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In recent days, I've been barraged by friends back on Mars inquiring about what psychological effects the recent spate of tornadoes in the South and Midwest United States must have on the humans there. Their interest got me to thinking, and I suddenly had an insight, which I'm sure has brightened the intellectual glow of many beings (both Martian and human) before me.
The insight encompasses the sociological effects of hurricanes as well, since the two devastating natural phenomena share some common traits... the most obvious being those furiously spinning wind and clouds.
My Martian theory also explains why tornadoes and hurricanes affect humans in ways that volcanoes, tsunamies, and earthquakes do not.
For brevity in the following paragraphs, I'm using the term "Recurring Events of Mass Destruction" (REMD) to refer to tornadoes and hurricanes, and the term "Unpredictable Events of Mass Destruction" (UEMD) to refer to volanoes, tsunamies, and earthquakes.
REMD. The distinguishing characteristics of REMD include:
- They happen every year.
- Though their frequency and severity vary from year to year, their geographical incidence is constant and encompasses huge areas of the country.
- Though you know they'll occur every year, you have no idea where exactly they'll strike.
- When they do strike, they invariably cause severe damage at the strike site.
UEMD. The distinguishing characters of these include:
- They happen whenever. Completely unpredictable.
- Most of the time, their effect on human life and property is minimal. Catastrophic events do occur, but their incidence is rare compared with REMD.
- The geographic range is much more limited and static than for REMD. Only a few States are affected by UEMD.
These widely differing attributes lead me to theorize the following psychological effects on humans who live in areas prone to REMD.
|Dread||The certainty of mass destruction lowers an unconscious web of dread on REMD people. Ongoing dread bends the psyche toward irrational fear of the unknown, as well as paranoia.|
|Envy and Schadenfreude||Although humans like to think otherwise, those who live in an area where one's town can be devastated while a town close by goes unscathed invariably feel envy when this occurs. Likewise, those in the spared town will feel the opposite—schadenfreude. Although this affects victims of UEMD too, the sociological effect is lessened by the lower incidence and narrower geographical confines of UEMD. Over time, envy and schadenfreude become ingrained in a community's collective psyche.|
|The widespread and continuous feelings of envy and schadenfreude can heighten suspicion of "outsiders" and lead to an intolerant, parochial view of the world. It can also make humans more stingy towards those beyond their immediate community. These people are more likely to adopt the philosophy, "Every Man For Himself," and they become incapable of seeing "beyond their own back yard" in terms of understanding people different from themselves.|
|Religiousness||Throughout human history, people have been driven to religion to explain natural phenomena—both good and bad. If REMD are caused by God, then perhaps fear, dedication and prayer to God will help. Religion in REMD areas would therefore be expected to emphasize the fear factor of God, as well as a greater awareness of God's opposite—Satan, Evil.|
People living with UEMD are also affected by these feelings, but to a much lesser degree. Because of the infrequency and lack of predictable recurrence of UEMD, the emotions do not grip entire communities or regions. The primary psychological effect on humans of UEMD is a sort of Stoic Fatalism, which can be summed up in the philosophy "What Will Be Will Be." Stoicism tends to make humans more tolerant of others and more broad-minded about ideas.
Given these characteristics, it's now worth mapping their effects geographically, in order to see how the incidence of tornadoes correlates with the incidence of humans with those characteristics. Since the psychological makeup of Republican (conservative) humans aligns pretty well with the attitudes of those prone to REMD, I am using voting patterns as a proxy for sociological differences between areas affected by REMD and UEMD. The maps below adopt the paradigm of "blue" and "red" States to view the correlation.
Notes: The data in Map 1 are derived from statistics published by NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, and cover the 5 years from 2000-2004 . To improve focus, it doesn't show incidence numbers lower than 10. The number of States of a particular color on Map 1 is the same as the corresponding number Map 2 (Source: Wikipedia Commons).
This is the color legend for Map 2:
- The Republican candidate carried the State in the last four presidential elections (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008)
- The Republican candidate carried the State in three of the four most recent elections.
- The Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate each carried the State in two of the four most recent elections.
- The Democratic candidate carried the state in three of the four most recent elections.
- The Democratic candidate carried the state in all four most recent elections.
Although not a perfect predictor, tornado frequency correlates pretty closely with election results: The States that lie in the tornado "alleys" of the South and Midwest are almost all populated by Republican-leaning voters.
I should stress that this theory does not postulate that tornadoes are the sole predictor of a State's sociological makeup. For example, the characteristics this theory predicts for humans in REMD areas are also found in small-town and rural areas, which are heavily populated by parochial and intolerant humans. Red States that do not correlate with the tornado data but whose population predominantly lives in small towns and rural areas include Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska.
Among the blue States, the biggest outlier is Illinois, which maps as solid red in tornado frequency but solid blue in voting pattern. Though this result seems surprising—as well as contradictory to my theory—it can be explained by noting that the incidence of tornadoes is primarily in the southern part of the State, which is also heavily Republican and has long considered itself part of the South.
It's worth noting that many of the red and pink States on the third map are also those that suffer the most REMD by hurricanes—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Adding hurricanes to the tornado data above would undoubtedly also turn North Carolina red.
And this, my fellow Martians, is my explanation of how tornadoes affect the sociology of the human populations they afflict.
One of the truly bewildering traits of human beings is their ability—and even carefree willingness—to ignore facts that conflict with their current worldview. I touched on this topic in an earlier article, and find it manifested in numerous ways in this most viciously anti-rational political climate.
This article looks at data for a timely topic that's a favorite target for fact distortion: Has the U.S. Federal Government workforce grown too large, or not?
The "Tea Party" politicians, in particular, appear to be masters at the art of selling people willful ignorance, perhaps partly because they themselves drink from that cup religiously. Among the false ideas they consider common knowledge is the idea that the Federal workforce needs to be cut—presumably because it, like the Government as a whole, has grown too big. While they're at it, they'd also like to make sure Federal employees don't have a benefits package better than members of their own congregation do.
