America’s Silly Acceptance of Propaganda

Martin LongmanOne of the things that I find most interesting about public life in America is the way that people just fall in line when it comes to who we love and who we hate. During the lead up to the Iraq War, the American people got a great big hate on about France because it wouldn’t allow us to use its airspace for a war that Americans now agree was at best really, really stupid. But that doesn’t stop Americans from widely disliking France to this day. In fact, there is the totally unreasonable belief that France is some kind of weak peacenik country. (I wish!)

It’s reminiscent of the Two Minute Hate in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The people hate and fear Emmanuel Goldstein because they are told to. As far as we can tell in the novel, if Goldstein is a real person, he’s a high ranking party official, glad to be used as a tool for oppressing the bourgeoisie. But the main thing about it is that for the vast majority of people, it is all so real. People don’t watch Fox News because they like being misinformed; they watch it because they know they are getting the truth. We can laugh at them, but a far more pernicious kind of propaganda is the way all of the mainstream media just treat some countries as bad and others as good.

Ordinary Life in IranIt’s not hard to see how this works. No country is all good or all bad. So for official government enemies, our media reports almost exclusively the bad things. For official government friends, our media reports almost exclusively the good things. I’ve discussed this before with respect to Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, American Double Standard Regarding Democracy. That’s a case where it isn’t even close. Venezuela has lots of problems, but it is a bastion of goodness and light compared to Saudi Arabia. But few Americans are aware of this. They just know that Saudi Arabia is “good” and Venezuela is “bad” — because they’ve been manipulated to believe that.

A better comparison is between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They are both Muslim theocracies. And yet we hate Iran and if we don’t love Saudi Arabia, we tend to apologize for it and say that it is moving in the right direction. What exactly that means for a country that officially kills its own citizens via beheading with sword and stoning, I can’t say. But Martin Longman brought up a very interesting fact the other day: Iran is a far better place to be Jewish than Saudi Arabia.

Ordinary Life in Saudi ArabiaActually, that kind of under-states it. The truth is that in Saudi Arabia, “Jewish (as well as Christian and other non-Muslim) religious services are prohibited from being held on Saudi Arabian soil.” What’s more, “Persons with an Israeli government stamp in their passport or who are openly Jewish are generally not permitted into the Kingdom.”

Meanwhile, in Iran, things are not so bad for Jews. “Iran’s Jewish community is officially recognized as a religious minority group by the government, and, like the Zoroastrians and Christians, they are allocated one seat in the Iranian Parliament.” There appear to be about 25,000 Jews in Iran. I’m sure that doesn’t make Iran a great place to be Jewish — or anything else, for that matter. But why is it that a government like Iran’s that has at least a modicum of respect for Judaism is the one that we assume can’t possibly get along with Israel. But the government that won’t allow Jews (Or Israelis!) into its country is a great ally of Israel?

What’s really going on is that it is all about power politics. The US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are all bound together by similar strategic interests. Yet right now, our supposed greatest threat in the region is the Islamic State. And it is Sunni — like Saudi Arabia. In fact, wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia (Of course!) were funding the Islamic State for years. Meanwhile, Iran has at war with the Islamic State for years.

None of this is to say that Iran is some great country. But it is just to highlight that our attitudes toward Iran and Saudi Arabia have nothing whatsoever to do with the common American propaganda about freedom and democracy. Saudi Arabia is a terrible country, but if we just made a nuclear deal with it, there would be no complaining.

An Excellent Question for Donald Trump

David Cay JohnstonYour first major deal was converting the decrepit Commodore Hotel next to Grand Central Station into a Grand Hyatt. Mayor Abe Beame, a close ally of your father Fred, gave you the first-ever property tax abatement on a New York City hotel, worth at least $400 million over 40 years.

Since you boast that you are a self-made billionaire, how do you rationalize soliciting and accepting $400 million of welfare from the taxpayers?

