Monday, October 18, 2010

Wolf Liberation

Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.

-- Isaiah Berlin

In this week's Sift:

  • What Money Buys. The flood of special-interest money coming into our political process doesn't just buy ads. It buys whole movements.
  • The Sift Bookshelf: Merchants of Doubt. A new book looks at the small group of scientists who have spear-headed most of the science-obfuscating crusades of the last few decades, from secondhand smoke to global warming.
  • Short Notes. Not even Fox can get a straight answer out of Carly Fiorina. Diagnosing God. Cancer-free mummies. Corporate privacy rights. Why the Chilean miners might not thank free-market capitalism for their rescue. And gay-bashing at the Washington Post.

What Money Buys

The Democrats are trying to make a late issue out of the anonymous money flowing from corporations and billionaires (and even foreign countries) to front groups that support Republican candidates. I think it's an important issue; I've been banging that drum myself longer than most people. (Rachel Maddow's takedown of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Thursday was excellent. The Chamber takes donations from foreign corporations, supports American corporations sending jobs overseas, and then spends $75 million on ads that blame Democrats for killing jobs.)

While this problem is starting to get some attention, I still don't think many people understand what outside money buys in politics. Of course it buys ads -- something like half a billion dollars worth of ads this year, according to McClatchey Newspapers. But even that doesn't capture the problem, because you can watch a lot of "Jones is a schmuck; vote for Smith" ads and still blacken the oval for Jones. No amount of advertising, for example, is going to make Delaware put Christine O'Donnell in the Senate. (She trails by 15-20% in all the recent polls.)

But well-organized money buys something more sinister: control of the public narrative. For example, we all know the narrative that the Tea Party has put forward since it first hit the headlines in Spring, 2009: The policies Obama implemented when he took office were so shockingly radical and leftist that crowds of ordinary Americans -- mostly independents who had never identified with one party or the other -- spontaneously found themselves organizing to protest.

Pretty much every part of that story is false. You want to know where the Tea Party folks were in 2008? Check out this video of people waiting to get into a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio or Pennsylvania, or this McCain rally in Denver, or Ohio again. It's the same people -- white, mostly over 50, angry -- saying the same things: Obama's a communist, a terrorist, a Muslim, a "wolf in sheep's clothing". They have the same insensitivity to racial symbolism. Blur out the McCain signs and you would never know these videos are two years old. It's the Tea Party.

So the Tea Party is continuous with disgruntled McCain voters, particularly the ones energized by Sarah Palin. They were never independent; they backed a candidate who lost by a wide margin. They are not typical, mainstream Americans; the candidate who most energized them appears to have had an unusually large negative effect on her ticket in 2008. (Post-election academic research indicates that Palin cost McCain about 2% of the vote; most VP candidates have almost no net effect on the final vote. And a poll taken this month indicates that only 44% of Republicans have a favorable view of Palin, with her national favorability rating at 22% -- about half the size of Obama's.)

Tea Partiers were not shocked into action by the agenda Obama implemented when he took office. The videos show that they had the same opinion of him before he was elected. And what are these shocking leftist policies? A health-care reform bill that resembles Mitt Romney's plan in Massachusetts, a climate-change bill similar to one John McCain sponsored in 2003 and was still supporting when I saw him campaign in New Hampshire in late 2007, implementation of George W. Bush's TARP plan. He has continued Bush's wars and started no new ones. The U.S. has suffered no major terrorist attacks or serious foreign policies reverses on his watch. (By this time in the Bush administration, 9-11 had already happened.) In short, Obama has governed as a moderate Democrat. His agenda has been a compromise between the Democratic platform and policies continued from the Bush administration.

Then we come to the "spontaneously organized" claim. No one denies that the people who show up for Tea Party rallies are a voluntary and enthusiastic audience. But they are and always have been an audience for a show written and performed by someone else. The right comparison is not the Boston Tea Party, it's the Rocky Horror Picture Show: Dress up in funny costumes, make a lot of noise, act out when you get your cues -- but only in your imagination are you part of the movie.

The Tea Party has never been a bottom-up, pass-the-hat movement. From the beginning, the tab has been picked up by corporations and billionaires. Incalculable amounts of free advertising and organizing has been supplied by Fox News, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdock's News Corporation. National organizing and messaging, as well as education of local organizers, has been the job of corporate funded lobbying groups like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity.

That's what money will buy you: A disgruntled lunatic fringe of sore losers from one election can be turned into the driving story of the next election. And that story can shut down entire avenues of public discussion: We're not talking about the gap between rich and poor, doing something about global warming, trying to get health coverage for the people who still fall through the cracks of the new bill, ending the Afghan War, or any similar issue -- even though there are as many or more Americans who care about those issues as their are Tea Partiers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's ads are all the more effective because many people confuse the U.S. Chamber, which is dominated by mega-corporations, with their local shops-on-Main-Street Chamber of Commerce. The two often have no connection at all.