Recently, a Republican from Texas, Rep. Kevin Brady, submitted a legislative proposal to cut the Federal workforce by 10 percent. According to a Washington Post article, Brady's reasoning goes like this:
There's not a business in America that's survived this recession without right-sizing its workforce, without having to become more productive with fewer workers. The federal government can't be the exception. We're going to have to find a way to serve our constituents and our taxpayers better and quicker and more accurately with fewer workers. I'm convinced we can do it and we don't have a choice.
Including its overall premise, Brady's short statement includes several fallacies, and on Mars we find it alarming to realize that this guy is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Where I come from, those are pretty big britches! When someone with authority over such enormously important Government functions gets his facts wrong, one has to wonder whether he is deliberately lying for political reasons, or whether he's maliciously failing to determine the facts—instead shaping them to fit his policy goals.
On Mars, such behavior is almost unheard of. When I first revealed it, my fellow Martians had trouble believing that sentient beings could behave this way. And even if someone were to deliberately distort reality, surely Earth's legal systems would be constructed to punish the act.
Apparently, however, this behavior is not only tolerated, it's rewarded by the mere awareness that it's tolerated. After all, if a lie—or deliberate ignorance—by someone in authority isn't challenged, it clearly achieves its purpose. And achieving one's purpose obviously counts as a success. (On Mars, we believe that this is one of the perverse lessons Americans learned from President Richard Nixon's downfall: If you're going to lie, cheat, embezzle, or otherwise commit illegal acts, be sure you aren't caught doing so.)
So, what fallacies does Mr. Brady disseminate in his statement? Here are two obvious ones:
- "There's not a business in America that's survived this recession without right-sizing its workforce." How can this be true? Clearly, as has always been the case, the economic downturn produces not only losers, but winners as well. Yes, the losers will have had to lay off workers, hence the rise in unemployment. But companies in growth sectors will not have done so, and they may even have continued to expand. In this downturn, for example, employment in the oil mining industry increased from 143,000 to 159,000 from 2007 to 2009. A better example is the computer services sector, where employers added 400,000 jobs.
- "The federal government can't be the exception." Someone like Brady who is in charge of National economic policy undoubtedly understands that reducing employment in the Federal sector is never a good thing during a period of slow economic growth. Even economists who aren't sold onKeynesian economics realize that the Federal Government should remain a stable economic player during times like this. Stating otherwise must be a deliberate deception.
That leaves the notion that the U.S. Government must "right-size" its workforce in order to "become more productive with fewer workers." First of all, what does "right-sizing" a workforce mean? If you read Wikipedia's article on the subject, you come away believing that "right-sizing" is merely a euphemism for "layoffs" or "downsizing."
Some dictionaries, on the other hand, suggest there's a nuance to the term that differentiates it from "layoffs." Webster's, for example, defines the term as follows:
To reduce (as a workforce) to an optimal size
"Right-sizing" (or "rightsizing") is a term first uttered on Earth in 1989, when it was really just jargon to justify the downsizing that became de rigeur during the waning years of the first Bush administration. One of the main reasons companies downsize is that their workforce has bulged after a major merger with or acquisition of another company. And as you may recall, starting in the 1980s corporations did a heckuva lot of merging and acquiring. For awhile, even "rollups" where all the rage on Wall Street.
After a merger or major acquisition, it's pretty standard to eliminate inherited workers who do redundant tasks, or those who have a record of poor performance. Companies who downsize for any other reason do so because they're performing poorly, as measured by revenue and profits. In this case, companies downsize to reduce their production costs and make their products or services more competitive.
So, there are two big problems with even suggesting that the Federal Government engage in "right-sizing:"
- Governments are nonprofit institutions, and therefore notions such as competitiveness, profits, and product pricing are meaningless.
- Governments don't merge with or acquire other governments. Well, unless you're talking about conquests, which surely is a special case. Occasionally, governments do split up... for example, when a U.S. State secedes from the Union, or when a country declares its independence from another. In this latter case, of course, the split governments will find the need to "upsize" their workforce rather than downsizing them.
Ah, but what if you believe, as lawmakers such as Brady do, that the cost of the Federal workforce is a major reason why the Federal deficit is ballooning? Well, then I suppose the suggestion does make sense.
As it turns out—and here I'm finally getting to the crux of my argument—the Federal workforce has not been a contributor to the growth in Federal spending. If you're picking up an axe to cut the budget, hacking at the workforce is not only missing the target, but it will actually increase costs in the long run.
What evidence do I have to support such assertions? Consider the following facts for the 40-year period from 1970 to 2009, as illustrated in the accompanying charts:
- Real (adjusted for inflation) Federal consumption spending increased 56 percent, while total Federal employment fell about 30 percent. Most of the reduction in Federal employment came in the defense sector, but the number of nondefense employees stayed basically flat during this 40-year period while nondefense spending shot up 150% (Chart 1). (Note: The measure of spending shown in chart 1 includes only "current expenditures," which basically counts spending required "to keep the trains running"—that is, to carry out basic agency missions.)
- From 1970 to 2009, total Federal employment shrank from 6.1 million to 4.2 million—again, mostly in defense. The nondefense Federal workforce was 1.96 million in 1970, and 1.95 million in 2009 (Chart 2).
- During these 40 years, Federal employment as a percentage of total U.S. employment dropped from 8.6 percent to 3.5 percent (Chart 3).
These facts make it obvious that the Federal Government has been engaging in "right-sizing" for a very long time. How could Federal employees not be a great deal more efficient and productive today if their numbers haven't changed in the last 40 years, while their workload and output have doubled?
