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.

Thursday
Dec132018

Big Business Really is the Enemy of the People

A revealing article in the New York Times discusses how oil companies, led by refiner Marathon Petroleum, mounted a major lobbying effort aimed at both the Trump administration and congress, to rollback auto emission standards because using less gasoline means refining and selling less gasoline and they would lose money. The administration’s proposed rollback, to freeze standards at 2020 levels, goes even further than those proposed by the automobile industry (who still opposed the Obama standards that required essentially doubling fuel mileage in new cars sold after 2025).

At the same time, Amazon decided to expand its centers to two new locations and city, county and state governments offered the company owned by the richest man in the world, millions of dollars worth of incentives to locate the centers in their areas, often at the displeasure of local citizens. 

The pharmaceutical industry, medical device makers and suppliers, and private health insurers have all opposed measures to rein in their costs and to put them under government controls, as is done in most other developed countries, even to the extent of opposing allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices from the industry.

Numerous studies of the effects of the Trump tax cuts, lobbied for and applauded by corporate America, have shown that the major benefits have been to stock market prices and corporate profits, even though wages and employment have continued to rise, but basically on the same trajectory they were on prior to the tax cuts. 

These are just some examples of the enormous power of big business to shape American policies, whether they are formulated by congress or the administration and its various agencies. In many cases, these policies run counter to the welfare of the majority of the American people. Most Americans are concerned about climate change, but our policies choose oil, coal, and auto industry profits over emission reduction. Millions of Americans are underinsured and devastated when they are hit by major illnesses, or even costly, medication-intensive chronic illnesses and old age. Wages have barely kept up with inflation and are sorely lagging behind the costs of living in major coastal metropolitan areas, particularly in the area of housing. The economy continues to grow and corporations and investors continue to flourish while the U.S. has the widest income inequality among developed countries, has the highest healthcare costs and some of the worst healthcare outcomes, has fewer doctors/per capita and fewer doctors being trained than most developed countries, has crumbling infrastructure and a failing educational system, and and is back in the business of polluting the environment.

In 2014 Gilens and Page, two academic researchers from Princeton and Northwestern Universities, studied approximately 1800 U.S. government policy decisions from 1981-2002 to determine whose interests determined the outcome of the decision. Their conclusion was that “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” We can assume that nothing has changed. 

What can be done? Wresting the control of government decision-making away from the “economic elites,” i.e. the wealthy, and “business interests” is a formidable task. The first step, I believe, is to elect, and continue to elect, representatives who favor policies that are in the best interest of the majority of citizens. In some cases, this may mean simply replacing those who have been in Washington so long that they are so deeply in the back pockets of corporate lobbyists that they can’t get out or refuse to. In other cases, it means electing people who support the right programs, which means paying attention to real issues not dog-whistle identity issues and muckraking. Politicians can’t just be against the corruption or behavior of their opponents, but need to be for real policy changes that put citizens back in the driver’s seat in choosing what the government does. And of course, changes start at the top. As we have seen, who is president matters. We also need transparency in how decisions are made. Behind-closed-door negotiations, such as occurred with the Trans-Pacific Partnership during the Obama administration, which allowed corporate priorities to dictate the terms of the deal, can’t be allowed.

What about taking to the streets? It seems to be working in France, but it’s not usually directed toward pocketbook issues in America. The Native American opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline had some success, and might be a model for protests on environmental and pocketbook issues. Unions have been weakened in the U.S. They used to be major political players and could offset some corporate interests. They were often a source of street protests and worker actions. There has been some resurgence of union-led protests in the fast-food, hotel and restaurant and nursing sectors, even in education, but unions need to grow in strength for workers to regain control of issues such as wages, healthcare and retirement.

Few of our current politicians seem to agree with the points I’ve made above. Some new faces, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, being the most prominent, do seem to get it and are exposing the deep sources of corporate influence in congress. Her revelation that new congress members’ orientation program at Harvard was basically run by and dominated by corporate and Wall Street lobbyists and didn’t include any voice of unions, workers, teachers or ordinary citizens, showed how our elected officials are quickly indoctrinated into a system that is rigged to satisfy the interests of big business. We need to elect more people like her and we each need to do our homework to understand what the issue are and how our candidates for office and those already elected feel about them. We live in a democracy and we should be in charge of what it does.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Dec112018

It's the Cost of Gas and Food and Rent, Stupid.

I have no idea whether France’s recent turmoils over a gas tax increase, the high cost of living, and high taxes and low wages for the working poor, combined with tax cuts for the wealthy, means anything for United States politics. The French have a history of taking to the streets and causing public mayhem as a way of sending a message to their government. Here in America, our protests are as likely to be directed at our fellow citizens, at corporations, or at cultural norms and practices, as at our government. The last protests against the government, rivaling those in France, that I can remember, were against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Much of the same dynamic that instigated the French protests is at work in the United States. Tax cuts have favored the wealthy and corporations. For ordinary workers, slow growth in wages has not outpaced the inflation rate. In our largest cities, it is impossible for minimum or even low-wage earners to pay for rent, and families are forced to live with other families under the same roof to make ends meet—either that or join the growing number of working homeless. Despite low prices for oil, gas prices have not gone down, and U.S. sanctions against Iran are threatening to increase them, in the same way that tariff policies are increasing the price of a number of products, affecting food, automobile and clothing prices. Republicans have tried to chip away at healthcare benefits under Obamacare, with their proposals threatening to leave millions of sick and working poor vulnerable to catastrophic medical bills or having to forego treatment.

Progressive voices have focused on increasing minimum wages, a fight that has been led by unions more than politicians. But the bastions of progressivism, which are the large, liberal cities, mostly on either coast, have created situations that are unlivable for the working poor and often even for the lower middle class. The progressive fights have been about identity issues related to ethnicity and gender and climate change more than about living conditions and financial viability for the working poor. The needs of coal miners, oil industry workers and farmers, who fear environmental measures as further eroding their precarious financial situations have not been addressed by progressive leaders.

In France, the “yellow-vest” protesters were more or less leaderless, and appear to have consisted of those who are directly affected by the government policies they are protesting. In America, our progressive protesters are mostly college students and upper-middle class liberals. We have very few national leaders who come from the ranks of the working poor or the dispossessed. We rightly celebrate the election of Muslim, Black, Asian and women representatives to a congress made up of mostly old White men, but it’s nearly impossible for a person without means to even run an election.

Are we headed for a situation like the one that occurred in France? Probably not in the near future, but the underlying factors are similar in our two countries. I don’t want to see violent street protests and having to take to the streets at all, suggests to me a failure or our democratic system of elected representation. I’m financially comfortable myself and am solidly middle class, probably a function of the age in which I grew up and worked and of my gender and skin color, as much as anything else . But some of my relatives and many of my friends are facing very difficult circumstances. The nieces, nephews and grandchildren I have urged to get good grades and a college degree face an employment situation where they will be able to get a job but not afford to pay rent. My relatives and friends who have serious medical conditions and earn enough to have to buy their own insurance live in terror of losing their insurance or being hit with gigantic medical bills because they could not afford insurance that didn’t have large deductibles or co-pays. Those without a college education find their wages slipping even further behind the cost of living and have no prospect of things getting better. 

Someone has to speak for those who are barely making it, or not making it at all, in our society. We have a lot of new progressives in congress (nearly 100 in the House of representatives). I hope these elected representatives address the issues I’ve outlined above. Our public consciousness is focused on the shenanigans of a corrupt administration, on identity issues and college campus speakers, and on celebrities whose lives don’t resemble ordinary people’s at all (I read as many stories of the tragedies of famous Malibu residents as of the ordinary people in Northern California devastated by recent fires). Many people are not making it in our society, yet are working hard to try to make ends meet. That’s not right and, as a society we need to do better. It’s up to progressive politicians to try to fix things.

