heard for the need for these companies to  “stand up” for the American value of freedom of speech. This raises issues of whether this value is one that is relative to the country in question or whether it should be regarded as a universal value, i.e. an “inalienable right.”

The controversy with regard to internet-based companies is complicated, because it often involves at least two questions: should a media provider follow the laws of the country in which its product is being offered if those laws violate American values? and should a media provider provide information to the government of the country to assist that country in tracking down those who seek or post what they consider subversive material? These are two very different issues.

It is ordinary for companies who do business in countries that are not where they are located to follow the laws of that country. We fully expect foreign countries to comply with our laws in the United States as a condition for them doing business within our borders. Companies that do not do so have been prosecuted and punished by U.S. courts. But United States laws regarding freedom of speech and expression are broader and more permissive than any other country’s.  Hate speech based on race or religion is an example. While hate speech is publicly condemned and often censored by media companies, it is not illegal in the United States, and so we can have websites and media organizations that do post hate speech and are allowed to do so. Hate speech is illegal, however, in most European countries, including notoriously permissive Finland, where both hate speech and blasphemy of any religion are prohibited, France prohibits not only hate speech, but also insulting its flag, its national anthem or any public official, which is similar to Germany, which prohibits disparagement of the Federal President or state symbols and insulting any religion. Many European countries forbid Holocaust Denial. 

In China, Vietnam, Russia, and many Middle Eastern or African countries, freedom of speech is severely restricted, especially with regard to sexual content, criticism of the government, praise for alternative forms of government and, in many countries, especially predominantly Muslim ones, criticism of religion, religious figures or religious organizations (but this is also true in several European countries that are predominantly Christian). Many of these restrictions seem foreign and unnatural to Americans, but should we demand that they not be enforced against American companies that do business in those countries? The arguments that those countries’ governments make can be convincing, for instance when Russia prohibits access to gambling sites, alcohol sales sites and some pornography sites. Insult to Mohammed or the Koran is a serious offense in most Muslim countries and isn’t it their right to enforce laws prohibiting such insults (even some European countries also have similar prohibitions against insulting Christianity or other religions)? It seems to me that pushing our freedom of speech laws onto other countries is both myopic about cultural differences and is not something that commercial internet companies should be expected to do or be criticized if they agree to restrictions that would not apply in the U.S.

Turning over information to another country about those who violate its laws by posting or searching for banned or suspicious content, which China and Vietnam have asked companies to do, is quite another matter. Doing so makes the commercial company that does it complicit in that country’s restriction of freedom and violates what would be allowed in the United States. This is more than foisting our values onto another country; it is becoming a tool of that country’s oppression of its people. It is qualitatively different than not carrying content or allowing searches that violate a country’s laws.

I would welcome further discussion about this topic, which is not clear-cut in terms of the ethics of the situation.

 

Friday
Jan182019

Paying the People Who Teach Our Children

Teachers play a crucial role in American society. For most of our children’s education about science, mathematics, history, government, literature and the arts and even a venue for athletics and social interaction, we depend upon our schools, and at the heart of our schools are the teachers. Watching my children, grandchildren, and now my nieces and nephews go through the public school system, both its mainstream and its special programs, I have mostly been impressed with the quality of the experience and especially the quality and dedication of the teachers. As part of all of these children’s family or extended family, I realize how much I have relied upon teachers to teach all of these family members the things they need to know to thrive in our society. It is not an overstatement to say that our children's teachers are the most important influences on their lives second to family.

The public education system is the best bargain we get in our society, but it is in jeopardy. For the most part, the quality of the education your children are going to receive is dependent upon where you live. Local funding, state funding, neighborhood culture including safety, and donations by parents determine the quality of the education a child receives. America ranks relatively high in most surveys of per pupil expenditures for elementary and secondary education among developed countries—anywhere from second to fifth. Teacher salaries rank nearly the same. However, according to a National Center for Education Studies, in 2016, salaries of 25-29 year old graduates with bachelor’s in education or elementary education were paid less (around 40,000 per year) than 22-26 of the 32 fields of study surveyed, about 8,000/year or 17% below the median, despite their unemployment rate of 2.1% being the lowest, except for nursing, of all the fields. Teacher salaries and per pupil expenditures vary widely across the United States because of education funding being dependent primarily upon local sources, and in Los Angeles, salaries for new teachers (including benefits) are closer to $55,000 per year, about a third higher than the national average. The cost of living in Los Angeles exceeds the national average by almost 50%.

Teachers are exceedingly important for the well-being of our society and their low unemployment numbers suggest that they are in high demand. Their salaries don’t reflect this, and, in Southern California, where the cost of living is very high, they are, by most standards, underpaid. In addition, as numerous teachers and any parent can attest to, teachers spend long hours both in and out of the classroom doing their jobs, paying for many of their classroom supplies, and many offer after and before school help to their students for no extra pay. 

School districts have many sources of funds, most of which are based on average daily attendance, so the number of students is a strong determiner of how much and where the money for education goes. This has led to the argument that charter schools, which have burgeoned from 10 in LA in 2000-2001 to 228 in 2016-2017, are robbing our traditional public schools of funding. Charter schools are public schools, supported by public education funds, are free to their students, but are less regulated and usually not unionized in terms of their staff. Charter schools are not the same as voucher programs, which allow families to choose schools, even private schools, and often remove funds completely from the public school system and put in in the private sector.

Most unionized teachers and many of us who support unions in general and traditional public schools as the backbone of our public educational system, tend to be opposed to the growth of charter schools because of their competition for funds with traditional public schools. Many people also argue that they provide a deficient educational experience, compared to traditional public schools, primarily because they follow fewer regulations. It turns out that this is mostly wrong. The gold standard Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which uses charter school and traditional public school students matched on relevant variables, in both national, state and local studies, has consistently shown that charter schools outperform traditional public schools (TPS), especially for some types of students. CREDO produced a report in 2014 on Los Angeles Public Schools, comparing student achievement to matched students in traditional public schools  (TPS).