—David Cay Johnston
21 Questions For Donald Trump

Helping Business and Workers That We Won’t Do

Dean BakerOver the weekend, Dean Baker wrote, Will Hillary Clinton Have a Serious Plan to Persuade Companies to Invest in Workers? It seems that Clinton is calling for companies to invest in their workers, and Baker would like to know if she has any plans to cause that to happen, or whether she is just expecting that her pretty words will convince them. It isn’t surprising that the mainstream media is not interested in the question. After all, they too are in the pretty but anemic words business.

Baker noted, “It actually is not hard to give companies more incentive to invest in their workers, we can just make it harder for them to fire them.” This is something that is very big in Europe. But in America, we have done nothing over the past 60 years but move away from this. The argument is that businesses must have total flexibility or we won’t have acceptable growth. What workers might need doesn’t matter. But it is interesting that allowing businesses to lay off workers at the first sign of an economic downturn just plays into the paradox of thrift.

If a business sees a recession is coming on and lays off half its employees, there will be a all those employees who are not buying things. This will cause the recession to get even worse — even faster. Now, this is a fine strategy for any specific business. But in the aggregate, it is bad for all businesses — because there will be fewer people around to buy their products. So legislation that stopped businesses from doing something that will ultimately be bad for them is a good idea. Or at least it is if the concern really is economic growth.

Of course, I don’t think that is why conservatives want to give businesses the most flexibility and workers the least flexibility. More and more, I look back to Edmund Burke when thinking about conservatism. The great concern is that if you allow the workers to get comfortable, they will revolt. And by “revolt,” they mean “ask for anything at all.” So I think the whole idea here is to make workers as insecure as possible. But all that ultimately does is put off the day when workers demand some kind of equal share of the resources of this country. But I guess the conservatives figure that they’ve been able to finesse it this long, and now with Fox News, it is a good bet that they can continue on indefinitely.

I like Hillary Clinton. But I have no illusions that she isn’t part of the power elite. She will not do anything that taxes her class. But even if she did do something, it would be changed over time to help the business community. Dean Baker discussed how a Carter administration program to allow workers to become part owners has been instead little more than a “tax break for creative owners.” To me, it is all about this: it isn’t enough to elect a president. Unless we can keep a liberal government in power for a decade, we are going to get relatively little reform. And given that a large section of the liberal coalition has something better to do during off-year elections, we have a problem.

David McCullough Creates Myth to Replace Myth

David McCulloughDavid McCullough was on The Daily Show Monday night. Earlier this year, he wrote, The Wright Brothers. He was a last minute replacement for Ted Cruz who suddenly found out there were some kittens that he needed to drown. And McCullough was certainly better than listening to Ted Cruz spit out a stream of talking points about how Mexicans are destroying America and the Iran deal is the worst foreign policy ever known to man — Neville Chamberlain blah, blah, blah. But that hardly means the segment was good. I wanted to retch.

Stewart started off by noting that we don’t know that much about the Wright brothers — just what we learned on the children’s place mats we got at family restaurants. So here comes McCullough to tell us about the real Wright brothers — to give us just a taste of his 336 pages of wisdom on the subject. The man will dispel the myth and create instead a real story of these men — not the children’s book narrative of the rugged individuals or the Romantic heroes. But that was not to be.

This is how he begins to “enlighten” us on the true nature of the Wright brothers:

In fact, they were infinitely more than that, and more interesting as human beings. And brave almost beyond almost anyone I’ve ever known much about. And they would not give up. And they never let failure get them down. And they were determined to succeed. And they did it on their own — entirely. They had no foundation behind them. They had no university backing them. They had no angel… And they had no backer. They did it all with their own money. On their own steam. On their own initiative. In their own free time. And they had very little in the way of income.

And he continues on in the same vein. He finally gets around to telling the story of the Wright’s 82 year old father who goes flying for the first time, “Orville took him up… And the whole time he was sitting beside Orville on this plane — no seat belts or anything… He kept saying, ‘Higher, Orville! Higher!’ That was the spirit of the family.” There’s a word for this: pathetic.

