The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part Six : Small Business, Taxation, Public versus Private, and Roots of Mythology

In our concluding article analyzing Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, we touch on the role of the archetypal small business, taxation, and the persistent, seemingly immortal debate on private versus public infrastructure, all with respect to the pantheon of the mythology.

Small Business Blight

Baker argues that the small business occupies a unique, critical niche within the mythology : nanny state purveyors sell policy decisions often on the basis of how said policies affect small businesses in aggregate, based on the pervasive perspective that small businesses are a highly desirable feature of the economy.  Analysts across the political spectrum laud small business in editorial after editorial, such as left-leaning Huffington Post and right-leaning Forbes.  It’s so deeply embedded in our framework that to even ask whether small businesses are, in fact, better for the economy remains anathema.  Arguments range from job creation, financial independence, patent creation relative to big businesses, and the like.  Of course, we previously discussed whether patents really do represent innovation, to say nothing of encouraging it.

Before answering either way, Baker lists cases in which nanny state enthusiasts leverage the widely accepted propaganda to argue policy.  For example, Congress very nearly repealed the estate tax in the early years of George W. Bush’s administration, offering up the hapless small farmer as a would-be victim of the vicious “death tax.”  Baker argues reasonably well that the example is mostly nonexistent, owing largely to the zero bracket and the fact that most of the so-called small businesses affected are not genuine small businesses, but rather partnerships designated to be tax shelters, defined by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.  The New York Times remarked in 2001 that the American Farm Bureau was unable to locate any families who lost their farms due to the estate tax.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests recently with Donald Trump’s mad push for dissolving the tax that the true effect of repeal is shielding most inherited wealth from any taxation, as much accumulated wealth among those touched by the tax is untaxed income.  A similar argument applies to Trump’s insistence that most taxes, incidentally perhaps the only taxes he’s paid recently, should be lower to encourage economic growth.  Another interesting discussion on this topic is Nicholas Johnson’s article analyzing the actual effects of a 2012 tax break in North Carolina, promoted of course disingenuously as small business support.

In any case, Baker moves on to argue that the job creation precept of small businesses is actually misdirection, echoed later by The Fiscal Times : small businesses destroy perhaps as many jobs as they create, promoting uncertainty and churn in employment.  Further, he observes that tenure at larger firms is longer, benefits are better, and stability is greater.  More recently, a refrain from critics of the Affordable Care Act is the would-be damage to small businesses.  And yet the mandated requirements actually nudge employment quality in small businesses closer to that of larger firms.

The ACA debate hints at a larger argument that regulation inherently hurts businesses, reliably trumpeted by the conservative Heritage Foundation.  Of course, their arguments, promoted by debunked supply-siders, mandate we accept that a job is universally good, irrespective of the quality or pay.  Their predictable argument is that regulations

may be treated as "unnecessary"
if (1) the costs they impose
exceed the benefits they produce,
or (2) even though they produce
benefits that may exceed costs,
they do so in an unnecessarily
costly manner because of an
inefficient method or approach[.]

Their optimization strategy places money first, captured nicely by the following : if I successfully lobby the government to revoke that pesky “regulation” preventing me from lawfully confiscating my neighbor’s cache of groceries, I’ll save money.  Further, it is indeed inefficient for me to simply not have access to my neighbor’s food, as I have to obtain my own food otherwise.  How does this differ?  Multiply this argument into “externalities” such as dumping lead and other toxins into the water supply and relaxing safety regulations in manufacturing, and one begins to appreciate that more than the job is at stake.

Baker argues further that small businesses receive powerful nanny state protections, such as adjusted tax framework, reduced interest loans, lax safety protocols, minimum wage exemptions, and laughably ineffective self-disclosure regulation of environmental violations.  It turns out that the tax framework permits small business owners to deduct all manner of goods and services, perhaps required regardless of whether that person is a business owner (such as an automobile or a computer), costing the taxpayers.  Further, government subsidies for loans to failed small businesses can be staggering, described in Forbes and a few more hysterical right wing libertarian blogs.  That is, we the taxpayer foot the bill for unstable, mostly failed businesses who enjoy nanny state protections against labor, wage, and environmental regulation and means of pocketing breaks.  He correctly observes that citizens requiring TANF benefits to feed their children receive near universal excoriation while failed businesses and illegal deductions rarely enter the discussion, let alone suffer bad press.

Admittedly, small businesses contribute some desirable dynamism to the economy, but the usual question is whether they are an optimal instrument within free market or social experiment framework; if they were, they wouldn’t require such strong protections to succeed.

Taxes, Taxes…

Baker argues rather holistically against the ignorant perspective of nanny state promoters, that taxes are a voluntary donation.  I’ve listened for decades to family and friends bemoaning of the prospect of a single red cent of their hard-earned money finding its way to welfare recipients.  I remarked that the rate of welfare fraud, coupled with the infinitesimal fraction of discretionary spending moving into the hands of these people is virtually zero; money of higher orders of magnitude flows freely into the mass murder machine of the military and, as suggested earlier, giant tax deductions by corporations.  Tax evasion is rampant in the U.S., a partial list of which appears in Wikipedia; Baker cites a study by the IRS reported in the New York Times in 2006 demonstrating an escalation in high-dollar evasion.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that most evasion cases never reach prosecution.  What’s worse, as of 2006 thirty percent of federal taxes remained uncollected, meaning that if the evaders paid their fair share,

tax rates could be reduced
for everyone by twenty-five
percent, and the federal
government would have the
same amount money.

By contrast, if all TANF recipients, as the nanny state supporters like to suggest, got jobs and got off the government dole, we could reduce our tax burden by a whopping 1.4%.  The conservative nanny state mythology appears more and more to be a carnival mirror of stupidity.

