Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sticks and Stones: How Hyperbole is Hurting America

In these recent weeks, the passage of new immigration laws in Arizona, continuing debate over healthcare, Tea Party protestors touring the country and the myriad other goings on in America, have set the infotainment industry ablaze with fresh fodder for their "intellectual" discussion.

Emotion-stirring issues like these usually lend themselves to all kinds of finger pointing and posturing from the opinionators and pundits of the media, with their comments generally landing somewhere between derisive to ad hominem. Normally, I don't mind the impassioned sword-crossing of ideological opponents; in fact, I generally think it is a sign of a healthy freedom of speech. However, recent comments have me worried that the state of political discourse is America has plunged to a new low.

Consider the recent deluge of dissent being thrown around the papers and television:

New York Times columnist Frank Rich charged the Tea Party protestors who had thrown bricks through the windows of congress members homes, with reenacting Kristallnacht, the two-night raid of Jewish homes and businesses prior to WWII that marked the genesis of the Holocaust.

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., has made similar comparisons, calling the countries failure to cover the uninsured, a "holocaust."

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson called the recent Arizona immigration law draconian, racist, oppressive, mean-spirited, unjust, xenophobic, unconstitutional and an abomination.

Jesse Jackson may well agree. In a recent interview on MSNBC, he said the new law is, "a form a terrorism."

Glenn Beck, in a discussion on his show about some Americans' distaste for the recent healthcare overhaul, compared the U.S. government to pedophilic rapist Roman Polanski, and the American people to a 13-year-old girl.

Maureen Dowd, another New York Times columnist, compared her own experience as a Catholic woman, to that of the subjugated women of Saudi Arabia, calling the Catholic Church, "an inbred and wealthy men’s club cloistered behind walls and disdaining modernity . . . an autocratic society that repress[es] women and ignore[s] their progress in the secular world."

If I may just briefly and respectfully offer some perspective: In this country, Ms. Dowd can say that. In this country, she can travel without a chaperone, drive a car, vote, use the internet and make love to someone of the same sex without fear of death, imprisonment or deportation. And perhaps most importantly given her charge against the Catholic Church, she can leave her religion.

These are of course just a few examples of the pabulum that is daily passed off as discourse in America. Certainly these people have the right to their opinions, but their choice of language and imagery is boorish, morally confused and dangerous. By using this emotionally charged language so cavalierly, they are striping the language of any meaning.

When uninsured Americans are compared to the millions of men, women and children that were exterminated in the Holocaust, then the word "holocaust" loses its significance, and the lives of the victims of that great evil are cheapened. When American taxpayers are compared to a victim of child rape, the true victims of that heinous crime are undermined.

Rhetoric is a wonderful part of American society, but if language is to retain any utility it must be measured.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Trenta vs. The Human Stomach (and Mind)

