January 31, 2011

I can't hear the music. . . There's a lawyer in my ear

Sam Smith

I recently went to the Progressive Review's music page and clicked on a link to a jazz video from many years ago. Instead of the video I found this:

"This video is no longer available because the YouTube account associated with this video has been terminated."

I began clicking other links - to Ben Webster, Hank Williams, Eva Cassidy, Zoot Sims and others.

Similar messages, some including the name of the copyright owner.

The masochistic merchants of music had struck again.

And to what end? To stop that vicious international gang of Zoot Sims pirates?

I thought back to a couple of summers ago when I had introduced my six year old granddaughter to Ella Fitzgerald singing "A-Tisket A-Tasket" on a bus conveniently occupied by backup voices. My granddaughter had insisted on seeing the YouTube clip six or seven times.

Had we undermined the RIAA? Lost money for whichever corporation now controlled Fitzgerald's royalties? Practiced digital shoplifting?

I think not. At worst, I had created another Ella Fitzgerald fan and if she had been sixteen instead of six, she might have even downloaded some Ella tracks from iTunes.

That's was what I thought I was doing when I posted the links to Zoot Sims and Eva Cassidy: introduce them to some of a new generation of music lovers. After all, the first step in marketing is to get someone to know what you're selling.

But the recording industry doesn't think like that, in part because their approach seems driven by legal advisors who obsess over the precise while the viral, communal, incalculable and truly significant totally passes them by.

And despite, or because of, their efforts, music sales are down.

The RIAA lawyers would have you believe it's all because of illegal downloaders. It's true that illegal downloading is a problem but the industry has grossly overestimated its importance and underestimated other factors hurting music, including itself.

For example, the Guardian cited a study by by Felix Oberholzer-Gee, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, and Koleman Strumpf, Associate Professor in economics at the University of North Carolina that found "downloads have an effect on sales that is statistically indistinguishable from zero."

"'Our hypothesis was that if downloads are killing music, then albums that are downloaded more intensively should sell less,' says Strumpf. But, after adjusting for the effects of popularity, they discovered that file sharing has 'no statistically significant effect' on sales. . ."

Another study by Industry Canada actually found a positive correlation between peer to peer downloading and the purchase of CDs.

And last year, Ars Technica wrote: "Those who download illegal copies of music over P2P networks are the biggest consumers of legal music options, according to a new study by the BI Norwegian School of Management. Researchers examined the music downloading habits of more than 1,900 Internet users over the age of 15, and found that illegal music connoisseurs are significantly more likely to purchase music than the average, non-P2P-loving user."

Forgotten in all the furor is how close the recording industry came to resolving the problem a decade ago. Rollng Stone reported in 2007:

"Seven years ago, the music industry's top executives gathered for secret talks with Napster CEO Hank Barry. At a July 15th, 2000, meeting, the execs . . . sat in a hotel in Sun Valley, Idaho, with Barry and told him that they wanted to strike licensing deals with Napster. . . The idea was to let Napster's 38 million users keep downloading for a monthly subscription fee -- roughly $10 -- with revenues split between the service and the labels. But ultimately, despite a public offer of $1 billion from Napster, the companies never reached a settlement. . . In the fall of 2003, the RIAA filed its first copyright-infringement lawsuits against file sharers. They've since sued more than 20,000 music fans."

There is no doubt the industry is in trouble. The LA Times reported early last year:

"Last year saw a 21% drop in the number of people in the U.S. buying music -- both digital and physical -- compared with 2007, according to figures released by NPD Group, a market research firm. . . The number of people in the U.S. who bought music fell by one-fifth, to 93 million, in 2009 from 116 million in 2007."

But several factors other than illegal downloads contributed to the decline. Among them:

- The number of stations that play music such as jazz, classical or country has fallen. In 2004 the Weekly Standard reported, "The number of noncommercial stations identified as 'classical' has been cut in half since 1993" and in 2007 Marc Fisher wrote in the Washington Post: "With last month's format switch in Los Angeles, the nation's two largest markets now have no country on the radio. New York lost its last country station in 2002, a year after San Francisco fell into the same status. "

- People aren't listening to radio as much as they used to.

- Thousands of record stores have closed

Furthermore, if having Ben Webster or Hank Williams on YouTube is such a hazard to the industry, how come I was able to write some of the above while listening to Adam Lambert and Carlos Santana online, whom I had reached quite easily and without cost by going to the site of Sony, their record company and the largest in the business?

Do the RIAA lawyers realize that I've been in peer-to-peer cahoots with Sony?

The whole business brings to mind the war on drugs in which marijuana, the least dangerous drug, and its users are the most heavily targeted - because pot and potheads are easier to catch than, say, major cocaine dealers. Similarly, it's much harder to stop the Chinese from copying your recordings than it is to sue a downloading American teenager..

To make matters worse, the president has chosen five RIAA lawyers to be top members of his administration, including the solicitor general. In other words, five lawyers from one of the least productive and most screwed up industries in America are now helping to run the country.

In a curious way, the choice of these lawyers echoes Obama's approach to public education. In both cases - the recording industry and education policy - over-precise rules as to how to listen or how to answer are substituted for imagination and creativity, and in both cases the larger goal suffers badly. Further, the demands of the test tyrants has, among other things, reduced the time for children to learr, sing and play music.

Yet throughout history, music has thrived as a communal activity. People learned songs at schools, churches, summer camps, college dorms, jam sessions and political protests. In the latest stats, it is interesting that gospel recording sales fell the least, perhaps in part because it is one of the few forms of popular music today which is still belongs to a community of voices rather than just lonely and often silent consumers attached to the sound by earplugs.

It is not enough to have live performances or recordings; you need a culture in which music is an integral part. John von Rhein, music critic for the Chicago Tribune came across this recently in his town: "What makes Chicago a world-class center of classical music performance? It's not just because we have established institutions operating at high artistic levels. Part of the reason lies with the fact that the many smaller groups orbiting around the big boys do quality work in their own right, complementing each other's repertory while setting their own stamp on it. And this has brought classical fans a healthier array of choices than the city has perhaps ever known before."

One need only say the words Nashville or New Orleans to be reminded of how critical community is to the natural growth of music. Or say the word 1960s to be reminded of how music and movements can magically blend.

Over the past half century, music has become the prisoner of a corporatized society that thinks branding something is the same as creating it, that ownership is more important than sharing, and that art is just one more product.

I came in at an early stage of this conversion, working as a news reporter at a Washington radio station that was one of the first programmers of top 40 music. I later wrote:

"Between about a dozen commercials every half hour, WWDC played its song list, inserting more traditional music after every third or fourth current hit. Although such programming clearly pleased the audience, surveys confirmed what some observers suspected, namely that the new radio was appealing to an easily influenced but small segment of the population: the record-buying teenager. Stations thus were not only deceiving themselves but their advertisers since sponsors were trying to sell things a teenager would never buy. Someone described radio at the time as 'a bunch of 12-year-olds trying to keep up with a 14-year-old audience.'"

Defining the music business by its most easily influenced audiences continues to this day. And the decay of American music has been hastened by other things, such as the disco drum machine of 1970s. A live drummer is constantly listening to the other musicians, finding new ways to back them up, discovering a groove by intent or accident, making a critical two bar point, or just showing off. If you were to analyze the sound with lab equipment you might be amazed at how irregular it actually is - the inevitable result of being human rather than mechanical.