More recently, Trump has stumped for lowering the corporate tax rates, arguing as expected that the current burden is overwhelming to American companies.  And yet the assertion, like most parroted by Donald, is patently false, as documented in April by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Corporate profits are growing, and the rich are getting richer.  How would reducing a largely unpaid tax burden help working people?  It’s worth remembering the the top individual income tax rate in 1944 was ninety-four percent for earnings above $200,000, or $2.5 million in 2017 dollars.  Innovation, economic growth, and a vibrant technology sector generated by state spending were humming along nicely.

Baker points out that this nanny state gentlemen’s agreement on evasion doesn’t extend to filers requiring the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), discussed by the New York Times; audit rates are readily available by income level from the IRS, documented by USA Today.  The gist is that twenty percent of those filing for the EITC receive requests for additional information, akin to a mini-audit.  By contrast, less that twenty percent of earners with income above $10 million ever receive an audit.

Baker continues with a discussion on internet sales, quite interesting in and of itself; suffice it to say that retail giants such as Amazon had escaped paying sales taxes because of ambiguities in managing purchases across state lines.  The public relations defense against self-disclosure was simply that the administrative burden was too high; this is patently false.  When I worked in Amazon Last Mile Logistics, we routinely handled varying jurisdictions in the company’s deliveries.  The complexity of operating in multiple geographies scales easily, as anyone familiar with the space should know.

Finally, he tackles the curious distinction between stock trading, casino gambling, and ordinary scratch-off and lottery tickets.  The taxation rates are astonishingly regressive, ordinary lottery wins being roughly thirty percent, casino gambling seven percent, and stock trading a brutal 0.003%!

Why is Private Better?

We’ve argued at length in previous posts about state capitalism, the economic system, despite all smoke and mirrors, under which we operate.  A pervasive argument of conservative pundits and nanny state babies is that private corporations can easily outperform public agencies because of waste intrinsic to their structure.  That is to say, without the pressure of profit mandates, shareholder backlash, and market principles, government agencies can profligately expend resources enriching themselves and preserving their positions.  By contrast, private organizations, we’re told, operate more efficiently with minimal largess.

I shouldn’t even have to quote statistics or studies to undermine this absurd notion, as anyone who’s ever worked in corporate America knows this simply isn’t true.  It isn’t to say that customer service, after a fashion, might be better in private agencies, as public agencies are generally quite underfunded, part of a scheme by conservatives to “starve the beast,” a notion to which we’ll return.  But this suggests not that all products and services are more sensibly driven by markets, as the destructive nature of markets is well-understood (and there would be no nanny state if this weren’t the case), rather perhaps customer service itself is better left to private organizations.

Donald Kettl, professor at the University of Maryland, penned an interesting op-ed in Excellence in Government, arguing a dual blame to so-called liberals and conservatives : liberals forgot to work out the details of their big ideas, and conservatives have actively, successfully fought to starve and dismantle the administrative state, an oft-mentioned strategy in connection to the recently fired Steven Bannon.  I’d disagree on some of the terminology, but Kettl correctly argues that the political left in this country ceased to operate among the political elites many decades ago.

Baker’s key arguments are that Social Security and Medicare operate on remarkably low overhead, as marketing and monstrous compensation packages for executives simply don’t exist.  He goes on to sketch an argument we’ve mentioned previously, that health insurance ought to be nationalized for the sake of the population.  As David Swanson so aptly put it, Americans can discover, oddly, that other countries exist, and that they’re leveraging universal health insurance programs, as Physicians for a National Health Program have long advocated.  We need not repeat all the arguments here, but as Noam Chomsky so often describes our current, fragmented joke of a system, it’s

an international scandal.
It’s roughly twice the per
capita costs of comparable
countries, and some of the
worst outcomes, mainly because
it’s privatized, extremely
inefficient, bureaucratized,
lots of bill paying, lots of
officials, tons of money wasted,
healthcare in the hands of
profit-seeking institutions,
which are not health
institutions, of course.

Considering, as we have previously, that virtually all technology which we take for granted originated in the state sector, and that no private agency would underwrite such long term investments, it should be glaringly obvious the role the nanny state plays in generating technology, then handing it off to private interests once it’s become marketable.  The nanny state mythology, astonishingly, convinces even highly educated people that the market somehow spins all of this from whole cloth.

Summary : Why A Nanny State?

In summary, Dean Baker’s book is an awesome read, filled with powerful arguments of which we can only scratch the surface.  He has many more recent works with additional facts and figures worth perusing, but The Conservative Nanny State is a primer for many a discussion on the proper role of government in the economy.

So why does the mythology tickle so many ears?  I grew up hearing so much of the rhetoric, and I’ll admit it seemed reasonable at the time.  With much research, I must confess the answers are quite disturbing.  As Chomsky mentions quite frequently, the rise of the public relations industry under Edward Bernays was a product of the remarkable success of the Department of Information (later the Ministry of Information) in convincing not particularly violent citizenry into warring against their white brethren in World War One.  Walter Lippmann and other premiere intellectuals of the day discovered that the power to “manufacture consent” was the only tool remaining in the toolbox, as violence eventually won’t work in an increasingly democratic setting.  Relegating the rabble, the “meddlesome outsiders” to passive spectatorship in policy and active villainy in war is a monumental achievement, and crucial to this effort is a series of scares, beginning with Wilson’s Red Scare, the propaganda around Cuba’s communist roots of the 1920s mentioned earlier, McCarthyism, and the like.  I can remember my uncle reminiscing about listening to records of Ronald Reagan during elementary and middle school, in which Ronnie explained that universal healthcare is a thing of the communists.  Of course, he neglected to mention that his government positions ensured glorious medical care well into his sad last days of Alzheimer’s dementia; unfortunately, he neglected to offer an appropriate avenue for poor white brethren to secure similar, reasonable old age accommodations, to say nothing of the black and brown.