 

Thursday
Dec062018

We're Losing the Battle Against Global Warming

Global warming is the crisis of our times. Some politicians and many Americans continue to point to fluctuations in temperature, historical shifts in climate, and minority scientific opinions as sufficient evidence to delay any current action. Such arguments ignore the vast bulk of scientific evidence and opinion, sometimes claiming it is some kind of conspiracy among climate alarmists. Other politicians, from all over the world, agree that climate change is a problem and that it is only stoppable by human effort, but, even while declaring it a crisis, put measures to combat it low on their list of priorities when it comes to changing policies.

Several recent reports have shown that the world’s current efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to slow rising temperatures are not working. The last four years have set a record for worldwide high temperatures, and a new report from the Global Carbon Project showed that greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.6% last year and are on track to rise another 2.7% this year. China and India are the worst offenders, but the U.S. has also shown an increase in emissions and only Europe showed a decrease. There are many culprits: increased gas consumption is one, use of coal in energy generation is another, burning of forests and deforestation another. 

The Paris Climate Agreement was one global effort to get countries to agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but targets were set too low and most have not been met by the participating countries. The U.S., historically the largest contributor of greenhouse gases, although now being surpassed by India and China, has removed itself from the agreement citing the argument that the climate gains it would bring about are not sufficient to offset the economic losses, and that it required the U.S. to spend too much money to fix a problem that was being exacerbated mostly by other countries, who were not doing enough themselves.

Climate change is not the kind of problem that can be fixed by only part of the world acting or by employing policies that treat reducing emissions in isolation from other international policies. In many cases, economic growth and reduction of emissions are opposing factors. In a highly developed country such as the U.S. or many European nations, it may be possible to substitute growth in the renewable energy industry for continued investment in fossil fuel production or use. But in developing countries, including China and India, as well as countries in Asia and Africa that are trying to use industry to lift large populations out of poverty, this has been deemed unrealistic, and not only do the countries themselves choose to use fossil fuels, a global player such as China is funding their use in other developing countries as a method to help its own economy and increase its international influence.

Arms races and wars funnel money away from infrastructure development and research that could allow renewable energy to replace reliance on fossil fuels. The practice of using purchases or embargos of fossil fuels flowing from middle eastern countries as part of global defense and economic strategies perpetuates reliance on oil and natural gas as energy sources because of their role in these strategies. 

The developing countries outside of China, cannot forego reliance on fossil fuels for energy or even on the practice of massive deforestation (often through burning, which releases carbon and doesn’t capture any of it back because the trees are gone) without substantial financial help and incentives from richer countries such as the U.S.. While some argue that this is America paying for other people’s environmental programs, the long term savings from the results of the climate change that these developing countries will cause and are causing, more than offsets the short-term costs.

A truly global effort to stem climate change and global warming will require a total restructuring of international relations. Neither America First or China First will work and, in fact, such international competition is a major threat to our world’s environment. Add to that local greed, head-in-the-sand ignorance on the part of our leaders, and vested interest in the status quo by governments and private industry. All of these things have to change. Leaders have to realize that protecting their economies now is a meaningless exercise when the costs of combating extreme weather, rising oceans, droughts, floods and crop failures begin escalating until they become much greater than most economies can bear. Protecting one’s border and culture will fall by the wayside when whole populations of low-lying or drought-plagued regions of the world create millions of new refugees who need to be accommodated.

Global warming is an outcome that our entire world economic and social structure makes inevitable. Small changes or local decreases in emissions are not going to change things. The kinds of worldwide changes that need to occur require a rethinking of international relationships. The world needs to come together and work on the problem together. The short term pain will be substantial and will demand backing away from the kinds of competitive world-view that has characterized national agendas for centuries. But someone needs to address the issue, or we are all going to suffer.

Saturday
Dec012018

"Let Them Take the Train"

The French Revolution has some lessons for our modern world. Over and over, during both the beginning and the end of the revolution that changed Europe forever, concessions by the King or modifications of governance by the ruling Directory were overshadowed by the dire economic straits of the people. When the need for bread competed with enlightenment ideas, bread won. The final straw was that continuing economic woes resulted in First Consul and later to be Emperor, Napoleon.

Emmanuel Macron in France is suffering from the elitist label, capped by his raising of the fuel taxes that stresses already financially strapped Frenchmen, particularly outside of Paris, where jobs are scarce, there is no Metro,  and travel by automobile is mandatory to get from place to place. His climate protection goal of reducing fuel use and plowing money into environmental protection is seen as an elitist dream that overrides his concern for the common man.

The lesson here is that economics can easily overrule idealism, especially during periods of economic distress. As in the United States, it might even be that perceived economic distress is as important as the actual thing. The Republican Party has been able to legislate and tax in ways that profit the wealthy while giving minimal benefit to the middle class and none to the poor without causing a populist backlash. The Democrats, however, are hammered for choosing the environment or immigrants, or diversity, over the economy. They are continually called elitists, despite trying to present the message that they are for the common man.

Climate change has not been an immediate fear for many people, especially those who are struggling on a day today basis. The fear of leaving a ravaged planet to our grandchildren is too far off to matter. This is changing as extreme weather events occur more often and are tied to climate change. Both scientific studies of future weather patterns and current hurricane, blizzard and fire disasters provide evidence that the less well off are particularly vulnerable to these catastrophes, since they not only live in their paths but they have few reserves to help them avoid or recover from disasters.

But elitists need to beware. Proposals that coalesce support among the socially conscious privileged, but have the potential to cause pain among the less well off, less privileged, need to be looked at very carefully and everyone’s needs have to be taken into account. President’s Trump’s campaign message about saving the environmentally destructive coal industry won him votes in Pennsylvania, and California Governor Brown’s gas tax increase to provide money for highway improvements was a bitter point of contention between liberals and conservatives, although an effort to repeal it fell far short in November.

The street protests in France are a warning. They are not against spending government money, since they also are in favor of more government assistance on several issues, but they are against raising taxes in a way that hurts the common man and meets goals endorsed by elites. They also are against the perceived deaf ears of the country’s leader, who appears to have little understanding of the plight of those who are suffering in the current French economy. These are all lessons for progressives here in the U.S. One problem is that arguments, even for programs that benefit the average person and against programs that favor the super rich, need to be couched in terms that are meaningful to everyone and not just those who are highly educated, read liberal publications, have leisure time, and talk only to each other.

Friday
Nov302018

The Shape of the Future

I eagerly read Elizabeth Warren’s article in yesterday’s online Foreign Affairs, called “A Foreign Policy for All.”  I was disappointed in the generalities, the doctrinaire set-pieces against growing inequality and the decline of the middle class, and the lack of any real picture of what her future world would look like. I agreed with her focuses on the need for a healthy domestic economy that works for everyone as a necessity in maintaining America’s place in the world, on cutting our exorbitant military spending and the foolishness of our military adventures over the last several years, and on the evils of a tax system that favors the wealthy. She included enough criticisms and accusations about President Donald Trump to make her article indistinguishable from most liberal/progressive attacks, however she rightly criticized U.S. policies from the last decades, well before Trump, that have profited multinational companies and the wealthy at everyone else’s expenses.

I’m ready for a serious discussion from someone other than an academic about a view of the future that seeks to remedy the ills of the present and the policies and political stances that perpetuate them. As long as our politicians mostly seek to provoke knee-jerk agreement from supporters by reciting dog-whistle arguments about wealthy elites, corruption, falling behind the Chinese, and middle class stagnation, I doubt that we will hear such a serious discussion from any of them.

Here is some of my view of what a future should look like:

Domestically, the plight of America’s poor is much more dire than that of its middle class, they just don’t vote often enough to make them anyone’s focus. America’s income inequality is disproportionately large compared to most other countries and it is largest in some states that appear to be doing well, such as California and New York, and in those doing least well, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, suggesting that the design of our current economic/social system has some basic flaws that are not being overcome by nationwide economic success. I would like to see a renewed “war on poverty” that focuses upon education, infrastructure rebuilding and job training, forging government-industry partnerships. Such an effort must also address the two dramatic scourges that cripple those trying to move from one socio-economic level to another, which are health care costs and housing costs/shortages. I believe this will take a large government investment of funds and some innovative government programs. It will also take a more graduated income tax system that relies on higher taxes for the wealthy to fund programs that address the problems of those most hurting in our current economy. In terms of healthcare, the arguments have already been made that a federal program such as Medicare for All is the best answer. In terms of housing, some courageous politicians will have to address issues such as the need for rent control and the ability to supersede local building restrictions in order to build more high-rise housing in communities that currently restrict such building in the name of preserving their (privileged) quality of life.