The CREDO study results were striking. Students enrolled in charter schools showed statistically significant growth beyond their TPS matched controls in and this was true of every type of student (White, Asian, Black, Hispanic, in poverty, English language learners) except those who had a history of being retained or were special education students. White, Asian and English language learner children in charter schools exceeded their TPS counterparts only in reading and not in math, while Black and Hispanic students whether or not in poverty, exceeded those in TPS in both reading and math.  The positive gains for charter school attendance held for urban and suburban schools and at elementary, middle and high school levels. The results were substantial, and often reflected a third of more of a year’s progress difference, especially if the students were from families in poverty compared to similar TPS students.

Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions, although California teachers are not particularly underpaid relative to other states’ teachers, although in our urban and some of our suburban areas the high cost of living reduces their effective salaries.  Teachers are in demand and have both low salaries and low unemployment, defying the law of supply and demand, probably because they are limited by requiring public money for their salaries and must compete against many other public interests. That they receive such low salaries compared to other professions may reflect either lack of respect for the profession among the public or simply resistance to public spending and the greater taxes that would be needed to increase their salaries.

Curtailing the growth of charter schools is not an answer to better funding for the TPS system, nor for increasing TPS teachers’ salaries, especially since charter schools have such positive results. It may be that regulations for charter schools need to be strengthened, although that remains to be proven. What definitely is true is that we need to elevate the status and income of teachers and this means we need to invest more money in both our TPS and charter school systems and raise teacher salaries to match their worth in our children’s lives. It is incredible that people who play such an important role in shaping each new generation of Americans are compensated so little, relative to their worth. Such increases in salary and education funding will take changing the public’s willingness to pay more, not just protests against the existing administration of the system.

 

 

Monday
Jan142019

College Education in America: The Facts

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times describing the plight of a rural Midwestern public university that was eliminating some of its liberal arts and humanities majors and faculty in order to accommodate the more “practical” needs of its students and in response to a shrinking student body, which was partially attributed to falling birth rates and partially to young people leaving the area for the city. The article suggested that this might be a pattern that was becoming typical of other public universities. I decided to do some research to determine if this was a pattern in American post-secondary education.

Is college and university attendance growing or shrinking in the U.S?

Overall college and university graduation has been increasing slightly each year with an increase of about a million students every ten years for the last 25 years and only projected to slow very slightly through 2027 (Statista). Enrollment increased faster between 1965 and 1990 and jumped during 2010 and 2011, probably due to job opportunities falling and young adults choosing college instead of a job during this latter period. About 75% of students are enrolled in public institutions and 25% in private universities or colleges. From 2000-01 to 2015-16, enrollment in associate degree programs increased at a higher rate (74%) than the increase in enrollment in bachelor degree programs (54%) (National Center for Education Statistics, NCES).

Not only are the raw numbers of college graduates continuing to increase, the percentage of young adults with post-secondary degrees is increasing. A higher percentage of females than males obtain associate, bachelor’s and even post-graduate degrees, and this difference has widened between 2000 and 2017 (NCES). In terms of ethnicity, a higher percentage of Asians obtain college degrees, although the percentages for Asians has remained stable between 2000 and 2017, while substantially increasing for all other ethnicities (except Native Americans), narrowing the gap between Asians and all others, but with the gaps between White an Black and White and Hispanic remaining the same, despite all of these ethnicities making substantial increases. In the total population of U.S. people between the ages of 25-29, the percentage with an associate degree or higher increased from 38% to 46% between 2000 and 2017, and the percentage who obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 29% to 36%. Having a college degree or even just some college education was associated with greater likelihood of employment than just having a high school diploma, and this difference increased between 2000 and 2017 (NCES). For the year 2016, having an associate degree increased average income by 20% over having a high school diploma, and having a bachelor’s degree increased average income by 57% for people in the 25-34 year old age range. These differences narrowed slightly between 2000 and 2016, and at that time all incomes had declined from 2000 levels, reflecting the continuing effects of the recession (NCES), although the recent growth in employment and wages may have brought these levels back up.

How does family income affect obtaining a college degree in the U.S.?

Parents and students themselves in the U.S.still pay for the lion’s share (47%) of college education through income and savings according to a 2018 study by Sallie Mae. Parents’ income and savings covered 34% of the costs and student income and savings covered 13% of the cost. Scholarships and grants covered 28% of college costs and borrowing covered 24%, with parent borrowing covering 10% and student borrowing covering 14%. These figures suggest that family income is a strong factor in determining who obtains a college degree, and a 2016 report from Johns Hopkins University confirmed this. Young people whose families fall in the lowest economic quartile in the U.S. graduated from college at a 14% rate while those from the highest quartile had a 60% college degree rate. Even comparing students with similar high school grade and test score levels, found a 33% differences in college graduation rates between low SES and high SES students, suggesting that differences in academic preparation  is a factor, but not the major factor in determining the effects of SES on college graduation rates. The Johns Hopkins report indicates that major factors affecting college completion rates as a function of income are the cost, the need to balance work and school for low income students, and attendance at institutions with lower graduation rates among low income students. 

What are U.S. students studying and has that changed?

According to NCES, at the bachelor’s degree level, degrees in business have been increasing and represent 19% of degrees awarded in 2015-16, although degrees in health professions and related programs have shown the largest increase and now represent 12% of all degrees conferred. Biological and biomedical sciences and engineering, as well as psychology have all shown an increase in awarded degrees from 2000-01 to 2015-16. Social sciences and history increased degrees from 200-01 to 2011-12, then decreased up to 2015-16, although still representing 8% of all degrees conferred, which remains more than any other field except business or health professions. Overall, 18 % of bachelor’s degrees were awarded in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Associate degrees show a different picture than bachelor’s degrees with 38% of degrees awarded in liberal arts, sciences, general studies and humanities, which were also the fields showing the greatest increase in degrees conferred between 2000-01 and 2015-16. Health professions and related programs showed a steady increase in degrees from 2000-01 to 2011-12, then a drop that continued through 2015-16. Only 8% of associate degrees were conferred in STEM fields in 2015-16.