I don’t have a problem with hagiography. People like to make heroes out of humans. I’m fine with that. But don’t give me this garbage about telling the real story of the Wright brothers and then just provide the same old story with ever more hero worship. Back in 1968, The Archie Show produced an episode about the Wright brothers that contained more information about the subject — and a song!

As the voice of so many Ken Burns documentaries, David McCullough sort of speaks to a quaint Americana. But he also presents himself as a serious historian — complaining about the state of education. But the kind of history that he peddles is not what I recognize as history. It is more or less apologetics — the “We’re number one!” argument presented quietly, seriously, eloquently — but with no more cogency.

Morning Music: Mimi Fariña

Mimi Fariña and Joan BaezSome time before World War I, the labor organizer Rose Schneiderman gave a speech that included the poetic line, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” This lead to a poem, “Bread and Roses.” And this was later turned into several songs. The most recent was in 1974, when Mimi Fariña set it to music.

That same year, Fariña set up an organization called Bread & Roses that provides free music to people in institutions. She died in 2001 of neuroendocrine cancer. But the organization lives on.

Here is Fariña and her big sister Joan Baez singing the song. As usual, I couldn’t find a video of a live performance. But this one has a nice collection of labor related images to go along with it.

Anniversary Post: START I

START I - Trust, but Verify

On this day in 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — START I — was signed between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the first nuclear treaty that ever actually reduced the number of nuclear weapons that the superpowers had. It is stuff like this that makes what I hear today about the nuclear deal with Iran so frustrating. I recently heard a conservative say, “I just don’t trust the Iranians!” And why didn’t he trust the Iranians? No reason really. I discuss this glib acceptance of propaganda in an article later today. But it comes down to this: the media have told the people in countless ways that the Iranians can’t be trusted, so the people believe it — without any evidence.

But I at least understand that. What I don’t understand is how people can have forgotten that the exact same things were said about the Soviet Union. It was widely believed that the Soviets just couldn’t be trusted. They would supposedly start a nuclear war if they thought they could win. They weren’t rational. They weren’t like the enemies that came before. The fact that the Soviet Union had shown itself to be extremely rational didn’t matter — everyone just “knew” that it wasn’t so.

And so the same thing is said about the Iranians — because the same thing is always said about whomever happens to be our enemy. Like I said: I understand. What is it that most defines an enemy: lack of trust. Of course, when it comes to treaties, it isn’t about trust. If it were, and the Iranians truly couldn’t be trusted, then why did they negotiate? Why didn’t they just agree to everything, given that they intended to not abide by the treaty and there is nothing in the treaty to compel them? Of course, when it is phrased like that, the ridiculousness of the claim becomes clear.

What’s wrong with the average foe of the Iran nuclear deal is that what they really want is war. I know that’s shocking to say. After all, didn’t we just manage to mess up in a big way in Iraq with a war of choice? But I think these people believe that if we just repeated the Iraq War in every other country in the Middle East, everything would be fine. Of course, the opposite is true. And if we were to cause the fall of the current Iranian government, I believe the entire Middle East would be destabilized. There’s no telling what new horrible governments we would facilitate.

But it is nice to think back 24 years ago to the START I. What kind of a messed up world do we live in where George HW Bush looks like a great statesman? And give it another 20 years — we might think back fondly on the seriousness of his son.

Fox News Sandra Bland Apologetics

Elisabeth HasselbeckOn Fox & Friends, Elisabeth Hasselbeck interviewed former NYPD officer John Rafferty about the Sandra Bland traffic stop. Media Matters reported, Fox’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck Suggests Sandra Bland’s Lit Cigarette Could Have Justified Police Conduct. I don’t think that’s quite correct. The main thing about Hasselbeck is that she is an incredibly stupid person. But there is no doubt, she is pushing the idea that a lit cigarette is a dangerous item. And Rafferty goes with it in a big way, having himself been a police officer and thus being a perpetually frightened person.