The gist is that the conservative nanny state mythology is a remarkable feat of propaganda and avarice, designed effectively to persuade poor spectators into stumping for obscenely wealthy men with whom they’ll never associate.  Rush Limbaugh, one of the principal advocates for said state, has argued that income mobility ensures egalitarianism in our system.  Would that his variant of egalitarianism cure his stupidity.

The simplest explanation, as William of Ockham once suggested, might be correct.  Power and money has enabled an overclass to systematically hijack the debate, reframing policy discussions in their own image, just as is suggested in the Powell Memorandum.  As for the book, read it.

Marking a Solemn Week in A Sea of Solemnity

This week marks the seventy-second anniversary of an event showcasing both the ascent of the human species to the top of the evolutionary ladder and its descent into what could be the darkest and final chapter of our roughly 200,000 year run on this planet : the bombing of Japan by the United States with nuclear weapons.

On August 6, 1945, the United States Air Force deployed the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, incinerating a few thousand acres of densely populated city, killing anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 people in the blast; perhaps another 70,000 died from exposure.  On August 9, the U.S. continued by dropping a plutonium bomb on Japan over the city of Nagasaki, killing maybe 40,000 instantly and another 40,000 from the aftermath.  American apologists offer that these mass murders were essential in ending the Second World War while minimizing Allied casualties.  Certainly, that’s what I learned growing up, the pertinent question being whether this is true; it wasn’t until I took world history under Dr. Pat Ledbetter, longtime activist, jurist, and professor, that I ever heard the decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan come into question.

Quite relevant today is Donald Trump’s quite harsh rhetoric toward the nation of North Korea as reported by the New York Times.  His outrageous words,

[t]hey will be met with fire
and fury like the world has
never seen[,]

as usual exhibit the uncensored, grotesque gaffes we’ve come to expect from him.  They also eerily echo similar words by Harry S Truman, president at the conclusion of the Second World War :

[the Japanese can] expect a
rain of ruin from the air,
the like of which has never
been seen on this earth.

The parallel may have been on purpose, as Trump seems to fancy himself the most accomplished president of our time, and Truman, in Americana, is widely regarded to have successfully ended the single most destructive conflict in history.  Trump can rest at ease spiritually, according to “faith leader” Robert Jeffress : contravening Romans chapter twelve’s directive to refrain from repaying evil for evil, he suggests that God’s instructions don’t apply to the government, and thus this same, loving “god” has bestowed upon Trump license to obliterate North Korea.  Certainly some hearts, are indeed, “desperately wicked.”

Though the philosophies of extremist devotees of Trump might not be all that surprising in their rapacity and blood-lust, the the claim that the atomic bombs were necessary to save American lives at the conclusion of the second world war, is, in fact, propaganda.  It turns out that the Japanese had suggested a surrender months before the bombs landed, asking only that they keep their emperor, largely a figure head and cultural symbol.  Washington refused, despite General Eisenhower, among others, urging Truman that

it wasn't necessary to hit them
with that awful thing … to use
the atomic bomb, to kill and 
terrorize civilians, without even 
attempting [negotiations], was a 
double crime[.]

Additionally, Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, apparently argued that

[t]he use of this barbarous weapon…was
of no material assistance in our war
against Japan[;] [m]y own feeling was
that in being the first to use it, 
we had adopted an ethical standard common 
to the barbarians of the Dark Ages [...] 
I was not taught to make wars in that 
fashion, and wars cannot be won by 
destroying women and children.

The Nation suggested in an investigative report released on the seventieth anniversary of the bombings quite accurately that we Americans need to face the ugly truth that the war was ready for a bloodless conclusion before Truman ordered the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of people.  Military head after military head uniformly agreed that the bombing was unnecessary, raising the more serious question of why one would wreak such horrendous havoc unnecessarily on civilians, and why no one exacted a political price for it.

One can easily point to an incredible misinformation campaign demonizing the Japanese as subhuman, feral monsters, documented by Anthony Navarro in A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American Propaganda during World War II.  He offers a critique of both sides, but the imagery is striking.  Lingering resentment about Pearl Harbor eased propagandizing Americans, despite the attack being retribution for America freezing supply lines in Manchuria and conducting war exercises a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan, facts conveniently missing from the American consciousness.  We Yankees, perhaps, simply didn’t think the Japanese deserved to live.

It’s reminiscent of the euphoria when Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead, murdered by a special operation in Pakistan which incidentally risked nuclear war; elite media and governments alike believed murder of a suspect without a trial was a monumental achievement, documented on Wikipedia‘s summary of official statements.  It seemed lost on interested parties that constitutional protections, inherited from Magna Carta, simply don’t matter in certain cases where the state deems them unnecessary.  I myself was stunned at the hysterical outpouring of happiness on Facebook and other social media.  I found myself nearly alone asking whether the dissolution of basic human rights in the case of a defenseless suspect made any sense.  It’s true that if he were actually guilty of masterminding the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, his was a vicious, malevolent crime.  But then again, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush committed atrocities, uncontroversially, so far off the spectrum by comparison that it’s impossible to even imagine, documented by Noam Chomsky.  Standing next in line are Barack Obama with the drone assassination campaign, Bill Clinton in Serbia, and, yes, even dear Jimmy Carter in complicity in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor under Suharto, documented by Joe Nunes.

In any case, historian Hanson Baldwin argued in The Great Mistakes of the War that Washington’s “unconditional surrender” demands needlessly cost lives and lengthened the duration of the war; he wrote

[b]ut, in fact, our only warning
to a Japan already militarily
defeated, and in a hopeless
situation, was the Potsdam demand
for unconditional surrender issued 
on July 26, when we knew Japanese
surrender attempts had started.

Even the conservative Mises Institute editorializes that the bombing was one of the greatest crimes ever committed; John Denson argued in The Hiroshima Myth that the bombing was knowingly unnecessary.  In a more recent article, Ralph Raico continued the critique with a quote from physicist Leo Szilard, one of the originators of the Manhattan project :

[i]f the Germans had dropped atomic
bombs on cities instead of us,
we would have defined the
dropping of atomic bombs on
cities as a war crime, and we
would have sentenced the Germans
who were guilty of this crime to
death at Nuremberg and hanged them.