While one would think that two-year degrees might be more in technical areas related to, for instance, computer science, the fact that they are often in liberal arts or general studies and seldom in STEM fields is surprising.  Perhaps this reflects students who are planning to transfer taking distributive courses outside of their major while at community colleges, or perhaps community colleges offer fewer STEM courses. It’s not clear to me, but having seen my son obtain a single year of intensive training in IT technology and becoming fully employable and well-paid (better than his Ph.D father), I can’t see why more students wouldn’t obtain a two-year degree in a technical field, and I don’t know what they would do with a two-year liberal arts education if that’s where they stop.

Do ethnicity or gender affect choice of major?

The statistics also show what was, for me, a surprising finding that our stereotypes about race and gender as it relates to higher education are pretty accurate. Compared to men, women predominate in multidisciplinary studies, health professions, liberal arts, and general studies, and psychology, while men predominate in computer science and engineering. Gender numbers are balanced in social sciences and history. In terms of race, Asians are substantially overrepresented in STEM fields, at both the associate degree level and the bachelor’s degree level.

Conclusions

American colleges and universities are not suffering a loss of students, nor are they expected to in the next ten years. Neither are liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences becoming passé as majors, although there has been a slight decline in degrees awarded in these fields since 2012, but they still make up a sizeable share of the student body.

We often hear that college is not for everyone and that a flaw in our American attitudes about education is that it regards a four-year college degree as a qualification for success when other, more technical or practical training programs could better meet the needs of many of our young people. It remains true, however, that obtaining a college degree, particularly a bachelor’s degree or higher has a strong positive effect on likelihood of employment and on income in the U.S. 

College and university education is not changing much, at least in terms of enrollment, degrees and fields of study and who goes to college and obtains a degree, but college is still expensive and family income is a major determinant in who gets a degree. Most U.S. students attend public colleges and universities. Although these may be less costly than private institutions, cost is still a major factor in determining who attends and who graduates from college. The largest source of funds in paying for college remains parental income and savings. Academically strong students from high income families are two times more likely to graduate from college than similarly academically strong students from low income families, and the ability to pay for college as well as choice of college if one does attend college are major factors determining these differences.

What also stands out is that two-year degrees don’t seem to meet the needs of people who stop their education at that point. A “well-rounded” education, which includes a good dose of humanities, social sciences and other liberal studies is still obtained by most graduates, but the failure of our two year institutions to provide STEM related associate degrees to the students who attend them is difficult to understand.

Reducing college costs and/or increasing financial assistance could narrow the gap in college graduation rates between rich and poor families. But it’s also true that in our current system, poorer students who often aim for associate degrees, often major in fields that don’t lead directly to better employment.  Our two-year degree programs are not responding to needs in the  STEM fields, and are mostly providing degrees in non-specific general studies, humanities, and liberal arts.

In my opinion, liberal arts social science and humanities education remain important even if more students, particularly those who attend two-year schools, need to major in STEM fields. I regarded some of my humanities courses in history, literature and philosophy as the most worthwhile parts of my education in terms of enriching the overall quality of my life and sharpening my critical thinking and appreciation of a wide variety of viewpoints.  When our social and political system requires that its citizens be informed about history and learn how to detect their own biases and how to evaluate arguments and data it is still desirable that as many of our citizens as possible receive an education that gives them the background and skills to do these things. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Fund and others, have found that “millennials” are woefully uninformed about history, government, science and even about our American constitution (see my earlier article: “How to Combat Russian [and Others’] Misinformation"). Remember that only a little over a third of Americans of this age have a four-year college degree. A lot of broad education can get done in high school, and this is another reason to not turn high school into purely vocational or technical training and, in our technology dominated society, make at least two-year technical/science education after high school more accessible and more typical.

Many people have their own opinions and goals with regard to our United States post-secondary educational system, but I hope that this essay will provide them with some fact-based information to inform their opinions.

 

 

 

 

Monday
Jan072019

We Have Met the Enemy and...

A recent series of articles in the New York Times has revealed that progressive Democrats, who supported, but were not connected to the Doug Jones campaign against Judge Roy Moore for the Alabama senatorial seat, mounted at least two “false flag” operations to discredit Moore. Both operations, funded for $100,000 each, used social media—Facebook and Twitter— to post fake ads that tried to divide Republican voters in an effort to help Jones’ chances in the election. In one operation, a group of Democratic supporters which included Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and Jonathan Morgan, CEO of a cybersecurity firm called New Knowledge, which has provided the government with information on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, pretended to be Republicans who supported an alternative candidate to Judge Moore and also managed to get Russian bots to respond to the Moore campaign, giving the impression that he was a favorite of the Russians. The group who mounted the operation claimed it was an “experiment” to see how Russian-style tactics worked in a real election. Hoffman of LinkedIn claimed to have no knowledge that his money was being used in a fake campaign and issued an apology and disavowal of such tactics.

 The second operation, whose funders remain anonymous, according the NYT, employed progressive media consultants, including Matt Osborne and Beth Becker, as well as Evan Coren, whom the NYT identified as an employee of the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives. This operation developed a Facebook page and Twitter account called  “Dry Alabama,” which posed as conservative Republicans who wanted to illegalize the sale of alcohol in Alabama. Its aim was to drive a wedge between Republican business interests who opposed alcohol prohibition, and fundamentalist Christian Republicans who favored it, as an effort to split Moore supporters. 

The money for both operations was funneled through an organization called Investing in Us, whose mission is, according to their website, “to bring entrepreneurs and investors to join the resistance in fighting for the American dream.” They say,  “We know from experience how individual liberty and the rule of law can build a prosperous future.” Dmitri Mehlhorn, co-founder and managing partner of Investing in Us and a fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute, who has helped a number of progressive candidates including LA’s mayor Eric Garcetti, may or may not have known how the money that went through his company was spent.