But that is part of the secret of real music. Much of the appeal of jazz, for example, comes from listening to the alteration, manipulation or distortion of the familiar. Thus a singer may hold a note longer than expected or lend it excruciating pain when you were expecting nothing more than a simple B flat. One writer described it as repetition just to the point of boredom - at which something new and unexpected happens.

As amplifiers replaced acoustic sound, there were other changes. The recording companies began dumbing down music, reducing the number of chords, replacing melody with repetitive phrases, emphasizing only the extreme end of the dynamic range, and in the end - with rap - doing away with the need for music almost entirely.

This is not to say that there is not much merit within these forms - the pain and rebellion of punk, the soul of rap - just as there was with the earlier simple three-chord music of blues or country. The issue is variety and range. The growth of music in western culture owes much to the increase in chordal options.

You can like rap and a augmented seventh chord at the same time. And even if you don't, there is audience for both. For the most part, however, the corporate monopolies had seized control of our ear drums and locked them down into a few small cells.

The simplistic way popularity is calculated can seemingly justify all this yet be quite wrong. In 2003 I came across a highly unusual poll that looked at Japanese teenage musical preferences in a different way. Here are the percentages of Japanese adolescents who liked very much a genre of music followed by the percentages of those that didn't like it at all:

Rock: 45, 28
Rap: 26, 43
Top Forty: 25, 43
Classical: 23, 48
Jazz: 23, 45
Techno: 22, 47
Soul: 17, 53
Country: 15, 53
Heavy Metal: 12, 48
Punk: 11, 66
Easy Listening: 10, 60

In every case, except for rock, over 40% of those surveyed didn't like each genre. So for each genre there was not only a market but an anti-market.

Now, take a look at a more conventional list from a few years back - the first ten of the top 100 artists of all time, at least in the judgment of Rolling Stone:

1. The Beatles
2. Bob Dylan
3. Elvis Presley
4. Rolling Stones
5. Chuck Berry.
6. Jimi Hendrix
7. James Brown
8. Little Richard
9. Aretha Franklin
10. Ray Charles

The list, of course, is debatable; after all Miles Davis was listed as 88th, six places below Eminem. But what is not debatable is that among the top ten none were recently emerged artists (and the whole list had only a few). Implicitly, Rolling Stone was admitting that the best of American music was in the past.

Thus there is an inherent conflict between the sort of music people would like to hear and the sort the recording industry wants to sell them. And people are far less unified on the subject than either the industry or the media would have us believe. So, you can create a myth of the new and fantastic, but people will still insist on listening to the Beatles. Or you can push a new sound and forget that 40% of the public may really not like it at all

There's another problem that doesn't get discussed, illustrated by a 2002 list of top artists by sources of their income. Interestingly, it was only Eminem and Jay Z - who can fairly be described as the least musical of the lot - who got most of their income from recordings. Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews Band, Celine Dion, Cher, Bruce Sprinsteen, Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John and the Eagles all got most of their income from live concerts.

For example, for Dion it was 72%, for The Eagles 86%, for Paul McCartney 90%.

Why is this significant? Perhaps because live performances have become far more than a matter of music. They are theater, proximity to fame, erotic moves, smoke rising from the pit and mind-blowing light explosions. A CD with only music can pale in comparison for excitement.

Could it be that many are losing interest in music unless it is part of a theatrical show? Have our eyes spoiled our ears?

I don't know, but it's the sort of question the recording industry should be considering.

In any case, if I were asked by RIAA or its members to help, here are a few of the suggestions I would offer:

- Go after illegal downloading the way the government should go after illegal drugs. Spend your efforts on the major dealers and leave the teenage pot smokers alone.

- Leave YouTube alone. When you see one of your stars on it, send YouTube a widget that allows the viewer to order a CD or find out more. One of the ways I suspect the recording industry goes awry is because it suffers from IDD - Internet deficit disorder - a common problem among those not raised on the web. It is, for example, much easier to find an artist on YouTube than through the Sony site, but if the RIAA would pay their lawyers less and hire some better web designers they could come up with an industry version of YouTube that would introduce people to the vast array of American music and show them how to spend some money on it.

- Get music back into American life on something other than an Ipod. Lobby to have more music taught in schools, sponsor TV programs that introduce viewers to the full variety of American music. A series on the history of country and western would be a good place to start. And help Hollywood do more films about musicians, famous and otherwise.

- Remember that loving music is not just a matter of listening. It's singing, playing, and being in the same room as someone who really knows how to strum and pick a guitar. It's a gospel choir, the college doo-wop group, the teenage band playing at the local coffee house. It's making it cheap and easy for music to be part of our lives.

-Try helping and encouraging the audience that you need so much to build itself. It's really bad branding when you create an industry that so many think wants mainly to sue you.

- Produce more enjoyable music. For example, many of the contestants on American Idol seem to think that music is inextricably linked with the display of intense feelings - typically pain or anger - generally without relationship to the mundane lyrics being sung. Even when the effort is directed at the emulation of orgasm, the result often seems more like watching the prolonged injection of a tetanus shot.

There's nothing wrong with pain or anger in music - witness the blues or punk - but the thing that has really made music universal throughout human history has been its ability to take us away from the awful realities of life, to make us laugh, sing, and dance despite it all. Check out folk music, traditional jazz, gospel, the hugely successful swing bands of the 1930s and 40s, or the pre-corporate music of cultures all over the world and you will find it. And you also find it in the Beatles who sold about 139 million albums between 1964 and 2008 and who for the first twenty years were responsible for 25-30% of Capitol records' total sales. The thing is that the Beatles make us feel happier about ourselves and about life. As they put it, "Don't make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better."

- Help people discover music, play music, sing music, and hear music. The more it becomes a part of their lives the more they will love it and the more they will buy your stuff.

January 26, 2011

The Obamacon

Sam Smith

Barack Obama's State of the Union address offers further proof that he is one of the greatest political con artists of modern times. I came to realize this early in his campaign, but being surrounded by liberal friends who thought otherwise, I thought it best not to put it so bluntly.

But now many of these friends are adding pathetic parentheses to their expressions of Obamaphilia, so it may be time to speak more plainly.

As a con man, Obama even beats Bill Clinton, who always looked and talked a bit like a used car dealer and who wasn't all that good at maintaining his own cover. That liberals should be twice deceived brings to mind Samuel Johnson's thought on second marriages: the triumph of hope over experience.

Like Clinton, Obama was carefully vetted before he was licensed to leap into the nation's heart. They were approved social anomalies - Clinton the purported liberal southern white and Obama the first black.

Both had to be cleared by the Democratic Leadership Council. And both could have been easily derailed if the CIA - with which Clinton was involved as an Oxford student and Obama as an employee of a seldom mentioned front corporation - had found any deep flaws (like a serious bias towards progressive politics).

At least Obama didn't have to be checked out by Pamela Harriman, who had gone to the great private salon up yonder by the time he came along. When Clinton was running, conservative Democrats held nearly 100 strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Harriman. The meetings were successfully aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. Democratic donors paid $1000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats, of whom Clinton was seen as the best.

And there was another way in which Obama differed from Clinton. He was black, or least half so.

When he won, his victory was hailed by liberals and the media as the sign of a "post-racial society."

Hardly any noticed that with his election, the Senate once again had no blacks in it. Obama, it turned out, was a kind of all purpose black - the only elected black in the Senate, only the third since the civil rights movement, and now the first to be elected president.

But why Obama? And why was his lead opponent a woman seeking to become the first such as President?