Dr. Szilard was making the obvious point that what evils others do seem to resonate while our own crimes either languish in the vat of forgotten history or simply cease to be crimes.  I’ve long argued that if Hitler had won the war, we would have eventually either forgotten his crimes or exalted them; after all, isn’t this precisely what we’ve done with Truman and the atomic bombs, Jackson and the Trail of Tears, Washington and the extermination of the Iroquois in the Sullivan expedition, and so on.  At worst, state apologists would argue that these events, like the tragedies of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, were perhaps strategic blunders rather than the more deserved casting of “fundamentally immoral,” a description with which 52% of Americans surveyed in 1995 by Gallup agreed; that of course requires the events to even remain in public consciousness.

Returning to the atomic bombs dropped in 1945, Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa summarized a lengthy search through official Japanese records, communiques, and memoranda in a 2007 article appearing in The Asia Pacific Journal, titled The Atomic Bombs and the Soviet Invasion: What Drove Japan’s Decision to Surrender?“,

what decisively changed the views
of the Japanese ruling elite was
the Soviet entry into the war [...]
[i]t catapulted the Japanese
government into taking immediate
action [...] [f]or the first time,
it forced the government squarely to
confront the issue of whether it
should accept the Potsdam terms.

That is, the overwhelming evidence is that the Japanese military elites acceded to the Potsdam requirements because of fear of Soviet aggression, further undermining the assertion that the nuclear bombs ended the war.  The hideous irony is that the Allied forces permitted Japan’s emperor to remain in place at the time of surrender, the only condition the Japanese leaders required in their earlier attempts.

The historical question is whether the Japanese really would have surrendered; I’ve unfortunately seen monstrous commentary online to this effect, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of lives were easily forfeit next to a demand made by the Allied leadership eventually tossed by the way side.   If there were even a chance for peace by accepting what really was a trivial request by comparison to the massive loss of life to follow, shouldn’t we, as activist David Swanson often suggests, give peace a chance?

Establishing that the dropping of the bombs wasn’t necessary to end the war seems academic; further, we know now the architects of said wanton decision were even aware it was unnecessary.  So why carry out such an action, as we asked earlier?  It turns out that the answer is akin to why a child might pull wings of of butterflies : just to see what happens.  Echoed later by Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns in Senate testimony about escalating the bombing of civilians in Laos after Lyndon Johnson ordered a halt on the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, the rationale boiled down to

[w]ell, we had all those planes
sitting around and couldn’t
just let them stay there with
nothing to do.

Further, Truman felt a display of force was necessary to place the tenuously-held alliance with Moscow on notice, intended to restrict the Soviet sphere of influence once the spoils of the Second World War became available, as Howard Zinn argues with much historical evidence in his final book, The Bomb.

The myopic jingoists over at The National Interest argue otherwise, suggesting the savage butchery of hundreds of thousands was an understandable price to pay :

would even one more Allied
death have been worth not dropping
the bomb, in the minds of the 
president and his advisors, after
six years of the worst fighting
in the history of the human race?

Tom Nichols goes on to argue that Truman would have faced impeachment if he’d revealed the existence of the bomb later to war-weary Americans, and that they would have thirsted for blood if they learned of a more expedient conclusion.  His argument is approximately the same as that from a propaganda piece from The Atlantic published in 1946, seventy years earlier : physicist Karl Compton argued, seriously if you can believe it, that the Japanese wouldn’t have ever surrendered, as a “well-informed Japanese officer” told him

[w]e would have kept on fighting
until all Japanese were killed,
but we would not have been
defeated[.]

Both arguments are absurd, as Americans can easily learn that a more expedient, less destructive conclusion was available as of May 1945, and yet only a few of us in the margins believe Truman should have faced a war crimes tribunal.  In a similar vein, the Taliban in Afghanistan offered to hand over Osama bin Laden, provided we offered him a fair trial and not continue to bomb their country.  Would they have?  We’ll never know, as Bush scoffed in his repulsive drawl, “We know he’s guilty.”  But then again, what is a couple hundred thousand Afghans, or 200,000 Japanese lives to America-first chauvinists, a question now coming to haunt us with Trump’s incisive, menacing rhetoric?

As we’ve discussed previously, nuclear war is one of two existential threats looming over human civilization, both of which the Republican party has committed to accelerating : escalate both ecological catastrophe and the growing atomic maelstrom.  Trump’s threats toward a small nation with whom we can genuinely pursue peace imperils millions of lives and risks war with both China and Russia.  Our series on Cuba aims to demonstrate that harsh sanctions, imperialism, and aggression universally backfire, as one can see with one example after another in our history, and to further expose the many near-misses the nuclear age has wrought on a hapless species, many of which appear in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, gatekeepers of the Doomsday Clock.

So during this solemn week, let’s remember that history can repeat itself if we allow it.  We Americans can stop Trump and the warmongering political elites, if only we organize and resist.  Some decent references on getting involved to move us to a nuclear-free world are Waging Peace, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Simon’s Foundation.

We’ll close with words from the only officially recognized survivor of both nuclear blasts, Tsutomu Yamaguchi :

[t]he only people who should
be allowed to govern countries
with nuclear weapons are mothers,
those who are still breast-feeding
their babies.

 

Why the Democrats Keep Losing

Donald Trump is arguably the most disliked president in the history of modern polling, according to Five-Thirty-Eight.  Haphazard, mean-spirited (even by Trump’s own admission) healthcare proposals, blatantly racist travel bans, and the growing Russia scandal leave Trump in a very weak bargaining position with respect to Congress.  Or perhaps the intention is to distract with whatever vulgar offering Trump and Bannon provide on Twitter away from the Paul Ryan/Mitch McConnell plot to eviscerate social programs and keep the rich rolling in the fat, as suggested by Noam Chomsky in an interview with Truthout.  Whatever the Republican strategy (or lack thereof), Trump’s extreme unpopularity has heralded close calls for Democrats in a few of the four special elections held this year which would otherwise be very strongly Republican.  Yet their strategy is broken.

