Monday, April 18, 2005

Moral bankruptcy

The Republicans' "decision" (reflex is probably a better word) to crack down on bankruptcy filings (Bracing for the bankruptcy bill) follows on the moral footsteps of the "Class Action Fairness Act" (AKA tort "reform"), and is a harbinger of the coming repeal of the "death tax." The majority cites "fairness" and the ever-popular "individual responsibility" as justification for these, although you might ask: When fairness benefits primarily the wealthy and corporations, and removes safety nets for the already fragile working class, is it still "fair"?

Half the bankruptcies that the bill gets "tuff" on are the result of medical emergencies, while most of the rest are the result of job loss and divorce. Congress chose to reject provisions that would provide protection in the cases of medical emergency, and for seniors trying to keep their homes. Meanwhile, credit card companies (who lobbied heavily for this) continue to earn record profits pandering to the credit-unworthy. This bill helps them lessen their risk and increase their profits. Fair?

Comments on "fairness" from Bankruptcy bill or welfare for usurers?:

Consider this: The Senate rejected a measure to cap credit-card interest rates at 30 percent.

As Travis Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America noted, lenders "have it within their power to control the bankruptcy rates by controlling their practices."

When Washington pushes for more responsibility among debtors, but not loan-shark-like lenders, when its "ownership society" principles don't make big corporations own up to their role in the bankruptcy problem, the GOP is toadying to big business. (Ditto the 18 Democrats and one independent senator who voted for the bill.)

"Tort reform" might be equitable if it had any impact on corporations, which file roughly 75% of all civil lawsuits, consuming publicly-funded court time - but it doesn't. It restricts individuals in class action suits, one of our few remaining checks on corporations' abuses. Fair?

The "death tax" is claimed to possibly maybe bankrupt some farms - although no actual case has been cited (as we've seen from the Republican Noise Machine, facts wilt before repeated cliches). The estate tax affects roughly 19,000 people, and apparently the major moral issue is that if the tax stays intact, wealthy heirs (once again, the wealthy benefit) won't be quite as far ahead of poor heirs as they used to be. Meanwhile, lost taxes will be paid by our children and grandchildren in the form of debt. Fair?

The results of all this fairness are predictable: It's better to be poor in Norway than in the US and Industry Secrets (Scary Debt Stats). This at the same time that the U.S. pays extremely high rates for healthcare yet ranks poorly among other industrialized nations, despite having the best-trained practicioners and best medical infrastructure - adding, of course, to medical bankruptcies. Fair?

It's no wonder W talks about "private accounts" as apparently the only significant part of an "ownership society." We no longer own our government, if we ever did.

More on toughening bankruptcy laws: The Bankruptcy Bill: a Tutorial in Greed and The Debt-Peonage Society and Bankruptcy Bill is Congress' Shame.

More on tort "reform": Tort 'Reform' Triumphs and The Hypocrites Of Tort Reform.

More on the estate tax: True to Ritual, House Votes for Full Repeal of Estate Tax.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The death cry of education and achievement

I just stumbled across Michelle Malkin's The death cry of snob journalism, referenced on our local radio host Jim Quinn's, and it nicely encapsulates the growing contempt Americans have for education, achievement, and professionalism. Not quite what she intended, I hope, but instructive nonetheless. From her article:

Dan Rather, Professional Journalist, and CBS News, Professional News Network, want us to keep believing that they are the ordained purveyors of truth. ... The wall between the self-anointed press protectorate and the unwashed masses has crumbled.

Self-annointed? Journalists work to develop skills collecting, verifying, and analyzing data, and presenting issues clearly. This discipline, however easy to dismiss and difficult to appreciate, is a wall between professional journalists and the unwashed masses, as it is in any field - unless you think Sam the Butcher could do a bang-up job with your next triple-bypass, since he can probably make those cuts just like a surgeon.

In failing to make a distinction between a discipline and practicioners, Malkin falls into knee-jerk anti-elititism appealing to the unaccomplished, underskilled, and undereducated. Apparently in America, it's OK to be studious and learned, just not too much, in case you outgrow yer britches.

Questioning "experts" is fine when one has a basis for questions and critiques, and god knows experts can be arrogant; that has no bearing on their correctness. The growing tendency for slavering masses to dismiss "experts" outright, based on their education and expertise (from which arrogance can now apparently be inferred) rather than a reasonable doubt, is pathetic and frightening. The ability to click a mouse and post a blog entry doesn't mean the post has any value.

Then Malkin launches into a romantic description of blogger derring-do:

Bloggers take orders from no one. But with that irresistible platter of publishing freedom comes a tall glass of responsibility. For serious blogging pundits and news-gatherers and discussion board operators, cyber-cred is everything.

It's far, far easier to spray tripe (even easily-refuted tripe) than to analyze and refute it - especially when you're just one in a sea of sprayers. And for the average person (remember the consumer?), reading a limited number of information sources per week, how are they to decide, track, follow up? Journalistic integrity is what helps us turn a sea of he-said-she-said into something converging on truth.

And it's silly to assume that, because Malkin might be a "serious blogging pundit," that they all are. Malkin would probably admit that blogdom is a heterogeneous stew of personalities, so they also have individual motives. Has no blogger ever been motivated by cash, by notoriety, by ideology, or by party loyalty? "Cyber-cred," whatever that is, isn't everything, and Malkin's implication that CBS and company "spin" while bloggers report only "The Messy Truth" is, if not nonsense, irrefutable spin.

