Showing posts with label Agnotology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agnotology. Show all posts

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Alternative Reality

It's easy to be cynical in this presidential election year, the rhetoric and posturing of the scripted, agnotological "debates," the Super PAC ads, the robo-calls, the deluge of direct mail, sending out those sound bites to "the undecided."  But what would this election cycle be like if McCain had won in 2008?  Ironically, it would have been the Democrats finger pointing about the economy because we'd probably be in a similar situation, or worse, who knows -- it's impossible to prove an alternative reality, but we can speculate.

The debt Romney carps about was first ramped up by the Treasury Department of the previous administration, not by Obama, with the enactment of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008 to stabilize the financial system and it was quite necessary at the time.  Jobs were falling off the cliff before Obama took office. Our financial system was in melt down.  And what would have been a McCain administration response as that crisis just continued to deepen?  Go into an austerity spending mode?  Cut taxes?  No, that would have been impossible.  The time for government to reign in its spending is when the economy is NOT falling off the cliff and even a Republican administration would have had to take similar action (and the Federal Reserve's Ben Bernanke was an appointee of the Republican administration as well).

Reviewing some of the more distant past, Clinton enacted tax increases in 1994, mostly on high income earners. Eventually, those, as well as a booming economy (note, no loss of jobs due to raising taxes on the upper 1%), turned around President George Bush Sr.'s deficits into surpluses. After three consecutive years of national debt reduction under Clinton, the surplus in 2000 amounted to $230 billion. 

The first fiscal year impacted by George W. Bush's tax cuts was 2002 when the surplus swung to a $159 billion deficit, a $286 billion negative change from the previous year.  True, we were now embroiled in the war on terror, but the administration persisted on raising the stakes with tax cuts.  Bush said while campaigning for a local Alabama congressman. “In order to make sure that our economy grows, in order to make sure the job base is strong, you need to have a congressman who will join me in making sure that tax relief plan we passed is permanent and doesn’t go away.”  Where were the jobs after nine years of this "temporary" but massive tax cut, mostly benefiting the upper 1%?

When Paul O'Neill, Bush's Treasury Secretary, argued against a second round of tax cuts, VP Cheney purportedly said "You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. We won the mid-term elections, this is our due."   This was Cheney speaking, not some liberal Democrat. O'Neill said in an interview "It was not just about not wanting the tax cut. It was about how to use the nation's resources to improve the condition of our society. And I thought the weight of working on Social Security and fundamental tax reform was a lot more important than a tax reduction."  For that view, O'Neill was eventually fired.

Obama clearly underestimated how long it would take to reverse years of deficit spending, not only his administration's (necessary as the private sector was not spending), but his predecessor's as well. (He also didn't anticipate being stonewalled by Congress.)   But if McCain had defeated Obama in 2008, he would have inherited the same mess and today we might have Hillary Clinton running against McCain (or Palin or Romney) making some of the same arguments about fiscal responsibility being spun by Romney. 

As I said, it is hard not to be cynical about this particular election, but I respect Paul O'Neill's admonishment:  "It was not just about not wanting the tax cut. It was about how to use the nation's resources to improve the condition of our society." That is why I support President Obama and hopefully in a second term he would have Congress' cooperation to achieve some fundamental tax reform and make inroads in controlling the growth of entitlements. 

And last night, as I was preparing to post this, a bit of serendipity led me to watch the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, it depicts Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter who is found in a jail by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who she enlists to sing and talk on a local Arkansas radio station, he ultimately rising to the pinnacle of media demagoguery.  He is nicknamed "Lonesome" Rhodes by Marcia, and she goes on the journey with him from obscurity to fame to fall.  

The relevancy of this film, made more than fifty years ago, to today is striking.  Lonesome is drawn into the political arena, and is brought in to help transform the film's Senator Worthington Fuller into a Presidential candidate.  Lonesome instinctively and sardonically understands the manipulative power of language and media. 

When he first meets the Senator, he advises him to abandon his stiff personality and give himself over to Lonesome's control:  "...Your problem is getting the voters to listen to you. Getting them to like you enough to listen to you. We've got to face it, politics have entered a new stage, television. Instead of long-winded debates, the people want slogans. 'Time for a change' 'The mess in Washington' 'More bang for a buck'. Punch-lines and glamour....We've got to find  a  million buyers for the product 'Worthington Fuller'....Respect? Did you ever hear of anyone buying any product beer, hair rinse, tissue, because they respect it? You've got to be loved, man. Loved....Senator, I'm a professional. I look at the image on that screen same as at a performer on my show. And I have to'll never get over to my audience not to the millions of people who welcome me into their living rooms each week. And if I wouldn't buy him, do you realize what that means? If I wouldn't buy him, the people of this country aren't ready to buy him for that big job on Pennsylvania Avenue....I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion...a force. A force."

To Marcia he says :"This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!....Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me."