Despite continuous calls for less Federal "intrusion" into taxpayers' lives, taxpayers have simultaneously been demanding and expecting more and more of their National Government. As anyone who has been even marginally observant knows, Federal responsibilities have expanded greatly since 1970. Among its new and expanded assignments are:
- Occupational Safety and Health. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created in 1970 to "ensure that employers provide employees with an environment free from recognized hazards, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, mechanical dangers, heat or cold stress, or unsanitary conditions."
- Environmental Protection. The Environmental Protection Agency was also created in 1970 and charged with "protecting human health and the environment, by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress."
- National Security. The agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens have increased employment substantially during this period, especially since the September 11, 2001, attacks by radical Islamic terrorists. The attacks resulted in a reorganization of security functions from various agencies into a new agency, the Office of Homeland Security. The number of Federal security personnel at U.S. airports has also increased, of course.
- Natural Resource Management. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which requires Federal agencies to ensure that their activities "do not jeopardize the existence of any endangered or threatened species of plant or animal or result in the destruction or deterioration of critical habitat of such species."
- National Park System. Numerous Acts and Executive Orders have expanded the responsibilities of the National Park Service since 1970, including the General Authorities Act of 1970, the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
- Drug Abuse. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 expanded and optimized the Federal Government's ability to control use of illegal drugs. Among other components, the legislation included the Controlled Substances Act, which established drug "schedules," into which various substances would be classified and for which misuse penalties would be defined.
- Many other functions, including Immigration Control (yes, we have been spending more money and hired more people for this), Education, Technology Infrastructure, and Information Dissemination.
Regarding Information Dissemination, consider the huge cost and workload involved in building all the great Federal websites we now have—including the many channels to obtaining customized information from Federal databases never before available.
For example, the charts and data shown in this article come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the Commerce Department agency responsible for collecting and analyzing statistics on the U.S. economy. BEA is the organization that produces estimates of Gross Domestic Product, personal income, and much more. Their data is now available through an easy-to-use, customizable web interface that generates data in a variety of formats, including tab-delimited, which can be imported into spreadsheet software.
Yes, the Government does much less printing now than it used to, but as one with first-hand knowledge of Federal publishing, let me assure you it costs much more now to publish on the web than printing ever did. For one thing, many agencies were encouraged to—and did—charge fees for printed publications. Obviously, they collect nothing from use of their websites. For another, nearly all Federal printed documents were required by law to use only black ink, or black and one other color. A tiny fraction used the four-color process that's standard for commercial printing.
However, Federal web publishing has been under no such contraints, and so agencies have spent as freely as they thought necessary to make splashy, flashy, and sexy websites that could have been—and often are—designed by a Madison Avenue ad firm. Such sites look nice, but besides being expensive they too often make usability a secondary consideration to appearance. Where once a small agency might spend $500,000 a year on printing, it's now common for it to spend $1 or $2 million on their websites, while still printing some material. (Note: BEA remains a big exception to the norm. Their website eschews expensive graphics and other flashy flourishes, and is mostly easy-to-navigate textual content.)
OK, so it's undeniable that Federal employment has shrunk in the last 40 years, while spending has grown. Doesn't that suggest that Federal employees are much more productive than they were 40 years ago?
Given the data in Chart 1, it's clear that productivity in the Federal sector has risen considerably. However, something must be missing, because it's nearly impossible for an organization to boost output by 50% while cutting its workforce by 30%. In fact, if you lay these data beside analogous ones for the private sector, it appears that the Feds have been using some secret productivity weapon that they should now share with the private sector, so that it can downsize as the Feds have done. (Oops... no, that would cause a huge recession, actually.)
Since 1970, output of private industry has shot up 200%, but this was accompanied by a 70% increase in employment (Chart 4). This means that the gain in private output required 70 percent more workers over this period. If you apply that relationship to the public sector, Federal employment should have increased 15-20 percent to support its 50% growth in output over these 40 years.
So how did they do it? How could the Federal sector manage to increase output by 50% while actually reducing employment? The truth is, they couldn't have done, despite what the data show. For even though the data are correct for what they do measure, they are missing a big component of the puzzle, as you'll see.
The Missing Employment Data
Since Jimmy Carter came to office in 1976, every President except for George H.W. Bush has called for either cuts in or freezes on Federal hiring. This explains why Federal employment has remained flat for 40 years... it has been continuously downsized.1
Given this history, today's calls for cuts in Federal employment are either dishonest and politically motivated, or they are misguided and made by ignorant politicians who have no business being in charge of the Nation's business.
The ugly truth is that for every Federal worker who hasn't been hired since 1970, one or two private-sector employees has been. For most of these 40 years, both the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. Government, whether led by Republicans or Democrats, have bought into the notion that "contracting out" (or "outsourcing") Federal jobs was a good way of stretching precious Federal dollars.
But this is simply not the case, for two simple reasons, which I plan to take up in a future article on Federal contracting:
- Inefficiency. Outsourcing to private companies is often much more expensive than retaining work inhouse. Briefly, this is the result of:
- Additional Overhead. Most large contracts are subcontracted, and even subcontracts are subcontracted. Each layer adds to the overhead cost of every dollar spent.
- Inflexibility. Getting rid of bad Federal contractors can be as difficult as getting rid of a bad Federal employee.
- Incompetence or dishonesty. Scrutiny of the background and expertise of companies hired by the government is much less exacting than that of potential employees. Too often, companies overstate their qualifications for a particular type of work, overstate costs, or both. Even when the private enterprise is at fault, the government agency loses time as work must be redone, and typically must shell out additional funds for the privilege.
- Lack of continuity. When a company is newly hired to assume an existing task, it's far too easy for them to claim that the outgoing contractor had been "doing things wrong." Without continuity, Federal managers can face unmeasured duplication of costs merely because the new contractor has a different way of doing things. Sometimes a change is warranted, but too often it is not. This kind of waste can also occur when Federal managers change, but that happens far less frequently.