Sunday, my local newspaper, the Nashua Telegraph, reported that the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Hudson is not going to be renewing its membership in the U.S. Chamber because it wants to stay non-partisan. The Nashua Chamber hasn't had a national membership "for many years."

Tim Wise's essay came out last summer, but the question is still worth asking: What if the Tea Party were black? The music video is pretty good too.

The Sift Bookshelf: Merchants of Doubt

Last year I told you about the book Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels. Michaels was writing about what corporations do when they face one of those unfortunate situations that sometimes come up in a modern economy: They discover that one of their major sources of profit is killing people -- workers, customers, the people who live downstream from the factory, or somebody like that.

Now, when you imagine being in that boardroom yourself, you probably think something foolish, like: "Let's stop killing people. We can shut down the factory, pull the product off the shelves, and warn everybody involved that they need to see a doctor right away."

Whoa, there, Galahad. Don't go all Mother Theresa on us. We're talking about money here. Profits. Don't be selfish and give the company away just to stroke your over-pampered conscience. We've got a moral obligation to our stockholders to keep those profits flowing as long as we possibly can.

And there's a way. The tobacco industry blazed a trail, and now there's a whole industry of PR firms and think tanks and "research" institutes that will obfuscate any issue you want. They'll get "scientists" to say that the case against your product is still controversial. And that looks fabulous on TV, because it forces the real scientists to argue that there's not really an argument. (They look so arrogant when they do that. The viewers have just seen somebody with a Ph.D. take the other side. And then some guy who's spent his whole life in a laboratory and never appeared on TV before tries to tell them that the scientific debate is over and it's time for action. It's like, "Don't believe your lying eyes. The debate is over when I say it's over.")

No matter how bad your product is -- it can't be worse than asbestos, can it? -- you can argue that more research is needed to resolve the "controversy" before the government regulates anything. Then your lobbyists can get those regulations watered down before they go into effect, and if somebody tries to put teeth into the regulations later, it starts the whole cycle again: Your "scientists" say that the toothless regulations solved the problem, and where's the proof that they're wrong? It's a whole new "controversy".

This game can go on for half a century or more. And maybe someday the heirs of the people you killed will end up winning a lawsuit and owning a big chunk of the company -- that's what happened in asbestos -- but it probably won't come to that, and in the meantime the company has paid decades of dividends and executive salaries. Nobody's ever going to get that money back.

See, that's how it's done. Now don't you feel silly for making that stupid suggestion that we should just stop killing people? Don't be such a baby next time.

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway tells a different piece of the same story. Michaels is a government guy (currently an assistant secretary of labor), so his book focuses on the regulatory process and the industry designed to manipulate and defeat it. Oreskes and Conway are historians who specialize in the history of science and technology, so Merchants is more about the scientific community and the handful of scientists who work to subvert it.

By following the PR firms, Michaels' trip goes from one product-liability issue to the next: tobacco, asbestos, leaded gasoline, and so on up to my favorite chapter where Republicans unite in the Senate to defeat regulation of a deadly additive for making butter-flavored microwave popcorn. (Clearly the economy would collapse if we had to do without butter-flavored microwave popcorn.)

Oreskes and Conway follow a handful of industry-shill scientists through a somewhat different path that starts in defense, and then goes from tobacco through a series of public debates that are mostly environmental: nuclear winter, acid rain, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, global warming, and finally the posthumous smear of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson.

The tactics evolve and get darker as time goes by. What begins as an attempt to blow smoke (so to speak) about the tobacco-and-cancer link ultimately becomes an all-out assault on the integrity of science. Decades ago, anti-tobacco scientists were mainly portrayed as over-zealous -- too quick to claim certainty when the science wasn't 100% clear. Today's climate scientists, however, are smeared as evil: They are supposedly part of a sinister conspiracy that aims to take control of the world economy via a scientific hoax about global warming. The scientific community as a whole is routinely portrayed as a special interest -- not people trying to solve problems and find truth, but conspiring to gain power and influence for their (mainly socialist) political views.

The mystery is why legitimate scientists (and the people Oreskes and Conway track were almost all legit at one time) would get involved in this.The corporate money and the attention you can get by being in the middle of a public debate would be enough motivation for some people, but that's not the conclusion Oreskes and Conway come to. They tell the story this way:

Why did this group of Cold Warriors turn against the very science to which they had previously dedicated their lives? … they were working to "secure the blessings of liberty". If science was being used against those blessings -- in ways that challenged the freedom of free enterprise -- then they would fight it as they would fight any enemy. … Each of the environmental threats we've discussed in this book was a market failure, a domain in the which the free market had created serious "neighborhood" effects. … To address them, governments would have to step in with regulations, in some case very significant ones, to remedy the market failure. And this was precisely what these men most feared and loathed, for they viewed regulation as the slippery slope to Socialism, a form of creeping Communism.

