Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cut Everything But Child Pornography

Deficit hawks rule. Gotta cut the budget. No social services, no mass transit, no civil servants, no teachers, firemen, policemen, sanitation workers, safety net, nada. However, never cut the Pentagon budget!

Especially when it comes to the ability for military officials and defense contractors to download child pornography. Somewhere, somehow, children are getting educated but maybe not the way we want them to be.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Internet Makes You Stupider

According to recent studies, users of the Internet don’t attain the knowledge of billions through the giant brain of cloud computing. It seems to make people lazier, more stupid and destroy their ability to think and write critically and analytically.

Two recent columns in the NYT discuss the dumbing down effect of the internet. One was David Brooks’ recent column. He wrote about a 3-year study done by researchers from the University of Tennessee. They allowed 852 disadvantaged students to take 12 books of their own choosing home for the summer to read. And they read them! The students’ test scores in reading were not only significantly higher than comparable students who hadn’t participated. They learned as much as they would have in summer school.

But the students given a computer and access to the Internet did not fare so well:

Recently, Internet mavens got some bad news. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy examined computer use among a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina. They found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access was associated with significant declines in math and reading scores.

In Brent Staples’ article about students’ cut-and-paste culture, teachers not only have become plagiarism cops, they also fret about the kids losing the ability to think in any but the most superficial way:

[A]s David Pritchard, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told [Staples] recently: “The big sleeping dog here is not the moral issue. The problem is that kids don’t learn if they don’t do the work.”

Prof. Pritchard and his colleagues illustrated the point in a study of cheating behavior by M.I.T. students who used an online system to complete homework. The students who were found to have copied the most answers from others started out with the same math and physics skills as their harder-working classmates. But by skipping the actual work in homework, they fell behind in understanding and became significantly more likely to fail.

This is M.I.T.! And the students aren’t remorseful. They grew up in a cut-and-paste culture, where putting together the bits you find on the net is the same as staking a position and writing a sustained, thoughtful argument. Believe me when I say I don’t understand half of the comments on many blogs. Not because there’s a generation gap. There’s a semantic, linguistic and contextual gap. Oftentimes I wonder, “What the f#@k do they mean?”

Hey, I like cutting and pasting, too. Finding primary sources and quotes on the net (as I did for this article) is a lot easier than combing through yellowed newspapers and randomly organized books and manila folders. (I’m describing my workspace.) But I don’t like my attenuated attention span, dumbed down to fit the frenzied, pop culture nature of the Internet. I have to write for the page view eyeballs. No Proust allowed.

As a sometime SAT/GRE/GMAT/LSAT tutor, it's amazing how many people can't pay attention for the length of time it takes to read a 1500 word essay, let alone write one. That's good for my side business, but bad for the world. Ain't gonna change, anyhow. Now we're biologically wired to get that dopamine rush in 15-second, 140 character spurts. Don't bode well 'tall.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


People wonder (not just me) how the deficit hawks took control of the narrative despite historical evidence (1937 dip), reasoned shouting from esteemed Nobel-prize winning economists and millions out of work for months or years, with no end in sight. Now there's a new talking point which may give the government cover to discontinue unemployment benefits. Never mind the human cost (who cares about that in Washington)? Unemployment insurance is proven to grease the economy because the money flows immediately into the economy.

A close examination of the Wall Street Journal’s article on the front page of yesterday’s edition, “Long Recession Ignites Debate on Job Benefits” shows how talking point propaganda spreads through an ostensibly objective news article. Rupert Murdoch spreads this through the vehicles he owns (the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, Investors Business Daily, Dow Jones, New York Post, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, etc., etc.).

It’s tricky to write such an article in a time of unprecedented long-term unemployment and permanent business constriction but the Journal always finds a way. In this post, I am bolding the sentences that contradicts the paragraph lead before it to show the logistics of building propaganda through the media.

The article leads with people turning their noses up at jobs because unemployment pays so well:

Management Recruiters of Sacramento, Calif., says it recently had a tough time filling six engineering positions at an Oregon manufacturer paying $60,000 a year—and suspects long-term jobless benefits were part of the hitch.

"We called several engineers that were unemployed," says Karl Dinse, a managing partner at the recruiting firm. "They said, nah, you know, if it were paying $80,000 I'd think about it." Some candidates suggested he call them back when their benefits were scheduled to run out, he says.