- Conflict of interest. Private contractors are motivated by profit rather than by public service, and therefore should never be in charge of making policy or spending decisions that affect taxpayers. This is a clear conflict of interest situation, where the private company's goal is to make as much money as possible, and the Government's goal is to serve the public as best it can within its limited means.
Even if you don't see it the way we do on Mars, you will surely find it strange—and disturbing—that the Federal Government has absolutely no idea how many employees it has in the private sector.
If you walk through any Federal office today, you won't be able to tell which employees are contractors and which are on the Federal payroll. For all appearances, everyone there is a Federal employee. Yet they're not, and nobody keeps tabs on the ones who aren't, except to make sure they have the appropriate network accounts, desks, computers, and security badges. The Labor Department, which is responsible for collecting the Nation's employment data, has never included this information as part of its surveys.
Among other management consequences of this irresponsible lack of data is that it's impossible to know whether the Federal workforce is "right-sized" or not. It's also impossible to measure relative employment costs, or to compare productivity for the two groups.
And why do we not have these necessary data on private contractors?
First, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980—one of a series of misguided deregulation moves in the 1980s designed to get the Federal Government "off the backs" of private companies—made it extremely difficult for Federal agencies to add new questions to their existing surveys. And second, the lack of knowledge has been a mutually beneficial "wink" among cash-strapped Federal managers, cash-hungry private companies, and dishonest/ignorant legislators who want to claim they're cutting costs by keeping a lid on Federal employment.
Only in the last few years has the superiority of outsourcing public jobs been openly questioned, and that's been spurred mainly by concerns about the propriety and cost of contracting by the State and Defense Departments to support the War in Iraq. Yet all through the George W. Bush years, Federal agencies were under extreme pressure to "privatize" or "contract-out" any functions that weren't "inherently governmental in nature."
Now, I know what "privatizing" means, ugly word though it may be. But no one—including those pushing hardest for it—can explain what an "inherently governmental" function is. If they were honest, such advocates would admit that any public function that becomes the object of lust by some industry group's lobbyists could not possibly be "inherently governmental," and therefore could be a candidate for privatizing or outsourcing.
To hear these people talk, the only "inherently governmental" jobs are those that make and administer budgets and contracts. That means no jobs for
- Computer specialists
- Audio/Video specialists
- Public affairs specialists
- Security specialists
- Meeting planners
- Travel planners
- Systems designers
- Budget analysts
This leaves jobs only for
- Budget officers
- Contracting officers
- Personnel officers
Myth of the Coddled Federal Worker
One final piece of the puzzle behind the recent calls for Federal downsizing, workforce attrition, and worker pay caps is the myth that Federal workers cost more than their private-sector counterparts, because of their great benefits. Legislators like Brady love to stick this one in their speeches because it's a guaranteed applause line, especially during great recessions.
Trouble is, it's not true.
I'm going to sidestep the whole debate about whether Federal salaries or higher or lower than comparable jobs in the private sector, because it's too complicated for a few paragraphs and perhaps even for an entire book. There are numerous problems with this analysis, including the difficulty of finding consistent data that tracks all the relevant variables —including worker age, education, experience, location, and job descriptions.
Under President George H.W. Bush, Congress passed legislation that granted Federal workers additional pay under a system of "locality adjustments." President Clinton more or less moth-balled the system, and then set one up that was a pale shadow of the original. Here's a link for more information on the topic.
Since the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) was mothballed in 1986, all new Federal workers have been in the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). FERS does offer a small pension, but it's nothing like the one CSRS retirees enjoy. In addition, FERS workers pay a much higher portion of their salaries for that pension than CSRS workers did.
Instead, a FERS retirement is heavily dependent on the Federal Thrift Plan, which is nothing more than a 401K program for Federal employees. (Federal workers don't have 401K plans.)
Federal employees have health care, sick leave, vacation leave, and other benefits that are comparable to those in any large U.S. company. I'll never forget moving from a Federal job at BEA to Citibank back in 1996, and finding that Citibank's benefits were superior to those I'd had in the government. Not only that, my pay was almost double, and I didn't have any onerous supervisory responsibilities. Citibank's pension system wasn't as generous as that from CSRS, but it was comparable to that of FERS.
Are Federal benefits better than those of your typical small company? Yes, very likely they are. And, given the vast difference between a Federal agency of 100,000 and your typical small company of 50, the difference is appropriate.
In any case, very few Federal contracts are awarded to your typical small company. At least, not directly. Any small companies that share in contract spending get work only through some "prime" contractor, not directly by some Federal manager.
CSRS was abolished not only to reduce the pay of Federal retirees, but also to add the Federal workforce to the Social Security pool. Under CSRS, Feds neither paid Social Security nor received its benefits on retirement. Under FERS, they do both in the same way that private sector workers do.
Another reason why Federal employees still have a decent package of benefits is that they are represented by a Labor Union, the National Federation of Federal Employees. If workers in U.S. companies get desperate enough, perhaps they'll recall that having a Union on your side is a good thing in the fight for decent pay and benefits. That's a lesson that's been lost over the years, especially since President Reagan started kicking Unions in the butt back in 1982.
However, just because workers don't have the pay, benefits, and pension they should have doesn't make it OK for them to demand cuts for those who do.
And politicians like Mr. Brady should know better.
He arrived from the tiny town of Butler, Pennsylviania, as part of the new freshman class of Angry Republican Congressmen. After all the feting and touring that greeted him in Washington, Mike Kelly was asked who had impressed him the most.
"Nobody," he said.
To be impressed by "nobody" must mean this guy is hugely impressed with himself, one would surmise. Well, yes and no:
"I hope I don't sound arrogant about this, but at 62 years old, I've pretty much seen what I need to see.”
Today's article in the Washington Post doesn't explore what exactly Mr. Kelly has seen in his 62 years, but from his attitude and statements, I would venture to guess it isn't much.