Doug Jones, the Democrat who narrowly won the election, has denounced the fake media operations and called for an investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators. Matt Osborne, who worked on the “Dry Alabama” campaign, told the NYT, that he thinks Republicans use similar methods and, “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back. You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”

The revelation that Democrats—not the Party itself, but some of its well-connected progressive supporters—have used the same devious tactics that they accuse Russia of using, and which they say requires a federal investigation, is appalling. The claim that Republicans do the same thing (without evidence of the truth of such claims), so that makes it legitimate to “fight fire with fire” is ludicrous, since the arguments against such tactics are usually phrased as moral and ethical ones and the reason for deploring or even prosecuting them is to preserve the integrity of our election process. What I find as appalling and even more frightening is that the commentary to the Times’ articles has included many who are strongly in favor of such tactics. Typical of such comments are, '”It’s hard to get worked up about dirty tricks "false flag" operations that may or may not have helped defeat a truly heinous candidate for the US Senate,” or “There are thousands of instances of the GOP using these tactics. It’s awful but it’s the system right now: you can’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” The consensus of those who support such tactics seems to be that winning is more important than how you play the game, because the Republican opponents represent enough “evil” to justify using whatever means are necessary. 

You can’t preserve the moral high ground by abandoning it. Progressive values have always included a strong moral component: wealth doesn’t bring happiness if it's accompanied by the poverty of millions; keeping us safe from threat isn’t right if it necessitates keeping those who suffer injustice and danger from finding refuge within our borders. You can’t cheat to assist a candidate with honorable values gain office. Your efforts become tainted by your own dishonesty. The current administration provides an easy target for opponents to point their fingers and say that the ends justify the means in fighting it. But they don’t. Pointing out that our opponent has done as bad or worse is not a justification for our own misbehavior. If we succumb to such tactics and behavior then, in the immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

 

 

 

 

Saturday
Jan052019

Humility is as Good as Self-Righteousness

A provocative opinion column in the New York Times by author Judith Shulevitz about the morality clauses many writers are now being asked to sign before publication of their works struck home with me. She points out that publishers can now often cancel or withdraw book contracts if the writer  “becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals,” in, for instance, the words of a contract with Condé Nast magazines. We've seen the same thing in other areas of art and entertainment, such as the cancellation of Kevin Spacey’s, contract on House of Cards for alleged sexual misconduct, or Roseanne’s removal from her television series after a racist tweet. Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson have suffered similar fates. 

Most of us agree that an entertainment company has the right to fire a public personality who behaves immorally if that person violates the company's own ethical policies, harms his or her fellow employees, or behaves in a way that detracts from the product in which she or she is featured. The current social climate seems to demand that the mere accusation of such behavior requires immediate suspension of the accused, which pushes the limits of intolerance and fairness, since there are bound to be some situations in which the accusations are groundless. 

Artists who are not entertainers and do not have a public persona that portrays them in a certain light, are public figures only by virtue of their works. Numerous of our greatest artists of the past not only violated the social norms of their time but were sometimes jailed because of that. Composers going back to Haydn and forward to Barber, Britten and Bernstein were gay when being gay was not only frowned upon, but also illegal in many places. So were writers such as Wilde, Proust, Baldwin and Capote and artists such as Hockney, Warhol and Haring. Hemingway, London, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and two of my favorites, Chandler and Hammett, were all chronic alcoholics, and R. L. Stevenson, Philip K. Dick, Aldous Huxley and Baudelaire used drugs. Many writers, such as Algren, O’Henry, Dostoevsky, and London spent time in jail.

The act of producing art, even morally profound art, is not reserved for those who are morally pure themselves. If that were so, we would not only be robbed of some of our greatest art, but perhaps of any art at all. An artist’s life is no more moral than that of any of the rest of us, and we all have moral lapses and make ethical mistakes at some times in our lives. A society that is so self-righteous and intolerant that it demands that anyone who produces something for public consumption be morally above reproach is being hypocritical.

Our modern society no longer punishes homosexuality, at least not officially, and in fact, anti-gay speech may result in harm to a public figure’s career (e.g. Kevin Hart). The changing attitudes toward homosexuality and gender identity, which have taken place in the last few decades, ought to be a warning to all of us that social mores are culturally defined and subject to attitudinal changes. It’s not an exaggeration to say that profound art outlives cultural attitudes and often transcends them across cultures. Our self-righteous indignation and intolerance should not blind us to appreciating the beautiful artistic achievements that can be produced by deeply flawed human beings. Suppressing the art of those who don’t meet our moral standards can have long-term negative consequences for the quality of our society. 

 

 

Thursday
Jan032019

Power Politics and the Border Wall

One quarter of the U.S. government is either shut down or working without pay. These are real people and real services being affected, as are the ordinary citizens who rely on them. Neither the president nor Democratic congressional leaders appear ready to back down from their stated positions. Both blame the other side’s recalcitrance for the government shutdown. 

We’re all hopeful and even optimistic that a compromise will be found that provides a way out of the present stalemate and reopens the government. We’re optimistic because such shutdowns, which have become almost commonplace in recent years, are always solved, eventually.

Everyone is handwringing and blaming the other. Both sides are playing to their bases and accusing the other of doing just that. Many of us are members of one of the other of those bases, and most of us are no more willing to give up our position than are the negotiators who represent us. Many people are convinced of the necessity of a wall and at least an equal number of people are equally convinced that it is unnecessary and a symbol of malignant immigration policies. For either side to give in is regarded as a sign of weakness and ideological insecurity.

Compromise, tradeoffs, horse-trading, and even bluffing are time-honored negotiating strategies in politics. Watch Steven Spielberg’ film, “Lincoln” to see how this worked during the administration of one of our greatest presidents at a time when our nation was truly in a crisis. So, in some sense, the present situation is just par for the course. A minor blip in the course of running the government in a democracy.  Look at the U.K., were the Brexit question has paralyzed the British government. That’s a bigger problem than our current shutdown. But pointing out that other governments are in worse shape than we are doesn’t solve our problem here at home.

How are standoffs resolved? The answer is almost always compromise; a solution that allows both sides to give a little while saving face. Yesterday’s meeting between the president and congressional leaders had none of that. Both sides simply reiterated their earlier positions, with the Democrats also proposing to put forward a bill to reopen the government and postpone the border security question until later. The president rejected that proposal. 

