Balancing Act

There may not be any sport in America more popular than media-bashing, and I am a frequent participant. We do live in a confusing, changing and sometimes overwhelming media environment; it sometimes seems we are “marinating” in information. In such an environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the differences between journalism, entertainment and propaganda– to forget what journalists are supposed to do and why it is that what they are supposed to do is so important.

The reason this country’s founders specifically protected journalism in the First Amendment is that we depend upon reporters to tell us what government is doing. If we don’t know what decisions are being made, what actions are being taken and who is taking them, we have no basis upon which to evaluate our elected officials, cast our votes or otherwise participate in self-government.

And that brings me to Fox News.

It’s bad enough that Fox is little more than a propaganda arm of the GOP, but I want to argue that slanting and misrepresenting reality isn’t the worst thing Fox has done. Fox has misrepresented the essential task of journalists. Its slogan, “Fair and Balanced” has led to a widespread understanding of journalism as stenography (he said/she said) and a belief that if a story isn’t “balanced,” it isn’t fair.

Should reporters investigate the claims of all sides of a dispute or controversy? Certainly. But they should do so in order to determine what the facts actually are, so that they can produce an accurate accounting of those facts. We count on reporters to investigate contending claims and perspectives  because we citizens have neither the time nor expertise to do so, and we rely on them to tell us whose claims are verifiable and accurate.

As British reporter Gavin Esler recently argued, how can any news organization “balance” the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion about vaccines or climate change with the crackpot anti-vaccine theories of Andrew Wakefield, or those who claim that climate change is “fake news”?  We don’t “balance” arguments on child protection by giving equal time and space to advocates of pedophilia.

Esler writes that we face a crisis in democracy, “because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with systematic disinformation is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.” That observation applies with equal force to the United States.

The Fox News version of balance plays to the anti-intellectualism that, as Isaac Asimov tellingly observed, has long been a part of American culture, “nourished by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

As David Niose wrote a few years ago in Psychology Today, anti-intellectualism is killing America.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.

Americans desperately need good, responsible journalism. We also need to understand that good journalism strives for accuracy rather than “balance.”

And a little respect for competence and knowledge wouldn’t hurt.

 

The Love Of Money

The Guardian recently had an article with the headline “How the Koch Brothers Built the Most Powerful Right-Wing Group You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Actually, most regular readers of this blog–at least those who comment–have heard of Americans for Prosperity, and understand what it is intended to do. But with midterms rapidly approaching, it may be useful to revisit what we know about the organization.

The article began by recapping Scott Walker’s attacks on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions.

At first blush this might seem like a years-old local issue in a US state that rarely lights up the international headlines. Yet events in Wisconsin are crucial to understanding how a little-known, billionaire-funded organization, called Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has tilted American politics to the right. It is intertwined with, and rivals in size, the Republican party itself.

Where did Walker’s ultra-conservative labor agenda come from? As a candidate, Walker barely mentioned collective bargaining or union busting. And we know this plan did not come from voters. Before the legislation popped up on the agenda, Wisconsinites generally supported collective bargaining. Nationally, only about 40% of American adults favor curbs to public sector bargaining rights, and in Wisconsin, this minority level of support was about the same.

The article in the Guardian was the product of a group of Columbia and Harvard-based researchers who spent five years investigating precisely how the Koch brothers have used Americans for Prosperity to influence US politics, and especially how they have managed to destroy unions. (The Koch’s desire to make lasting changes to the American political system requires permanently weakening organizations supportive of liberal candidates and causes – especially the labor movement.)

That war on unions, waged by politicians like Walker who are beholden to the brothers, has largely succeeded.

Since the passage of the anti-union bill, public union membership rates in Wisconsin have plummeted by more than half, falling from around 50% in 2011 to around 19% by 2017. With fewer members and revenue, the political clout of the labor unions has fallen sharply. Campaign contributions by teachers’ unions to state and local races have fallen by nearly 70%.