As a former Starbucks barista, I can't help but weigh in on the "Trenta," Starbucks' newest and largest drink size.
Ever since its announcement last week, the blogosphere has been buzzing with speculation, sneers, cynicism and incredulity.
"This must be a joke!" Some assert. "It's a publicity stunt." Others charge. "It's just another satirical meme." Others say, patting themselves on the back in celebration of their internet acumen.
But this is no meme. The 31 ounce behemoth (which is just slightly larger in volume than the average human stomach) will be available nationwide sometime in May. According to Starbucks, the Trenta will only be available for iced coffee, tea and juices, not for lattes, Frappuccinos and other milk-based drinks.
But does anyone really think this limitation will last? The rules of supply and demand are pretty simple, and I can't imagine Starbucks be able to resist the urge to charge $7 for a Frappuccino.
Don't get me wrong; I love Starbucks. I met my wife there, half my family has worked there at one time or another, and I think they treat their employees beautifully. But if they think customers won't demand their favorite drinks in the new coronary compromising size, they are fooling themselves.
"But no one would order that much milk in one drink," You say. Take it from someone who has worked there, they will. If you don't believe me, just take a moment to consider the super-sized society in which we life. Is a country that uses chicken breasts as buns for a beacon and cheese sandwich really going to forgo a quarter gallon of milk just on principal? Besides, it's not the copious amount of milk that should disturb you, it's the fact that some people will order it with half n' half and extra butter-caramel.
I can hear it now:
"Can I get a Trenta, breve, extra caramel, Caramel Machiato please? Oh, and can you go easy on the ice?" The customer asks.
The barista's eyes widen as she tries to calculate the amount of calories in the customer's request. She imagines the patrons plaque-packed artery walls, already about as thick as half-set Jello, and wonders if the drink will deny her heart the precious, red liquid-life it's already so desperate for.
As the barista tries to keep her lunch from coming back like a bad Michael Bay sequel, she asks the question she already knows the answer to. She doesn't want to ask, but her training takes over her mouth like a epileptic fit and she hears exactly what she feared.
The answer is nauseating, it's horrifying and yet, it's simultaneously puzzling. It is so counter to the human instinct to live that our barista friend now finds herself slipping away from consciousness, drifting like a sailless ship at sea, tossed by the waves, pulled by the tides, further from shore, away from the coffee counter and into the foggy unknown.
She begins to question everything she knows; her existence, the existence of others, of God, of the universe. The fog and the waves begin to overtake her as she feels her mind being pulled below the surface. Like the Titanic's iceberg, the customer's answer delivers a devastating blow to our friend, tearing a rift in her mind too deep to hold out the frigid realization of human mortality.
As she sinks deeper into despondency, the cold and crushing weight seems unbearable. Our once bubbly barista is now tumbling into despair, plummeting into nihilism. Her eyes, once sparkling with life and optimism, are now clouded with existential doubt, darkened by her new found truth; nothing exists, nothing matters.
"How could I have been so blind?" She asks herself. "How could I have ever believed in life, in love, in goodness?"
She sinks deeper and deeper into the cold darkness, further and further from that moment at the coffee counter, the moment that changed her life forever. As she approaches the depths of her own psyche, she finds a reality that she does not recognize, yet wonders if it is any less real than the reality from whence she came. "Maybe I should end it all," she thinks to herself. But does "it all" even exist?
"Excuse me... Did you get that?"
The customer's voice pierces the air like a sonic boom. The curious customer, now holding out her Visa Gold card, is wearing a look so evenly divided between perturbed and puzzled that each emotion seems to be worn on opposite sides of her face.
"Sorry," The barista replies. "What did you say?"
"You asked if I wanted whip," the patron reminds her. "I said yes; with whip please."
"Anything else?"
"Yes. Two glazed doughnuts."
The barista takes the card, swipes it, returns it with a smile and weeps inside...
All this so we could have seven more ounces of cold caffeine? If you want to order the Trenta America, go right ahead, it's a free country. But mark my words; if there is a sudden wave of barista depression and suicides, the blood's on your hands people.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Valentine problem: How the day of love is ruining romance

We all know that single people hate Valentine's Day and their reasons given are legion. For some it's personal; "I never have anyone on Valentine's day." Some blame capitalism for their distaste; "It's just a way for greeting card companies and florists to make money." Others, more honest, can even be malicious; "All these happy couples make me sick!"
But if you ask these same people (women especially) their feelings about Valentine's Day while they are in a relationship, you will get quite a different response. In fact, you'll hear them gush about how their boyfriend surprised them with dinner and flowers, swoon as they showoff the necklace he bought them and describe in adulation God knows what else. Yes, Valentine's Day reveals one of life's unfortunate truths; attitude is often spoiled by singltude.
While couples may have good reason for their adoration of V-day and singles their reasons for antipathy, relational status is not exactly a rational barometer for deciding one's feelings about a holiday. Besides, who wants to ride the rollercoaster of love-hate with an annual event?
My advice for couples and singles alike on Valentine's Day? Hate it. No matter what.
Now before all you couples discard my thoughts as the ranting of a misogynist hater, just hear me out. I did not come to this opinion lightly and it does not stem from the bitterness of a past burn; in fact, those who know me well would actually describe me as somewhat of a romantic. While I can't speak for all couples, as a man in a successful, long term relationship (over a decade of marriage), I think I have some credibility on this issue. Let me explain why I think the day of love is actually hurting relationships and stifling romance. (That's right romantics, I'm on your side.)
You see, in the romance department, most people are about as stable as a spastic colon. The flames burn hot in the beginning, but over time things naturally level out. Romantic gestures become a sort of maintenance rather than a desire, and the dinners, flowers and necklaces only serve as holiday highs in an otherwise tepid relationship. So often I see couples who express their affection through gift giving and grand surprises during Valentine's Day, and then treat their loved one as a buddy or roommate until the next holiday. Don't get me wrong, I am all for grand gestures, but why let "The Man" tell you when to do something nice for the person you love?
We should never think of romance like a to-do list and we certainly shouldn't need a national holiday to do something nice. Bring her lunch at work, bring him a cup of coffee after class, wear something "nice" for him just because, do the dishes and make breakfast for her while she sleeps in, (trust me guys, it's nature's most powerful aphrodisiac). $5 daisies for no reason mean a lot more than the obligatory $40 dozen roses on Valentine's Day.
I'm not saying you should just ignore Valentine's Day if you are in a relationship, but for the sake of your Valentine, don't just check it off the list. If you have someone in your life, make sure they know your happy about it all year long.
Keeping the fires burning can be a lot of work, but take it from someone who knows, that work pays dividends.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Capitalism is the worst...