Jon Ossoff very slightly lost a heavily Republican district very close to where I lived some years ago, and his defeat has predictably emboldened the hopelessly flat Trump to proclaim a landside 100%+ mandate for himself and his stupefying agenda.  More appropriately, the closeness of the race in Kansas, to which we’ll return shortly, demonstrates profound dissatisfaction with Trump, something no doubt imperceptible to the mad king in his choking fog of self-congratulatory reverie.  Georgia’s is the fourth special election in the months since Trump has become president, and this is the only one the Democratic National Committee cared to notice.  Vox noted rather cleverly that Ossoff’s loss occurred because of a lack of substantive policies, permitting sleazy, establishment career politician Karen Handel to smear him on where he lives, who’s funding him (mostly small-time donors through Act Blue), and the like, despite his being raised in the district and her not and her receiving heavy donations from the corporate Republican machine.  The issue becomes, rather strikingly, the simple fact that Ossoff, like Obama in 2008, ran only on the “I’m not Trump/Bush and never will be,” rather than actually offering strong policy.   One can visit Obama’s 2008 campaign website to find rather scant policy content, mostly platitudes about changing politics and rhetoric.  Obama, unlike Ossoff, won because of the previous increasingly frustrating years with warmongering liar Bush in charge, and that McCain, a fresh(ish) departure from Bush, was probably unelectable with Sarah Palin on the ticket.  Of course, if Obama had run for the House against McCain and Palin, or McCain and a gorilla for that matter, in Georgia’s sixth district in 2008, he would have walked away with a striking defeat.

The other, and perhaps most significant issue in many urban/suburban districts is a systematic, widespread campaign of voter suppression, long documented by investigative journalist Greg Palast of Democracy Now and of course in outstanding work by Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot.  These two analysts unearth mountains of evidence of persistent voter suppression in the United States against minorities, quite remarkable in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in that they very likely cost the Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively, the electoral college.  Forms the suppression take are

  • extreme gerrymandering to weaken or dilute minority districts, such as a drawing ruled unconstitutional in North Carolina in May and likely unconstitutional in Wisconsin soon (interestingly the defense before the court was “partisan advantage”, a euphemism for racial discrimination, much like the role the term “states’ rights” has served with respect to various forms of local tyranny),
  • purging voter rolls because of fuzzy matching of voter names with those of convicted felons,
  • deceptive polling location announcements,
  • dilapidated voting machinery,
  • insufficient staffing, paper ballots, or machines,
  • early polling place closures,
  • legal yet highly unethical barriers to voter registration (see Kasdan below),
  • persecution of volunteer registrars, a widespread form of suppression documented by Diana Kasdan of the Brennan Center for Justice (an instructive read, as it turns out many state and local governments prefer for voting drives not to happen),

and so on.  Earlier, more hostile tactics included barring entry of African Americans to polling places at gun point, unbelievably difficult literacy tests, violence, murder, intimidation, and the list goes on and on.

Returning to strategy, the fundamental issue is that the DNC seems to think the pretty people with Hollywood money and empty platitudes will persuade heartlanders and southerners to pull the lever for a tepid return to establishment politics.  Despite Trump’s shriveling popularity, it seems unlikely that they’ll abandon him for an outsider with a shallow platform.  And though the Citizens United decision makes the Republican attack ads about outside money all the more absurd and hypocritical (after all they happily gobble up contributions from outside corporations and tycoons, as Think Progress has pointed out), public relations experts in the Republican camp certainly know how to twist that knife by portraying Ossoff as a “San Francisco candidate.”  The DNC’s push to moderate Ossoff’s position essentially tied his hands with respect to combating the unremitting propaganda machine, as he’s left largely silent on policy while being forced to defend its outlandish accusations.

The DNC had an excellent opportunity in filling the seat left by CIA director Mike Pompeo in Kansas : James Thompson lost to Ron Estes by four points in a district Trump carried by 27 points, despite virtually no underwriting from the DNC but a strong, populist anti-establishment message.  If there was an opportunity to be had, this was it.  Kansas folk likely felt at home with Thompson, a local civil rights attorney with deep community ties.  Ossoff’s defeat, by contrast, was by a larger percentage margin than Hillary Clinton’s in that same district.

The DNC continues to favor centrist, establishment figures, neither of which Trump’s working class base wants.  Bernie’s ascendancy and Trump’s slight electoral victory last year indicated a strong preference among younger and working class people from both parties for an attempt from outside the Beltway.

Though Trump is extremely unpopular, bland establishment shills won’t tempt moderate Republicans, even if they dislike Trump.  Though Trump may compulsively pat himself on the back for the victories, they’re actually quite revealing of his unpopularity, as Republicans have atypically only slightly held their seats with a new Republican president in office; Democratic leadership has yet to discover how to leverage it.  True upstarts who challenge politics as usual with authentic advocacy for constituency is much more likely to convince people to abandon party and energize activists; as usual, they begin locally.

We’ll return to Cuba next time.