An actor on Rhodes' show asks him about Senator Fuller: "You really sell that stiff as a man among men?" Lonesome Rhodes replies: "Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got 'em like this... You know what the public's like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good Night you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers."

'Nuff said before next Monday's "debate" after which the "undecided" can flap their flippers.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Milestone and Miscellany

After my last post, Google informed me that was Lacunae Musing’s 300th entry, a milestone of sorts.  When I began this blog almost five years ago, I had no idea where it might lead or, even, whether it would merely be a passing dalliance.   I had discounted writing about investments, something I know enough about to be dangerous, or about publishing, which, when I retired, I knew a lot about, but by the time I began to write in this space, the publishing world had changed dramatically.  Nor did I want to espouse only political views, although I’ve posted my share on the topic.  No, I wanted to write something that simply expresses my interests (as well as my views) and experiences (including some family history) and, perhaps, along the way make a small contribution on the WWW. The one thing I wanted to avoid is turning it into a job; I have no hidden agenda, no source of income from this effort.  There is only the satisfaction from writing, and having a “written trail” – a form of accountability, an intellectual balance sheet that is auditable.

As far as blogs go, mine is but a minor star in a minor universe.  Comparing this blog’s statistics to those of my blogging “hero” – to me the “father” of the investment blog—Barry Ritholtz’s The Big Picture -- shows the stark differences between a blog written by an erudite professional such as Ritholtz, and an unfocused personal blog.  It is like comparing the New York Times to a mimeographed newsletter (does the mimeograph still exist?).  Google tells me that I’ve had 25,000 page views now. Ritholtz’s blog has had 5,000 times more (and well deserved)!

Of course, I don’t view this as a competition, but it puts my humble contribution in perspective. Going back to Google’s statistics, the most viewed pages of my blog were mostly about trips we’ve taken, people presumably landing on those pages as they are contemplating (or have taken) similar ones. (In October when we will return from visiting Norway, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland and I’ll look forward to posting a write up with plentiful photographs.).  Just for the record, here are the five most read pages:

Feb 10, 2011; 1101 Page Views

Feb 17, 2011; 796 Page Views

Oct 10, 2009; 710 Page Views

Aug 8, 2011; 512 Page Views

Apr 21, 2011;  418 Page Views

Late in the game I began to add labels to the entries as the eclectic nature of the blog needed some sort of thread to tie everything together.  Unfortunately, as much of this work was done retrospectively, it isn’t a true index because of inconsistencies.  But it does give a handle on the contents with more than 350 labels.

I haven’t incorporated the popular “comments” feature in the blog as I just did not want to deal with reader’s comments publicly.  That felt like work to me.  My email address for the blog is in my profile (, and I’ve received and responded to comments that way.  It certainly cuts down on casual comments when someone has to not only write an email, but identify him/herself as well.

The political season is heating up and I’m so disgusted with Super Pac advertising, and the unbearable rhetoric from both sides of the aisle that I doubt whether I will be as engaged in these blog pages as I was during the last presidential (and historical) election cycle.  To make my personal views clear, I think President Obama, given he is a mere mortal, has done about the best he could given the economic mess he was handed and the political roadblocks thrown at him.  But his campaign rhetoric has also worked against him, promising too much.  Also, I’ve criticized some of his priorities in these pages, so it is not as if I am a raving liberal.  I like to think of myself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal and one might say that the two are not compatible; I think intelligent compromise can transcend many of the disagreements that are aired like dirty laundry in the media.  Of course, there are also the lunatic fringes and there is no compromise possible with them.

In fact, I recently learned, there is actually a word to describe this endless obfuscation of the truth -- Agnotology: Culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth.

And to whom do I give a hat tip for this morsel of incredible insight? -- Barry Ritholtz! (Who, in turn gives full attribution to the word’s creator, Stanford historian of science Robert Proctor.)  Ritholtz uses the term as but one element in his recent entry Defective Government By Design   asking the rhetorical question, “Is it democracy or plutocracy when less than 200 people drive election spending in a nation of 300 million?”

This entry is about the rise of corporate power and the Super Pac -- implications that are onerous for democracy.  I’ve written about it before, but if you land on this entry and want to know more, go to the foregoing Big Picture link.

Agnotology.  You hear and see its practice every day......say the lie often enough, and in as many forms as possible and voila, it suddenly becomes “the truth”.  In fact, innuendo works as well or even better than saying the lie straight out.

Here’s an example, the Daily News’ agnotological headline, “How many more must die, Mr. President?” – as if the horrific tragedy in Colorado is somehow the President’s fault.  If Obama had a magic wand, he would probably outlaw assault weapons, but he has a Congress to deal with, the NRA, and, of course, State’s rights.  It was theSupreme Court of Colorado which upheld a state law that allows residents to carry concealed weapons, even in schools!  But a glance at the NY Daily News headline plants an agnotological subliminal message.

That is the brave new political campaign world for 2012, different than it was in 2008, although that one too was quite ugly.  I will be relying on Fact to winnow truth from agnotological fiction.