A “no money for the wall” proposal is equally stubborn as a “five billion for a wall or nothing” proposal. Democrats can increase their monetary offer and insist on the money being spent only after a thorough and transparent assessment of the best way to enhance border security, without insisting on ruling out a wall. The president can accept the idea that he will use the appropriated money in the most logical way possible, given the results of such a study. It’s likely that such studies already exist, so we’re not talking about going back to the drawing board. We could get a wall, a better fence, more fence, more border guards—whatever experts have determined will work best for different parts of the border. 

There are a number of ways a compromise could be reached on the border security issue and its funding level. The politicians are playing to their bases and we, who belong to those bases, are being as irrational and stubborn as they are. It’s our wrath they are afraid of. We all need to learn to compromise if we want our government to work.

Tuesday
Jan012019

Thoughts for 2019

As  2019 begins, I face it with both hope and trepidation. I’m just an ordinary citizen, in charge of nothing, except through my vote in electing my political representatives. That vote is powerful, as we found out in the 2018 elections and as I personally found out when the Democratic congressional candidate for whom I made phone calls and knocked on doors beat a 30-year right wing Republican incumbent in one of the most traditionally Republican districts in the country. And the same thing happened in a lot of places. That’s one of my sources of hope. Another is the gradual acceptance of more progressive views within the mainstream Democratic Party, although their competition from voices of caution and moderation may quiet them or throw the party into destructive division. In my own neighborhood of Orange County, California, Asian and Latino young voters made themselves heard as they voted in larger numbers (still not large enough) than in the past, and supported liberal and progressive candidates. 

The trepidation comes from many sources: climate change and U.S. foreign policy are two areas where we find ourselves, as a nation, heading down fruitless and destructive paths. Closer to home, watching all the promising, eager young people around me facing bleak futures in terms of affording a place to live, while those with more meager means join the legions of homeless wandering our urban streets, worries me. I see little avenues for progress in terms of housing our citizens, at least in our major urban centers, particularly on the two coasts. Those who already have housing, don’t want to build more of it—it congests their streets and ruins their views and their skyline. Politicians, even liberal ones, are generally afraid to challenge property owners who support low-growth restrictions on building. We advertise our progressive views by calling our cities “sanctuaries,” but there is no place but the streets or a property owner’s garage for those who make low salaries, are service industry workers who provide the luxuries for the rest of us, but can’t make ends meet.

The nation seems to be accepting the reality of man-made climate change, but our elected leaders and government agencies are moving backwards to fight it. A minority of the population fights against accepting the reality doing nonsensical things such as blocking access to charging stations for electric cars and accusing the scientific world of being engaged in a conspiracy, while fighting or resurrecting a coal industry that can’t sustain itself economically. The world in general is moving too slowly to stop the oceans from rising, the temperatures from warming, and the weather from worsening and courting the population shift disasters that will ensue from these things. Even cognizant Americans continue to buy gas guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks, while our government lowers mileage standards for our vehicles.

Our foreign policy is in chaos, although to be truthful, it has been unfocused or disastrous for decades, and other than being disorganized, today’s foreign policy is no worse than yesterdays. None of us, including our government has a good idea of what we are doing in either Afghanistan or Syria. The critical voices of our policies are as often hawks who want to fight Russia or Iran wherever they have influence, regardless of the likelihood of winning anything as they are doves who want us to quit fighting on the side of those who are as bad as our enemies and to quit supplying support and munitions to those that wantonly kill civilians. Nobody has a vision of what our world position ought to be. This same confusion extends to our economic and diplomatic positions. The only voices that achieve coherence, even if not being sensible, are those who favor isolationism or those who seem to want global business to determine what’s good for the world. Even progressive politicians, for all their criticism of our current policies offer no reasonable vision of how we ought to be fitting into, much less leading, the world. 

2019 promises to a tumultuous year on the political front with a divided congress and both sides eager to stick it to the other and no one thinking of the long-term good of the country. It marks the beginning of the political season for the 2020 elections, and both individuals and groups will be stepping forward to present their cases. I am trepidatious, but hopeful that some of them will think critically and put the real problems we face ahead of their zeal to capture a headline or damage their opponents. 

We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m hoping for good and improved health for myself and my family and friends, no financial worries, great jobs for my young relatives, and happiness for all.

Wednesday
Dec262018

Birth Rates, Immigration, Robotization and Climate change

When I was in college—fifty years ago—the rapidly growing world population was one of the biggest threats to the future of humanity and our planet. Biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book, “The Population Bomb” was a best-seller. Predictions were dire and most concluded that social changes could not be made rapidly enough to stave off overpopulation. Today, there are few voices raising an alarm about the size of the population—in fact, most of the alarms are related to falling birth rates in countries which are already at or below the replacement rate and are worrying about young workers to support an aging population. Most predictions are that the population will level off near the end of this century and remain stable or begin falling by 2100. 

No one is sure why fertility rates decline in urban, developed countries, only that they do. Even within the countries with the largest populations—India and China—the fertility rate in urban centers is below the replacement rate, although that is not true in the rural areas. China is alarmed enough about its low birth rate that it not only abandoned its one-child policy, it now offers incentives for larger families, as does Japan, which, for the third year, did not reach even one million births and is already suffering from too few workers to support its older citizens. Only in the least developed countries, almost entirely in Africa, is population growing, and as the African continent becomes more urbanized, most population scientists are confident that it will begin to show lessening population growth and eventually level off.

In developed countries such as those in Europe or the United States, population growth, when it is occurring, is largely due to immigration. The influx of new people from foreign cultures, with their own languages and often, religions, combined with either poorly developed technical skills of the kind needed in today’s modern countries, or discrimination in hiring that keeps many of them unemployed, has created politically explosive social pressures within the countries that receive these immigrants. At the same time, the most well-trained technical and scientific members of developing societies are migrating to developed countries that are hungry for young, talented workers, creating a “brain drain” in many developing countries. In the United States, more than a quarter of all new businesses are started by immigrants and nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were begun by immigrants or their children. A quarter of the U.S. engineering and technology companies started between 2006-2012 had at least one immigrant as a key founder of that company. 