You see, Mike Kelly came to Washington because he is angry that the Federal Government "intruded" on the running of his General Motors car dealership, where he'd spent 56 years of creative energy. (I guess that means he'd been working on the business since he was 6. Just kidding.)
And exactly how had it intruded? Why, it was making him sell Chevrolets instead of Cadillacs.
And exactly why was it ruining his business this way? Well, you see, Obama had (personally) taken over General Motors and was (personally) requiring dealerships to restructure as part of an effort to save the company.
"This is America. You can't come in and take my business away from me. . . . Every penny we have is wrapped up in here. I've got 110 people that rely on me every two weeks to be paid. . . . And you call me up and in five minutes try to wipe out 56 years of a business?”
This is a reasonable attitude if you believe that tiny, parochial self-interest should be the motivator of those elected to run a National Government. However, tiny attitudes from Big Men In Their Local Communities have no place in Congress. Indeed, those with tiny, uninformed beliefs who fail to see the big picture are precisely the ones inclined to take actions that will fail the interest of the public they're elected to serve.
They are also the most vulnerable to corruption, since if you believe that self-interest is the highest good, then you are likely to be impressed by visitors who flatter your ego and your opinions... and then offer to pay you huge sums to ensure your reelection or to sway your vote on an issue that serves your own interest.
A lot of Big Men in Tiny Bubbles like Mr. Kelly were frightened and outraged when the Obama administration offered to buy a 61% stake in General Motors in the summer of 2009. After all, wasn't this a "Government Takeover", or worse, a "Nationalization" of a private company?
If you were inclined to take a narrow view, it was. However, if you bothered to take the big view, it clearly was not.
Obama was a reluctant participant in the process of saving General Motors, and his sin was that he insisted that the taxpayers have some control over the process. Rather than just handing $50 billion to a company that had proven itself incapable of turning a profit and had driven itself into bankruptcy, he stipulated that outside ("Government") experts have a say in how that money was used. The restructuring that resulted is what caused Mr. Kelly such pain in his private bubble.
As an article in The Economist—a business journal with no reputation for supporting Government intrusion into the workings of Capitalism—ended up apologizing to Obama for sharing the view that his action was a mistake:
August 19, 2010. Americans expect much from their president, but they do not think he should run car companies. Fortunately, Barack Obama agrees. This week the American government moved closer to getting rid of its stake in General Motors (GM) when the recently ex-bankrupt firm filed to offer its shares once more to the public (see article).
Once a symbol of American prosperity, GM collapsed into the government’s arms last summer. Years of poor management and grabby unions had left it in wretched shape. Efforts to reform came too late. When the recession hit, demand for cars plummeted. GM was on the verge of running out of cash when Uncle Sam intervened, throwing the firm a lifeline of $50 billion in exchange for 61% of its shares.
Many people thought this bail-out (and a smaller one involving Chrysler, an even sicker firm) unwise. Governments have historically been lousy stewards of industry. Lovers of free markets (including The Economist) feared that Mr Obama might use GM as a political tool: perhaps favouring the unions who donate to Democrats or forcing the firm to build smaller, greener cars than consumers want to buy. The label “Government Motors” quickly stuck, evoking images of clunky committee-built cars that burned banknotes instead of petrol—all run by what Sarah Palin might call the socialist-in-chief.
Yet the doomsayers were wrong. Unlike, say, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who used public funds to support Renault and Peugeot-Citroën on condition that they did not close factories in France, Mr Obama has been tough from the start. GM had to promise to slim down dramatically—cutting jobs, shuttering factories and shedding brands—to win its lifeline. The firm was forced to declare bankruptcy. Shareholders were wiped out. Top managers were swept aside. Unions did win some special favours: when Chrysler was divided among its creditors, for example, a union health fund did far better than secured bondholders whose claims should have been senior. Congress has put pressure on GM to build new models in America rather than Asia, and to keep open dealerships in certain electoral districts. But by and large Mr Obama has not used his stakes in GM and Chrysler for political ends. On the contrary, his goal has been to restore both firms to health and then get out as quickly as possible. GM is now profitable again and Chrysler, managed by Fiat, is making progress. Taxpayers might even turn a profit when GM is sold.
GM's payback to U.S. taxpayers has already begun, and as The Economist notes, the total repayment over time will likely exceed the original $50 billion investment.
Yet Mr. Kelly probably doesn't believe any of this. Why? Because he doesn't want to. It's not in his interest to do so. It's more convenient for him to believe it's all a lie.
After all, to change his mind would invalidate his reason for popping in to Washington. Given his arrogant attitude that he is the most impressive person in D.C., he is hardly the sort to question himself, let alone to burst the tiny bubble that brought him here.
Just days after I opened an exploration of the way humans view conflict of interest, and how their personal self-interest makes understanding the way this topic is approached in different contexts, the Washington Post publishes a front-page article that exposes the kind of conundrum I'm planning to look into.
The Senate, you see, has no laws restricting the investments its members can make into companies whose fortunes their votes may affect. In particular, they may freely invest in companies that are major players in specific industries overseen by Senate committees. In the Post article, the industry is defense, and the committee typically has "inside knowledge" into the defense systems that will be built, and which companies will benefit from their votes.
This seems strange enough, but as the Post article points out, the Congress has passed laws that prohibit such investments by those appointed to run the agencies — such as Defense — that will let the contracts to carry out the Senate's decisions. Not only that, but such laws have long been on the books to regulate investment behavior by rank-and-file Federal employees.
This being that most political of years, serious issues of national significance have been on my mind. Sadly, judging from the typical discourse I see Americans engaged in, I can only conclude that most humans seem to think it's best to just ignore serious issues. Why is it that people read body language more seriously than they do written language? And why is it, after so many years of evolution, a pretty face or the color of one's skin is more influential than what that candidate has to say about--oh, you know, energy policy, health care reform, global warming and environmental concerns, economic insecurities, abortion, and so on.