Further into the story, the first sentence of a paragraph mentions that “the government expanded unemployment payments more than at any time since the benefits were rolled out in the 1930s.” Then the writer mumbles the sentence, “And workers have gone jobless for longer than any time since official tallies began in 1967.”

You see the pattern? On an article that mentions that unemployment is unprecedented and unemployment insurance is one of the best ways to keep the economy afloat in a bad and sinking economy, the arrangement of semi-facts makes the reader believe that big government and its lavish payouts are stalling the economy.

Here’s another example of strategic placement and fact-tweaking:

A variety of studies suggest that adding another 53 weeks of benefits increases the time the average worker is jobless by between 4.2 and 10.6 weeks. The higher estimates are based on studies conducted decades ago when layoffs were often temporary; in this recession, many unemployed workers will never return to their old positions.

The lead sentence always proclaims that unemployment benefits are found to lengthen unemployment. Then the author sneaks in a disclaimer that disproves the party line.

The article even cites Lawrence Summer’s words from 1993 (during the Clinton era, when jobs were plentiful) that:

"[G]overnment assistance programs contribute to long-term providing an incentive, and the means, not to work." When an April Wall Street Journal editorial described his position, Mr. Summers (now Obama’s economic advisor) fired back in a letter to the editor: "In the wake of the worst economic crisis in eight decades...there can be no doubt that the overwhelming cause of unemployment is economic distress, not the existence of unemployment insurance."

Disclosure: I do not agree with Summer’s policies, particularly his position on infrastructure building during the creation of the stimulus nor his torpedoing of derivatives regulation.

In order for the Dems to fight this propaganda, they have to meet it forcefully with counter-propaganda. Call it the surge. Reverse the sentences in a story. Better yet, leave out the first sentence. How hard is that?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Who Are the Enemies of the State?

What about them Russian spies living under "Deep Cover" in the U.S.? Here with their anti-capitalist propaganda?

One of the spies was quoted in the first paragraph of the Wall Street Journal article on her treacherous ideology:

"The essence of capitalism is exploitation and permanent expansion to ensure profit growth and the power of mega-corporations…," Ms. Pelaez, a native of Peru, wrote in a 2007 column for El Diario La Prensa, a Spanish-language daily.

As we learned over the last 3 years (and counting), capitalism is the bestest! Particularly the form as practiced and exported in America, predatory capitalism, where a few monolithic financial firms (Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs) make extremely risky bets in DEEP COVER with no ability to pay if the bets go bad.

Some (Goldman Sachs, et al) of them even insure against the lousy bets and shake down the insurer (AIG) with aggressive collateral calls unmatched by any other AIG counterparty. Sometimes it even deliberately structures the bet in a lousy fashion and insures against default. Why not? It only has to put down a minuscule amount to hit big.

The government bailed out(and will continue to bail out: see Financial Reform Bill) these "Too Big To Fail" banks (what is that, a get out of jail free card?), asking nothing in return and offering the taxpayers the fiction that the banks will unfreeze credit and lend money to small companies and individuals again. But they don't.

Trillions pour from government coffers to these bank vaults and the execs skim both ways. They can't lose! And some financial firms have too much money:

Use it or lose it. That is the choice faced by some buyout firms sitting on piles of capital they have raised but not invested. The firms are unlikely to give it up without a fight.

A fund-raising arms race last decade was followed by a sharp slowdown in investments, leading levels of dry powder to surge. Such undeployed capital stood at a record $280 billion among U.S.-focused buyout firms at the end of 2009, according to research firm Preqin.

Once the oligarchs get theirs, the propaganda begins.

Teachers are overpaid and absent. Public employees are ripping us off. Why should they get pensions and not us? The top 1% stands back in amusement and watch the rest of us fight for the crumbs on the bottom.

During a time of record-high long-term unemployment and little hope for the future, the talk turns to deficit fears. Gotta cut the debt. Raise taxes and cut spending. So taxes are raised, regressively. On cigarettes and booze, never those making $1+ million. Do you think a millionaire gives a damn if the cost of his cigarettes goes up $3 a pack? He's lighting his Cubans with $100 bills.

Another way to look at it: Black & Platinum lottery cards for the poor and newly poor. Black & Platinum credit cards for the rich.

And people are dying:

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The weak economy is crippling the government program that provides life-sustaining antiretroviral drugs to people with H.I.V. or AIDS who cannot afford them. Nearly 1,800 have been relegated to rapidly expanding waiting lists that less than three years ago had dwindled to zero.

So I ask you again, who or what is destroying the social contract? Are we a government by the people and for the people?