Throughout most of human history, the first of any form of elected power get there because of their accomplishments and a strong, positive history with a rising and loyal constituency. But neither Obama or Hillary Clinton had actually done anything. They were not leaders of their ethnic or gender cause. They had no achievements with which to inspire others. They had simply cleverly worked their way to the top, blessed by the review and approval of America's establishment. They had broken the glass ceiling, but had failed to bring any rope to help others follow behind them.

They were in a sense, the establishment's idea of how a social revolution could occur without changing anything. And how right it was.

Which is how we came to be stuck with Obama, the Bernie Madoff of liberal politics.

January 25, 2011

America's most dangerous extremists:the muddled, myopic, miasmic middle

Sam Smith

One of the greatest myths draped over this land is that the so-called wing nuts mainly come from the far right and left. And that there is, however, a wise and moderate establishment that will save us from their madness.

In fact, the real wing nuts are to be found in the middle. Mistaking their power for wisdom, corruption of principles for principled conscience, and unprovoked surrender for hard earned common sense, this syndicate of supercilious sycophants, having captured both public office and major media, spread disaster, death and decay with impunity.

Take, for example, the 60,000 some American troops killed in pointless wars beginning with Vietnam. Now count the number of political assassinations, hate murders, terrorist acts and so forth. There is simply no comparison.

Yet every war that we have fought in modern times has been the direct choice of the American establishment, those who pompously describe themselves as moderates, centrists, or biparistan.

Add to the military casualties, the disastrous war on drugs - which has failed to reduce either drug trafficking or use - and you can add several more thousand unnecessary deaths a year to the count.

Now, let us turn to less violent matters such as the American economy. For the past thirty years the American establishment has preached, created, legislated, manipulated and subsidized economic behavior which has led to the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. While cheered on by the right, the hard work was done by self-proclaimed moderate politicians aided mightily by a deceitfully self-described "objective" media.

And what progressive or rightwing whackos created the climate crisis that will result in the deaths of millions and global misery? Again, that was the work of our educated and thoughtful establishment, the one that repeatedly told us not to worry about it and didn't have time to worry about it either.

Going back further, equality for women, blacks and gays would probably still not have made to the table if only the smug center had called the shots. And there would have been no environmental movement, for that matter.

In these cases, as in almost every great step of American progress throughout our history, it has not been the center that brought change, but the progressive left.

This doesn't mean that those on the left and right can't also be dumb, cruel or careless; only that, in fact, it has been consistently the cancerous center that has fouled things up to badly.

And will continue to do so.

We should stop treating them so kindly - whether they're at the White House, Congress, the Brookings Institution or on the editorial board of the NY Times. We should regard them as the arrogant, ignoramuses that they are, delusional in their self-regard, reckless in their behavior, and deeply dangerous in their results.

They sit still ensconced in their Washington manors like decaying British lords of a time well past as on some PBS Masterpiece Theater series. And the sooner we learn to treat them the same way, as ridiculous relics of a disastrous era rather than as purposeful guides to the future, the sooner we can begin to have a the state of our union worth talking about.

January 20, 2011

The healthcare mess

Sam Smith

The underlying problem with the healthcare bill is that there are few precedents for such a purportedly well intentioned measure that is so incredibly complex in its language (and hence in its true meaning), so uncertain in many of its effects, so contradictory in others, and so remarkably tardy in coming fully into effect.

As things stand, we have years of debate ahead of us before aspects of the measure will even become law and meanwhile both sides can continue to mislead or lie, as one prefers to describe it.

Some of the GOP lies have been well exposed but the liberal myth that there aren't any real problems with this measure continue, often without challenge. Further, the fact that the individual mandate is unconstitutional gets dishonestly dismissed as a wing nut fantasy.

Ask yourself this question: how many measures purportedly reforming some major problem in American life have been immediately challenged in court by 26 states? Reform is supposed to be more cheerful than that.

Further, I was about to quote some figures compiled by Rep. Henry Waxman showing how many people would benefit from the bill in each district. Just what we need, I told myself. And then I began to combine the figures from Maine's two congressional districts and found that Waxman's numbers increased the population of seniors in the state by about a third. Once again numbers were being used as mere adjectives.

Basically our problem is that the law is too hard to understand, too contradictory, too indolent in materializing, and too tempting for both sides to fib about in the meanwhile. Besides it amounts to a contorted way of subsidizing the health insurance industry with significant help from the presently uninsured, many of whom have strong fiscal reasons for being in this state in the first place.

It got so bad last night that I dreamt myself in the hospital for surgery and suddenly Henry Waxman and John Boehner appear on either side of my bed and start a knife fight over proper healthcare policy. I tried to suggest that this helped neither the policy nor my recovery, but they didn't seem to even notice that I was there.

Despite it all, I supported the passage of the bill largely because it aided a significant number of people who otherwise wouldn't have insurance. Further, it offered solid improvements in some areas.

But, while it may have appeased the insurance industry's lobbyists it certainly didn’t appease their business offices which almost immediately began jacking the premiums.

Further, the individual mandate provision, even putting aside its unconstitutionality, will leave untold numbers of citizens with a choice between paying more than they can afford in penalties or much more than they can afford in health insurance premiums.

There is no easy solution apparent. We should, however, call it a healthcare mess and not a policy, and start to reform it all over again.

And not necessarily at the national level. It might be possible, for example, to create a huge health insurance co-op that could service states, businesses and individuals wanting to join, while at the same time undermining the profits of one of America's least needed corporate industries. The co-op is one of the most underused alternatives in our economy.We should also watch closely Vermont's effort to find an alternative.

In any case, it is a mess and you don't repeal a mess; you reform it. And the sooner we start, the better.

January 19, 2011

Building little republics in a collapsing empire

Sam Smith

Several years after the passage of the Federal Boating Act of 1958, the Second Coast Guard District in St. Louis sent a team of unarmed men, and a van with outboard patrol boat in tow, to Oklahoma to begin safety inspections of vessels on a federal waterway. A few days later, the men returned sheepishly to St. Louis, explaining that they had been met by officers of the Oklahoma State Police who had told them they weren't welcomed and that the next time they came to the state they had better "bring your authority on your hip."

The commander of the Second District, Admiral O.C, Rohnke (whose aide I was) was infuriated and flew to meet with the governor and straighten him out on the matter. It was settled peacefully and there was no more trouble.

The Federal Boating Act of 1958 was an early and benign example of what I came to think of as federal greenmail as Washington increasingly began using the budget as a means of getting states to give up their 10th Amendment authority over matters "not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States."

The boating act was quite mild by today's standards. A Coast Guard history said of it: "Among other benefits, this act made states essential partners in this cooperative effort. Most of the states quickly enacted boating safety laws involving boat numbering, equipment, and operation. These laws were typically uniform, making it easier for boaters to be in compliance when traveling from one state to the next. Further, many states initiated boating safety programs to implement their new laws, increasing the number of officers on the water for enforcement and rescue."

Under today's rules the options given the states would have been early eliminated in favor of hundreds of pages of federal regulations. Over the following decades the use of greenmail would explode - reaching a recent pinnacle not in the healthcare bill mandate - which wrongly asserts its rights based on the commerce clause - but in the massive interference with local schools found in the No Child Left Behind program, an intrusion assisted by highly conditional funding from private foundations who aren't even mentioned in the Constitution.

While backing for this pecuniary assault on the Constitution has often been bipartisan, it is the support of supposedly anti-authoritarian liberals that is most discouraging, since if anyone was presumed willing to stand up for what Jefferson called our "small republics," it was this wing of the Democratic Party.

