Monday, December 28, 2009

Sifting the Sifts of 2009

Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you. -- Satchel Paige
All the 2009 Sift quotes are collected here.

In this week's Sift:
  • The Theme of the Year: Corporatism. This year I stopped thinking so much about liberals vs. conservatives and started framing the fundamental conflict more as people vs. corporations. That certainly made more sense out of how health care and global warming shook out. It also gives an answer to that frequently asked question: Why can't our side use the same tactics theirs does?
  • The Sifted Books of 2009. Do you ever find yourself thinking: "I know the Sift reviewed of a book about X, but I can't find it now." Here's the complete list from 2009, with links back to the original articles. Bonuses: Carlos Ruiz Zafon and how my Kindle is working out.
  • Short Notes. I never did figure out Afghanistan. I'm pleasantly surprised by the lack of major right-wing violence. Why history won't vindicate Bush. The most disappointing thing about Obama. And my growing disappointment with the Washington Post.

The Theme of the Year: Corporatism
Looking back through the year's Weekly Sifts, one theme pulls everything together: the dark influence of corporations. I've never been a big fan of corporate power and its ability to set our country's agenda, but as the year went on I got more and more radicalized. (The radical turn begins with Pioneers of Corporate Liberation in August.) At the beginning of the year I saw issues through a partisan political lens: I was a liberal and my goal was to battle the distortions that conservatives brought into the national debate. I saw this split as mostly economic: Conservatives represent the rich; liberals represent ordinary people.

Now I think that's only approximately true. The more important split is that liberals represent people while conservatives represent corporations. The rich tend to side with corporations against the rest of us, but that's just one of many human fault lines that corporations have managed to exploit. They also take advantage of our racial, religious, and social divisions. Corporations, for example, care not at all about abortion or gay rights -- but if politicians who stand for corporate power can use those issues get votes, that's wonderful for them.

That insight explains so many of the asymmetries in our political debate. Compared to people, corporations are few in number and their interests are simpler, so they are much easier to organize. We the people can only organize in public, through public institutions. So we need a trustworthy and reliable news media. We need that media to report the findings of an unbiased community of scientists and other experts. We need a transparent political process that identifies our common interests, empowers leaders to take action on our behalf, and holds those leaders accountable for their actions. Otherwise, collectively we have a very hard time figuring out what is true and what we can or should do about it.

Corporations don't need any of that. They hire their own experts to find out the information they need. They strategize behind closed doors. They hire lobbyists to deal directly with politicians and bureaucrats. The more secrecy, the better.

And so corporations don't need to control public institutions, they just need to make them unreliable. If politics becomes one gang of sleazeballs against another gang of sleazeballs -- that's good for them. If the scientific community obfuscates issues instead of clarifying them -- that's good for them. If the news media just repeats the competing lies of each side, without any attempt to find the truth -- that's good for them. If you wouldn't trust the media even if it did tell you the truth -- that's even better.

Again and again people ask me: Why can't our side use the same tricks the other side does? Why did Obama have to fend off scurrilous rumors but McCain didn't (except when he ran against Bush)? Why can't we have a propaganda network like Fox News? Why can they raise phony issues like death panels and voter fraud, but we can't? Why can they threaten to break all the traditions of the Senate, but we can't? When do we get to swiftboat somebody?

We don't. If we do, we've made a serious mistake, because we need public institutions to work. We need the truth to come out and to be trusted when it does. We need people to trust each other enough to take common action on issues of common concern. The corporations don't need that, so they can play by a different set of rules.

This year you didn't have to look very hard to find issues where corporatism was at work. It played a role in everything, as it always does, but it was particularly obvious in health care and climate change.

Health Care. This was an issue just about all year, and I consistently tried to do two things: Assemble real evidence about how bad our health-care system is, and fact-check the incredible stream of lies and nonsense that was put out against the various versions of the health-care bill.

Health-insurance companies, drug companies, and for-profit hospital chains make billions each year from the current system, so it stands to reason that they would put up a fight if those billions seemed endangered. The insurance companies in particular had to worry, because they are basically parasites; they fill a bookkeeping role that (even if they did it well, which they typically don't) wouldn't be worth what they're paid. So there was money aplenty to create reports, influence politicians, fund astroturf groups to organize and publicize protests, and in general influence the public debate in all the ways rich corporations can.