Issues such as global warming, settling of border disputes, intellectual property rights, cyberwarfare, and nuclear proliferation are not able to be solved by individual nations acting bilaterally. The interests of global business and international peace and economic progress cannot be completely disentangled, and business interests and government must work together. The TPP was a case study in how not to negotiate a trade agreement, because the negotiation was done in secret, the negotiators were either directly multinational businesses or were heavily influenced by them, and the result would have put protection of multinational companies ahead of protection of the citizens of the countries that were participating. That doesn’t mean that such trade agreements are evil or futile. What it means is that we still need to negotiate such agreements, the larger often the better, but the negotiators need to be government entities that we, as citizens are in control of, and the negotiations need to be open and transparent and subject to minute oversight by our elected representatives (as was not done with TPP when Obama asked for “fast-track” authority to approve the deal without congress really examining it). Without such international treaties and agreements, we are going to view every one of those issues as a competitive one that will ultimately turn into a race for supremacy or hegemony. But, as we’ve seen with NAFTA, such agreements affect every one of us. I strongly believe that the days of the United States going it alone in order to keep “America First” are over and that we need to become part of larger cooperative groups—perhaps different groups for different issues—hopefully ones that can eventually bring the whole world into them. Needless to say, a worldwide effort to stem global warming is near the top of the list.

 

Our future world will continue to wrestle with the tension between cooperation and competition. I recently listened to an interview with progressive Democratic congressman Ro Khanna, who said that we need to make winning against China a centerpiece of our economic/foreign policy. To my mind, that’s the wrong kind of thinking. A future world is guaranteed to have both China and the U.S. as economic powerhouses. Which is larger may not really matter. Our economic systems are moving toward similar models and addressing similar issues. It is the stance of our governments toward their people that differ more than our economic policies. China exerts more control over not just its country’s business practices, but also freedom of speech and the press, internet communication, worker independence, and citizen input into government decisions than does the U.S. China is not a democracy and does not intend to be one. They are assisting many developing countries to pull themselves out of poverty, and supporting repressive government practices in those countries while they’re doing it. That isn’t the American model—or shouldn’t be. But it’s not necessarily a threat to us, and it’s not something we need to combat by figuring out how to contain China. If our system of freedoms is superior, we need to show that it is by example and by the countries that we assist doing well. Assisting another country by selling them arms or backing up their military adventures, or remaining silent as they violate citizen rights in order not to jeopardize our business dealings with them is not teaching anyone a good lesson about America’s way of helping others. Until we learn how to do it right, we don’t need to spend so much time on figuring out how to combat China’s approach. There are whole areas within less wealthy, sometimes developing, countries that a foreign policy that ties aid to progress in easing repression can address: drug trafficking in Central America, health, clean water and food distribution issues in Africa, the structure of loans to economically unstable South American countries, relocation of populations within drought and flood plagued areas of Asia and the island nations that are being hit hardest by the effects of global warming.

These are broad strokes of a future foreign and domestic agenda that could be what politicians address if they are serious about fixing the problems that will limit our country’s ability to succeed in the future. This is some of my view of the kind of future world I would like to see. It’s not a view that relies on tearing anything down and starting over, but one that reaffirms our American value system and tries to make the way our country works be good for all of our citizens as well as the rest of the world.

Tuesday
Nov272018

The Hypocrites Win

Two recent events brought home to me the degree to which our political partisanship in this country allows hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty to flourish. The first of these events was President Trump's fight with Chief Justice Roberts about whether our court system reflects political bias. The president referred to a judge who ruled against him as an “Obama judge” and the Chief Justice claimed that judges were impartial and didn’t side with the side of the person who appointed them. The hypocrisy occurred when the liberal media and Democratic politicians applauded the Chief Justice and jumped all over the president for undermining the integrity of the judiciary in the public’s mind. It’s hypocritical because we just went through a Supreme Court nomination process that brought out feelings and statements on both sides about the bias that would enter the Supreme Court if the president’s pick were confirmed. Furthermore, news articles routinely mention which president appointed a federal judge when they report on a decision, implying that it is a factor that matters. Numerous articles have highlighted the number of Trump judiciary appointments, often with alarm, and fights over delaying or speeding up the confirmation process are routine in the Senate, based on the assumption that the judicial appointments will reflect the politics of the president who appoints them. Yes, President Trump called into question the independence of the judiciary, but so have many others. As usual, the president used derogatory worlds to describe the Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals, just as he has the media, the Democratic Party, and various politicians and celebrities, and of course, the Mueller investigation. He impugned their integrity, as he usually does with his opponents. And yes, this leads many Americans to distrust most of our government and institutions. But questioning the integrity of the court has been a favorite pastime of people on both sides of the political arena and of many in the media. It’s intellectually dishonest to imply that it’s not been.

The second event is more important, in my mind. Thirteen government agencies released a new report on the effects of climate change and the need to do something to remedy it. The president, of course, said he didn’t believe it and cast doubt on the accuracy of the report, implying that it was holdovers from the Obama administration that authored it. That’s par for the course with President Trump, for whom we’ve stopped expecting statements that are either intellectual or honest. What is more alarming is the reluctance of conservative pundits and politicians to accept the conclusions of the report—and many others like it, which have been published by organizations from the scientific establishment, the U.N., other governments, and our own government. I heard an otherwise well-informed and intelligent conservative journalist on Meet the Press preface her distrust of the report with the statement, “I’m not a scientist,” meaning that she couldn’t come to a conclusion herself about whether climate change is man-made based on the report of a group of government scientists. My guess is that she doesn't doubt many other things that scientists claim, such as that nuclear fission can create atomic bombs, or that Neptune is a gaseous planet, or that CT scans and MRIs have improved cancer detection, yet I’m sure that she isn’t a scientist in those fields either, nor does she understand all of the science behind them. Her reluctance to accept the conclusions of the report, and the reluctance of many conservative, intelligent Americans to accept the scientific community’s conclusions about the effects of human activity on climate change reflect a political stance in favor of perceived economic growth over environmental protection. To claim that they don’t believe the conclusions because they're not scientists, or because a tiny minority of the scientific community quibbles with those conclusions, is hypocritical because they don’t apply these criteria to other conclusions from the scientific community that don’t challenge their political biases. What is tragic is that these people—often opinion leaders—are grasping at excuses in order to justify reservations about an issue that has the potential to disturb life on our planet on a massive scale. 

Why do I focus upon the hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty involved instead of the issues themselves (i.e. integrity of the court or climate change)? The answer is because our discussions about issues these days have devolved to the point that we accept it as routine that someone will violate standards of truth and balanced assessment in favor of his or her point of view and will use one standard for judging statements made on his or her side of an argument and another standard for statements on the other side of the argument. We fill our airwaves with programs pitting panelist from one side of a question against those on an opposite side and we act as if listening to both sides give exaggerated opinions somehow constitutes getting at the truth. Any attempt to hold both sides up to equal scrutiny is labeled ”false equivalency” and castigated for not firmly taking a side. The result is a country that believes different versions of the truth, that refuses to examine the arguments from another perspective, and applauds partisan dog whistles. Many of our citizens gladly accept and even join in this abandonment of the search for truth, and the majority of our leaders and media are afraid to call out such hypocrisy and dishonesty when it occurs. The result is a country whose direction will be determined by political stances, by the emotional power of arguments and by the loudness of voices, not by considered assessment of the facts.