The following post is a response to an article by Paul Krugman of the New York Times, which explores economic inequality in the United States. While he attempts to look at the "big picture" causes of this trend toward economic disparity, his conclusions are self-deluding at best. I have included excerpts from Krugman's article throughout, but lest you think that I am taking it out of context, please feel free to read it before you proceed to read my post.

This was indeed an interesting read, and I would like to take some time to analyze this piece. Krugman seems to know beyond any reasonable doubt in his mind that he not only knows the cause of economic inequality, but the cure as well. Let’s take this one piece at a time and see if we can’t find some holes in his argument.

During the introduction of the tracking chart in this article, Krugman makes the following statement:

“The chart shows the share of the richest 10 percent of the American population in total income – an indicator that closely tracks many other measures of economic inequality – over the past 90 years, as estimated by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.”

I had to wonder who these economists were that he cited, since the source of information is always relevant to an argument. Had he cited Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh, I’m sure we would have raised an eyebrow. Even using Robert Nozick or John Rawls, would have been cause for pause given the fact that his article is centered on economics and policy. The problem is that no one has ever heard of Piketty or Saez, so for most people it just reads, “Economist X and Y.”

A quick google search reveals that Piketty has actually written several books on economics, or more precisely, on economic inequality and redistributive policy. Here are a few titles he penned:

Unequal Democracy: The political Economy of the New Gilded Age
Rogue Economics: Capitalism’s New Reality
Social Mobility and Redistributive Politics

And the list goes on.
In the introduction of his book, The Economics of Rising Inequality, Piketty writes, “Capital market imperfections make inequalities more persistent, this phenomenon may lead to multiple steady states. A high inequality society will remain so precisely because it redistributes less.”

Okay, I can live with Krugman sighting a socialist since I’m sure his second source is on the other side of the political spectrum. Let’s see... Saez is a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, so I’m sure he’s to the right of Piketty. Here is a little excerpt from an article they wrote together called, Response by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez to: The Top 1% . . . of What? By ALAN REYNOLDS:

“The reduction in taxes at the top since 2001 has mechanically exacerbated the discrepancy in disposable income between the rich and the rest of us. Thus, it is obvious that the progressive income tax should be the central element of the debate when thinking about what to do about the increase in inequality. Even conservatives like Alan Reynolds would agree and that is why they prefer to dismiss the facts about growing income inequality rather than face the debate on income tax progressivity at a time of growing economic disparity.”

Okay, so maybe Krugman just got off on the wrong foot with his sources. Let’s see where he goes from here. Krugman talks about his experience growing up in the 60s in this article, and it is a time it sounds like he wishes to return. (If you didn’t know already, I’m sure by this following statement you can assume that Krugman is not black.) He says, “It was a society without extremes of wealth or poverty, a society of broadly shared prosperity, partly because strong unions, a high minimum wage, and a progressive tax system helped limit inequality. It was also a society in which political bipartisanship meant something: in spite of all the turmoil of Vietnam and the civil rights movement, in spite of the sinister machinations of Nixon and his henchmen, it was an era in which Democrats and Republicans agreed on basic values and could cooperate across party lines.” Ah yes, basic values that Krugman cherishes like male female marriage, and restricted abortion.