There was an article in the Washington Post recently that finally expressed what has been obvious to me for many years now: Humans have become so cynical that they honestly believe everything is an opinion. There are no facts. If you don't like a particular fact someone presents you with, you simply respond, "Oh, you think everyone should just agree with you!" And likewise, if someone presents you with a lie that you like, you are quite willing to take it as gospel.
There's no facing reality... no desire to really debate issues using facts. Heck, I'm beginning to think that too many Americans don't even know what a fact is. Here's a simple definition:
Fact: The truth about events as opposed to interpretation.
Ah, but now we enter a realm that, for many humans, presents great difficulty: What is Truth?
It is a question that has reverberated throughout the Western world ever since Pontius Pilate asked the question of Jesus. Jesus had referred to a truth, and Pilate's question suggests that he doesn't believe there is such a thing.
But of course, there is. That my cat ran away the day we moved to our new house is a fact. That my wife and I have been married now for almost 25 years is a fact. I have two sisters. That is also a fact.
Extending these to more difficult lines of inquiry, it's clear that changes in earth's atmosphere are causing global temperatures to rise, for the Arctic ice cap to melt, for glaciers around the world to disappear, and for the incidence of hurricanes and droughts to increase. These are facts, and nearly all scientists today agree that the inference from these facts is that Global Warming is a fact. It is the truth, even if it's extremely inconvenient.
On Presidential Lies
Likewise, it is a fact that the Republican candidate for Vice-President, Sarah Palin, did not oppose the "Bridge To Nowhere," as she claims. She ran for Governor on her support for the bridge, as a matter of fact. Only after Congress tabled the earmark Palin wanted for the bridge did she switch sides. Can you say "disingenuous?" She also didn't sell the Governor's jet on eBay, as John McCain has claimed.
In fact, Sarah Palin and her fellow candidate, John McCain, are going down as the most dishonest folks who ever ran for the Presidency (in my lifetime, at least). Think that's hyperbole? I'm sorry to say that it's not. Every day, more evidence of their willingness to bend the truth backwards is showing up, resulting in nearly daily outcries in U.S. newspapers:
- Running on a Lie (Washington Post, 9/16/08)
- The Odd Lies Of Sarah Palin II: The Bridge To Nowhere (Atlantic Online, 9/15/08)
- Campaign check: Lies and half-truths outed (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/13/08)
- Campaign of lies disgraces McCain (St. Petersburg Times, 9/14/08)
- McCain has become a serial liar (SeattlePi, 9/15/08)
- Press picks over litter of lies on the Palin trail (Sydney Morning Herald, 9/16/08)
- New election low: distorting the fact-checking (Los Angeles Times, 9/12/08)
- McCain: Mr. Straight Talk? (MSNBC, 9/12/08)
- Ringing Untrue, Again and Again (New York Times, 9/17/08)
- True Whoppers (Washington Post, 9/17/08)
And the list goes on and on... just search through Google News some time, and you'll see what I mean. Even though this year's persistent falsehoods are the worst yet, there have been plenty of the same by previous Presidents and their staffs. In fact, I'd argue that it's Presidential Lies that got us where we are in the first place. It all started with President Johnson lying about the Vietnam War, followed closely by Richard Nixon lying about the Vietnam War. And then the real whopper that really made Americans suspicious of their leaders: Watergate. But those observations lead to a huge digression that I should leave for another time.
Here are a few examples of lies told by recent U.S. Presidents:
- John McCain: He continues to repeat the plain untruth that Barack Obama's tax plan would raise everyone's taxes. This scare tactic usually works, whether it's true or not. In this case, McCain knows it's a lie, yet he keeps saying it. As a matter of fact, Obama's tax plan would only raise taxes for the top 1% of America's richest. For every household that makes less than $250,000 a year, Obama's plan makes quite substantial tax cuts, whereas McCain's plan does not. As with Bush's deficit-busting tax cuts early in his term, McCain's cuts would benefit only the very rich and the corporations they run.
- George W. Bush: Hmmm... Let's see, there have been so many lies, told so well, that on Mars we've determined he's lied more than any President in U.S. history. Everyone knows by know---as a fact---that Iraq never had "weapons of mass destruction," nor did Saddam Hussein have anything whatsoever to do with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There are hundreds of documented lies by Bush and his administration in support of the larger one, but here's a good one. On October 22, 2002, as the public relations effort to sell the Iraq war to U.S. citizens was heating up, The Washington Post published an article whose title says it all: For Bush, Facts Are MalleableFor Bush, Facts Are Malleable, which cited two lies in two paragraph:
In the president's Oct. 7 speech to the nation from Cincinnati, he introduced several rationales for taking action against Iraq. Describing contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq, [David, Bush] cited "one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year." He asserted that "we have discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet" of unmanned aircraft and expressed worry about them "targeting the United States."
Bush's statement about the Iraqi nuclear defector, implying such information was current in 1998, was a reference to Khidhir Hamza. But Hamza, though he spoke publicly about his information in 1998, retired from Iraq's nuclear program in 1991, fled to the Iraqi north in 1994 and left the country in 1995. Finally, Bush's statement that Iraq could attack "on any given day" with terrorist groups was at odds with congressional testimony by the CIA. The testimony, declassified after Bush's speech, rated the possibility as "low" that [Saddam Hussein] would initiate a chemical or biological weapons attack against the United States but might take the "extreme step" of assisting terrorists if provoked by a U.S. attack.
- Bill Clinton: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Yes, that was a lie, unless you don't consider oral relations "sexual." And wow, did Bill pay for that one! Indeed, he was actually impeached for that lie... which, unlike the lies of the Presidents who preceded and successors, had zero impact on the health and welfare of the Nation. From my perspective on Mars, it's inconceivable that one President could waste $500 billion on a war the rationale for which he brazenly lied about, and yet receive no punishment whatsoever, while another President had a brief sexual liaison with another consenting adult and lied about it, a sin that led to his being impeached, for only the second time in U.S. history.