At the same time, the United States, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Macedonia, Austria and France have built or begun building walls to keep out immigrants.

Beginning with Malthus, and including Ehrlich, most population alarmists have focused on food production as the factor that would create the biggest crisis with an every-growing population. Food production has kept up with population growth, although distribution of food to all segments of the world population has not and we still have famines, caused as often by man-made conditions such as war as by climate. That may be changing as droughts and floods become more prevalent due to climate change. Common sense tells us that an increasing population causes more pollution and climate-heating carbon emissions, and the industries involved in raising a country’s economic level add to this. More cars and more fossil fuel powered electricity generating plants are a major source of carbon emissions. 

Many of those alarmed in countries with falling birth rates are concerned about the economic consequences of having an older population without a sizeable tax-producing young workforce. At the same time, they do not want an influx of unskilled migrant workers who might not contribute as much as they cost to support with social programs. While the latter equation of cost vs. tax benefit is largely a fiction, not supported by facts, it is realistic enough to spur anti-immigrant feelings among current citizens. An alternative solution to the dearth of young workers in what are becoming highly technical industries is the use of robots or automation to replace human workers. This has occurred already in some industries, such as auto-making and retail clerking. Of course robots don’t pay taxes, so our tax structures would need to change to take into account replacement of human workers by robots. Nevertheless, large scale replacement of humans by robots in the workplace seems like a viable way to adjust to a shrinking population. Japan has even replaced home health care workers with robots in caring for its elder citizens. Battery-powered robots would also produce a smaller carbon footprint, most of it related probably to their manufacture.

Some population and climate specialists have minimized the effects that lowering the world’s population would have on human-produced climate change. However, such speculations have used modest reductions in population as the basis for their predictions, and have not taken into account all the human-related sources of carbon and methane emissions. A accelerated radical reduction in population—much more than a leveling out—would produce less need for automobiles, for heating and air-conditioning, for manufacturing, for the use of livestock for food (which produces its own methane emissions) and would allow us to leave more virgin forests in place and even replace some that have been removed for farming or housing. 

Saving our planet requires many simultaneous actions. One of those that is appearing to happen naturally (and no one is completely sure why) is the reduction in birth rates in developed urbanized population centers that is eventually destined to reduce our world population. Spurring this process along and not trying to mitigate it for short-term economic considerations could be very helpful in fighting climate change. Welcoming the robotization or automation of some industries would take the economic burden off of population growth as a remedy for having fewer young workers. Investment in non-human intensive industries that don’t use fossil fuels, would allow developing countries to curtail their own population growth. Stopping wars in Africa and the Middle East and drug trafficking in Central America and Mexico would also lower immigration of unskilled workers into the United States. 

Developed countries must take the lead in terms of curbing their own emissions, assisting less developed countries to modernize their countries without creating greater pollution, stopping instead of supporting wars, and working on international problems such as drug trafficking instead of building walls to keep drugs and people out. Population shrinkage can be a major factor in reducing climate change, but only within a larger context of working on these other issues as well as continued efforts to find ways to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint. The future has possibilities and walls and wars and building up our own population through increasing the birth rate are not solutions that will help. 

 

Friday
Dec212018

Against Ideological Conformity

Once again, reading David Brooks’ column in the New York Times has led me in a productive direction. This time, Brooks, in an opinion piece titled, “A New Center Being Born,” cited a position paper by the Niskanen Center, a think tank of largely former libertarians, which makes a strong argument in favor of empiricism and moderation over ideological orthodoxy in choosing a direction for our country. This is a position I have often championed, so I decided I needed to read the paper, which has the title, “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes.”

The basis of the paper as described by Brooks, is that “People with single all-explaining ideologies have a tendency to let their philosophic blinders distort how they view empirical reality.” Despite voluminous historical evidence that adherence to ideological purity as a guide to politics or governance has resulted in economic and political failures, and often in tyrannies, many people nowadays continue to make such adherence the backbone of their political stances and litmus tests for which programs or politicians they will support. Perhaps at no time in our country’s history has this been more true than today, where not only do conservatives oppose liberals, but reactionary populists oppose radical progressives, the latter two groups being particularly keen on adhering to their own philosophies and punishing anyone who deviates from its orthodoxy.

The Niskanen Centre’s own research has examined, in detail, the idea that knee-jerk (even when the knees are politically well-positioned or scholarly) conservatism and liberalism, the right and the left of today’s mainstream politics, have identified their causes with opposition to or the embrace of “big government.”  Thriving competition and free markets are identified with minimalist government and deregulation, by conservatives, while liberals associate the same factors with accumulation of wealth by small elites and increasing income disparity. When the authors of the paper look at the facts, they find that those countries with the largest tax and expenditures related to social welfare programs also are ranked highest in freedom to enter and compete in business and reward for entrepreneurialism. As they point out, “The freest economies generally feature big welfare states.” 

One simple fact, which the authors point out flies in the face of the views of small government advocates is that “the comparative advantage governments have in pooling risk produces enormous utility for society as a whole.” This makes it more economical and equitable for governments to step in and manage health insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, and programs for the poor and to do it as large-scale programs that serve equally across the country. They make the point that government intervention and spending for social welfare is not the same as government regulation, and the private sector is poor at adequately servicing high-risk or low productivity members of society, who become even more costly when piecemeal regulations try to provide an uncoordinated safety-net for those who are left behind.

But government regulations also aren’t a monolithic entity. The authors say that our current regulatory system  can be “broadly defined as insider domination of the policymaking process resulting in regulation for the benefit of the industry rather than the public. This dynamic has led to badly distorted policies that throttle innovation and growth even as they redistribute income and wealth to a favored elite at the top of the socioeconomic scale.” In other words, most regulatory policies are written to preserve and protect those businesses and people with the most assets. Fewer regulations would actually make our economy more innovative, more open to new players, easier to enter and to exit for good and bad ideas, etc. 