What I find interesting about the segment is that it is pure apologetics. The point of it is to find a way to justify the officer’s behavior. And Rafferty is really interesting in this regard. For one thing, he mentions that people have “tried to” put cigarettes out on him. I just don’t believe that. It just seems like such a facile thing to say. In modern America where a police officer cannot even risk a hang nail, the issue isn’t people going after officers with lit cigarettes, but officers killing people for moving suddenly.

Also really interesting at the end of the segment is what Rafferty says after talking about how he (very very afraid) wouldn’t want a dangerous black woman getting out of her car with a lit cigarette, “But the way you say it, unfortunately you’re locked into it. Because now, it’s being recorded. Unfortunately, these officers have to remember that.” What is he talking about? Locked into what? Following the law? This comes directly after, “I’ve had somebody try to put a cigarette out on me. It happens. I guarantee, you speak to many cops out there.” He seems to just be saying, “It’s too bad we have these cameras so we can’t just attack people like Sandra Bland.

Ultimately, the whole segment is about going over the the video to find a reason to justify what the officer did. And there’s a reason for that. One of the main things that Fox News does is make old white people feel good about the world. I wrote about this before, Why My Father Watches Fox News. To admit that the police are a bunch of crybabies who jump when they see a black woman would be to admit that those minorities might have a real complaint. So Fox News is there to sooth away those worries, “It’s okay to believe that the only thing wrong in the world is that big bad Obama.”

If someone wanted to understand the Sandra Bland traffic stop, they would not bring on a police officer. At best, what that provides is the idea that this particular police officer “stepped over the line” and “took this too personal.” It’s just this one guy. It isn’t a systemic problem and we know that because the nice calm officer is on the television to explain the way it always is except for some minor exceptions like with Sandra Bland.

The right thing to do is to bring on a sociologist or a civil rights lawyer — or anyone who can put the stop in the context of policing throughout the United States, throughout time. But that is the last thing that Fox News wants to do. Their purpose to to dismiss Sandra Bland as an example of anything but this one “exceptional” case. Hasselbeck and Rafferty were acting as the equivalent of a police officer on the street after a car accident, trying to disburse the onlookers, “Move along! Nothing to see here!”

Public Opinion and the Iranian Nuclear Deal

No Nukes for IranOver at Vox, Zack Beauchamp tried to make sense of, What Americans Really Think About the Iran Deal. You see, some polls — like Pew — find that only 38% of Americans approve of the deal while 48% disapprove. But other polls — like PPP (pdf) — find that 54% approve while only 38% disapprove. What’s going on with that? Well, Beauchamp noted that the main difference between the polls is that when people are primed with some actual information about the Iran deal, they are much more in favor of it.

I think it is pretty simple. The US media is just terrible. So “Iran” is not the name of a particular country. It’s just a pejorative. So asking people if they approve of the Iran deal is like asking them if they approve of the Festering Maggot deal. But there is another aspect of it too: it is only the right that is making a big deal of it. On the left, it’s an important bit of diplomacy. But it isn’t our salvation. No one thinks that the world would have ended if the deal hadn’t been made. But on the right, it is presented as a big deal — as an existential threat.

Consider for a moment, Jade Helm 15. It is a standard military exercise — the kind of thing that the American military does all the time. But it wasn’t that on the right. Instead it was a prelude to marshal law! The United States was going to “take over” Texas — because apparently, a lot of conservatives think that Texas won the Civil War and thus isn’t already part of the United States. Regardless, Jade Helm 15 started almost two weeks ago, yet just a couple of days ago, I heard from a conservative about this great threat. When it is over on 15 September, I’m sure that I will still hear about it — but slowly the fever will lessen until the new Greatest Threat to America™ is announced.

Jade Helm 15The same thing is true with the Iran deal. Assuming that Congress doesn’t derail it — in a few years, the freak out will be a distant memory. Because this is what happens to everything that the right freaks out about. Nothing is just a matter of disagreement. It is that they are the last line of defense and the liberals are actively trying to destroy America as they have known it. So Obamacare is not a bad idea; it is the end of freedom. Wall Street reform is not a bad idea; it is the end of freedom. Increased fuel efficiency standards is not a bad idea; it is the end of freedom. And of course, the Iran deal is the end of freedom and literally the end of Israel.