Blogs are a godsend for journalism: hundreds of fact-checkers rabidly attacking news stories can only be an advantage for seekers of truth, as it was in pointing out CBS's severe lapse of judgement. "Relentlessly unmasking the frauds of snob journalism" is a good thing, although her use of "snob" is a bizarre indicator of motive. Fraud is fraud, isn't it? Or is it worse when the perpetrator is a snob? Maybe we oughtta knock them old boys down a peg?

But washing over the puddle of fact-checking bloggers comes a sea of spinners - those with no desire to objectively present facts, including those like Matt Drudge who regurgitate reports with no concern for source or accuracy. Perhaps objectivity is a statistical function of this sea of blogs - but since no one has time to even skim all these sources, professional journalism remains valuable.

With amusement, I have watched my colleagues in the Old Media fight every democratizing and choice-enhancing trend during the dozen years I've spent in the information business.

Choice and "democratization" are good, all other things being equal, but can erode value in favor of palatability. News now competes with entertainment, forcing an evolution into programs that people choose over others - not necessarily that which is informative. And Malkin appears to infer virtue and value in La Resistance (flashy new trends), based purely on her amusement.

They scoffed at Rush Limbaugh as a flash in the pan (and have searched in vain for a commercially viable liberal counterpart for the last 15 years). They sneered at The Drudge Report (then bookmarked his site for hourly reading).
Here Malkin again confuses democracy with demagoguery: Rush Limbaugh, by his own words, is an entertainer. Large chunks of Drudge's spew are refuted daily, some of which are posted quietly on his site days later; do his readers care? While facts can be entertaining, entertainment requires no standards, merely a subjectively rewarding end result. If Malkin believe Limbaugh to be in the "information business," would she deem it as necessary to apply the standards of fact-checking to Limbaugh and Drudge as they were (correctly) to Rather?
They sniped at Fox News (then ripped off every one of Roger Ailes' innovations). They mocked the insurgent New York Post (as their own circulation figures and ad sales tanked).

Surely Malkin doesn't confuse the thirst for circulation and ratings (and hence dollars) with a thirst for the truth? Apparently not; by labeling the Old Media as "frauds" in her article, then pointing to their emulation of "New Media," she indicates that fraud is the future, if not our present.

Bush's National Lampoon: European Vacation

Bush's recent romp in Europe - an attempt to convince "Old Europe" that despite our actions and policies and words that we really are the defenders of peace and freedom and capitalism and motherhood and apple pie - may have underachieved, showing that Dear Leader is consistent. Some summaries of the results of his adventures follow.

From Lost in Europe:
At the last minute he rescued his summit with Vladimir Putin, who refuses to soften his authoritarian measures, with a step toward safeguarding Russian plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons production. This programme was negotiated by Bill Clinton and neglected by Bush until two weeks ago.

Putin's crackdown on dissent and democracy generates some "concern" by the administration, but apparently no more than the un-democratic practices of Pakistan,Turkey, Egypt, etc. Either good allies are hard to find, or easy for this administration to lose.

Ceasing the finger-pointing is the basis for European consensus on its new, if not publicly articulated, policy: containment of Bush. Naturally, Bush misses the nuances and ambiguities.

The Europeans have committed their credibility to negotiations, the Iranians have diplomatic means to preclude unilateral US action, and Bush - who, according toEuropean officials, has no sense of what todo - is boxed in, whether he understands it or not.

And from Bush's Geopolitical Legacy:

Apparently, he [W.] thinks that he will be remembered for advancing "liberty"
in the world, and perhaps particularly in the Middle East. This seems to me most unlikely. I think he will be remembered for having anchored a major geopolitical shift that will be lasting - the Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis.

What happened after 2001 is that George W. Bush, in his failed attempts to intimidate western Europe and Russia, accomplished the remarkable feat of speeding up the divergence between Europe and the United States to a point where a major fissure is in the process of being consolidated.

There will be three geopolitical stories to watch. One will be the economic competition between Europe and East Asia for the central role in the accumulation of capital in the coming decades. ... The second will be the struggle of what might be called some middle economic powers that are also regional giants - India, Brazil, South Africa, at least - to maintain their balance and assert their role (and alliances) in this new geopolitical arena. The third is to see how the United States will be able to adjust to these new realities in which its real and perceived role will be much less than it is now.

And last but not least, referenced from the excellent, George W. Bush, Europe's Godfather in Spite of Himself:

The United States settles for aspiring to global hegemony, marginalizing the United Nations, rejecting a multi-polar world and seeking to impose, problem by problem, the formation of coalitions over which, by happy coincidence, it systematically presides. Faced with this imperial, not totalitarian - an appreciable difference - but nonetheless authoritarian, Republic, Europe has but a single alternative: unite or obey.

What the European Council of Heads of Government never was able to do, George W. Bush succeeded in achieving: the citizens of all of continental Europe and a good number of Britons, whether their governments were left or right, whether their Prime Ministers had committed themselves in the American wake or had refused, all these citizens purely and simply rejected their choices and American methods. George W. Bush was midwife to the birth of a European public opinion.

It's fascinating how quickly Bush Ltd's extremist approach to the world outside Crawford, TX has polarized it against America. As we anger growing economic giant China by mincing words on Taiwan and encouraging Japan to militarize, and alienate Europe through contempt for Kyoto, the U.N., the International Crimincal Court, etc., we may find ourselves sucking hind teat on the tripolar sow. And as India's recent partnership with China shows (India, China declare a trade partnership), even friendly nations are starting to think that the costs of alliance with the U.S. don't justify the shrinking benefits.