Corporate shills excel in fogging up an issue, so it was rare to hear a clean framing of the problem: Americans who get sick should receive medical care, and they shouldn't have to go bankrupt paying for it. I kept calling attention to two statistics: Health-care expenses play a role in about a million bankruptcies each year (compared to zero is, say, France), and among people without health insurance there are 45,000 more deaths each year than you would otherwise expect.

I debunked the jingoistic claim that we have the best health-care system in the world by pointing to the large-scale statistics: We spend almost twice as much per person on health care as people in other wealthy countries, and we don't live as long. But strangely, we do start living as long after we get under Medicare's umbrella. Our life expectancy after age 65 is not bad. So socialized medicine works. It works in other countries (where people live longer at less cost) and it works here when we try it (Medicare).

In a well-functioning democracy with a people-centered (rather than corporate-centered) news media, we might have had a real debate about expanding Medicare into a single-payer system for everybody. Did we? No. Instead we were bombarded with horror stories about Britain and Canada, whose health-care systems overall are far superior to ours. Again and again, people who thought socialized medicine was evil didn't realize that Medicare is socialized medicine.

Medicare-for-everybody would leave the health insurance companies with no role, so it was off the table from Day One. The next best idea was a public option, a government-run insurance operation that would compete with private health-care companies the way that the TVA competes with private power companies. The public option consistently polled well, but it got whittled down every time a decision got made, and was finally axed completely to get Joe Lieberman's vote in the Senate.

On the whole, the health-care package passed by the Senate will cover more people and save lives. But the health insurance companies are winners too, and they win at our expense.

Global Warming. Among climate scientists who are not funded by oil corporations or right-wing think tanks (who get their money from a variety of corporations and billionaires who identify with corporations), these facts are almost universally accepted:
  • The Earth is getting warmer.
  • Increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the major cause of that warming.
  • Human action -- particularly the burning of fossil fuels -- is responsible for the build-up of greenhouse gases.
  • The warming process is going to continue.
  • The long-term results could be catastrophic.
But if you're a fossil-fuel-producing corporation or a fossil-fuel-burning power company, reducing carbon emissions will torpedo billions in future profits. In general, if you are currently sitting on a spigot of money, political and economic change looks more threatening than climate change -- and you have that spigot of money to spend to stop it.

So money from corporations like Exxon-Mobil funds "research" by "scientists" who publish in "journals". All the forms of science are imitated, but it's not science at all -- because the results are dictated by the money, not the data. The "research" is always going to say that global warming is uncertain. (All science is uncertain, especially if you don't want to believe it. No one can absolutely prove that the laws of the universe won't be completely different tomorrow morning.) 

And the same money funds political think tanks to say that because global warming is uncertain, nothing should be done yet. And (through advertising) it funds news outlets, so no matter how obvious the information-laundering process is, the media will write he-said/she-said articles quoting a few corporate-shill "scientists" as if they were equal to the larger mass of actual scientists. (Any reporter attempting to determine what is true will be smeared as demonstrating "liberal media bias".) And it funds politicians who repeat the talking points of think tanks and the media outlets, and vote to do nothing.

Occasionally, this machine may go on offense, as it did when it ginned up the phony "Climategate" scandal just in time to push the Copenhagen talks off the front pages.

I summarized the flaws in some of the major anti-global-warming arguments in February. And I debunked Climategate here and here. But fact-checking and debunking will never be enough, because it only takes a few minutes to make up new misinformation that requires hours of investigation to disprove. As one scientist put it:
At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I've seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it's not worth my time to look into it?

Sifted Books of 2009
Near the end of The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon recalls "inhaling the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books." From the beginning, I've mentioned new books that were relevant to some current issue, but last year I started an occasional "The Next Time You're at the Bookstore ..." feature to highlight books, new and old, that you might want to read.

Before I list and link to this year's sifted books, The Shadow of the Wind itself deserves mention. Ruiz Zafon (filed under R) is a Spanish writer whose novels are engaging throwbacks to the 19th century. In the age of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, serious authors could get away with writing larger-than-life characters in larger-than-life plots. Now you either have to be gritty and realistic, ironically over-the-top like Thomas Pynchon, or consign yourself to the lower rank of genre authors like Stephen King or William Gibson. Some of the best  21st-century writers (Michael Chabon, Neal Stephenson) disguised their work as genre novels.