Do any of you buy that for a second? I’m not saying Krugman is lying to us here, only that he is lying to himself. His memory is selective to say the least. He remembers what he wants, he remembers the best parts of his growing up, he even goes so far as to recreate the cause for those good times; unions, high minimum wages, and progressive taxes.

Krugman continues, “I believe that politics has also played an important role in rising inequality since the 1970s. It’s important to know that no other advanced economy has seen a comparable surge in inequality – even the rising inequality of Thatcherite Britain was a faint echo of trends here.”

But did inequality rise in Britain under Thatcher? Depends on who you ask I suppose. David Brooks, a man of the right I will admit, points out that, “Some economists believe we should reduce inequality by restructuring the economy — raising taxes on the rich and redistributing money to the poor. That's fine, but it won't get you very far. In Britain, Gordon Brown has redistributed large amounts of money from rich to poor regions, but regional inequality has increased faster under the current government than under Margaret Thatcher.” (This is from Brooks’ article, Of Love and Money. A good read I might add.)

I believe the real question is this: What are the goals of the right vs those of the left? I would argue that the primary goal of the right is creating wealth, while the primary goal of the left is redistributing wealth. The left’s goal sounds far nobler, however, equality doesn’t tell you much about location does it? Regardless of intentions, the left will not bring the poor’s standard of living up; rather they will bring everyone else down. Everyone on the bottom economic rung is not an equality I am interested in.

Too often we think of economics like a pie; a few have big slices, a few have little slices, and everyone else has middle-sized slices. If we just took a little pie from the people with big slices and gave it to the people with little slices, we would all have an equal sized slice right? I wish that was the case. However, when you knock down the people who are actually making the pie and giving themselves the biggest piece, they stop making so much pie. In the end we all end up with shriveled pieces, and the incentive to reach for a bigger slice no longer exists. By no means am I advocating total laissez-faire capitalism, but the dangers of redistributive policy need to be addressed.

Let me just say before I go on that I believe Krugman is an intelligent, well-intentioned person. While I don’t agree with his ideas, I do not question his motives. I have a passionate belief that guides me in disagreements. This belief is this: The people with whom differ are either evil, ignorant, or very smart but have simply arrived at a different conclusion then me. I try to assume that latter. One can assume from the following that Krugman does not share this belief. For Krugman, conservativism is THE irrefutable problem with our system. It is the cause for not only economic inequality, but also for the political partisanship that is preventing us from making progress. He writes, “Because of movement conservative political dominance, taxes on the rich have fallen, and the holes in the safety net have gotten bigger, even as inequality has soared. And the rise of movement conservatism is also at the heart of the bitter partisanship that characterizes politics today.”

Really? Conservatives are at the heart of the bitter partisanship that characterizes politics today? Sure Rush and Hannity say some pretty stupid things, but they are just windbag commentators. Meanwhile you have the head of the DNC saying that conservatives don’t care about kids going to bed hungry, and Barney Frank calling Justice Scalia a homophobe. Think about it for a moment; conservatives (at least conservative that are actually voted in to an office to speak for the party) tend to attack policy, while liberals attack the person postulating the policy. I would accept the argument that both conservatives and liberals are too partisan, but I don’t see how anyone could look at the two groups objectively and conclude that the conservatives are the real bomb throwers.

In the end, I think Krugman makes a good emotional plea for economic reconstruction, but I don’t see much in the way of rational support for this plea. Most people would like to see a measure of economic equality, but how much can you have without destroying the economic stability of the country? Again, I don’t question his intentions, but I do question his logic. We don’t have to like capitalism, but we better have an alternative that can actually work before we throw it out. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, capitalism is the worst form of economics, except for all others that have been tried.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A logical appeal to an emotional plea

In the interest of continued postings, I am yet again publishing one of my essays. This a response paper to Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickle and Dimed, On Not Getting By in America"
As always, I welcome and encourage counter arguments.