But that’s the conservatives. For the rest of the American people, they are going to see that after this deal goes into effect, their lives are… exactly the same. So when they are asked about this in five years time, they will respond, “What Iran deal?” They won’t care about it then, just as they don’t care about it now. Sure, if you ask them their opinions, they will give it — the only thing in greater supply than American opinions is American ignorance. But regardless of their opinions, they do not care about the Iran deal.

The only question is whether this will be an issue in the 2016 presidential race. And it will be! It will be a very big deal to some people who would never vote for the Democrats. Being concerned about the Iran nuclear deal is like being worried about Jade Helm 15 in the 2016 election — there will be people it matters to. But even they aren’t going to change their votes based upon it.

Fossil Fuels Have Long Been Uncompetitive

Chris HopeLast week, the IMF put out a report, How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies? It found that worldwide, we subsidize the energy companies (mostly fossil fuels) to the tune of $5.3 trillion per year. Okay, okay. Brad Plumer is right that these are not actual subsidies. All this money is just an externality. If it were taken into account, some of it would result in lower profits but some of it would result in high prices. But even Plumer noted that worldwide, the fossil fuel industry gets $500 billion in direct subsidies — and that doesn’t take into account all the externalities that benefit them.

The externalities matter a great deal. They distort the energy market. They make clean energy sources like solar far less competitive than they would be in a properly functioning market. It makes sense to subsidize new technologies and infant industries. But it makes no sense whatsoever to subsidize mature industries. It is a sign of nothing but the use of economic power to distort the political process. In fact, here in America it is hard to find a rich person who doesn’t owe large parts of her fortune to one kind of government welfare or another. So the idea that solar energy has some unfair advantage is rubbish — it’s just the opposite. And nuclear power — after all these years — still requires subsidies.

At Vox last Friday, David Roberts wrote, Fossil Fuel Companies Impose More in Climate Costs Than They Make in Profits. It is about another recent study by Chris Hope that looked at the various companies in the years 2008 through 2012 to see if they were profitable if the externalities were included. It turns out that they aren’t. In fact, for coal companies, the costs were ridiculously high: “varying between nearly $2 and nearly $9 per $1 of revenue.” The cost was not nearly as high for oil companies: taking into account the cost of carbon represented between 10% and 50% of their total revenue.

The problem with these studies is how exactly we account for the future damage that is done by these emissions. We can’t assume that carbon pollution today will always harm us. Carbon dioxide is eventually removed from the atmosphere after all. Hope assumes a 2.3% per year decrease in the cost of it. This is quite reasonable. Assuming a 33 year half life for carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, my calculation is that a 2.1% per year decrease should be consistent with this. So he is assuming less of an impact that I think is reasonable.

What’s shocking about Hope’s findings is how they lay all the blame on our corrupt political system. It is only now that solar is becoming competitive with fossil fuels. But if it hadn’t been for the direct subsidies and the extreme externalities, solar would have been profitable long ago. And that’s not to mention all the other effects of “cheap” fossil fuels like resistance to efficiency and conservation.

What we’ve had instead, is a system designed to hurt the vast majority of people for one purpose alone: enriching the already rich. To personalize it, we’ve allowed the rich Koch brothers to get even richer. And they’ve used that extra money to buy more influence to skew the economic system even more to get more money. The question is not just how much longer we will allow this to go on — it is how much longer we can allow it to go on.