In presidential elections, Democrats lose around three percentage points after the passage of anti-union legislation, and turnout dips by around two points. So while there are many factors that might explain Donald Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin in 2016 by a mere 23,000 votes, a weaker labor movement less able to turn out Democratic voters might have been one important contributor to Trump’s victory.

As the article points out, wealthy people have always thrown their weight around to influence elections and policy. What is new, and painfully effective (especially at the state level) is the rise of organized big donor collectives through which hundreds of billionaires and millionaires invest in organization-building intended to change the electoral landscape.

Organized political mega-donors can get much more leverage through persistent organizations than from scattered, one-time contributions to particular politicians.

The Kochs are fantastically wealthy and their generous funding of Americans for Prosperity has allowed them to influence policy in ways that have increased that wealth. It has been a very good investment for them.

The article is lengthy, but well worth reading in its entirety. I do think the following paragraphs sum up the threat Americans for Prosperity poses to working-class Americans and to democracy itself:

The Koch brothers have created a vehicle that is perfectly positioned to reshape American politics. AFP focuses on both elections and policy battles at all levels of government, from city councils to Congress and the White House. Although its activities are mostly centrally directed from its headquarters in Virginia, AFP has active local, state and regional offices that reflect the federated nature of US politics. And even though grassroots participants do not have much say in the direction of the group, AFP has nearly 3 million citizen activists signed up to mobilize for candidates and policy causes. Activists participate in rallies or protests and contact elected officials at the direction of more than 500 paid staffers nationwide.

Taken together, AFP’s grassroots volunteers and staffing rival those of the Republican party itself. However, AFP is not a free-standing political party – but instead is an extra-party organization that parallels and leverages Republican candidates and office-holders. By providing resources to support GOP candidates and officials, and exerting leverage on them once elected, AFP has been able to pull the Republican party to the far right on economic, tax and regulatory issues.

The Koch network has retarded the implementation of the Affordable Care Act–especially the expansion of Medicaid in states like Missouri and Tennessee. It has succeeded in rolling back state efforts to address climate change in Kansas and West Virginia, and of course, it has succeeded in passing state and federal tax cuts that have primarily benefitted wealthy individuals and companies.

The love of money evidently leaves no room for consideration of the public good.

On The Other Hand, Good Things ARE Happening

The news, and my comments on that news, have been pretty bleak of late, so I thought I would look for evidence that good things are also happening in the world. (Probably even in the U.S.)

And I found some things!

I particularly looked for technological breakthroughs that might mitigate climate change or otherwise represent environmental progress, and this one struck me as especially promising, not least because I’ve been driving in “pothole city”–aka Indianapolis.

Jambulingam Street, Chennai, is a local legend. The tar road in the bustling Nungambakkam area has weathered a major flood, several monsoons, recurring heat waves and a steady stream of cars, trucks and auto rickshaws without showing the usual signs of wear and tear. Built in 2002, it has not developed the mosaic of cracks, potholes or craters that typically make their appearance after it rains. Holding the road together is an unremarkable material: a cheap, polymer glue made from shredded waste plastic.

Jambulingam Street was one of India’s first plastic roads . The environmentally conscious approach to road construction was developed in India around 15 years ago in response to the growing problem of plastic litter. As time wore on, polymer roads proved to be surprisingly durable, winning support among scientists and policymakers in India as well as neighboring countries like Bhutan. “The plastic tar roads have not developed any potholes, rutting, raveling or edge flaw, even though these roads are more than four years of age,” observed an early performance reportby India’s Central Pollution Control Board. Today, there are more than 21,000 miles of plastic road in India, and roughly half are in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Most are rural roads, but a small number have also been built in cities such as Chennai and Mumbai.

According to this and other articles, so-called “modified” asphalts, consisting of virgin polymers (and sometimes ground-up old tires), have been used here in the U.S., and have been found to perform well: Illinois has used them to build high-traffic roads used by lots of trucks, and Washington State uses them for noise reduction. They tend not to buckle in extreme heat the way conventional roads do.