- George H.W. Bush: George H. W. Bush's best known lie is, of course, "Read my lips, no new taxes." He said that during the campaign for President, and then proceeded to break that promise. But a far more serious lie is the one he repeatedly told the American people about negotiating with terrorists:
Only problem is, even as he made such pronouncement, he and the Reagan administration were secretly selling arms to Iran, in exchange for the release of hostages. They then turned around and supported the Nicaraguan Contra rebels with the profits from the secret Iran sales. This is all a matter of public record... it is fact, and yet, perhaps because of the complexity of the issues, or perhaps because of the popularity of Ronald Reagan and the transition of his administration to that of George H.W. Bush, the lie and the secret deal managed to wash over Americans' minds without really registering.
Today I am proud to deliver to the American people the result of the six months effort to review our policies and our capabilities to deal with terrorism. Our policy is clear, concise, unequivocal. We will offer no concession to terrorists, because that only leads to more terrorism. States that practice terrorism, or actively support it, will not be allowed to do so without consequence.
- Ronald Reagan: On Mars, we found it hard to believe that anyone so misinformed could rise to become President of the most powerful country on Earth. We debated among ourselves whether Reagan's many factual errors were truly lies, or whether they reflected a fundamentally weak brain. Ultimately, we determined that Reagan was actually smart, and that he told lies in such an aw-shucks manner that the average American not only would believe him, but would never suspect he was lying. Besides lying about the Iran-Contra affair, like Bush, there are so many examples it's hard to narrow the list down. Here's one of our short favorites:
"All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk." --Ronald Reagan (Republican candidate for president), quoted in the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, February 15, 1980.As a matter of fact, even taking an estimate from nuclear industry sources, the typical nuclear power plant produces about 500 pounds of waste each year. I don't think that would fit under Reagan's desk, do you?
This year, the spreading of lies and innuendo about the candidates--particularly, as usual--has become more brazen than ever. An example of this came to my attention a few weeks ago when someone on a mailing list I (used to) follow sent everyone a column spreading demonstrably false information about Barack Obama. This is only one such rumor that's been spreading virally through the web in attempts to smear Obama. Perhaps the dirtiest is the assertion that Obama is Muslim, because his middle name is Hussein. Well, no. If you read Obama's biography that will be clear, but the folks who make this up aren't trying to spread facts... they're trying to spread fear. I only wish more humans would see through their lies and punish the candidate who abides such evil to an extent that future candidates will think twice before adopting lies as a method of campaigning for President.
All of which leads me to the lies taking place in 2008, nearly all of which are directed from the Republican candidates toward Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for President. A particularly inflammatory lie that has been making the rounds of right-wing religious groups on the Internet is the one that passed through my email recently. As part of an anti-Obama, viral web campaign, someone called Matt Barber of the Liberty Council published an article called "Obamacide." (Nice title, don't you think, for someone claiming to be a Christian?) The article accuses Obama of supporting "partial birth" abortion, using language that refers to Obama's "love affair" with the practice, which even Pro-Choice supporters do not condone. Here's an excerpt from Barber's libelous diatribe:
While serving in the Illinois state senate, he led the fight against a state version of Born Alive that was substantively identical to the federal BAIPA. In 2002, BAIPA passed the U.S. Senate with unanimous, bipartisan support; yet, Obama vehemently opposed its Illinois twin. This places him on the furthest fringe of pro-abortion extremes. The man's devotion to the pro-abortion industry is so fixed that he would rather allow the murder of newborn babies than give an inch to the sanctity of human life.
And Barber was just warming up at that point... there's much more in the article.
If I may say so, this is precisely the kind of character assassination that Barack Obama is trying to eliminate from our national discourse.
First of all, to oppose Obama strictly on the issue of abortion is to ignore the many other important issues the United States faces. My impression is that even many anti-abortion Christians are beginning to understand that.
Most important, the charges made in Matt Barber's opinion piece are false. They are being spread around the web simply to make Obama look bad, and unfortunately many otherwise intelligent Americans are buying this baloney without question.
After researching the source documents for what really happened, I determined the facts are as follows:
- Obama's Illinois senate votes in 2001-02 were on legislation that was radically different from the U.S. Senate's Born Alive Infants Protection Act (BAIPA) in 2002. How?
- Illinois already had in place a ban on partial birth abortions, dating back to 1975. If you don't believe me, check out the Illinois code on this law.
- Therefore, the Illinois bills were not, in fact, geared to providing the protection against partial-birth abortions that the Federal law was. To compare the two is simply deceitful on the part of writers like Barber.
- The Illinois votes, which were joined by 40% of the Senate including several Republicans, were against proposals that would:
- Provide damages to the family to the cost of raising the child, an obviously irresponsible open-ended liability. This included punitive damages against the hospital that delivered the child. Keep in mind that we're talking about a live birth that is protected under the law... not an abortion.
- Redefine "live birth abortion" to include any non-viable fetus that showed signs of life after abortion. This would effectively ban abortion, since it's not restricted to the third trimester of pregnancy. The Federal BAIPA law requires that the "live birth" be a viable child... one that is capable of living outside the womb.
In reaction to this obviously false information from Matt Barber, another reader of the email thread reacted this way:
The last times we had the Communist party try and put a person in the white house, she was black. Now they are doing it again with a man of color and the blessing of the media. We've gotten worse than Sodom and Gomorra with trying to get someone to represent us in the white house who is left of left with a Marxist attitude and no respect for life.
In a followup email, this person clarified his belief that "Communist = Socialist = Liberal."
For a few minutes, my mind was in a state of serious cognitive dissonance as a result of that paragraph, because it so flagrantly violated my understanding of U.S. history and of its political realities. Here was someone I had exchanged numerous emails with opining that Obama and the Democrats were Communists.