Saturday
Nov242018

Making Democracy Work

A headline today is that, in Paris, 8,000 people are protesting because taxes on gasoline and diesel are being raised and they can’t afford it. Street protests, whether they are entirely peaceful or whether they turn violent, have often become a force for social change. From the Boston Massacre, to the storming of the Bastille, to the Paris barricades during the Algerian War and the street demonstrations in America during the Vietnam war to January 25thprotests in Egypt, to the Homs uprising in Syria, such protests have often led to turning points in the evolution of nations. Although there are people who are dedicated to the idea that such populist expressions of will are the only real way to change the policies of a country, the majority of people who live in democratic countries with constitutionally determined governments are committed to social change through representative government actions, such as voting and political involvement. 

For many people, the political establishment seems to have broken down. In their minds, either wealth and business interests have co-opted the decision-making apparatus by infusing representatives and elections with money, or a liberal, big-government mindset has robbed individuals of their rights to live as freely as they choose, which means saying what they want, owning a gun, and protecting one’s property at all costs. On both of these sides extremists, and, increasingly it seems, extreme-leaning moderates, believe that in order to gain his or her rights or to protect them, a person needs to be prepared to take the law into his or her own hands. A (handful in most cases) of Antifa and Black Bloc protesters smash windows and attack right-leaning speakers and their supporters. On our border with Mexico, armed civilian “militia” have assembled to stop illegal immigrants from crossing into the U.S. A conservative media person has had his house spray-painted and threats made to him and his family. Several recent domestic terrorist acts, some of which killed people and some of which tried to kill them, have been carried out by people who were convinced by social media that they needed to take it upon themselves to stop groups or individuals who are subverting our country (in the most prominent of these instances, such sentiments were fueled by anti-Semitism and racism).

Many peaceful protests have rallied support for women, or for particular causes, and may even have resulted in suspension or change in deleterious activities such as building an oil pipeline or systematic racism in police procedures, or neglect of the rights of women. Peaceful protest is a time-honored legitimate political activity in a democracy, and is a way for people to express their opinions and bring egregious actions to awareness when our traditional government mechanisms fail to do so. Peaceful protest may involve violation of laws, when those laws are seen as lacking in justice, but their power is in remaining peaceful and focusing attention on the social justice issues at stake. They are not simply a way to intimidate others and are not directed at one’s fellow citizens.

For representative democracy to work, it must be responsive to the will of the citizens, not to special interests, whether they are from the business sector or the privileged elite. For democracy to work, citizens must believe that their own needs are being served by the government they elected. This is not always happening in the United States and may not even be happening very often. But to fix the problem takes both a willingness to do so, and a belief that representative democracy is a better choice than bowing to the will of those who are willing to pursue the most extreme means, especially when those means involve violence or the threat of violence. 

In the last mid-term election we saw voters throw out long-time politicians who they believed were not serving their needs. Whether the newly elected will be able to change the way our government works is still in question. But way too many people stayed at home and did not vote, did not take to the streets to try to convince their fellow citizens who to vote for, and spent their time either ignoring politics or grousing about the system and listening to those who agreed with them without trying to make the system change. 

Our system isn't perfect even if everyone participates. Some of its mechanisms are outmoded: the Electoral College or the gerrymandered voting districts, or campaign finance laws, for instance. But it will respond to the people if the people get involved. I am greatly fearful of a country where armed citizens believe it is their right to take the law into their own hands. Our system was designed to make such activity unnecessary. If it doesn’t work, it is because the system is no longer in the hands of the ordinary men and women who make up the country. But participating and making representative democracy work is the only solution that preserves democratic mechanisms that can work if we all commit ourselves to making them work.

Friday
Nov232018

A Bigger Problem with Saudi Arabia

A disturbing story in today’s New York Times focused upon Saudi Arabia’s negotiations with the United States to purchase the plans to build its own nuclear reactors, ostensibly for the peaceful purpose of providing electrical energy. Since the manufacturer would likely be Westinghouse, an American company, although the real manufacturing might be done in South Korea under a Westinghouse license, such a deal is seen by Energy Secretary Perry and others in the White House as a win for the American economy. The downside is that the Saudis insist that they make their own nuclear fuel, which means the possibility of producing enriched uranium that could be used in weapons. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already said that if Iran produces a nuclear weapon, he will also.

Putting aside the wisdom and the question of the right of any country adding nuclear power to its energy production infrastructure, the global issue that is raised is the wisdom and the right of another country arming itself with nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and arming itself would be a violation of that treaty. 

The problem is deciding what should be done when a country is in an adversarial relationship with another country that has nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia and Iran are sworn enemies and, have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen, which has involved Iranian-backed rebels shooting non-nuclear missiles into Saudi Arabia. The Middle East is volatile and more nuclear weapons are the last things that are needed (right now Israel is the only nuclear-armed country in the region). The problem is that, if one party in an adversarial relationship that involves military threats develops nuclear weapons the other party feels bound to do the same in order to achieve a détente, based on mutually assured destruction.

The United States, in concert with other world leaders, thought it had an agreement with Iran that would have prohibited it developing enriched nuclear fuel and the means to build a bomb for at least 15 years. That agreement is no longer in place, and the U.S. sanctions against Iran that it ended have been resumed. In the Saudi’s mind, Iran is more of threat than before.

Control of the spread of nuclear weapons only works if it is based on international cooperation both between the most developed countries, most of which are nuclear-armed, and developing countries that are considering the nuclear pathway. 

For sure, this is a situation in which a short-term transactional strategy is not the best approach. President Trump has, in the past floated the idea of arming South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons to offset threats from North Korea and China to those countries, but since that time has apparently thought better of it. The U.S. should not consider arming Saudi Arabia as a counter to an armed Iran (as we already do with non-nuclear arms). We also should not base our actions on the argument that whatever we don’t sell Saudi Arabia will be sold to them by China or Russia, so we lose because they still could become nuclear-armed, and we lose billions of dollars in business. This is the explicit argument being used to justify massive non-nuclear arms sales to Saudi Arabia, those arms being used in costly and inhumane wars such as Yemen.

The U.S. can assist Saudi Arabia in building non-lethal nuclear energy plants, but to do so requires that we attach rigid strings to any deals with them—strings such as inspections of their facilities, and probably even prohibition of manufacturing their own fuel. In order for us to make such demands, we need to know that other countries, notably China and Russia, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan and North Korea, do not offer them nuclear assistance without such controls. This means strengthening our cooperation with nuclear-armed or nuclear-sophisticated countries that are part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so that none of us does anything that increases the risk of nuclear war. This is an arena where we can’t afford to see China and Russia as rivals, where America First has no place, and where everyone agrees that neither economic success nor strategic jockeying for influence outweighs global safety.  

I hope to God that both our own and other world leaders keep this in mind. This is an issue that deserves strong bipartisan political and ordinary citizen support for the basic principles of curbing the threat of nuclear war and stopping nuclear proliferation.

Wednesday
Nov212018

The Heck with Morality

The ends justify the means has always been regarded as a questionable moral stance. Both reasoning and experience have shown that, throughout history, adopting immoral means to attain even noble goals has usually resulted in the sacrifice of any chance of attaining those goals, except in name only. In his statement supporting Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Jamal Kashoggi murder, President Trump has not only endorsed immoral means—disregarding evidence that implicates the Saudi Crown Prince in ordering Kashoggi’s murder—but he has made our country’s goals simply base and materialistic.

 

“After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!”

 

The president is talking about turning a blind eye to murder! He admits that it “could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event,” and news report strongly suggest that, in fact, we (the CIA) know that he did. Not only did the president’s statement not conclude that the Crown Prince was responsible for Kashoggi’s death, it cast aspersions on the reporter’s character, citing Saudi claims that Kashoggi was an “‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.” 

