From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.

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Equal Rights Could Be Better Served

December 10, 2017

I think Al Franken made a mistake – actually lots of mistakes but let’s add one more: he should have stayed in the Senate and joined the Republican Party. Franken was a comedian and some will laugh or smirk at that comment. But Trump and his “base” and many in their party have no problem with male chauvinist behavior; indeed they flaunt it and they’re still fighting against everything the Equal Rights Amendment tried to accomplish. Both personal and policy failings are bad, but the combination is worse especially in the case of public officials. The fact that Republicans have both policy as well as personal failings with sexual abuse and harassment is a double failure; it’s a mistake to conflate all gender and sexual error as if there is no difference and as if fewer equals more.

Too much is happening at once. But here’s another – John Lewis and the other venerable civil rights leaders who protested Trump’s appearance at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum made a mistake. At what other time would they have had a chance to lambast Trump in front of a national audience, and, more important, Trump’s “base”? I haven’t figured out a way to reach that group of people. Trump tried to hand it to them.


Sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement

December 5, 2017

JOPAC was the multi-national 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear agreement. I’m happy to say that I’ve never been closer to nuclear weapons than listening to my chemistry professor, himself part of the Manhattan Project that created the first A-bomb, talking about them. My cousin Mimi worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but all she could tell me was that she was there. Happily she lived into her 90s. But I have had some experience in Iran.

I was teaching at Pahlavi University, now called something else. Someone was sent to oversee the University. We were all warned to stay away from him. He wasn’t trustworthy. But this brash yours truly thought he knew better so I called on him. He was an economist. I had an article about the difference between Iranian and Turkish economic success to show him. He was of course interested.

Suddenly no one would talk with me. Not a word. I finally cornered someone and insisted he tell me why. He accused me of having called all Iranians liars. I remembered that on the first page of the article, Harvard Prof. David McClelland, with whom I had corresponded, criticized vague and unscientific statements about Iran like “All Iranians are liars.” McClelland set out to study Iran much more precisely. The young man I had cornered had good enough English that he understood exactly what had happened. All of a sudden people talked to me again – as if nothing had ever happened.

Would it have been better if I’d followed orders? Probably but it didn’t hurt that I had exposed the distortion of what I had said. Just as clearly, lots of people there took truth seriously.

Iran is a negotiating culture. You negotiate over everything, from carpets to the seams in a coat you’re having made. When I was getting ready to leave, I sat down with a Persian friend to sell him some of my record collection. He assumed I wouldn’t negotiate but would name fixed prices. I assumed he would negotiate so I asked for more than I wanted. When I realized what had happened, I reverted and gave him the records for much less than we’d agreed. Neither of us wanted to take advantage of the other. But if he’d negotiated as expected, I would never have thought him a liar. It’s just about conforming to culture and how things are done.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, or PCIA, composed of people like myself who served over there, has taken the position that “the Iran nuclear agreement [was a] historic and … excellent example of the success of diplomacy to resolve a major, contentious issue that threatened regional and world peace. As has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency … tasked … in the agreement to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance … Iran is abiding by the agreement. United States security agencies have confirmed the IAEA assessment.”

PCIA “urges the United States and Iran, along with the other parties to the agreement, to continue to uphold and abide by the agreement and to take no action that would violate the agreement.” PCIA concluded that both the United States and Iran should keep their word. Incidentally, Ambassador John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. Embassy hostages held for a year and a half, instead of being filled with bitterness and reaching cavalier conclusions about the country, told us at a recent conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, that he too, urges that we stay the course.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2017.

 

 


Nuts, Liars, Suckers and the Rube Goldberg Disease

November 28, 2017

I just heard that Jeff Bezos is worth $100 billion. What is he doing with that net worth? Is he putting it all to work? If not, why not? Ya think if we just gave Jeff another billion he’d put that money right to work putting Americans to work? Why can’t he do that with the $100 billion he already has?

Republicans keep telling us that if they give tax breaks to the wealthy they’ll put it to work, like another billion for Bezos. They have to be either nuts or liars. If you like nuts or liars, that’s your business. But the question is whether we are suckers.

Republicans want us to give the money to people who don’t need it in the hope that now, with even more money they don’t need, they might decide to go to the trouble of running another business and the other business would be somewhere in America and would use people and equipment made in America, or they might find others, like venture capitalists who might use the money in, by and for Americans.