Cap Contritely in Hand for the Environment

A few days ago, Donald Trump predictably announced his unilateral decision to toss aside the Paris accord, an agreement which in of itself probably fails to adequately address the existential threat of ecological catastrophe.  It’s worth remembering that the agreement is non-binding, essentially expecting each signatory to commit to, well, whatever to which that signatory commits.  It may sound like a tautology, and that’s precisely what it is.  After all, imagine if the strategic arms limitations talks (SALT) had simply been voluntary on the part of the old Soviet Union and the United States.  That is to say, perhaps both countries would come to the table to agree that each would reduce the number of nuclear-carrying ballistic missiles by x% and y%, respectively, and each could assign that number at their leisure.  It’s almost a prisoner’s dilemma, each side deciding later how to assign their number.  Trump’s simian, chest-thumping “I get to play at the big people’s table” nonsense is all bluster: he just as easily could have played nice, then cut the commitment to zero.  The Breitbart-Bannon crowd welcome Trump’s slash-and-burn America-first policy-making approach, no doubt euphoric at their bitter flavor of ignorance finally reaching institutional gravitas.  Trump, clearly unaware of consequences, revels in his promise-keeping capacities.  Too bad they don’t extend to truly defending the security of Americans by ignoring the Pentagon’s recognition that climate change is a threat,  to  say nothing of “draining the swamp”, as Trump and his cabinet have so many conflicts-of-interest that the rigor mortis of normalization is firmly in place.

More disconcerting is the relentless propaganda of the past thirty years with respect to the environment.  I can remember sitting in computer science courses listening to a naive professor expel the gassy strawman that environmentalists simply don’t want anyone to have a job, as though completely eradicating chances of decent survival of the human race can’t compete with the tacit assumption that full employment is an essential feature of a successful society, as we’ve discussed previously.  I’m reminded of Al Gore discussing imagery of a balancing scale with Earth on one plate and gold on the other, a slide from a presentation at a corporate consortium discussion on global warming.

When I was in elementary school, I recall the final chapter in my fifth grade science textbook explaining air and water pollution, acid rain, the ozone layer, and anthropogenic climate adjustments through introduction of wildlife to untouched ecosystems, industrialization, habitat destruction, and the like.  I specifically remember my fifth grade teacher, Carolyn Hassell, remarking that she felt the textbook ends splendidly in suggesting that we, the youth of today but adults of tomorrow, have the power to save the environment and our future.  That was spring of 1991, twenty-six years ago, in a rural, quite conservative town in Texas.  Certainly no one could accuse any of my elementary school teachers of being particularly liberal, yet none could imagine any other conclusion than human beings influence the environment in quite potent ways, and that wisdom and judiciousness are requisite in deciding policy.  A striking irony is that the Republican party, an organization dedicated to opposing environmentalism in virtually all of its policy manifestations, bears the moniker “conservative,” a label originating with Theodore Roosevelt and his passion for conservationism, noteworthy in his creation of the National Conservation Commission.

Recognition of industrial pollutants has certainly been in public consciousness more recently.  Since the dawn of the industrial era, mass production and increasingly large factories have released more and more toxins into the air, water, and soil.  Corporations, concerning purely with profit, are institutionally compelled to transfer the costs of waste to the environment, and ultimately, to the ecosystem; this phenomenon is something called an externality, in the parlance of economics.  That is, market systems consider mostly the first order effect of a transaction, ignoring higher order effects.   The example often discussed by analyst Noam Chomsky is perhaps you sell me a car for some fixed sum, and maybe we each get a good deal;  an externality, among many, is that the additional car may result in more traffic, pollution, and the like, yet the original transaction fails to reflect any of these additional factors.  In the more extreme case, industrialists need not consider dumping waste into local rivers, as they may not face any direct financial consequence for doing so.  Quite infamous is the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, symbolic of the effects of runaway industrialization on nature; the Stokes brothers, one the mayor of Cleveland, the other a federal congressman, jointly lobbied for passage of the Clean Air Act signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1972.  The United Kingdom beat the United States by sixteen years: in 1952, rare weather conditions permitted a heavy concentration of sulfuric acid, emitted from coal-fired power plants, to coalesce in the atmosphere over London.  For four days in December, the smog refused to lift, killing at least 12,000 people and poisoning 100,000 more.  Four years later, Parliament enacted the first serious legislation aimed at curtailing emissions.  Recent work by Texas A&M uncovered more detail in the specific mechanisms, but certainly the causes remain fairly obvious.

Raising public awareness in 1962 was marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in which she discusses the deleterious effects of pesticides on bird populations; it’s possible her volume influenced the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization which immediately took up the task of curtailing pesticide use after its founding in 1967.   The EDF’s influence in policy certainly reverberates throughout the early days of the popular environmental movement, including underwriting a study linking cancer in New Orleans to water contaminants which presaged the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and lobbying to ban lead in gasoline beginning in 1985, a measure which predictably better protected children from the ghastly effects of exposure.  Interestingly enough, the risks to pregnant women and children were understood as early as 1966 when Lyndon Johnson’s surgeon general William Stewart testified to Congress:

Existing evidence suggests that certain
groups in the population may be particularly
susceptible to lead injury. Children and
pregnant women constitute two of the most
important of such groups. Some studies have
suggested an association between lead
exposure and the occurrence of mental
retardation among children.

Two decades and much public pressure finally wrested regulatory control from corporations, including Associated Octel, responsible for poisoning the population.  Much data was available earlier from studies in New Zealand on the toxicity of lead, yet American lobbyists stubbornly allowed gold to weigh more than earth, borrowing from the earlier imagery.

Tracing the history of the runaway greenhouse effect as we understand it today, we have that Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first proposed in 1896 that by-products of fossil fuel combustion could gradually warm the planet.  After some back and forth in the mid-twentieth century, scientists settled in 1988 on the proposition that atmospheric temperatures were higher than anytime since 1880, a warming trend due primarily to industrialization.  The mechanics of industrial release of carbon dioxide and oceanic resorption were by then largely understood, and the recognition that industrial activity was releasing more carbon dioxide than could be absorbed was beyond question.  A coalition of international scientists formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization representing perhaps the largest peer-reviewed scientific cooperation in history.  More recent scientific studies, including reports in 2014 and 2016 by the Coastal Resources Commission in North Carolina Coastal dispense with the propagandized claptrap of fossil-fuel underwritten think tanks such as Koch Industries, arguing the scope and damage of rising sea levels is perhaps inevitable now at the current rate of warming.  North Carolina is perhaps most striking in its proactive stance toward climate change: in 2012, they simply outlawed it by denying local governments from enacting ordinances or legislation with respect to an earlier report.  So much for permitting local governments to make their own choices, a frequent conservative refrain with a host of betrayals, such as the instructing all state and local governments how to define how people can associate in the Defense of Marriage Act, denying local governments the right to protect vulnerable immigrants through Gestapo-like tactics by the Immigration Customs Enforcement, and the like.  One can’t help but ponder the tired argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery, despite the slave states happily supporting the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a preposterous piece of freedom-trampling legislation compelling citizens in free states to form militias to return runaway slaves.