The notion that Obama is a Communist or Marxist is clearly a lie, a propaganda-motivated scare tactic at its very worst. It's the same sort of charge that was leveled against Franklin D. Roosevelt by Republicans during his term(s). To the hatemongers who spread this kind of crazy talk, folks from Obama's and Roosevelt's side of the aisle are guilty of one major, unforgivable sin: They believe that U.S. citizens deserve better living conditions than most of you have, and they believe the Federal Government can actually do something to help. There's nothing whatsoever Marxist, or Communist, about this approach. If those who spread such lies would ever bother to read Karl Marx, they would understand that. But they never will, because (I think) they believe Marx's writings were the work of the Devil himself.
Chief among Obama's "Marxist" ideas is that the U.S. should join the rest of the developed world in having universal health care. If you haven't seen Michael Moore's Sicko, you should. Even if you don't like Michael Moore or think he's some kind of left-wing nut, humans who want to form an opinion of him and of his movies like "Sicko" should really take the time to see them and judge for yourselves. Don't just take some right-wing nut's word for it.
Obama also believes the Federal Government should be investing heavily in alternative (non-carbon) energy in order to become free of dependence on foreign oil in 10 years. Ridiculous? Perhaps... but at least it's a goal worth pursuing. One historical parallel you should recall in determining the idea's ridiculous-ness is the Federal Government's investment in the Interstate Highway System.
Can you imagine our country without such a vital transportation network? And yet, if the government hadn't built it, who would? It was a huge investment, championed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that changed the lives of all Americans for the better.
By investing in solar and other alternative technologies, the Federal Government, as the nation's largest consumer, has the ability to vastly expand that market, thereby lowering prices, increasing production, and improving the technology. Isn't this worth doing in order to make the United States less dependent on foreign oil? After all, would you have invaded Iraq if it weren't one of your biggest oil suppliers? Just consider how much money that war has cost, and the many better ways the government could have spent that money. I don't know about you, but the thought makes us Martians feel not only incredulous, but also incredibly angry.
Another major goal of Obama's is to address the issue of Global Warming. Don't you think this problem trumps abortion on the list of the Earth's ills? By abandoning carbon fuels, and enacting legislation like the one Bush vetoed recently that would have required reduced emissions, humans might have a chance to turn this around.
Regarding Christianity and one's position on abortion, it's clear that Christ would not have approved of the practice, as neither do the Catholic nor Protestant churches. However, it's important to understand and respect the fact that one of the singular, founding principles of the United States was--and is--the separation of Church and State.
This means that the Government cannot pass laws that enforce the views of any particular religious group, and since opposition to abortion stems primarily from religious beliefs about the point in time when a zygote/embryo/fetus becomes a "person," anti-abortion laws such as those supported by Right To Life groups are clearly unconstitutional.
The Religious Right, however, does not believe that the Separation of Church and State was ever a constitutional principle. In some ways, such an argument is in the same league as a belief that the Holocaust never occurred, or that the Earth is flat, or that humans have been abducted by Martians for scientific experiments. Poppycock! We would never do such a thing, my friends. Ours is a thoroughly peace-loving, generous, and thoughtful society. If we needed to learn something from a human's body, we'd ask them to participate in one of our studies: By choice, not by deceit.
That said, there is certainly a great deal of interpretation that goes on in understanding when and how the principle of Separation became part of the U.S. Constitution. It's true that the literal phrase 'separation of church and state' does not appear in the Constitution, but clearly the concept is there, ingrained in the American psyche through its founders' strong belief in religious liberty. The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."
Two of the great thinkers at the time the Constitution was enacted had this to say on the subject of religious liberty. In making these declarations, the United States became the first country in the history of the world to propose religious liberty as a founding principle of a Nation:
- In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote, in his famous pamphlet, Common Sense:
- "As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith"
- In 1779, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, proclaimed:
- "[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
- Later, as President, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association that is the origin of the controversial phrase itself:
- "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. "
I think it's also important for Christians, as well as all humanity, to consider the many other forms of violence that occur in the world. There are many examples I could choose from -- human rights abuses, genocide, starvation, eviscerating the environment -- but a very pertinent one to the debate over abortion is the rate of child abuse in the U.S.
One could easily argue that the violence inflicted on living children as a result of parental abuse inflicts far more damage on society than the violence of abortion. Not only are these children themselves the victims of often horrifying violence, but the impact of this violence on these children's' personality development will live on for years. Studies show that nearly all of the adults who victimize others--their wives, husbands, children, or others--were themselves the victim of violence as children. Thus, beating up your chienvironmentld causes a chain reaction of events that reverberates far beyond that single incident. According to Health and Human Services (HHS) statistics, there were 3.6 million referrals for incidents of child abuse in the U.S. in 2006--about 3 times the number of abortions. After investigation of all the referrals, it was ultimately determined that about 1 million children were the victims of abuse that year.
There are many causes for outrage among those who abhor violence in this world. Abortion is one of them, child abuse another. But there are many others as well. My original point was that as Christians it's a mistake to make political decisions based on abortion alone, since it's not the only thing Christ cares about. I'm sure Jesus Christ would also abhor the alarming economic disparity between rich and poor in this country and many others throughout the world. As an anti-materialist philosophy at heart, Christianity has too often been mute to the economic violence meted out by greed, and has failed to join the battle against those who celebrate greed and become successful from it. Do Christians who stand by in the face of such injustice assume that the meek won't get their due until the Second Coming? If so, it's hard for us on Mars to understand how such seekers of monetary wealth can call themselves Christians. We fear that these are the same hypocrites who can't recognize a lie when they hear one, or, on learning it's a lie, continue to believe it true.
I fear for Mankind, and for all of God's glorious creation, if these are the people who will inherit the Earth.