Rube Goldberg, a giant of comedy who died in 1970, certainly would have gone that route in his satirical cartoons. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines Rube Goldberg as “a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.”

The Rube Goldberg website describes “A Rube Goldberg contraption” as “an elaborate set of arms, wheels, gears, handles, cups and rods, put in motion by balls, canary cages, pails, boots, bathtubs, paddles and live animals – [which] takes a simple task and makes it extraordinarily complicated. He had solutions for How To Get The Cotton Out Of An Aspirin Bottle, imagined a Self-Operating Napkin, and created a Simple Alarm Clock – to name just a few of his hilariously depicted drawings.”

Sound familiar? We could give large tax breaks to people and companies that don’t need it on the prayer that they would use it in helpful, constructive ways, and provide decent, useful jobs to Americans.

Or to get the economy going, nationally or locally, we could just do whatever was needed. Instead of praying someone else would do it with unseemly incentives, we could build roads, bridges, updated electrical grids, schools, universities and water systems, all of which would employ lots of people and provide the resources people and businesses need to function. We might even organize cultural attractions that make places more fun and attractive. Just last week the Times had a front and multipage article on the ways the New York City subways have been starved of maintenance dollars. We’re always postponing maintenance but what do we get for that – paying the rich more for the privilege of being their patrons?

People who tell you that we have to give tax breaks to people who have money lying around that they already don’t know what to do with are either Rube Goldberg creations, nuts or liars. If you like nuts, OK. If you like liars, that’s your business. But the question is whether we are suckers.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 28, 2017.


Beggars, Soup Kitchens and the Poor

November 25, 2017

I’ve noticed a lot more beggars on the streets as our politics have become increasingly stingy. I’ve seen that before and once mentioned it to a candidate for dean. His response was that we could ban them. I was happy we didn’t hire him.

Recently I saw one of my former students at a charitable sale at our Temple. She told me she frequently works at a soup kitchen and has been doing it for some time. Bless her. I mentioned the people standing out in the cold. She commented that more people come for meals during the summer. She suggested several possible reasons but wasn’t sure why. A couple of days later, Chris Shaw, who has also been cooking for and organizing soup kitchens, told me the difference is the school lunch program. The kids are hungrier during the summer, without lunch at school.

Recently I flew to L.A. on business and arranged to see Mitch Tarighati, another former student. He asked me what I wanted to see or do. I told him I was curious and wanted to see Tehrangeles, an area of Los Angeles populated by Persian shops and restaurants. My friend is Iranian-American, Muslim, a lovely guy and doing well. After showing me around, he took me to another area, looking for the beggars to help out. He tried to do it anonymously so they would not be embarrassed by his generosity. Actually, I think the poor appreciate eye contact, but my friend’s motives were pure gold.

Nobody stands on a street corner for hours for their health, especially in this weather. I’m satisfied they are in need. Begging is an equal opportunity task – white, black, men, women, people recovering from tragedies, girls who ran away from home, veterans, the disabled.

It used to be that political parties took care of people. They’d call one of their people and say so-and-so needs a job. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created programs to help the needy. But we’ve been taking that apart and little remains. Now it’s largely up to us, except that it’s beyond us.

That’s why I often discuss economic issues. We no longer talk about giving people jobs. It’s all about that impersonal force known as the economy. But the economy is heartless. And what we do for the economy doesn’t necessarily create jobs for the needy.

My family and I have been lucky. We’re celebrating 50 years of marriage. Our children are each doing what they enjoy. Our granddaughters are healthy. I’m conscious that those are blessings too many don’t enjoy. Luck doesn’t just come to the worthy nor tragedy to the evil.

I once commented in class that I understood that but for luck, or the grace of God, I could be in the position of the least among us. One student found that hard to accept. I think she was kind but naïve. My heart goes out to the less fortunate people out there struggling to keep body, soul and family together.

There are many ways to help. And we need to remember that the poor are with us all year.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 21, 2017.


Sloppy Thinking About Gun Control

November 14, 2017

After the car ran down people in lower Manhattan, I read an article about making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with the author’s suggestions but I want to make a point about arguments for and against. One could say that people with bad intentions will just find other ways to kill lots of people. True or false? Actually it’s completely misleading. How many people with bad intentions will find other ways and how many won’t? How many people will do as much damage to as many people and how many won’t? The statement that some will doesn’t tell you. And the claim that all will is pure nonsense.