But as time has passed - especially with the fading of the highly devolutionary 1960s - liberals joined the right in pressing for an ever greater centralization of government with predictable costs in freedom, imagination, and simple efficiency. The motivations may differ from those of the right - for example, liberals value a centralized educated elite's choices over formerly decentralized decisions - the result has been the steady decline of democratic government.

Consider public education as an example. According to Jay Matthews of the Washington Post, the number of elected school boards in America has declined from more than 80,000 in 1950 to less than 14,000 today - all the more stunning because it has happened unnoticed. It's just so much easier to let Arne Duncan call the shots, especially when he's willing to pay you for it.

This in a country that was founded on articles of confederacy that stated, "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled."

And after passage of the Constitution with its 10th Amendment, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "to take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”

How right he was.

Arthur J. Versluis wrote in Modern Age:

|||| In his autobiography, Jefferson also outlined this vision: "Every state again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor. . . It is by this partition of cares descending in gradation from general to particular that the mass of human affairs may be best managed for the good and prosperity of all.". . .

Later in life, Jefferson emphasized the importance of what he called the "little republics" as essential to the sustenance of an enduring larger republic. He wrote to John Cartwright that each ward or township should be like "a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well-administered republic.". . . In his view, the strength of the republic as a whole-and for that matter, the vitality of the original American Revolution- lay nowhere but in the strength of the little republics. ||||

He was not alone. Alexis de Tocqueville also spoke of "the political effects of decentralization that I most admire in America."

As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drives towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws, permitting gay marriage and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.

Because this issue is not raised often enough, we find huge unnoticed disparities in the effectiveness of federal programs. For example, both Social Security and Medicare work well with surprisingly little overhead. In such programs, the government serves primarily as a moral redistribution center for tax revenues.

On the other hand, an environmentalist who ran a weatherization program once told me that she figured it cost $30,000 in federal and local overhead for each $1600 in weather-proofing provided a low income home.

A study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty there. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family -- well above the poverty level.

As I put it some time back, "What works so well in the manufacture of a Ford Taurus -- efficiency of scale and mass production -- fails to work in social policy because, unlike a Taurus, humans think, cry, love, get distracted, criticize, worry or don't give a shit. Yet we keep acting as though such traits don't exist or don't matter. We have come to accept the notion that the enormous institutions of government, media, industry and academia are natural to the human condition and then wonder why they don't work better than they do. In fact, as ecological planner Ernest Callenbach pointed out, 'we are medium-sized animals who naturally live in small groups -- perhaps 20 or so -- as opposed to bees or antelopes who live in very large groups. When managers or generals or architects force us into large groups, we speedily try to break them down into sub-units of comfortable size.'"

By ignoring such wisdom, our systems end up like athletes on steroids. And, as with many athletes, nature eventually pulls the plug.

There are several factors speeding the shift away from democratic devolution, not all of them political:

- For example, there has been a huge increase in the number of lawyers in Congress and elsewhere in the federal government. Lawyers tend to be technocratic control freaks more than ideological ones. But the effect is much the same and has helped to produce more federal laws since the late seventies than we had had in our first 200 years.

- The explosion of MBAs have also helped, up from around 5,000 a year in the 1950s to around 150,00o in the past decade.

- The takeover of the liberal movement by a grad school elite that sees itself as far brighter than much of the country, of superior virtue, and which believes that as long as you can manage something you can make it work. In many ways. Barack Obama - bringing us into our third decade of uninterrupted presidency by a Harvard or Yale graduate - epitomizes this approach not just in his manner but in his obsession with data, assessment, tests and legislative complexity. The foregoing not only fail empirically; they annoy the hell out of much of the rest of the country. Further, the liberal elite with increasing frequency can be heard speaking of less powerful and educated Americans in a manner reminiscent of white southerners of a pst time talking about blacks.

- This shift blends perfectly with corporate and conservative values producing, regardless of which party wins, a result that varies only between the plutocratic and the oligarchic. Thus we have bipartisan test tyranny in our schools, with Arne Duncan leading for the Democrats and former Bush Ed Secretary Margart Spellings saying things like, "States were not bold enough in seeking meaningful and disruptive change to confront school failure." You may recall that "inadequate boldness" provision of the Constitution, right?

Given the cultural character of the modern liberal there is little hope that any positive change will come from that source any more than from the now bizarrely childish leadership of the Republican Party.

Further, both are fully under the sway of a completely corrupt campaign financing system. Essential to keeping things under control in this system is concentrating the bribes in as few places possible, preferably mostly in Washington. The less power elsewhere the better.

The liberal media repeatedly suggests that any decentralization of power is a step back towards a Civil War definition of states rights and that opposing federal concentration is the sole purview of the reactionary right.

This is, of course, nonsense and one needs to look no further back than the left of the 1960s to find examples of a progressive approach to devolvement of power.

Still, realistically, it is left to populist progressives, Greens, libertarians, independents, and localists ranging from lettuce growers to school board members, to declare the practice of democracy not the privilege of an elite but the right of every citizen.

This is not a matter of either/or. The goal is to found in the concept of subsidiarity, which argues that government is best carried out at the lowest practical level.

It was first defined by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning who said, who thought that "functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person."

Despite the way America's media monopolies discuss it, it is hardly a radical idea. For example, Article 5.2 of the European Union treaty states:

"In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community."

Further, moving towards the concept requires far more of a revolution in attitude than it does of a revolution in law. We already have, for example, a number of models hidden in the federal government already:

The National Park Service, the Peace Corps, the national endowments for the arts and the humanities (with volunteer state councils that give away millions in federal funds),  the Coast Guard, and US Attorneys all have dispersed units with a relatively high degree of autonomy and a strong sense of turf responsibility by their employees. A further example can be found within the postal service. While many complain about mail service, you rarely hear them gripe about their own mail carrier, who is given a finite task in a finite geographical area. I stumbled across this phenomenon while serving in the Coast Guard. At the time, the Guard had about 1800 units worldwide but only 3000 officers, with many of the officers concentrated on larger ships and in headquarters units. Thus there were scores of units run by enlisted personnel who rarely saw an officer. The system worked extremely well. It worked because, once training and adequate equipment had been provided, there was relatively little a bureaucratic superstructure could do to improve the operations of a lifeboat, rescue cutter or loran station. As with the education system, a bureaucracy in such circumstances does itself far more good than it can do anyone in the field.

Further, though a federal institution, such devolved agencies become a part of the local landscape. I was, for example, only a few days in Bristol, RI, on my assignment as operations officer of a Coast Guard cutter before I was invited to come to the Elks Club anytime I wished. We were, in effect, the navy of the little republic of Bristol.

A former Peace Corps regional director told me that in his agency's far-flung and decentralized system, there was no way he could control activities in the two dozen countries under his purview, yet the Peace Corps became one of the most popular federal programs in recent times. Can the success of these decentralized agencies be replicated, say, in housing or urban development? Why not give it a try? If federal housing monies were distributed by 50 state directors (vetted by the states' senators as are US Attorneys) who were given considerable leeway in the mix of policies they could fund and approve, we would, for starters, begin to have a better idea of which programs work and which don't. The federal government would also have better relations with the states.

There are other approaches such as broad revenue sharing or just not making too many decisions at the federal level.

Would there be corruption? Absolutely. But first it would not compare in size to that now afflicting such federal agencies as HUD and the Pentagon and, second, through evaluation, investigation and local media coverage, we would better know what the corrupt - as well as the admirable - were up to than we do today.

It is argued by the American elite - those who rule because of wealth, media power, corporate or other undemocratic forms of control - that the devolution of government is at best romantic silliness and at worst stupid.