Sadly, what is being defended here is wolf-freedom, not lamb-freedom. It's freedom to be a predator and do damage rather than freedom to romp through the unblemished fields, breathe clean air, and drink from the lake with confidence.

To me, the nuclear winter debate seems pivotal. Scientists had been involved in liberal causes before -- Linus Pauling, for example, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 by organizing scientists around the world to push for a nuclear test-ban treaty. But never before had a scientific argument been so central to the issue. If the nuclear winter hypothesis is true, winning a nuclear war is impossible because winners and losers alike will be swept up in the global environmental catastrophe that follows.

That issue was a bridge from defense issues to environmental issues. The political sides that formed there were ready to take up the ozone hole and other subsequent environmental issues.

By today, the attack on science and the scientific community has become a common cause uniting the various factions of the political Right. Christian groups are pushing a variety of pseudo-scientific causes, from creationism to the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education to abortion as a cause of breast cancer. Libertarians will argue against the existence of any global environmental problem, because such problems have no free-market solutions. And of course corporations will fund bogus institutes and journals to "prove" that their products are not really killing people. Anti-science fits in well with the Tea Party crusade against "elitism" -- where the "elite" are not the billionaires or the bankers, they're the people who know things you wouldn't understand.

And that, I think, is going to be the hardest nut to crack. Expertise by its nature is anti-democratic. On scientific issues, the opinions that should matter are the opinions of the scientists who have spent their careers working on this stuff -- and they are a mostly self-selected and self-validating group. A high-tech society can only survive as a democracy if the people are able to figure out which experts to trust. And that's getting harder and harder to do as the techniques of obfuscation get better developed and better financed.

You've probably heard the claim that global warming might just be due to the Sun rather than anything humans have done. The Sun might be hotter for some reason like the sunspot cycle or something.

It turns out that was all studied and resolved about 15 years ago. It turns out the Earth would be warming differently if the Sun were the cause. If the Sun were the cause, all the layers of the atmosphere would be heating up as the solar energy passed through them on its way to us. But if greenhouse gases cause warming by trapping heat in the lower levels of the atmosphere, then the lower levels of the atmosphere should be warming while the upper levels are cooling.

That's what's happening: the lower levels of the atmosphere are warming while the upper layers are cooling. So we know -- and have known for 15 years -- that the cause of global warming is not the Sun. (Don't feel bad if you didn't know this; I didn't either until I read the first chapter of this book.)

This is a common pattern, something to watch out for. When somebody claims that they have an explanation that the scientific community refuses to consider, often it turns out that the scientific community had this conversation a long time ago and it's over now. The biggest example of that type is the creation/evolution "controversy". It's not that scientists rejected creationism out of hand. The creation/evolution question was a scientific controversy in the 19th century, but evolution won that argument more than 100 years ago and there has been no scientific reason to reopen the discussion since then.

Short Notes

Sometimes candidates are so evasive that even Fox News people start to act like journalists. Here, Chris Wallace gets frustrated that he can't get a straight answer from Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina about where to find the spending cuts to balance extending the Bush tax cuts.

How did I not notice this myself? The Onion News Network reports that God has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It explains so much.

A study of Egyptian mummies shows that cancer was almost non-existent in ancient Egypt. Dr. Michael Zimmerman of the University of Manchester (UK) concludes:

The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialisation.

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick explains how privacy rights are decreasing for people but increasing for corporations:

It used to be the case that embarrassment, harassment, and stigma were the best check against corporate wrongdoing. But that was before corporations had feelings.

The Wall Street Journal's Dan Henninger announced: "The rescue of the Chilean miners is a smashing victory for free-market capitalism."

Seriously? His reasoning, such as it is, is that the miners were rescued using cool new equipment developed and built by for-profit companies. In the parallel regulated-capitalism universe, we all know, there is no technological change or quality manufacturing. And government could never have invented anything as high-tech as the Internet or space travel or nuclear power, so specialized drill bits are out of the question.

Bill Black of New Deal 2.0 gives the obvious counter-argument: Free-market capitalism is why those miners were down there needing rescue in the first place.

A $25 ladder apparently would have prevented the tragedy, but the private owners' profit motive led them to avoid that expense.

The Washington Post hits a new low. It's "On Faith" feature gives a platform for Family Research Council President Tony Perkins to spew misinformation about homosexuality. Media Matters responds.

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1 comment:

Dan Hadan said...

It's always a joy to read your blog and be reminded (and perhaps even comforted, now that I think about it) that there are still reasonable people around, who can articulate a thought and who know the difference between dialog, debate and discussion. Thanks!