The president’s message, which is full of distractions, such as blaming Iran for the wars in Yemen and Syria as well as international terrorism and questioning Kashoggi’s ties to terrorist organizations, is a bald face endorsement of economic considerations over morals, as the guiding principle of “America First!” One could argue that this has always been America’s policy, but Trump is just the first one to admit it, but the real question is whether the American people want to join in the explicit endorsement of such a policy. Have we become so concerned about protecting our material success that we will sacrifice any moral standard in order to preserve it? If so, then America First means that we will bite and scratch our way into economic success and that we will stand for more billionaires and more big houses and powerful multinational companies than anyone else and that’s who we are—nothing else. Ah, but you say, we are still free—freer than anyone else. But Kashoggi, although not a U.S. citizen, was a reporter, based in the U.S., writing for a U.S. newspaper, enjoying first amendment rights. It was his words that got him killed. It was his exercise of freedom that got him killed. And we let it go­—to preserve arms sales and the price of gasoline.

 

 

 

Tuesday
Nov202018

Back to the Dark Ages

Believe it or not, it took an article on cannabis research in Canada to get me thinking along the lines of this essay. With legalization of marijuana in Canada has come a wave of interest in scientific research on the plant’s effects across a wide variety of behaviors and diseases. Since cannabis is a widely used drug, and has been for ages, the fact that we have very little knowledge about it and that the United States still prohibits most research on it, is one more instance of us sticking our head in the sand and choosing to rely on myth, rumor, and partisan beliefs when real evidence could easily be discovered.

Cannabis research is just the tip of an iceberg that represents a dark ages mindset that characterizes America, probably more than many other developed country. We are almost alone in considering man-made climate change an unproven fact. There are still large segments of the population that reject evolution and fight tooth and nail to have biblical creationism taught in our public schools. Our arguments about the effects of gun control and gun proliferation most often fly in the face of data and anyway, are never argued on the basis of data, while, like cannabis research, we don’t allow our CDC to pursue gun deaths as a medical issue to be investigated with science. We cling to an outmoded private method of funding our healthcare, which yields poorer results and greater costs than virtually any other developed nation’s, with the private system’s proponents claiming that our system is better than and the envy of every one else.

Perhaps most egregious, is that our “land of opportunity” has created the largest income inequality in the developed world, and our immigration system  (which faces a miniscule influx of illegal immigrants and refugees compared to many European countries), is barbaric and determined by our political leaders’ xenophobia and our citizens’ fears of being “invaded” by the poor and displaced. We have developed a system that is dedicated to propping up the wealthy and privileged, while preaching self-determination and individualism to the poor and deprived. A recent study found that a poor 18 year old in repressive China has a greater chance of outperforming his parents in terms of income and education than a poor 18 year old in America. 

Our current zeitgeist, which consists of protectionism and isolationism, fails to acknowledge that we may be Americans, but we are also part of a larger world of humanity and, as human beings with values, we have obligations to keep peace, to raise others, not just Americans, out of grinding poverty, and to protect the rights of the downtrodden. From the middle ages right up through the age of empire and WWI, we lived in a world where every major power spent most of its time jockeying for position against the others. We are slipping back into that mindset, and America is leading the way.

Our political system, while showing some life and responsiveness to the public’s outrage in the last election, is ossified. As the Gilens and Page study found a few years ago, our legislative and government policy decisions are responsive to the wishes of the wealthy and corporate-connected, not to the average voter who puts them in place.

I have some hope for the new brand of progressives in our country, although I am dismayed by those on the fringe who forsake legitimate political activity for violence and disruption (except nonviolent protests, which are a valuable tool if tied to a real political agenda). I also dislike such a strong focus on identity politics that it overshadows the needs for programmatic change, and the system-wide factors that continue to make race and gender issues that divide us on the opportunities available to us as individuals. I hate racist, sexist opinions and comments, but spending more time on searching them out and identifying even their disguised presence instead of developing active ways to insure greater equality is not going to make enough difference in enough people’s lives. Racist and sexist opinions are related to racist and sexist behaviors and, don’t get me wrong, they need to be called out, but calling them out is not a political agenda. Nevertheless, progressivism recognizes inequality, recognizes the need to modernize our healthcare and educational systems to the level of the rest of the developed world, and views justice and fairness as its ultimate goals, and I hope it’s the wave of the future.

We have a long way to go to elevate our country to the status it has held for decades as a leader in promoting values and freedom. We can’t talk the talk but abandon the actions needed to preserve our country’s honor here at home. 

Sunday
Nov182018

Why We Continue to Make Dumb Decisions

The term “evidence-based” first came into prominence in the 1980’s in the field of medicine. What it meant was that medical decisions were based upon verified results of scientific studies rather than upon expert opinion or medical theory. What it resulted in was a marked advance in detection and treatment of diseases and a revolution in medical teaching as well as methods of physicians accessing data to inform their decisions. Organizations, such as the Cochrane Collaboration were formed that used scientific methods for evaluating evidence and published the findings on medical diagnostic and treatment methods for both the physicians and the public to examine. We have all profited from the evidence-based movement in medicine, because it has saved lives and improved the quality of medical care.

Our political system constantly debates the merits of adopting different policies in criminal justice, healthcare, tax structure, education funding and reform, employment and social support, environmental protection and energy. Our public debates are primarily made from political stances based either on progressivism vs. conservatism or populism directed at one constituency or another. Both sides in these debates often cite evidence, but it is nearly always anecdotal or questionable. The opinion of a single “expert” is treated as fact and disagreement is treated as denial of truth. 

We have so-called “think-tanks” but most are identified as liberal or conservative and appear to collect their evidence and write their position papers to support a point of view, rather than to conduct an unbiased assessment. This is not to say that unbiased evidence does not exist. There are plenty of academic studies and even a large number of government studies and U.N,, WHO, World Bank, or studies by other nations, that are based on science and are available to decision-makers. Unfortunately, it isn’t just our politicians who ignore this evidence, it also includes our appointed heads of government agencies. Perhaps even worse, our liberally and conservatively aligned media also ignore real evidence in favor of covering dramatic and exaggerated opinions that feed into the biases of their consumers, so the public has a difficult time finding the truth or even the real evidence for or against a policy.

I remember the days when Americans were afraid of “technocrats”— heartless functionaries who were expert on the scientific evidence on social issues and tried to apply it without understanding the human issues involved. I don't think that we ever became a technocracy and we are miles away from being one now. As citizens we distrust evidence, because we are used to it being unrepresentative and selected to support one opinion or another. We are more entertained and more excited by strong opinions than balanced assessment of issues. We fall into the trap of evaluating suggestions in terms of whether they are consistent with a particular political outlook, rather than whether they are supported by the preponderance of evidence. Raising questions about the wisdom or efficacy of policies that are applauded by opinion leaders in the political camp to which one belongs, is treated as being a traitor. The processes we use to come to decisions encourage groupthink.

As our political system moves toward greater balance between the two major political parties and among progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative and populist points of view we have an opportunity to think about the policies we want to adopt from the basis of the evidence available on their efficacy and dangers. Our politicians aren’t going to help us, because they are going to try to push us toward ideological conformity, rather than an unbiased viewpoint. This is something we need to resist. Our greatest ally is education (and the war to preserve truth vs. ideological bias continues to be fought and placed in danger within our universities, but for now, it still prevails). Critical thinking skills in our citizens are critical. 

Evidence on the outcome of different forms of healthcare, for instance, is available from the natural social experiments that have been conducted throughout the world and even in microcosms within our own country, such as government vs. private health programs in the U.S., or with the costs and outcomes of for-profit vs. not-for-profit healthcare providers’ across our country. Balanced assessment of these results, informed by the unique characteristics of the circumstances in which they have occurred (none are random, controlled, double-blind experiments), is possible and is even available in academic studies. This is only one issue, climate change, energy costs, welfare systems, criminal justice approaches, etc. are other issues with a great deal of data available. Our opinion leaders in the media and in politics need to affirm their commitment to honest assessment of evidence on social issues instead of joining the partisan fray that ignores evidence in favor of biased polemic. As educated citizens, we need to insist on this. We need to stop joining the voices that promote biased assessment and partisan discussion. We need to search for evidence ourselves and insist that our elected and appointed officials follow it. 