Give these people the chance and they will seize whatever remains of American democracy, of which I was reminded when the closet reactionary Brookings Institution came up with a proposal for my state of Maine that emphasized the consolidation of everything from towns to schools. Did they know so little about the place that they didn't understand that Maine's historic localism has been one of its major virtues and survival techniques?

There is strong evidence that running government - or any institution - on the principals of subsidiarity makes far more sense than consolidating in the false name of efficiency.

In a piece arguing for the peaceful succession of American states - a greatly excessive alternative in my view - Kirkpatrick Sales makes a number of cogent points:

||||| Among the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, eight are below 500,000 - Luxembourg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino.

Of the 14 states generally reckoned freest in the world, 9 have populations below Switzerland's, at 7.7 million, and 11 below Sweden's, at 9.3 million; the only sizable states are Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany (the largest, at 81 million).

There are other national rankings. Literacy: Of the 46 countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better, 25 are below 7.5 million. Health: Measured by the World Health Organization, 9 of the top 20 are under 7 million. In 2009 rankings of happiness and standard of living, the top countries were Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland; all but Canada and Australia have small populations.

In fact, there are 85 countries out of the 195 counted by the United Nations that are under 10,000 square miles-that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller. ||||

One of the reasons for all this is that the smaller the entity the more likely more people will be involved - if only to express their gripes to a town councilmember over coffee in a restaurant.

Of course it can become stressful, too, especially when one attempts to combine excessive top-down regulatory requirements with local supervision. Rob Snyder of Maine's Island Institute notes that "Swans Island has roughly 300 year-round residents. In the community they have around 25 active boards: fire, planning, harbor, select, school, library. . . At last count, these boards require the efforts of 127 individuals. . . On Matinicus at this time of year you have 35 people, maybe less. Six or so couples that stay on the island year-round must fill all of the mandatory town, school, energy and safety requirements. Vinalhaven, the largest population at around 1200, has 68 active boards and Peaks, a community of 600 has roughly 41."

But that is why the question of who decides what has to be worked out on a case by case basis. And as Snyder points out, "The number of leaders on islands are legion."

At the other end, is the cost of ignoring the small. For example, the Small Business Administration Advocacy Office found that companies with 500 or more workers pay nearly $3,000 less per employee than small firms to comply with federal regulations.

Not surprising when you have a president with 39 self-described czars running the show and a bipartisan inability to see the difference between a huge corporation and a small business.

For such reasons, a Rasmussen poll found that

- Forty-three percent of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level.

- Nineteen percent say state government is better than the other two.

- Just 14% think the federal government does a better job.

- And 25% aren't sure.

- Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn't have enough influence over states, and another 26% say the balance is about right.

Now, obviously, there is no sign that the federal government will give up its drive for more power, that Arne Duncan will stop telling individual schools what to do or that stimulus money will flow more directly to mayors and governors so the choices can be made by those most profoundly affected.

But what we can do is to make it a defined cause and while pressing the battle, strengthen the little republics in which we already live and ally ourselves more strongly with those elsewhere.

This is not a hopeless endeavor. Way back in the 1960s, when I was editor of a community newspaper in a neighborhood of mixed ethnicity, I noticed the marked difference between the city govenmrnet's response to the problems of poorer black residents and those of the far better organized white community. What was fascinating was that the latter did not gain this power by some measurable form of influence such as money or votes. It was simply extremely well organized and the downtown officials decided it was easier just to leave it alone.

I recently saw something similar in Maine. FEMA decided to define the coastal flood zones - a decision that could have heavy effects on building and on insurance costs. In doing so, in the best mono-conceptual thinking of the federal government, it drew maps essentially premised on Maine's shoreline not being that much different from that of, say, Florida or New Jersey. The reaction in Maine was to rebel but to do it in a way that made FEMA look sort of dumb. One community hired their own engineers to plot the problem and came up with dramatically different results from FEMA's. In the end an embarrassed FEMA backed off.

And when you think of it, the Tea Party is a sort of little republic that has had unusual success not because of intrinsic power but because all the other little republics of America have failed to recognize their own potential power.

The interests of the federal government and that of communities, cities and states should not be at odds. They don't have to be. But they certainly are and will remain so until we discover that what truly brings us together is not Washington or who occupies the White House but the infinite small republics across the land of common hopes, values and frustrations, and which can learn to share these with each other in such a way that even those at he top will have to listen. And then, maybe, we can even change the nature of the oligarchy, but at worst we will have helped keep our own small republics free even in the midst of a collapsing republic.

January 16, 2011

The real American theology



The Lord is my mentor; I shall want it all.

He feedeth me in world-class restaurants and leadeth me beside the sparkling mineral waters.

He restoreth my house and bringeth me in the path of good access.

Yea, though I jog through the valley of the shadow of high rises I shall fear no viable competition; thy clout and thy bottom line shall comfort me.

He shall prepare a game plan against mine enemies, and shall bloweth dry my head and my Volvo shall runneth over to Bloomingdales.

Surely perks and power lunches shall follow me all the days of my life and 1 shall dwell in an upscale neighborhood forever and ever.

For thine is the power and the glory -

But not for long, sucker. I'm right behind you.

Paul LePage and the complexities of anger

 From our national edition. . .

Sam Smith

There are plenty of reasons to fight with Maine's new Republican governor - over immigration policy, energy, environment, and public education. But I'm not including his response to the NAACP's reaction to his failure to attend some MLK Day events: "They can kiss my butt."

I've spent much of my life listening to politicians from the White House down use tortured and tedious euphemisms for that phrase, and it is an odd - if somewhat perverted - relief to hear someone in public office actually say it.

Of course, the NAACP, Maine liberals, and the media didn't like it because - like much of America - they prefer their leaders use semiotic subversion to verbal reality. Some even call it civility. But for those of us who have been unduly subjected to it on a regular basis, it's like having to eat only Froot Loops three times a day - pleasantly colored and tasteless circles wrapped around exactly nothing.

The head of the Maine NAACP was typically huffy over LePage's comment. I would have suggested in response to LePage's proposal of amorous posterior proximity something more along the lines of, "I wouldn't even think of it until he lost some weight, but I would like to take him up on his dinner invitation so we can discuss this seriously."

Yes, LePage had, right after his butt bomb, invited the NAACP over for dinner along with his son:

“If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them."

Actually more like a semi-son. The LePages started raising Devon Raymond, from Jamaica, since he was 17. He is now a graduate student.

The NAACP huffed and puffed about that, too, accusing LePage of using the race card just as he had said of them.

But the fascinating thing about this story is that this is just its beginning. . . and therein lies a lesson about ethnic and other forms of conflict. The salvation is not to be found in superficial responses but in hidden complexities.

Maine Public Broadcasting was one of the few media to look deeper:

"LePage often refers to 25-year-old Devon Raymond of Jamaica as his 'adopted son.' And although the governor and his wife are putting Raymond through college, and Raymond has attended LePage family gatherings with the LePage's other children on a regular basis since the age of 17, Raymond has not been formally adopted. He is also not a U.S. citizen."

Not a U.S. citizen? That makes him a prime target of the US Customs service which puts all of Maine within its border boundaries for intrusive searches and questioning.

Further, there was this, as described by the Bangor Daily News

"In one of his first official acts, Gov. Paul LePage issued an order allowing officials in state agencies to question people with whom they come into contact about their immigration status, infuriating civil libertarians. . . LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said the governor wanted to send a message to those who have heard it’s easy for illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and social services in Maine."

Even assuming that Devon is perfectly legal, it still dumps him in the perpetually suspect bin of Maine residents.