The paper is chock-full of knowledge and insights and is well worth reading. Whether one agrees or disagrees with its examples and recommendations, its central argument rings true: One can take nearly any topic—welfare reform, immigration, Wall Street regulation, global warming, healthcare, criminal justice reform, education—and it will turn out to be true that the degree to which one views these topics through an inflexible ideological lens, whether one that is oriented right or left, determines the degree to which facts are ignored or distorted, and solutions suffer because of that. There is a wide world out there in which lots of social experiments have taken place or are taking place right now, and looking at the information to be gained from these experiments can inform us as to what effects we are likely to receive from different programs and policies. If we try to pick those programs and policies that have worked the best, and also fit in with our democratic values, we are likely to find that they don’t fit neatly into any one ideology, and some may even fit what we ordinarily think of as opposing philosophies. In these cases, we need to go with what an honest appraisal of the facts and their implications tell us, not make decisions based on whether the programs agree with our philosophies. The results we achieve will probably be somewhere in the middle, not at the extremes. But they will be more likely to work.

Reference: https://niskanencenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Niskanen-vision-paper-final-PDF.pdf

 

Thursday
Dec202018

Syria: Did Trump Get it Right This Time?

President Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria has been met with little applause from either his supporters or his opponents. Congress has left it to some of Trump’s often most ardent supporters, such as Lindsay Graham, to slam the president’s decision. Senator Graham said,"This is a stain on the honor of the United States," and added, "I think it's disastrous to our own national security." Senator Marco Rubio, a sometimes Trump supporter and sometimes opponent, said the president’s decision to withdraw troops is “a colossal, in my mind, mistake—a grave error that is going to have significant repercussions in the years and months to come.” Democrats have been more restrained, mostly criticizing the lack of coordination of the president’s decision with others in our government or with our allies, and signing onto a letter from a bipartisan group of Senate Armed Services Committee members, which called the president’s decision “a premature and costly mistake that not only threatens the safety and security of the United States but also emboldens ISIS, (Syrian leader) Bashar al Assad, Iran and Russia.”

In contrast to the muted response from Democratic politicians (and even some approbation from Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee), liberal news media such as CNN and the New York Times have been harshly critical of the president’s decision, while FOX News has been mostly silent. 

Criticisms of the president’s decision have been that it has been applauded by Vladimir Putin (“Donald is right!”), that it is contrary to what Trump’s advisors, such as National Security Advisor, John Bolton have recommended, that it appears based on an erroneous assumption that ISIS has been defeated, that it allows Iran and Russia unchallenged influence in Syria, and that it walks out on our defense of Syrian Kurds from attacks from Turkey.

In their zeal to find another reason to attack the president, many of his liberal opponents are glossing over the fact that the thought behind his decision is similar to that of Barack Obama, who wanted to withdraw troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, and who resisted sending troops into Syria, although he finally relented (which John McCain and Lindsay Graham said was “too little, too late”). Ordinarily, advice and pronouncements of John Bolton, a Bush-era Neo-Con hawk, are disregarded or attacked by the liberal media. Many of Trump’s opponents appear to be talking themselves into a hawkish military position just because the president took an opposite tack. 

The truth is that President Trump may have done the right thing but in the wrong way. What is right is that the American policy of supporting anti-Assad rebels, who also fight ISIS, is a misguided policy, especially now that Assad seems firmly in charge. Trying to contain Iran or being a counter-balance to Russia, both Assad allies, by keeping 2000 troops inside Syria, is fruitless as well as misguided. With Iran and Russia as staunch allies, both of whom are fighting ISIS themselves, American troops on the ground aren’t necessary, and they increase the likelihood of an open conflict with these troops from other countries. Likewise, we have no business trying to support Kurdish fighters against Turkey.  

What Trump did wrong, was not listen to or coordinate with his advisors, inform congressional leaders, or discuss at length with the military. He made an arbitrary decision, based on his intuition and his desire to fulfill a campaign promise, probably also to distract from losing the fight over the border wall and the increasingly ominous findings from the Russian investigation. He exhibits the style of an authoritarian dictator who makes decisions on the basis of whims and tantrums. This time, the decision may be correct, even if the method of arriving at it is far from presidential.

 

Tuesday
Dec182018

How to Combat Russian (and Others') Misinformation

Russian meddling with the information consumed by many Americans on social media has raised issues about how to combat misinformation and deliberate  attempts to disrupt our social system by planting divisive information on the internet. At the same time, the mainstream media is concerned about so-called “fake news” and “alternative facts,” promulgated by the president, by political partisans, by corporate lobbyists, or by the media themselves. The picture that emerges from all of the revelations about this type of meddling, either from Russia or domestically, is of a public that is swayed in different directions by manipulative entities with nefarious intentions. The question becomes how to protect ourselves from this threat.

Besides the Russians themselves—or the New York Times or CNN if one agrees with the president—the culprits in spreading misleading or untrue information and the entity on which the burden of correcting the problem falls are the social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Many politicians and political commentators have called for increased government surveillance and regulation of the content of these social media outlets, including stepped-up methods of identifying untrue news posts.

Social media began as a way of connecting friends via the internet. It has become a major communication channel for information about the world and the society, and as a source of news. A recent Pew Research survey found that 68% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media.

Censoring news and deciding what news is truthful and what is not is a difficult task in a nation that guarantees free speech and freedom of the press. Deciding what is misleading, even if it is true, is an even harder task. Choosing to ban posts on the basis of the country of origin (e.g. Russia) runs counter to the worldwide web philosophy and purpose, and resembles something an authoritarian county might do, not one that guarantees freedom of expression. There is wide room for disagreement on what is true and what is not as well as what is misleading and what is not—just ask CNN and FOX News viewers about each other’s favorite news outlet. The president thinks Saturday Night Live should be investigated for what he calls its “one-sided coverage.”

As I said, censoring news and informational posts is a very tricky business, especially if done by the government, but also if done by private media sources we all rely on. The latter, however, do not fall under our laws guaranteeing free speech, although many people expect them to honor that concept in what they allow to be posted.