Our “information age” has become an age of strident, biased opinion—on both sides of almost every issue—and not one of being more informed about the evidence that science and the social sciences have found about how to improve our lives. We are letting this happen and we have to reverse this process. We are not living up to the promise of our own intellect.

Thursday
Nov152018

How to Combat Fake News

Today I read the New York Times’ investigative report about Facebook and its lackluster efforts to combat fake news and hate messages on its website. I also watched a three-part video listed on the NYT opinion page titled, The Worldwide War on Truth. I was troubled by both. 

Facebook’s efforts to discover and combat fake news and divisive disinformation planted by Russia and various political entities are a picture of self-protection for its brand and attempts to manage the problem as much through securing political influence and mounting campaigns to tarnish its competitors as they are of any real effort to deal with the problem.  The video, prepared by senior NYT staff, is primarily an attack on Russia as the prime source of disinformation, arguing that the formerly Soviet Union and now Russian Active Measures campaign is so powerful that it's nearly impossible to combat it. Vladimir Putin is seen as its present mastermind. In the United States, Barack Obama’s naiveté about Russian disinformation efforts and Donald Trump’s’ own efforts to use disinformation to promote his agenda are the ultimate villains.

I grew up during the height of the Cold War and I remember the Junior Scholastic magazine weekly column called “The Big Lie” (a title used in the NYT video, by the way), which purported to expose Communist manipulation of the truth. Even as a 7thgrader, I thought the stories were heavy handed and often substituted equal stretches of the truth as the method of combating Soviet lies. Films, TV programs, and novels of the time portrayed the Soviets as super powerful, super intelligent and super devious opponents who were almost impossible to defeat except by maintaining constant suspicion about everything, including left-leaning politicians, Hollywood screenwriters, and anti-war activists as being either complicit or duped Communist sympathizers.

We are at a difficult time in our nation when people cannot agree on the facts about major social and political events. We don’t have conversational exchanges about differing opinions so much as we have mutual accusations. The lead stories on CNN are buried or ignored on FOX News and vice versa. When people of different political persuasions try to talk with one another, their views of the world and what transpires in it are totally different. We don't just disagree with each other, we don’t believe one another.

There are bad actors who use disinformation to sow distrust and to erode national cohesion. Russia is one of those, and politicians who base their message on anger, hate and suspicion are others who are also to blame. But the response of pointing fingers at offenders and blaming our discord as a country on a few evil characters who are fiendishly manipulating opinion for their benefit is both futile and misses the point.

Every time one of us “shares” a story we know is questionable, but love because it agrees with our opinion, or we repeat a questionable, often bizarre, conspiracy theory, or we “like” expressions of hate or anger toward those we blame for our problems, we are contributing to the fractures that divide our country. Every time we ignore counter evidence to our beliefs or choose to only read or watch those we agree with, we are deepening those divides. Every time we excuse our friends' use of  the very behaviors we condemn in our opponents we are widening our divisions.

We need to be vigilant about fake news and find ways of combating or preventing it that still preserve our freedom of speech and of the press. But ultimately, fake news won’t gain traction if our people stop being complicit in accepting, sharing and even promoting it.  We’re not “dupes” and the Russians aren’t “masterminds” who can play us without our knowing it. Most of us know when we are going along with stories and opinions that result in greater division and present only one side of the truth.  It can be fun and affirming to be part of a team and to mount warfare against an enemy. Our present day ethos seems to be that in culture and political wars as well as military ones, it’s winning that counts and not how you play the game. Nothing is bad if it works to defeat our opponents. 

As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The real antidote to the spread of fake news and the spread of divisive disinformation is to look at our own complicity and strive for greater integrity and intellectual honesty. Looking outward and making blame our primary weapon is to miss the point, which is that the real culprit is inside each of us.

Sunday
Nov112018

The Meaning of the Midterm Election Results

I’ve read several analyses of the recent midterm election results and I find it difficult to come to any conclusion about the true bigger meaning of what happened last Tuesday. What did happen was that Southern and several rural Middle America states voted Republican in their selection of senators. Democratic congressional candidates won in many previously Republican districts in the West and Midwest, as did governors in the latter states. Those regions where Trump campaigned tended to vote for his candidates and suburban, mostly white, areas, which voted for Trump or Republicans before, switched to supporting Democrats. Those are the facts, but what they mean or portend is unclear.

My best guess is that one thing that went on during the election was that many voters chose the party they supported (regardless of which one they were registered as) based upon their reaction to the president’s rhetoric about immigration, nationalism, women and the media and whether their local candidate supported that rhetoric or not. I also suspect that it was not the substance of what the president said, but the tone he used in expressing it that mattered. In terms of economics, the most important issue that might have undermined some Republican candidates was healthcare, where their party was perceived (I believe correctly) as trying to roll back Obamacare advances, especially the mandated coverage of pre-existing medical conditions. For most of the voters who switched to support a Democrat, my guess is that their personal financial status is now better than before, as are its prospects for the next two years. 

Since the election, President Trump has doubled down on the vituperativeness of his messaging. This appears to be a strategy (or just a personal quality of his) that loses support except among his most ardent devotees. By 2020, it should push the Trump support into a smaller and smaller faction of angry voters who enjoy his way of expressing their anger about issues that bother them. In turn, that should strengthen the anti-Trump forces, who are already in the majority. Only Democratic mistakes will jeopardize their chances of regaining the presidency and more of congress. But of course Democrats are notoriously mistake-prone and quite capable of shooting themselves in the foot.

I firmly believe that equal nastiness is a poor strategy for winning support, since I believe it has been the tone of the president’s message not the substance, that has alienated people. These same people can be alienated by a message that is based on wild accusations and insults—something seen nightly on some liberal media outlets.

I’ve said it before, but what a winning party needs is a set of solid policy positions that addresses the anxiety of the majority of citizens and affirms the values of equality and opportunity while making our basic institutions once more world leaders. Even solidly middle-class Americans fear that they or their children will have a medical catastrophe that wipes out their finances or, even worse, cannot be addressed. A healthcare system that guarantees quality medical care for all is absolutely necessary. The only way that those who grow up in families and neighborhoods from which few college educated people emerge have an equal chance is for all American public education to be upgraded, probably through federal assistance, and public college or post-high school vocational education to be free for all who want it. Our immigration system needs to be fixed so it is orderly, fair and compassionate. A few congressmen working together ought to be able to do this. Some segments of our population, related to race, education, or geographic region, are chronically poor and underserved by our system. We have to make progress in reducing the disparities that characterize our society. A more progressive tax system with fewer loopholes for the rich and corporations would at least provide the funding to do something, although what to do is still a question.

Everyone in the country is going to experience a mounting sense of anxiety each new hurricane or fire season that comes around (and these seasons are getting longer), and more and more of our national and local resources are going to be used to repair the damage from natural disasters. In the short-term we can't stop this from happening, but a long-term plan that addresses both how to respond to climate change and how to slow or stop it will make us all feel as if we’re at least doing everything we can.

These are all concrete areas of needed policy revision that can be addressed to meet the fears and hopes of our citizens. Continual insults, griping about the use of politically incorrect language, celebrating nothing but identity recognition rather than the substance of progress, is not a program that will attract voters nor meet the needs of most Americans. Neither will building walls—either real ones to keep out immigrants or socioeconomic ones to keep those who have the most from having to share with those who have the least—and venting anger at a fictitious war against religion or patriotism or culture solve any of our nation’s problems or make anyone’s life any better. Those who think so will become an increasingly small minority. Those who see positive approaches to our real problems and growth of the qualities that make us a good nation will secure the support of a majority of Americans in the future.