And LePage's inconsistencies don't stop there. For example, he dubbed the NAACP a "special interest" to which he owes no special attention, but has spent his opening days meeting with other special interests known as businesses. The problem with the NAACP seems to be mainly that it doesn't have "Inc." after its name.

Yet behind inconsistency is often complexity and that certainly is true in LePage's case. Consider this from a story by Tom Bell of the Portland Press Herald:

|||| When Paul LePage is sworn into office today as Maine's governor, Maurice "Moe" LePage will be there, a witness to his big brother's remarkable escape from an impoverished and abusive childhood. . .

Moe LePage, 56, grew up with Paul LePage and their 15 brothers and sisters in a four-room house on Lisbon Street in Lewiston.

Their only hot water came from a pot on the wood stove in the kitchen. Their toilet was an outhouse for much of their childhood. Their parents, Teresa and Gerard LePage, slept downstairs on couches while the children slept in the two bedrooms upstairs, four or five to a bed.

But those material hardships, Moe LePage said, were nothing compared to the terror that sprang from their father's violent temper. A heavy drinker, he once slammed Moe's head against a table so hard that he was taken to the hospital for stitches.

His father also beat Paul. Moe LePage recalls that when Paul was 11, his father sent him to the hospital with a broken nose. Paul ran away from home and never came back.

Moe LePage said he wouldn't go to bed at night until he was sure his father was asleep, because his father -- when he was angry and drunk -- would sometimes stuff newspapers into a slipper and douse it with kerosene. He would put the slipper under the family's old television, light it with a match and then leave the house. . .

There often wasn't enough food in the LePage household because their father was too busy drinking, she said.

After Paul ran away and was taken in by another family, he worked at various odd jobs, such as shining shoes and delivering the local newspapers, the Lewiston Daily Sun and the Evening Journal. He would use some of the money to buy food, and for his brothers and sisters.

The family lived in a French-speaking section of Lewiston called Little Canada, and the children didn't learned to speak English until they were teenagers. Paul was admitted to Husson College only after he was allowed to take an achievement test in French. He eventually received a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Maine. Paul was the only one of his siblings to complete college. ||||

Add to this the fact that during the time that LePage was growing up, Franco Americans in Maine were still suffering at least some of the discrimination that has defined black life in America. In 2000, Franco Americans made up about 9% of the state's population compared to less than 2% for blacks. And they had their own story to tell.

For example in 1925, the KKK had some 150,000 members in Maine. That’s over 30,000 more than the current number of Franco Americans in the state. Their target was heavily Franco Americans and other Catholics.

A Franco American wasn't appointed to the state's Supreme Court until 1954, about the same time as the black civil rights movement was getting rolling.

Discrimination is never neat. It targets the weakest in a particular place: blacks in the south, latinos in the southwest, Franco Americans in Maine. And it recruits heavily from the misery of those who aren't, in fact, that much better off than those against whom they discriminate. Southern segregation depended in no small part on the white elite convincing poor whites that poor blacks were their real problem. And even today, that great sleeping political giant - a latino-black coalition - can't be born in part because of each part's suspicions of the other.

So it isn't all that surprising that a once bitterly poor and abused Franco American from Waterville doesn't know how to deal with the NAACP. But the solution doesn't lie in scolding; it lies in the more secure helping the less secure evolve towards better ways. In effect, helping the LePages of the world rewrite their stories so they don't keep blaming the wrong people for the wrong things.

A good place to start would be to remain cool about being told to "kiss my ass" and, instead, to just keep one's eyes on the prize.

Which is why, far better than any MLK speechifying or memorial service or balling out LePage, will be a rally and march in Portland on Monday against the governor's executive order on immigration. The battle is not won just with words but by action and not by just remembering but by creating.

Words and news

Sam Smith

One of the things I learned early in reporting was that words and actions were two different things. On average, actions made far better news than words.

I once designed a new paper called USA Tomorrow. Among its principles:

"News is defined as something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership. . .

"All perceptions (including those excised from the front page and those typical of op-ed pages) will be published in a section called Perceptions. Space will be given based on a rigorous analysis of the perceptiveness of previous perceptions. This is unlike the current situation in which people are allowed to perceive based solely on their position or fame rather than actual prescience. Letters to the editors will thus compete on a equal basis with paid columnists. . .

"Somewhere towards the back of the paper will be several pages devoted to quotations, official and otherwise. This section will have something of the feel (and small type size) of the classified section."

These are principles that have been broadly ignored over the past week in the wake of the Tucson killings. Obviously, lots of people (including me) have had a lot to say, but there comes a point when the discussion veers markedly from what happened into a bottomless pile of opinions about it all and about what other people said about what happened. For example, the Review was one of the first to post Sarah Palin's bullseye map, but after a day we moved it into the Palin archives and went on to other stuff. For Chris Matthews it was a major obsession for much of the week.

Rachel Maddow spun her view of the spin the Republicans gave the healthcare repeal bill by calling it "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" even though if the bill were actually repealed - which it won't be - then either side's spin on the name would be of minimal importance compared to what was really happening.

Then we have Barack Obama wanting to escalate the Af-Pak war and civility at the same time. And journalists in awe of his deep thoughts on the latter while totally ignoring the former. So forth into the late edition.

And these, remember, are the people who are meant to be on our side. Listen to the right and you'll be lucky to find one fact all day.

I believe in reporting idiocies, lies, and hypocritical hype wherever one finds them. But I also understand this can become like interviewing spectators high in the stadium at a game. You can easily miss the long pass behind and below you while all you're getting is some more truisms.

The media owes it to its readers and viewers not to let the noise in the stadium distract them too much. Report it, sure, but then get back to the game.

Consider the fact that though Mitt Romney beats Palin in just about every poll, a Google of news mentions over the past month finds Palin ten times ahead. Why? Not because of anything she's done. The last newsworthy thing she's accomplished was to desert her post as governor. Ever since then all she's done is talk. And that's what the media likes to cover: talk not action. It has taken the easy route big time.

January 10, 2011

The blood on our floor

Sam Smith

Now that all the politicians and media voices have sternly condemned violence, we can move on to other things. Or back to the way things were.

Such public condemnation doesn't scare violence one bit. It's a little like thinking you can cure measles by some skin ointment you buy at CVS. Violence is just the outer and visible sign of inner and often invisible problems. The former we like to talk endlessly about (and pass laws against) while the latter we prefer to ignore.

That's been the national story since 9/11. Soon after that attack, I wrote that the best way to reduce the constituency of the least rational is to meet the concerns of the most rational. But in the decade following 9/11, we have done nothing of significance to improve relations with the Muslim world. Instead, we have found new ways of fighting with it.

In the case of Tucson, the courts will handle the perp. What we should be doing is taking another look at those things that may have helped create the perp, not to excuse the wrong that he did but to lessen the chance of its repetition.

I say may because we'll probably never know for sure. The thing about random acts of violence is that they are random, and the causes behind them typically multiple, mostly indecipherable, and usually distinct. But here are a few things that have passed through my mind in the past few days:

The vitriol factor

There is no doubt that the vitriol spewing about in our politics doesn't help rational debate. And Sarah Palin's cross hair target map should make her liable for a civil law suit if nothing else. In over fifty years of reporting on national politics I have never seen so many stupid and cruel politicians as now, almost entirely on the Republican side.