It’s important to remember that misinformation and outright lies as well as all other methods of manipulation of attitudes and belief  are most successful when the person being manipulated is deficient in his or her own knowledge base. A maximum amount of freedom of expression is healthy in the context of a well-informed public, who can weigh information against what they already know to be true. In this regard Americans appear to be poorly informed easy prey (to be honest, this is also true in many other countries). 

Here are a few of the results of reputable surveys on what Americans know or don’t know about their world:

Science

81%  of Americans can’t identify a single living scientist.

48% believe evolution is true.

39% know what the big bang is.

20% believe the sun revolves around the earth.

History:

23% of Americans don’t know from which country the U.S. achieved independence.

41% don’t know what Auschitz is (66% of millennials)

22% of millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust or don’t know what it was.

86% of Amercans can’t identify where Iraq is and 82% don’t know where Afghanistan is.

Politics and the Constitution:

70% of Americans don’t know that the constitution contains the Bill of Rights

55% believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution. 

52% can’t name a single Supreme Court justice (57% under age 35)

 

37% of Americans can’t name a single first amendment right

33% of Americans can’t name a single branch of the government

26% can name all three branches of government (down 12% since 2011)

53% believe that undocumented aliens have no rights under the U.S. constitution

18% believe that Muslims don’t have the same rights as other U.S. citizens

15% believe that atheists don’t have the same rights as other U.S. citizens

38% of American-born U.S. citizens fail the citizenship examination given to new citizens.

 

Americans are woefully lacking in knowledge about world history, U.S. history, geography, and their own political system, including the constitution and the government. This makes them easy prey for misinformation, since they don’t possess correct information in the first place. Sometimes this lack of information can make people view the exercise of guaranteed freedoms as a threat to our democracy and system of government. Younger Americans are less knowledgeable  than older Americans, by and large. This should be troubling for those who are looking to our younger generation to make better decisions about issues such as climate change, tolerance, and equal rights than the older generation.

It is not clear why Americans are as uninformed as they are, but the tendency to obtain information from social media probably adds to this, and certainly a poorly functioning educational system does also. This also means that efforts by the government to regulate information will not be scrutinized in as informed a way as it should be by citizens who lack basic knowledge about our first amendment rights in the first place. Effort to silence divergent opinions may be applauded by those who are unaware that expression of such opinions is a basic right guaranteed by our constitution. Again, this is especially troubling if those who are least informed are our younger citizens whose energy on behalf of their political interests is most easily aroused.

In addition to our country’s efforts to identify foreign sources of information manipulation designed to affect our society’s well-being, I would urge that we focus on educating our citizens to allow them to assess information for themselves and decide what sounds true or makes sense from a position of a sound knowledge base.

 

 

 

Saturday
Dec152018

We're Hurting the Most Vulnerable Members of our Society

Three headline-grabbing moves by the Trump administration and/or its supporters  this week showed the degree to which heartlessness, in the guise of conservative politics characterizes our present government. Its policies are directed at hurting the most vulnerable people in our country, often in favor of helping the rich or corporations. 

Twenty Republican dominated states, led by Texas, went to court to object to the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that, since its individual mandate, which had been declared a constitutionally approved tax, had been invalidated by the government charging zero taxes as the penalty, that this invalidated the entire Affordable Care Act, including its provisions for financing additional Medicare enrollments and mandating equal coverage for those with pre-existing medical conditions. Despite the Affordable Care Act being federal law, the U.S. Justice Department refused to defend either the individual mandate invalid or coverage for pre-existing medical conditions. Many congressional Republicans also backed the lawsuit. This week a Texas judge ruled in favor of Texas’ suit and declared the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. If this decision holds up in appeal, it would mean millions of Americans would lose health care coverage, would lose federal subsidies for their premiums, which are the heart of the Act, and those with pre-existing medical conditions would find themselves unable to be insured or faced with soaring premiums. President Trump hailed the judge’s decision as a victory. The working poor and the sick are the ones who will be hurt if this decision is upheld.

Under President Obama, a policy was passed that required loans given to students at for-profit colleges that misrepresented their job placement success and graduation rates or failed to provide the education they had promised, to be forgiven and students be made re-eligible for grants such as Pell Grants. Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education had delayed implementation of the forgiveness program for two years and sought a remedy more friendly to the colleges. Thankfully, a federal judge ordered the Department of Education to begin implementing the program immediately, over the objection of the Trump administration appointee, DeVos. The students affected are generally lower middle class, seeking employable skills and many of them went heavily into debt to finance the education, which they failed to receive.

Finally, after threatening to deport Vietnamese refugees who escaped from Vietnam prior to 1995, when diplomatic relations were established between the U.S. and  the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Trump administration has proposed going ahead with such mass deportations.   Going further than originally proposed, not only those non-U.S. citizens who have committed crimes would be deported, but also those who don't have adequate documentation of their resident status in the U.S. These are people who have been in the U.S. for at least 20 years, and most of then longer, with families and jobs and who would not be welcomed back into the present Vietnam. An agreement struck between the U.S. and the Vietnam government in 2008 protected these same pre-1995 refugees from being deported, but it needs to be renewed every five years and this is the anniversary of the second renewal. Thousands of Vietnamese, a group that have been very successful in becoming integrated with American society and made great contributions to the country and local communities, would face deportation. In my own work in the mental health field I am familiar with many refugees from these early years who came to the U.S. traumatized, had only sketchy documentation, as they escaped with only their shirts on their back Some of these people also subsequently suffered mental illnesses, which often got them arrested for such crimes public disturbance or assault, when they were exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. They are not criminals, but they have a record. They have families who depend upon them and upon which they depend. These families would be torn apart if this order is followed.

What these three situations have in common is that those who will suffer, or in the case of the Department of Education inaction, already have been, are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. This is a heartless attitude by our government toward these people and should be abhorred, not applauded by our leaders, including our president and his party. Instead, it seems part of an overall approach that disregards the welfare of  those people who are least able to defend themselves. These are shameful examples of uncaring governance.