But the modified asphalts being used here are pretty costly–they can increase the cost of a road anywhere from 30-50%. The paving being used in India costs less than conventional roads.

While polymer roads in the US are made with asphalt that comes pre-mixed with a polymer, plastic tar roads are a frugal invention, made with a discarded, low-grade polymer. Every kilometer of this kind of road uses the equivalent of 1m plastic bags, saving around one tonne of asphalt and costing roughly 8% less than a conventional road….

In India, plastic roads serve as a ready-made landfill for a certain kind of ubiquitous urban trash. Flimsy, single-use items like shopping bags and foam packaging are the ideal raw material. Impossible to recycle, they are a menace, hogging space in garbage dumps, clogging city drains and even poisoning the air.

That same plastic trash has become a huge hazard in the oceans.killing marine life and littering previously pristine beaches. In the middle of the Atlantic, there is an area that spans the distance between Virginia to Cuba called the Great Atlantic Garbage Patch: it has  up to 26 million plastic particles per square kilometer.

Turning plastic trash into cheaper, longer-lasting roads–now that should make us smile! (At least until civil engineers and construction special interests block adoption of the technology here….)

 

Grassley’s Inadvertent Revelation

In the introduction to her important book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander admitted that, even as an ACLU lawyer, she had always been skeptical of claims that the war on drugs was intentionally crafted to target blacks. She’d recognized its discriminatory effects, of course, but only when she did her “deep dive” into the research did she recognize the extent to which drug policy was a product of intentional racism.

In much the same way, I have always discounted rhetoric about a “war on women.”Of course I recognize that cultural changes empowering women make a lot of men uncomfortable; I certainly notice (and object to) the arrogance of male legislators who are unwilling to allow women the same autonomy over our lives and bodies that they claim for themselves. And it has always been hard to ignore the prevalence of come-ons from the various boors and outright sexual predators. But I’ve also known and appreciated the large number of “good guys” who welcome culture change, respect women’s autonomy and understand and observe sexual boundaries.

I still think the individual “jerk quotient” of some men shouldn’t be used to label the entire gender. But I no longer dismiss the notion that a number of men are indeed waging a “war on women,” and I no longer underestimate the prevalence of misogyny, especially in the GOP.

This, for example, was infuriating. The Wall Street Journal reported that, during a conversation with its reporters, Senator Grassley was asked why the Republican Party has never put a single woman on the Judiciary committee. His response: women don’t want to  do that much work.

Really, Senator Grassley? How do you explain the fact that Democratic women serve on the committee, and seem to be handling the work? Is it just Republican women who are lazy? Or is it–as Amanda Marcotte suggests in Salon–that misogyny is at the very heart of your right-wing politics?

It’s long been frowned upon to acknowledge this fundamental truth: Misogyny is at the heart of right-wing politics. Pointing out that hatred of women and a desire to keep them under the boot is an animating force of Republican politics is sure to draw pained expressions from many liberal men, certain that the feminists are being hysterical again. Surely feminists don’t think it’s quite as simple as that, right? Surely we understand that anti-abortion views are about a sincere belief that life begins at conception and anyway, Republicans aren’t serious when they say they’re going to ban abortion. That’s just something they say to rile up the rubes, to trick them into voting for the real agenda, which is about economics and taxes. Certainly you women can’t think you are important enough that oppressing you is a major priority for Republicans, right?

Marcotte marshals her evidence: the party’s ongoing support of a President who boasted of grabbing women’s genitals and who has paid several women to keep quiet about his behaviors;  its support for Kavanaugh, despite credible accusations of sexual assault; and especially the tone-deaf, belittling and revealing responses to women’s protests by Grassley and others.

I want to make it clear we’re not going to be intimidated by these people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the protesters“Harassing members at their homes, crowding the halls with people acting horribly, the effort to humiliate us really helped me unify my conference,” McConnell told the New York Times. “So I want to thank these clowns for all the help they provided.”