In the early 70s, I was a manager of the New York City legal services program, then known as Community Action for Legal Services or CALS. We had twenty-two offices around the city. All of them were in the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the city. And in those pre-computer days, many of them had IBM Selectric typewriters which made our staff much more efficient but were expensive. Some thieves craved them. In our East New York office there had been a series of burglaries. After each we hardened the office against further break-ins. But those thieves were determined. Unable to get through the doors, they blew a hole through the wall and took the typewriters.

Obviously some thieves will use explosives. Should we have concluded that we might as well remove the locks on the doors of our twenty-one other offices? Plainly no. Nor would I recommend that you remove the locks from the doors of your homes. Nor would I recommend that you take all the shades and drapes down became peeping toms will find a way around them. Thinking about problems without examining how many, and what proportion of people will do how much damage is just sloppy thinking.

The NRA tells us that bad people will get guns. That statement is neither right nor wrong. If they mean some bad people will get guns no matter what we do, that is clearly true. But if they mean that whatever measures we take will not reduce the number of bad people who can get powerful weapons, that is clearly false. And they can’t tell us anything realistic about the proportions because they convinced Congress to block research into the effect of possible regulation of weapons. So they make sloppy statements hoping you’ll be taken in.

The Founders of our country were not so sloppy and they did lots to regulate guns – the most significant of which was to prohibit people from keeping ammunition in their homes. Ammunition exploded and caused fires so it had to be kept in public armories. Regulation mattered and they knew it.

So when people try to tell you what regulation will or won’t do, don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes with sloppy nonsense. Some regulations work better than others. That’s a valuable subject of research and study, not an occasion for sloppy all-or-nothing claims.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 14, 2017.

 

 


My introduction to Iran

November 10, 2017

With Iran in the news I’ve been remembering my own introduction to the country. Our group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Iran in winter, after the semester had begun where we were supposed to teach. We were taken to the home of Prime Minister Hoveyda and stood there not knowing what to do or say. As it happened, I was standing next to the Prime Minister. Looking down, I realized we were standing on a magnificent Persian carpet.

We have a friend here who admired the carpet of another Iranian who instantly responded it was his. Sure enough, when our friend Bob got home, there was the carpet, rolled up and leaning against a corner. Bob was beside himself, not knowing what to do. But his friend showed up a few days later and admired the carpet. It’s yours, Bob quickly responded and the carpet was returned to its proper home. But I didn’t know that in the Prime Minister’s house and barely understood their system of etiquette.

I’ve since learned that it’s risky to make small talk with someone much higher on the social ladder – in any country. But I didn’t know that yet.

So I admired the Prime Minister’s carpet. Understanding American culture much better than I knew Iranian culture, Prime Minister Hoveyda dropped to the floor, motioning me to join him. He then turned over a corner of the carpet and gave me my first lesson in distinguishing the quality of Persian carpets, turning what could have been my intense embarrassment into a warm introduction to Iran.

Our next stop was Shiraz, near the ancient capital of Persepolis, in the desert over four hundred miles south as the crow flies or something like nine hours by car or bus. We went to what was then named Pahlavi University, designed to be an American style institution. All but one of us had graduate degrees so that we could teach there. The students were required to speak English and spoke it reasonably well.

But this country hadn’t told Iranian authorities who was in our group, or what we were qualified to teach. University officials had asked for natural scientists and one art historian, understanding that art historians were broadly trained and could be versatile. We had an art historian and people in the natural sciences. But we had an equal number of people in social science, economics, history, law and politics. The Peace Corps, and the late President Kennedy, wanted to get Americans over as soon as possible. So who was available determined who we sent. That was a problem, however, so Peace Corps and diplomatic personnel neglected to convey the information.

Therefore we were taken to the Provost’s office. He assembled the heads of each of the departments at the University. After he explained the situation, he asked department chairs which of us they could use. Since their semester had begun, we would be underemployed for a while, but our hosts were gracious in helping us get our feet on the ground. By the end of the semester we enjoyed many friendships among faculty and students. Our welcome was warm even if a bit chaotic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 7, 2017.

 

 


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