Wednesday
Nov072018

Democrats—Please Don't Blow It

One the one hand, I’m ecstatic. Not only did the Democrats regain the House, but the Democratic candidate in my district, for whom I campaigned, appears to have won a tight race over his 30 year incumbent Republican opponent. And I live in one of the reddest districts in California. But I’m dismayed by the loss of Senate seats and key governor’s races (even though Democrats won more govenorships than they lost). What it means to me is that a significant portion of our citizens still support the pugnacious, anti-immigrant, white-oriented, gun-oriented message of our president. Looking at a map, the divides between north and south and urban and rural have gotten even deeper. Clearly, there are large groups of Americans who don’t share a consensual worldview. Different things are important to each group, and what is true is different for them also. It’s a split that has been growing, and this election shows that it is not narrowing.

Democrats won’t rule Washington. They only control half of congress and the president has vast powers that he can use without their consent. What they do have is an opportunity to show the country what their vision is, what their priorities are, and how they operate when they have gained at least some power. They can easily screw things up. I remember the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid years under President Obama. Democrats reveled in their control of both houses and made no attempt to construct bipartisan objectives that would enlist the cooperation of their opponents. Admittedly, Republican leaders at the time, such as Mitch McConnell and Tea Party congressmen, vowed to oppose everything Obama put forward, just to make his presidency unsuccessful, but the Democrats in congress used their power to further the distance between them and the Republicans and to drive a wedge between people. 

Most analysts say that the Democrats won the House because of anti-Trump sentiment that has extended now into traditionally Republican suburbia (e.g. my district), and some former Republican strongholds, such as much of Texas. We’ll see how much it reflects increasing participation by young voters and ethnic minority voters when the full results are analyzed. The hopes and aspirations of the latter groups can form the basis for a party platform that is positive and inclusive and strives to reduce the inequality that characterizes our country and, in many instances, falls along ethnic lines. Every young person who wants his or her gay friend to be treated with respect and equality, who wants women to be respected, who would like to enter adulthood in a country that takes care of its infrastructure and protects its environment, should find a resonant voice in the Democrats’ message. Every immigrant who came as a relative or has the dream of bringing his or her aging parents, or struggling sister or brother to the United States to share in the dream he or she is achieving here, should hear such yearnings echoed in protections of our immigration system, which has always had the aim of uniting families as well as increasing our country’s productivity by adding talented people. In almost every case, the children of immigrants outperform their parents in educational attainment and income. They better themselves by being in America. That’s not a system we want to throw away. And finally, those Americans who are living marginally in terms of job and income, who are sick or disabled and frightened of losing their healthcare—or never had enough of it to meet their needs—need to hear that the Democrats are aware of their plight and are going to address their needs and protect them.

What we don’t need from Democrats is a platform that has as its central plank, the vilification of Donald Trump, which seeks every means possible to harass the president and try to impeach him. Speeches proclaiming that the president is a racist are not nearly as helpful as ones that address the evils of racism in our country by proposing justice and educational reforms. Insuring women’s rights through equal pay and healthcare protection is more important than accusing the president of sexism and misogyny.

FOX News stokes the flames of rabid Republican anger, fueled by the president’s toxic messages. I would love to see CNN stop doing the same on the other side. The way to do that is to have political leaders who have constructive, not destructive, things to say to the media and can take center stage. The Democrats, now that they control the House, will have the stage, and it is up to them to use it constructively. Our country needs to come together, not fracture further apart, and this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.

Saturday
Nov032018

Solving the Border Problem

Turkey is on the border of Syria, a country devastated by civil war. Greece is across the Mediterranean from Syria. Europe is the first landing place for refugees from drought-stricken Africa. European countries have at least attempted to formulate plans with regard to how to deal with the influx of refugees from the world’s trouble spots. Those plans have met with varied success and in many cases, their welcoming first approaches have led to social backlash against massive influxes of immigrants who are viewed by many as threatening European culture. As a result, approaches have changed. Borders are now sealed in some countries, refugees are sent back or, more often, sent to Turkey, where European money is helping to fund settlement camps that don’t have the aim of sending their occupants on to Europe. The situation is far from solved or stable, but it is at least being addressed. 

Our American approach is to do everything possible to keep immigrants from crossing our border illegally and to use our courts to adjudicate, one-by-one, the cases of people who apply for asylum. We have incarcerated some, separated children from parents and are now sending troops to fortify our borders to keep out a caravan of refugees from Honduras and Guatemala who are making their way north through Mexico.

The public focus of our approach has been dominated by the president’s rhetoric on the threat posed by this immigrant “invasion.” His voiced plan centers around stopping people from crossing the border, although our government has been also urging and providing incentives for Mexico to take in the refugees and threatening Honduras for letting them leave.

Much of Central America is a dangerous place to live. In Honduras and El Salvador, gangs, most often related to the drug trade, control the society, extort money and kill citizens at murder rates that are the highest in the world. Even for those not in danger, life is filled with poverty and government corruption. These are massive incentives for people to leave and seek refuge elsewhere. America is the richest nearby country and, in the past, has had a relatively porous border. It’s a natural destination, even if getting there is a long and dangerous journey.

Countries need to be able to control their borders. That doesn’t mean that troops or walls are an adequate method to deal with a refugee crisis that is continent-wide. When Europe was in economic trouble or when wars occurred on European soil, Americans usually formulated plans, quotas and procedures for taking in refugees. These people joined in the building of our society and became Americans themselves. It’s true that the policies were almost always tinged with racial, ethnic and nationality biases, so not every immigrant was equally welcomed. The policies reflected the tenor and beliefs of the times.

Polls have shown that our present policies don’t reflect the beliefs or the attitudes of most Americans, but no one has proposed a policy that does. Those who are most unified and the most vocal—the “keep them out” crowd—have carried the day. The voices of those others have been silent or unfocused. We are sorely in need of proposals for working with Mexico and Central American countries, as well as Canada on how to respond to the civil crises that are causing such dislocations of people. We can’t have an open border, but a well-to-do country with a booming economy and a declining birthrate that means we won’t maintain our workforce with our own children, means that the U.S. should take some of the people who are leaving danger and destitution in their own countries. Such an approach has to be measured and logical, not opening the floodgates to all who want to enter. Canada can also take people because it is similar to the U.S. in its economy and birthrate decline. Together with our neighbors to the South, we can try to work out solutions to the problems within Central American countries and, for the time being, find refugee havens closer to the people’s homes.

This isn’t a plan, because I’m not in a position to make one for our country. But our politicians are in such a position and have always been, throughout our country’s history. We can criticize the president for his plan being protective without compassion and not reflecting our country’s values, but criticism is not a solution. We need people from both parties to step up and look at the broader, long-term picture and at least make an attempt to solve it. Our immigration problems are miniscule compared to what Europe and Turkey and some Middle Eastern countries have faced, but we aren’t even trying to work together as a nation to come up with a way to handle them that we can all agree on. It’s time for leadership in this area.

Thursday
Nov012018

Our Moral Code

One of the most remarkable documents I’ve ever come across is the so-called “Jefferson Bible.”  As Brooke Allen has shown in her book on the religious tenets of such founding fathers as Franklin, Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton as well as Jefferson, none can be thought of as an orthodox Christian, and most were deists—believers in a higher power which may have created the universe, but not believers in an anthropomorphic god nor in Jesus as his son. In constructing his version of the New Testament, Thomas Jefferson made this clear. His book, eventually titled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, was cut and pasted from an actual bible (actually from 4 bibles, since he pasted equivalent passages side by side in 4 languages). Jefferson considered Jesus as an exemplar of "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” But he did not regard Jesus as divine, nor as having produced miracles, including being born from a virgin and being resurrected after death. Accordingly, his cut and paste bible consisted of the first four books of the New Testament, leaving out the miracles and signs of divinity, but including all the rest of Jesus’ sayings and actions. His focus was on the moral lessons involved: “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,”  “love your enemies,”  “blessed are the poor,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” “He that is without sin, cast the first stone,” “if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” These are only a few. 