But where did they come from? The story that is not being told is that, just as with Jared Laughner's physical violence, the verbal and logical violence grew out of something, and part of this something has been the collapse of the Democratic Party as an alternative to the GOP. When you are living through the worst economic times since the Depression and two of the most fruitless wars in our history, and the inheritor of the New Deal brazenly favors the interests of Wall Street over those of ordinary citizens - many dealing with job and/or home loss - you must expect some form of madness to fill the gap. It did and you can vote for it and, sadly, people have.

There are precedents for this in history. One of the least noted aspects of the rise of Hitler, for example, was the disintegration of German liberalism. In America today, in fact, there are only two balloted parties that represent rational political alternatives as opposed to merely reflecting the interest of their campaign contributors: the Greens and the Libertarians. Yet these non-violent, rational, and decent choices are dismissed or ridiculed by the American conventional media and elites as insignificant or even extremeist.

Back in the nineties, I suggested that the Greens and the Libertarians start a college campus debate road show, to bring to young Americans an idea of what true democratic alternatives look like. I was reminded of this after the Tucson shooting. What if Loughner had seen such a debate?


The Tucson murders will surely revive the debate over gun laws. Although I have never owned a gun and favor the pacific side of most issues, I also believe that excessive gun violence - like other form of carnage - must be dealt with by responding to its cause and not merely to the tools used to manifest it. Just today I read of a man who was badly beaten by a flashlight. Should we ban these as well?

Further, from a political standpoint, there would be no better way to maintain the vitriol and political anger of America than to launch an anti-gun movement at this time.

It's long past time for liberals to accept the fact a large number of Americans like to have guns and that fighting this inclination has been a major cause of their political failure. Far better would be to invite gun owners into their multicultural definition, thus finding a new way to further America's dream of being a home for everyone.

Finally, contrary to liberal mythology, the facts simply don't support the anti-gun mystique.

For example, Maryland, which ranks 2nd in per capita gun murders, ranks 8th from the bottom in per capita gun ownership.

California comes in 4th in per capita murders but ties with Maryland for low gun ownership.

My own state of Maine has a gun ownership percentage almost twice that of California but a gun murder rate one-sixth as bad.

In fact, if Maine were a country it would be the fourth most gun owning nation in the world, right behind Switzerland, but like Switzerland it would rank around 19th in gun murders

In fact, in terms of gun murders, the worst state is 25 times as bad as the best. With that sort of variety, it's best to look for other things to fix.

Searching for right wing conspracies: While it's more than fair to attack Republicans for their violent an illogical rhetoric, jumping to conspiratoid conclusions in the manner of the Southern Poverty Law Center doesn't really help. I sometimes think the SPLC and these fringe groups may be in cahoots, since the former couldn't get any TV time without the latter.

For example, part of the evidence SPLC promoted was Loughner's love of the gold standard. It's worth quoting from Wikipedia to illustrate how in times like this history can become an ancillary victim:

|||| The return to the gold standard is supported by many followers of the Austrian School of Economics and, in the United States, by strict constitutionalists, Objectivists, and free-market libertarians largely because they object to the role of the government in issuing fiat currency through central banks. A significant number of gold-standard advocates also call for a mandated end to fractional-reserve banking.

Few politicians today advocate a return to the gold standard, other than adherents of the Austrian school and some supply-siders. However, some prominent economists have expressed sympathy with a hard-currency basis, and have argued against fiat money, including former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, and macro-economist Robert Barro. ||||


|||| After the Second World War, a system similar to a Gold Standard and sometimes described as a "gold exchange standard" was established by the Bretton Woods Agreements. Under this system, many countries fixed their exchange rates relative to the U.S. dollar. The U.S. promised to fix the price of gold at approximately $35 per ounce. Implicitly, then, all currencies pegged to the dollar also had a fixed value in terms of gold. Under the administration of the French President Charles de Gaulle up to 1970, France reduced its dollar reserves, trading them for gold from the U.S. government, thereby reducing U.S. economic influence abroad. This, along with the fiscal strain of federal expenditures for the Vietnam War and a persistent balance of payments deficits, led President Richard Nixon to end the direct convertibility of the dollar to gold in 1971. . .||||

I sure hope Alan Greenspan doesn't own a gun.

And the SPLC is not alone. The Boston Globe wrote: "Here and there he touched on conspiracy theories of the moment, including rants about currency and endorsement of the gold standard."

Loughner and Arne Duncan

Loughner was clearly a bright student. Take a look at his favorite book list: "Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Wizard Of OZ, Aesop Fables, The Odyssey, Alice Adventures Into Wonderland, Fahrenheit 451, Peter Pan, To Kill A Mockingbird, We The Living, Phantom Toll Booth, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Pulp,Through The Looking Glass, The Communist Manifesto, Siddhartha, The Old Man And The Sea, Gulliver's Travels, Mein Kampf, The Republic, and Meno."

Until he went over the top, he might have easily passed one of the tests that are meant to guide American public education these days.

But read the bizarre conclusions he drew from his books and other reading and you see the same huge gap in his education that is prescribed by the formulas of Duncan, Rhee, Gates and others: no emphasis on critical thinking.

In fact, one might argue that the real problem with our political debate is not its vitriol but it's growing indifference to logic. You might, for example, describe some of the GOP positions on climate change as Loughner lite.

One of the most important lessons we might learn from this incident is the importance of teaching students not only facts but how to use them. Right now, Loughner is a sad monument to our indifference towards critical thinking. How many more misguided bright students are we creating as a matter of national education policy?

The other drugs

Loughner reportedly used pot. But far less noted is the probability that he was also on anti-depressants.

The problem with anti-depressants is not that they don't help a lot of people, but with factors we prefer not to discuss. For example, what if anti-depressants were a significant reason why we are unable to mount effective opposition against an increasingly failing and anti-democratic government? Could the 1960s ever occurred if it had been on Pozac instead of pot?

Nor do we discuss the far less theoretical relation between anti-depressants and mass murders. The media regularly suppresses any mention of the possibility yet an eerie correlation keeps cropping up.

- It was quite possible that Nidal Hasan - the psychiatrist who killed 13 on a military base - was using the same drugs he prescribed for his patients . He knew he had deep psychological problems and it would have been unlikely if he had not treated it.

- Andrea Yates, who drowned all five of her children, had been taking the Effexor. Four years later Wyeth Pharmacueticals would add "homicidal ideation" to the drug's "rare adverse events" One analysis noted that since the FDA defined "rare: as les than one in a thousand, almost 20,000 Americans might suffer "homicidal ideation" from the drug.

- Columbine killer Eric Harris was on antidepressant Luvox. The Review wrote at the time:

"Following Columbine, the media ignored the possible connection between the killings and prescribed mood-altering drugs. The moral questions in a drug that works fine for most but has disastrous effects on others needs to be widely discussed."

- Virginia Tech murderer Cho Seung-Hui had prescription drugs in his possession but officials still refuse to release the names of them. Why?

A 2001 Newsmax story listed some of the others:

- Sam Manzie, 15, attacked, raped and strangled to death an 11-year-old boy selling items door to door for the PTA. He was on Paxil.

- Kip Kinkel, 14, killed his parents and went on a shooting rampage at his Springfield, Ore., high school. He was taking Ritalin and Prozac.

- Jeremy Strohmeyer raped and murdered a 7-year-old girl one week after he started taking Dexedrine.

- T.J. Solomon, 15, who attended Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga., was taking Ritalin when he opened fire on his classmates, wounding six.

- In 1998, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden opened fire on their classmates in Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark. Young Johnson had been seeing a psychiatrist but, when questioned as to the nature of his medication, if any, his attorney, Val Price, would say only, "That is confidential information, and I don't want to comment on that."