I don't know what court he had to apply to, but Ruiz Zafon has gotten a waiver from this rule. His two novels (The Angel's Game has just been translated) are clearly serious literature, but they are also filled with one-true-loves and capital-D Destiny and characters who may or may not be the Devil. Early 20th-century Barcelona (the site of both novels) is brighter and darker and more romantic than any actual city has ever been -- and it sits over the labyrinthine Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a sort of book-lover's catacombs. I can't think of anyone since Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ) who has pulled off anything like this.

Another book-related topic was the Kindle. I got one at the end of February, told you about it on March 2, and then did a six-month retrospective on August 31. The gist: It works, I use it a lot, and I enjoy using it, but it hasn't completely replaced paper books for me. The biggest change has been in how I acquire books. I used to make a lot of spur-of-the-moment purchases at book stores. Now, I know I can get what I want whenever I want it, so I'm more disciplined about only buying what I want to read right now. Unexpectedly, that disciplined approach means that I've been reading a lot more library books -- the library is where my spur-of-the-moment pick-ups happen now. That, more than the cheaper price of Kindle e-books, is why I've probably saved enough on books to pay for the Kindle.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are the books I've reviewed in the Sift this year:

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough. Geoffrey Canada is a veteran black educator and social activist who is making a demonstration project out of a chunk of Harlem. He thinks he finally understands why rich white kids grow up smarter than poor black kids, and he thinks he can do something about it. In another ten years or so, we might have positive proof that you can change the ghetto rather than just pull a few kids out of it.

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. The beginning of the Red/Blue divide is Richard Nixon. He understood the force of white working class resentment, and how it could be channeled into conservative politics -- even conservative politics that worked against the white working class. Thomas Franks' What's the Matter With Kansas? described a condition; Nixonland explains how it came about.

The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen. Kilcullen is the Australian guru of counter-insurgency (or COIN as the military calls it). The key COIN insight is that you win an insurgency by protecting the people, not by killing the bad guys. My favorite Kilcullen saying is that you should only fight the enemy when he gets in your way. The "accidental guerrilla" of the title is a guy who didn't have to be your enemy, he just comes to believe that you are a threat to his home and family.

The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric Beinhocker. Classical economics is based on a number of simplifying assumptions that aren't true, but they make the mathematics work out: the efficiency of the market, the perfect knowledge of all the market participants, and so on. Economists typically act as if these simplifying assumptions make no real difference in the long run, but increasingly it looks like they do. Beinhocker's book is about the reasons we have to believe that, and what might work instead.

The Dark Side by Jane Mayer. Jane Mayer was the New Yorker reporter who covered torture and civil liberties issues. The Dark Side puts a larger narrative around the various abuses like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. Update Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with some insights from 1970s Marxist writer Harry Braverman, and you've got this protest against the prolertarianization of knowledge workers. Maybe working with your hands isn't such a bad idea after all.

Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels. Michaels looks at a number of industries where the same pattern played out: Anecdotal evidence that workers or customers were being harmed or even killed was initially suppressed, and when it couldn't be ignored any more, the problem was studied ad infinitum. Industry can pay experts to create doubt, and no quantity of evidence will ever be enough to prove that they should clean up their processes. These techniques started with the tobacco companies, but are now universal.

Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru. It reads like an action novel, but it's not. A Washington Post reporter gets himself embedded with the most slipshod group of mercenaries in Iraq. It had to end badly, and it does. But along the way you get a lot of insight into the whole mercenary phenomenon.

How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan. Aslan is a liberal American Muslim of Iranian descent. The title is misleading: He thinks you can't win a cosmic war. If we frame the War on Terror as our-god-versus-their-god, nobody wins. This book makes a good companion to The Accidental Guerrilla.