Returning to the environment, denialism actually dates back to explorations by Exxon Mobile in 1979 into the implications of climate shifts due to fossil-fuel combustion, an understandable venture given policy could affect their bread-and-butter; in the following years, they vehemently funded a campaign of disinformation to postpone any meaningful action.  No strangers to controversy, their almost suicidal foot-dragging and propaganda campaigns permitted horrendous accidents such as the Exxon Valdes spill, a near impossibility with a more decentralized sustainable energy system.   Early governmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, would have required signatories to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as the aforementioned carbon dioxide, chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), aerosol chemicals known to damage the paper-thin shield of ozone gas absorbing some of the sun’s more harmful ultraviolet radiation, and a handful of other pollutants and toxins.   Not unexpectedly, George W. Bush pulled out of the agreement, citing economic needs of American business were more important than the environment; his advisers came to regret the unilateral cowboy decision, as it, like Trump’s blustering parallel move this past week, further galvanized the rest of the world in their perception that America is the selfish, bully child demanding more than its fair share.

Though one could read myriad books on the subject of human contributions to environmental destruction, I’m more interested here in discussing the persistent issue: mountains of evidence, virtual unanimity among scientists regarding these issues, together with palpable, very visible effects seem insufficient to overcome the static friction of apathy.  Though we can point to indoctrination and diminished sources of information in the past, online media has somewhat mitigated this problem in recent years, provided one knows where to look for peer-reviewed summaries.  A 2015 study by Yale University reports distributions of awareness and concern throughout the world about climate change, noting that 40% of people in the world have never heard about it, obviously mostly in third world nations, and that 48% of Americans aren’t worried despite having heard a good deal of evidence.  Certainly that pattern persists across the developed world : awareness perhaps weakly correlates with concern.  So one might ask, logically, how it is possible that seemingly rational people can deny the overwhelming scientific evidence?  Is it simply because they deny science?  Is it because they follow the lead of their favorite pundits and politicians?   I would tend to believe the problem is both institutional and sociological, the former being the more obvious antecedent, the latter based on fairly recent research, to which we’ll return.

Corporate disinformation is a major institutional factor : science discovers some mechanism through which environmental manipulation harms ecosystems, imperiling the food supplies and the quality of water and air, next industrial corporations mostly responsible for the devastation dispatch their public relations people to the airwaves and their lobbyists to Washington to “control the narrative,” or rather supplant or obfuscate truth.   One can literally go case after case to find the same pattern: if there’s an agency or cache of talking points aimed at undermining environmental concerns, typically the underwriting comes from none other than the corporations poised to lose the most if policy reflects said concerns, as we mentioned earlier.   One can note that as of June 6, 2017, Exxon itself buys ad space on Google if one searches for “Exxon climate change denial;” the page is an exercise in public relations spin mostly lambasting environmental groups dedicated to reducing consumption of fossil fuels in energy production, suggesting they and the media are somehow part of an outlandish conspiracy theory discussed by Paul Krugman in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.  Krugman’s arguments extend to more than just climate change, which we’ll discuss momentarily.   Greenpeace provides a fascinating timeline of Exxon’s early research in the 1960s and 1970s, initially with Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins presenting a report to the American Petroleum Institute about the dangers of excess carbon dioxide raising sea levels and re-architecting marine ecosystems, James Black of the research division circulating reports internally about the greenhouse effect, writing in 1978 that

[p]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of
five to ten years before the need for hard decisions
regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical,

and so on into the early 1980s.  In particular, meeting minutes released from a task force on climate change organized by Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, Shell, and others suggested agreement with the realities of greenhouse gas emission and climate change, along with concession of the responsibilities they would bear going forward.   Roger Cohen, a scientist at Exxon, wrote in an internal memo in 1983, later leaked,

[t]he consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from
its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average
global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5)°C [equal to 5.4 ± 1.7°F]…
There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that
a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about
significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall
distribution and alterations in the biosphere.