What is the moral lesson of these words and actions of Jesus? It seems abundantly clear that they are to practice love, not hate, to value peace and those who try to achieve it, to value the poor, to avoid being judgmental, and to be generous, even at your own expense. Jesus put no limit on exercising these beliefs. His message to "turn the other cheek" is prefaced with the sentence, “I tell you not to resist an evil person.” He did not limit his message to converts to his faith or to members of the Jewish faith (which he was), or to anyone. His example of the “good Samaritan” illustrates that someone from outside the mainstream faith (in this case, orthodox Jewish), who acts in a moral manner, is more blessed than one who follows the faith, but doesn’t practice its moral tenets

 Jefferson did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but he believed that he was a moral person who preached a moral code. Jefferson was reputed to have read his version of the bible every night before going to bed.

I’m not a Christian, but I grew up as one. I learned the same moral lessons that Jesus taught as Jefferson did. I was equally impressed, and I always thought that it meant something good about humans that so many of them affirmed these moral teachings as their guide to living. But today I see Christians and non-Christians alike preaching a moral code that is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and I learned to value. Defense is more honorable than trying to love one’s enemies, judgmentalism is not only the tenor of the times, but those who resist judging others are deemed weak and cowardly. Those who preach peace with our neighbors and our enemies are termed traitors. Those in society who are most celebrated are our warriors. The poor are despised and those who ask us for asylum from persecution and poverty are considered invaders, as people who want to take away what we have, despite Jesus’ urging to also give them one’s coat as well as one’s shirt. Being “hard” is considered a virtue. Being loving and kind to even those who are different and who challenge us is considered being soft and weak.

One doesn’t have to be a Christian to see that our society has accepted a new moral code that is diametrically opposed to that offered by Jesus. For a Christian, this may equal hypocrisy, and for the rest of us, it signals a move away from the vision of humanity that some of those who founded this nation, such as Thomas Jefferson, thought was a noble one and a moral code toward which each of us should strive. I’m not a Christian, but I’m not ashamed to affirm the rightness of many of Jesus’ moral teachings and to feel that it is a person’s responsibility to try to live up to them. Other religions have similar teachings and a similar failure to take them seriously, instead favoring hatred, distrust and prejudice over love and understanding. It makes me worried about the moral health of our society.

 

 

 

Monday
Oct292018

When Civil Society Comes Apart

We have a problem in America. It’s a difficult one, the edges of which are blurred. On the one hand, we have a rise in the voice of hate groups that make public their racial, ethnic, and religious prejudices. Their members often turn their anger into violence. These people need to be identified, vilified and stopped. On the other hand, we have the wider public, which is divided along political and cultural lines. People honestly differ in their world-views, and debates from their respective positions are the backbone of a healthy democracy—but such debate is currently filled with hate, and our national reaction to those who don’t agree with us is to criticize their character as much as their beliefs. Such hate-filled discourse also sometimes leads to violence and even when it doesn’t it leads to an unhealthy atmosphere of mutual distrust and an inability to form a shared vision of what our country stands for.

Hate groups are malignant forces within our society, and many of their members are filled with dangerous malevolence. We’ve seen the results of this kind of hate in the last week. These groups are dangerous and their activities and influence, which appear to be spreading, need to be contained. When the larger society condones hateful messages and violent actions, not only do members of these groups become emboldened, but their messages become more appealing to disturbed and disgruntled individuals. There should be no public approval or looking the other way when media, public officials or national figures fail to disavow and distance themselves from hate messages or from figures associated with hate groups, or subtly reinforce pejorative stereotypes or conspiracy theories based on such stereotypes and prejudices. Failure to condemn statements of this type leads to wider acceptance of them and encourages those who make them.

Our president has a responsibility to take the lead in condemning hate groups and hate messages and not promoting conspiracy theories or false information based on prejudiced stereotypes. Unfortunately, he often fails at this task and his failure has given credibility to dangerous attitudes and beliefs that have led to violent acts by unstable individuals who believe them. But if those who oppose him and his supporters do the same by spouting nothing but extreme anger and giving credence to conspiracy-laden accusations, then they are also to blame when no one will speak civilly to each other and when extremists respond to their opponents with violence (remember—a Trump supporter sent bombs, but also a Trump opponent/Sanders supporter opened fire on a group of Republican representatives).

It’s easy to point fingers at the offenders of civil discourse, whether it be public officials or media figures, but it appears to be difficult to do so with civility. In fact, our political and opinion leaders on both sides have made it a badge of honor to say that “the other side” doesn’t deserve civility. Anyone who thinks that the political left or right has a monopoly on such thinking or such conversations is probably listening to only one side. Both sides see the other as lacking in morals, both sides see any attempt to understand or work toward compromise with those who disagree with them as giving in to evil.

The big picture is that our society is disintegrating in front of us, and instead of anyone trying to fix it, we are all spending our time and energy placing blame. There is enough blame to go around. It’s time for people to resist the temptation to hate and to try to find common ground and respect to allow us all to get along. The alternative is a hate-filled, vigilante society in which neighbor fears neighbor and we splinter into irreconcilable subgroups, each one of us self-righteously sure that we are right and our opponents are not just wrong, but deserve to be treated with disrespect and violence.

As I said, anyone who believes this only applies to “the other side” is part of the problem.

 

Thursday
Oct182018

What Democrats Should Be Saying

If Obamacare is repealed, or even gutted so that it no longer guarantees medical insurance for those with pre-existing conditions, many of our most needy and vulnerable citizens will be financially and medically ruined. If we don’t do something to mitigate greenhouse gases, our planet’s warming will reach a point that makes it difficult to reverse. Wildfires, rising sea levels, hurricanes and droughts, not to mention the alteration in plant and animal life will pose life-threatening risks to millions of people. Even on the less massively catastrophic side, stagnation in the incomes of the lower middle class and poor, combined with rising costs of housing, will leave more and more people homeless. Meanwhile, recent test results show that, as a country, our educational system is failing our young people, especially our young people of color, not just in comparison to other countries, but also in comparison to those who went before them here in the United States.

We may have a thriving economy, but it’s not working for everyone. Threats to our citizens, especially those without substantial financial means, abound. At the same time, our country’s foreign policy supports dictators, thugs, wars that wipe out thousands of innocent civilians (e.g. Yemen), and helps to foment continued hostility between Middle Eastern countries.

In the midst of these existential threats, our Democratic Party leaders are involved with trying to outdo a foul-mouthed, insulting president by fighting him back using his own tactics. Politics from the left has turned into an unending series of accusations about the their opponents’ insensitivity, the racist or sexist innuendos contained in their tweets and public statements. Yes, there are warnings about the real dangers that an anti-public healthcare, anti-environment, anti-poor Republican Party poses, but with few exceptions, these are only hysterical warnings, lacking in concrete proposals. 

Medicare-for-All can work. Simple math and common sense prove that even if taxes must be raised to pay for such a program, the money saved by not having to pay huge insurance premiums and massive deductibles or taking bankruptcy because of medical bills that can’t be paid will be a net financial benefit for most Americans, though perhaps not those in the upper 1-10% who already have platinum health insurance and will bear the brunt of the taxes. Obama-era or California-like regulations on carbon emissions as well as international cooperation in addressing global warming through agreements such as the Paris Accords has at least a chance of slowing or stopping global warming. Arguments that the world’s or our country’s economy can’t afford such efforts fly in the face of reality. Already, the solar energy field employs more people than the coal industry in the United States. Both China and several Scandinavian countries have mandated all electric vehicles in the near future. They aren’t afraid that such a change will ruin their economies; they are embracing it.

Our progressive political leaders need to quit squabbling, quit trading insult for insult. Get out of the mud and the irrelevancy. No one cares if Stormy Daniels wins her lawsuit or not, or if Elizabeth Warren is part Native American, or if another insensitive Republican characterizes women inappropriately. Of course we don’t want misogynists, racists or sexual predators to be running our country. But that’s just a bottom line of decency, and the focus on constant accusations about such issues at the expense of concrete proposals for dealing with life-threatening issues, is not providing voting America with ideas they can get behind to really turn our country around. 

It’s not a question of going high or going low, it’s a question of offering a vision of a country that will be of help to every one of its citizens and the world around us in making our future lives livable and something to look forward to, rather than to dread.