In Late Summer ReadingA Last Blast of Summer Reading, and a note under my Big Boy Rules article I discussed some lighter, more entertaining fare:
  • The historical novels of David LIss, specifically The Coffee Trader and The Whiskey Rebels. Since then a new one has come out: The Devil's Company, which the flap says is about the British East India Company and the birth of the modern corporation.
  • The Echo Falls teen mystery series by Peter Abrahams, beginning with Down the Rabbit Hole. Since then I've started reading his suspense novels for grown-ups. He's another of those good writers hiding inside a genre -- or two genres now. Oblivion is a good place to start on his adult novels.
  • The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose. Roose was a liberal student from Brown who decided that rather than spend a semester abroad, he'd go somewhere really foreign -- Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
  • Holy Hullabaloos by Jay Wexler. Wexler is a Boston University law professor who came up with an interesting device for making his specialty -- church-and-state law -- interesting. He went on a road trip to the sites of the major cases.
  • Anything by Lee Child. He writes action/mystery novels whose hero is an ex-military-police drifter named Jack Reacher. I got a Kindle version of one novel free, then took the next dozen out of the library in quick succession. If Tom Clancy had Stephen King's talent, he'd be Lee Child.

Short Notes
I never did figure out what we ought to do in Afghanistan.

The right-wing violence I warned about here and here still hasn't happened yet, at least not to any major extent. The initial surge of violent threats against President Obama has settled down, at least for now.
Bushies like to claim that history will vindicate them. Could that happen? In January I explained how historical re-assessment works, and why Bush is a poor candidate for it. In a nutshell, the perspective of history often changes the relative importance of an administration's successes and failures, but it doesn't turn failures into successes or vice versa. Bush didn't leave future historians any successes to re-evaluate.
The year's biggest disappointment was Obama's lack of action to restore the civil liberties that Bush took away. In February I gave my initial impressions of where Obama was going and summarized the state of this issue in October. 

In a country that took the rule of law seriously, we wouldn't just be talking about rolling back Bush's illegal measures (like torture and warrantless wiretapping), we'd be prosecuting the people who designed and implemented them, including Bush himself. Whenever this notion comes up in the mainstream media, it is dismissed as something wild and radical, when it is actually just a plain reading of the law. Even if you believe that the extraordinary circumstances of 9/11 justified the illegal measures -- I don't -- this isn't the right way to let people off the hook. That decision properly belongs to a jury.
Another subplot of this year's Sifts was my increasing disenchantment with the Washington Post. As science blogger Tim Lambert put it: "The Washington Post simply does not care about the accuracy of the columns it publishes."


PBH said...

Great article. You should read Tony Judt on the devolution of Western Democracies, in large part due to the rise of predatory capitalism:

Or, in summation, "This "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean great and most universal cause of
the corruption of our moral sentiments." Those are not my words. They were written by Adam Smith, who regarded the likelihood that we would come to admire wealth and despise poverty, admire success and scorn failure, as the greatest risk facing us in the commercial society whose advent he predicted. It is now upon us."

MonkeyMuffins said...

You're gettin' there, keep working at it and you should eventually arrive at the more important, fundamental conflict which was recently incisively described by George Monbiot:

"Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battlelines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments, and those who believe that we must live within limits. The vicious battles we have seen so far between greens and climate change deniers, road safety campaigners and speed freaks, real grassroots groups and corporate-sponsored astroturfers are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands."
- This Is About Us

But you need to understand our cultural myth of Infinite Growth On A Finite Planet before you can fully grasp this hidden-in-plain-sight truth.

We are--economically and ecologically--hitting the inevitable wall of Limits To Growth.

But this is infinitely harder for people to perceive, understand and accept.

stoutfellow said...

Agreed on Shadow of the Wind. What I most appreciated was the author's ability to adapt most of the tropes of 19th century Gothic to a 20th century context. You've got your decayed aristocratic family, your decrepit manor, your horribly disfigured mystery-man... there's even an Inquisitor, of sorts. I'll be picking up the other volume next chance I get. (It was only available in Spanish, last time I looked, and my once-decent command of that language has deteriorated during my years in Illinois....)

R J Keefe said...

Bravo! Rich people like corporations for an existential reason: granted personhood by a Supreme Court decision in the 1880s, the modern corporation hugely leverages the power of a handful of corporate leaders.

The corporation itself is simply an Iron Man suit. The guy inside may be a citizen just like you and me, but he is orders of magntitude more powerful.

Goodkind said...

It's not hard to defeat corporatism. Here is what *must* be done:

In this interview ( ), in part 2, Paul Jay (obviously the more honest and focused of the two) refers to it as a "war out there". He's using a metaphor, and it's the right one to use.