Cohen decided to reverse his position later, joining a denial think tank created by Exxon. Disinformation campaigns have emerged over time from various industrial leaders, the Koch leaders being a particular example.  In the academic field of climate science, near unanimity of the scope and risk of ecological catastrophe is easy to find, documented heavily by various non-partisan organizations such as Skeptical Science.   The majority of scientists in other fields and government scientific agencies also agree with the consensus, documented by NASA.  Astonishingly, as the consensus has solidified and global temperatures have risen steadily by easily understood anthropomorphic mechanisms, the Republican party’s official position has shifted increasingly in the direction of mind-numbingly stupid denialism.  Vox offered an intriguing look at the evolution of the Republican position on environmentalism in an April 22 article, tracing the perspectives as beginning with more sound acceptance of scientific research, gradually eased out by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s and both the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy in the 1980s, along with a tidal wave of anti-establishment politics in Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory.   Ann Gorsuch, mother of Trump’s recent far-right appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, headed the Environmental Protection Agency with a penchant for dismantling the regulatory and administrative state shared by the nationalist Bannon contingency in today’s executive branch.  She later resigned amidst threats from the Democratic-led Congress to investigate allegations into corruption; a SCOTUS decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council 1984 broadened agency interpretation of legislation, reversing somewhat Reagan’s efforts at deregulation.  Nonetheless, institutional denial has increased as the science has become more certain; analyst Noam Chomsky points to institutional bias of corporations as a partial culprit, pointing out that a CEO of a multinational corporation, even if aware of the overwhelming dangers, cannot risk profits, even at great moral cost.  Anglo-American legal precedent offers evidence in Dodge v. Ford in 1919, codifying the position that corporations granted charters in America must pursue profits above all other considerations, meaning the rest, as I would imagine most people know, is public relations.  We’ll return to the contradiction of rising denialism corresponding to increasing uniformity in the scientific consensus momentarily, but to circle back to Krugman’s editorial, the official Republican party position has become increasingly fact-free, or perhaps more appropriately fact-abhorrent.  As he points out, whether it be environmentalism, the budget, healthcare, and the like, Trump’s programs, and by a marginal difference, the Paul Ryan fiscal wing, are almost completely without any constructive intent.  Trump’s own leaked internal analysis of his first stab at healthcare reform had even more dire projections than the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment, despite all the bluster to the contrary.  As Chomsky has pointed out previously, the Republican party no longer follows parliamentary procedure, nor does it care about the opinions of experts, scientists, or anyone offering anything challenging their fragile, fantastical world-view, echoing conservative analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in declaring the “unparty” to be a “radical insurgency”.  This madness extends to the stubborn, Republican position that curtailing fossil fuel consumption would destroy jobs, no longer supported by any facts since renewable energy job projections far exceed any job loss associated with older energy programs, reported by Fortune; even today, the number of jobs in renewable energy exceeds that of non-renewables, according to a Department of Energy study.  In older arguments I’ve heard throughout my life, conservatives have pointed to the high cost of investment in renewable energy, again ignorant of the pervasive state capitalism model we’ve discussed previously : heavy government investment in the technology sector during the more expensive phase of research and development, followed by private interests cashing in once the technology becomes marketable.  So in summary, every argument offered by Republicans contravening meaningful action against ecological catastrophe folds like a cheap card table under the enormity of scientific consensus and thorough economic analysis.

So certainly we can point to institutional corruption and the shift rightward of both major political parties, placing one center right and the other in outer space, in explaining part of the propaganda campaign against environmentalism, but how do we explain some of the more curious phenomena with respect to attitudes and beliefs?  Sociologist Kari Marie Noorgard of the University of Oregon has an interesting set of answers in her 2011 book Living in Denial.  She compares a few competing theories on denialism: the first theory, for instance discussed in Harriet Bulkeley’s paper in 2000 on Australian attitudes, suggests that denialism is rooted in disinformation campaigns of corrupt institutions and ignorance of the population, neatly a problem of information. The more astonishing theory, echoing work in Norway by Hellevik and Barstad in 2004, asserts that willingness to solve climate change diminishes as public awareness grows.  Similar work in the United States by Kellsted, Zahran, and Vedlitz finds a similar, stunning trend : the more people know about the problem, the less responsible they feel for it.  Aside from the 26% of Americans who stubbornly refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus, coincident with Trump’s more galvanized nativist base, many of us simply refuse to take responsibility for it, and thus fail to pressure the political elite to ignore intensive lobbying from fossil-fuel firms.  In fact, I found in reading the theory that I, too am part of the contingency; though I drive an electric car to reduce emissions, aim for aluminum can consumption rather than plastic bottle since aluminum is cheaper and easier to recycle, lobby officials on behalf of environmental causes, and eat virtually no meat, I nonetheless have a much larger carbon footprint than do most people, mainly in very frequent air travel to see family scattered across the continent.  It occurred to me in thinking about the problem that I, too, feel a sense of resignation in the defeat of either more environmentally-friendly or more malleable candidates, such as Clinton in 2016 (more the latter than the former, as the Democratic party barely addresses the climate concerns), and thus somehow feel less responsible for the damage done either in the manufacture of products that I buy or not more vehemently pressing local, state, and federal representatives to pursue more sustainable policies.  Calmer, more educated conservatives point to this contradiction as part of the problem of framing, as in the American Conservative.  They complain that liberals, if that term even makes sense anymore, appeal to social justice, uplifting indigenous populations vulnerable to sea rises, and the like, notions argued to be viscerally repulsive to their less educated Christian conservative brethren.  It’s rather stunning to me that one could profess to be Christ-like yet be unconcerned with social justice, but then again most flavors of religion offer a mixture of dogmatism, progressivism, oppression, liberation, and so on, depending on where you look.  Certainly Christian conservative politicians fall off the spectrum, with such notables as Jim Inhofe saying,

God is still up there... arrogance of
people to think that we, human beings,
would be able to change what He is doing
in the climate is to me outrageous.

In other words, if God chooses to let us burn, we shouldn’t buck His divine plans.  Fervently religious, the Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential election all denied climate science, with the exception of John Kasich and tentatively Jeb Bush, despite admonitions from the Good Book about protecting mother nature. Neither  of the “adults in the room” thought we should do anything about it, incidentally.  And it’s debatable whether Trump has ever read any book, let alone one on science of any kind beyond Little Golden Books.

In any case, Noorgard’s research suggests to me that most of us, whether we’re knowledgeable or not, bear responsibility for what happens with regard to this existential threat.  Admittedly, convincing the unscientifically-minded and the institutionally-indoctrinated of the gravity presents challenges, but we’re fast running out of options.  Facing believers and non-believers alike are

and the terrifying list grows.  And unlike in the mortgage crisis of 2008, the stock market crash of 1929, the savings and loans disaster of the 1980s, the automotive crisis of 2008 to 2010, and other “free market” disasters, corporations primarily responsible for ecological destruction will find no nanny state riding to the rescue when the elites finally ask for help, cap contritely in hand, to borrow an expression from Chomsky.