A website lists 4300 cases in which prescription drugs were being used by those involved in bizarre murders, suicides, school shooting incidents and murder-suicides.

Obviously, correlation is not necessarily causation but we can not even begin to analyze this question because neither the health industry nor the media will face the problem.

The prospect is daunting: what do you do with a drug that helps millions but simultaneously helps to create an unknown number of murderers?

The poverty of young white men

Loughner was kicked out his community college, unemployed and refused admission into the Army.

Part of the story is the reaction of one young man to his personal failure.

And he's not alone.

The unemployment rate of young white men of Loughner's age is roughly that for all blacks and higher than all black men 35 and older.

The unemployment rate for black men of Loughner's age is about two thirds higher as it is for all men 18-19 and higher.

While the higher unemployment rates of minorities are generally recognized - albeit with no corrective action - the squalid status of young white men doesn't even make it to the back pages.

And it's not a new phenomenon. Over a decade ago, I wrote that the group that had seen the biggest decline in wages between 1979 and 1993 were white men who hadn't completed high school (down 23%) with young black men and white male high school grads like Loughner not far behind.

For two decades, young men have faced such problems with the politicians and the media showing little or no attention. If they're bad - smoking pot for example - we send them to prison. If they're good they can enlist and die in Afghanistan or come home with a mental illness the government doesn't even want to pay for.

We have created the America that helped to create Jared Loughner. And if there's one thing to be grateful for it is that, so far, there, are not more like him.

January 07, 2011

Why bad words aren't the problem

Sam Smith

- Read the following sentence: "F*** you." What did you just say to yourself? The asterisks wouldn't work if you hadn't filled in for them.

- Using correct language is the obsession of that part of our culture least likely to produce any positive social or political change. One reason for this is that people obsessed with the matter think that when they say things the right way, they've done everything they have to.

- Word censorship damages history.

- Ironically, it also often damages the very cause the censors are promoting. For example, the elimination of the word "nigger" from its historical usage actually lessens the cruelty of the language that was being used.

- My rule is to only use such words when they truly help the point you are trying to make. For example, writing of my early days in radio news I noted:

|||| More than once, when calling the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action, I was told, "Nothin' but a few nigger stabbings." It had, after all, only been twelve years since the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell arrived to take his seat in the House of Representatives. Stepping into his office for the first time he found a memo on his desk headed "Dos and Don'ts for Negro Congressmen." One was "Don't eat in the House dining room." |||||

Using a euphemism or asterisks would only have weakened that. Similarly writing about the police mistreatment of protesters at a national political convention, I wrote:

|||| An officer told a prisoner, "I'll fuck you up the ass and make you my bitch." ||||

To have prettied that up would have been to let that officer off the hook.

- Censorship of words also creates censorship of information. For example, here is an excerpt from a Review story in the 1990s on the political center that got hardly any coverage elsewhere:

|||| The Good O'Boys Roundup, a festival for law enforcement personnel sponsored by agents of the BATF, . . . included such things as signs saying NIGGER CHECKPOINT, T-shirts with a target superimposed over Martin Luther King's face, others showing DC police officers with a black man stretched across a car hood above the caption BOYZ ON THE HOOD, and cards labeled NIGGER HUNTING LICENSE? ||||

The conventional media couldn't report that story because of its language rules.

- There is no particular correlation between the use of socially correct language and social and political improvement. For example, note this Google Ngram chart of the use of the word "nigger" in books over the past 50 years. The peak occurred at the end of the 1960s, when blacks were making more progress than they are today. The most recent peak occurred around the time America was electing its first black president.

- The censorship tends to be selective. For example, Don Imus used the word 'ho' once and got fired. 50 Cent used the word 13 times in one number and in the same number used the word 'nigga' 14 times. 50 Cent is a former drug dealer and Don Imus is a former drug addict, miner, gas station attendant and railway brakeman. At the time, however, they lived just 59 miles away from each other: Imus in Westport, CT; and 50 Cent in Mike Tyson's former mansion in Farmington, CT. According to Mapquest, it would have taken only an hour and 17 minutes for one to pay a visit on the other. In a sense, Imus was just copying something a neighbor had said. 50 Cent has sold 21 million albums using language such as the foregoing. Don Imus got fired.

- There is an argument made by Al Sharpton and others that blacks should control use of such words. But if RIAA can't even control who downloads records, how is the NAACP going to control what effect 21 million albums have on people? Or the phrases they pick up from them?

- You can write about it, excoriate it, and suspend the offender of the day. But when it's all over, words travel without a passport and are impervious any type of security screening.

- And it changes by the year. In the mid nineties, for example, Michael Marriott wrote a New York Times piece on the revival in black culture of the word 'nigger.' One rapper Kris Parker argued that its use would de-racialize it: "In another 5 to 10 years, you're going to see youth in elementary school spelling it out in their vocabulary tests. It's going to be that accepted by the society." He was off by a bit.

- The best rule of thumb is: don't use bad words unless you have a good reason to.

- And don't get too upset when others do. Remember a 16% unemployment rate is far worse than a few bad words.

January 03, 2011

Who really won the Civil War?

Sam Smith

The 150th anniversary for the Civil War will be heavily commemorated over the next four years, but one question will probably not be seriously asked: who really won?

We tend to view wars in the isolation of their military events. By such a standard, there is no doubt the North won. But what about the social, cultural and economic aftermath?

For example, while the Civil War ended slavery, it would take more than a hundred years to begin enforcing effectively the equality that was presumed to result in its wake.

Right into the present the South enjoys a disproportionate influence on our politics and values. When was the last time you saw a politician afraid of what New England might think?

Further, the increasingly hegemonic structure of our business, political and cultural life has far more in common with the southern past than with that of the anarchistic old west or more democratic early Northeast.

I'm a southerner by birth - yes, Washington was once clearly part of the South while also being a door into the north - and I was long aware of what was at times an almost triumphal southern influence over the capital and, by consequence, the rest of the nation. After all, one key reason DC is still effectively a colony of the U.S. is because powerful southerners long made sure that the city's black population would remain under their control.

I recall, as a young reporter, northern friends coming to work on Capitol Hill and beginning to pick up a southern accent just by being there. It eventually took a southerner - Lyndon Johnson - to substantially change that culture through civil rights and other legislation.

But traditional southern values still strongly affect our economic and military policy. We wouldn't, for example, be anywhere near as warlike were or not for southern culture.

But none of this gets discussed because we judge military triumphs on such a narrow basis, despite there being much more to it all.

Which is why we still negotiating with the North Koreans and why the Germany economy did so well after World War Ii.

Or consider this from New America Media:

|||| In the midst of the Great Recession, the United States is suffering through nearly 10 percent unemployment and 50 million people without health insurance. A new report has found over 14 percent of Americans living below the poverty line, including 20 percent of children and 23 percent of seniors. . . That is in addition to declining prospects for the middle class, and a general increase in economic insecurity.

How, then, should we regard a country that has 5 percent unemployment, health care for all its people, the lowest income inequality and is one of the world’s leading exporters? This country also scores high on life expectancy, low on infant mortality, is at the top in literacy, and is low on crime, incarceration, homicides, mental illness and drug abuse. It also has a low rate of carbon emissions, doing its part to reduce global warming. In all these categories, this particular country beats both the United States and China by a country mile.

Does that not sound like a country from which Americans might learn a thing or two about how to get out of the mud hole in which we are stuck?

Not if that place is Japan. ||||

If there is any moral that should be drawn from the commemoration of the Civil War - but almost certainly won't be - it is this: just because your troops win doesn't mean that you did.