“When you grow up, I’ll be glad to [speak to you],” Sen. Orrin Hatch snapped at a group of protesters, equating grown women with children who need a scolding.

“You needed to go to the cops,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told another protester when she confronted him about her own history of rape, implying that he —  with no information about her situation — understood her options better than she did.

Sen. Ben Sasse dismissed the protests by women against Kavanaugh as “hysteria” three times during the original confirmation hearing, when the focus was primarily on reproductive rights and before sexual assault became an issue.

Donald Trump, of course, is screeching on Twitter about how the protesters are “paid” and funded by “Soros,” because it is impossible for him imagine that women might actually have minds of their own.

Wonder why there’s a gender gap? I think I can clue you in.

 

People Will Die..

How many ways can this administration kill people?

Scientists tell us that changes to environmental protection laws will lead to at least 80,000 additional deaths each decade.

The announcement that acceptance of refugees fleeing war and persecution will be capped at 30,000 per year–the lowest number ever–has been condemned by Amnesty International, The International Rescue Committee and Human Rights First.  What those organizations labeled a “shameful abdication of our humanity” will result in untold numbers of deaths.

The GOP’s solicitude for the “rights” of the NRA continues to facilitate more than thirty thousand gun deaths each year.

Those are all fairly high-profile issues, and at least they’ve generated public debate.

Unfortunately, there has been much less publicity about the government’s ongoing refusal to impose rational regulations on Big Pharma. (Here in Indianapolis, our pathetic excuse for a newspaper simply ignored a recent demonstration protesting Eli Lilly’s pricing of insulin– instead, it ran a front-page “warm and fuzzy” article about the company’s new migraine drug). That failure, too, continues to kill.

If you wonder why single-payer healthcare has become such an overriding political issue, the case of insulin pricing may provide a clue.

Diabetes is one of the most common diseases in the U.S. Its incidence continues to climb, and huge numbers of diabetics are insulin-dependent.

According to information provided by an organization called “Insulin4All”

  • the price of insulin has increased 1123% since 1996. This isn’t because of new discoveries–prices have increased on medications that have been around for decades.
  • More than 7 million Americans are insulin dependent. More than 25% of those Americans  have had to ration their insulin due to cost.
  • Over 6,000 GoFundMe pages are asking for money to purchase insulin. (Shane Patrick Boyle, an artist who had moved to Arizona to take care of his mother and was in between health insurance plans, died from diabetic ketoacidosis. He was $50 short in his Go Fund Me for insulin.)
  • Some people are paying $1400 a month for their insulin.

The Insulin4All organization is asking two things. First, it wants pharmaceutical companies to disclose their manufacturing costs and profits, along with their marketing expenditures. Second–and incredibly important for all health care, not just diabetes treatment–they want the government to allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices, like other countries’ governments do.

In all fairness, this isn’t the first administration and congress to place the bottom line of drug manufacturers above the needs of sick people needing medicines. It has to stop.

Big Pharma will claim that R & D costs a lot of money, and that those costs justify high prices for their products. It is absolutely true that research and development is costly–but it is also true that a significant percentage of those costs are covered by taxpayers who also deserve a return on their investment.

Since the election, the federal government has cut back on support for basic research (an enormously self-defeating, “penny-wise, pound foolish” policy). Data from the National Science Foundation shows that, since those cutbacks, federal agencies provided “only” 44% of the $86 billion spent on basic research. Before that, however, the federal share of all research routinely topped 70%, and it was 61% as recently as 2004.

In addition, foundations, state and local governments, voluntary health associations and professional societies support drug research and development.

No one is suggesting that Big Pharma forgo a reasonable profit. What is reasonable, however, cannot be determined without increased transparency about actual costs, and the share of those costs coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

People who need insulin are dying because they cannot afford it. A lot of people.

Maybe the drug companies could run fewer television ads prompting people to ask their doctors for Purple Pills and the like, and use those savings to bring down the cost of lifesaving medications.

And maybe an administration and a Congress less beholden to corporate interests and big money would consider policies less likely to kill people.