Morning Music: Bob Dylan

Bringing It All Back HomeIs “Maggie’s Farm” a labor song? Well, it’s a Bob Dylan song. And it certainly is calling for worker autonomy, even if that worker is only Dylan himself. Apparently, it is seen as Dylan’s complaint about the constraints of folk music. But I think that reading is all hindsight — based upon the arc of his creative life. But regardless how you see the song, it is about a man saying that he isn’t going to live his life according to others’ ideas. It is a song about self-empowerment. And that is ultimately what the labor movement is about. That’s why the current workingman’s worship of the rich is so dangerous: it is un-empowering. Just like with Christianity that tells workers to suffer now for a great future, the hope of future riches is just a lie.

Anniversary Post: Medicare and Medicaid

Medicare and Medicaid 50th Anniversary

On this day in 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Social Security Act of 1965 — thus creating Medicare and Medicaid. It is hard to imagine what we would do today if it weren’t for these programs. The society has changed so much since that time. Workers who get pensions are now incredibly rare. What would the elderly do for healthcare? What’s more, the ability of anyone to get treated at just about any hospital is due to the fact that hospitals that take Medicare are required to treat all patients. I’d like to think that if we didn’t have Medicare, we would have had to have come up with something similar. But there’s no certainty of that.

What’s more, Medicare could never be passed today. But in 1965, it was a different matter. In both the House and the Senate, it passed with overwhelming support from the Democrats and about half of the Republicans. So yes, even back then, a lot of the Republicans were jerks. But that’s the thing: the parties were diverse then. Since then, all the jerks in the Republican Party stayed, and all the jerks in the Democratic Party moved over to the Republican Party. Now it is as pure in its makeup of jerks as it is its makeup of whiteness — not perfect, but close!

As I noted last week, the Republicans still want to kill off Medicare, Jeb Bush Wants to End Medicare Like Them All. They always claim this is because it isn’t sustainable and that it is inefficient. Of course, the real reason that they want to kill it and Social Security is because they are prime examples of extremely efficient government programs that are popular. And the Republicans have always claimed that — contrary to all evidence — the government is always the problem. Paul Krugman provided this graph on the issue of sustainability:

Medicare Costs

And he provided the next graph that shows that actually Medicare has consistently kept costs down compared to the private insurance industry:

Medicare Cost Growth

So at 50 years old, Medicare is looking pretty good. But don’t expect conservatives to stop ranting about how it is killing us. And don’t think for a moment that if the Republicans get control of Washington in 2017 that they won’t turn Medicare into a block grant and then starve it to death. They are eager to do it. Government may not always be the problem, but if we put the Republicans in charge, they will make sure the government is always the problem.

Happy birthday Medicare and Medicaid!

Every Single Word

Every Single WordDylan Marron has put together a Tumblr called, Every Single Word. It is subtitled, “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in [Mainstream Film Title]” where we are supposed to insert film titles like The Lord of the Rings. It’s a good idea. And it is, in general, pretty stark. The Tumblr is just a series of videos with everything but the dialog spoken by a non-white person cut out. It doesn’t leave much.

Now clearly, in one way, this is unfair. Most mainstream films don’t have much dialog at all — maybe 5 or 10 minutes, I would guess. But this is a good way of highlighting the lack of diversity of characters in mainstream feature films. For example, the only non-white character in the movie Black Swan was the physical therapist. And it turns out, that was just a fluke — a white actor was originally cast for it, and they ended up using the actual physical therapist they had on the set who just happened to be non-white.

The Every Single Word version of Moonrise Kingdom is just ten seconds long and features three lines by Andreas Sheikh. I’m actually surprised that there was that much. Wes Anderson tends to make very white films and this was a particularly white film for him. Getting a ancestrally Pakistani actor in the film was a good bit of casting.

But there are a number of them that contain no dialog at all. I was quite surprised that Noah was such a film. I would have thought that it would be a film that could easily have featured a diverse cast. So the fact that this is what Every Single Word does with Noah does not speak well of the filmmakers or of Hollywood generally:

The Tumblr is worth checking out. It contains a video that combines all of The Lord of the Rings movies. It has a bit of dialog, because apparently they hired non-white actors to play orcs. You can always depend upon orcs — and Klingons — to provide a little acting work for non-white actors.