When you think about poverty, you probably do not picture someone working a full-time job. Most people envision someone living in a homeless shelter or panhandling near a busy intersection of town. However, poverty affects far more than just the unemployed, and perhaps even more than the national statistics reflect. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed, she takes a closer look into the world of the average minimum-wage worker and finds that the rising costs of basic needs like housing, childcare, and healthcare have taken many Americans to the brink of poverty and beyond. Ehrenreich presents an array of problems with the current minimum-wage system and convincingly argues that it is our moral duty to address them. Where Ehrenreich struggles however, is with possible solutions outside of her own political views. She suggests what would amount to a complete restructuring of the American labor system, but fails to offer any convincing argument that it would have any hope of working. The minimum-wage problem is bigger than partisan politics, and her narrow view of possible solutions would likely lead to more problems than they would fix. The system may well be broken, but it is not beyond repair as Ehrenreich suggests. There are many right-now solutions that can help to improve working conditions for minimum-wage workers, and barriers can be removed that may be keeping people from climbing the economic ladder. This must all be balanced with a healthy dose of reality, recognizing that naive idealism is no substitute for steady progress.

There are many areas where working conditions can be improved with little or no negative side effects on employers or the economy. Ehrenreich points out several areas where employer expectations are unreasonable, and these should be addressed. In Ehrenreich experience as a waitress in Florida for example, she explains that, “Employees are barred from using the front door” (16), and even when they are off-duty, “Barred from eating at the restaurant” (23). In Maine where Ehrenreich worked as a maid, “The rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid’s lips when she’s inside a house” (82). As Ehrenreich suggests, and I believe most people would agree, these rules are not only unnecessary but unkind. They make employees feel like the proverbial redheaded stepchild; like second class citizens who do not deserve to mingle with the normal citizenry. Ehrenreich also exposes unfair employer expectations in her Wal-Mart experience in Minnesota. Employees are expected to maintain a specific dress code, but for some that dress code is simply out of reach, as Ehrenreich points out, “At $7 an hour, a $7 shirt is just not going to make it to [the] shopping list” (159).

Clearly these are very real problems that should be addressed, but as is frequently the problem with Ehrenreich’s approach, no solutions are offered. She believes that these problems are simply inherent in the minimum-wage world, and are offered up as a condemnation of the bourgeois rather than as a problem to overcome. A solution is not so far out of reach however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for instance was designed to deal with issues of worker’s rights, and should always be considered when discussing working conditions. Since its inception the EEOC has expanded into many areas regarding workers rights, not only creating and enforcing laws, but also supporting litigants in court (Commission).
Barriers that can stifle the ability of the minimum-wage worker to move up the economic ladder should also be addressed. In order to tackle this issue we must first establish what these barriers are, and then determine their severity. In the interest of honesty and clarity, let me begin this argument by stating that I believe class mobility is 10 percent circumstance and 90 percent determination. This belief may well cloud my vision on the matter, but I will endeavor to use only logic and objectivity in place of my personal feelings. It will be up to you, my reader, to determine my success in this.

One of the primary barriers for a minimum-wage worker to overcome is their parent’s economic status. In fact, Enrenreich contends that, “In poverty, as in certain propositions in physics, starting conditions are everything” (27). I will grant that starting conditions are something as it relates to poverty, but they are not everything. Enrenreich not so subtly suggests that there is not much hope for someone who is born into a lower economic class, pointing to education as one of the few means by which one can escape from poverty. In fact, education is often held to be one of the most important barriers to overcome in order to move up the economic latter, and for good reason. Todd Stinebrickner, professor of Econometrics and Labor at the University of Western Ontario has stated that, “There is a considerable earnings variation among individuals with college degrees” (Economics). He goes on to say that, “These issues are especially important to students from low-income families, who are less likely to complete college degrees than students from other backgrounds” (Economics).

Ehrenreich includes low access to education in her long laundry list of problems that the minimum-wage worker faces, but mentions it only offhandedly rather than discussing specifics. She stacks education on what she sees as a mountain of evidence against a flawed system that leaves the poor out in the cold. I suspect she glosses over the topic of education because significant efforts are already being made in this area. Government and private financial aid for low income students is staggeringly high, with over $80 billion annually in financial aid coming from the federal government alone (Federal Student Aid).

Enrenreich also glosses over other areas that do not fit her “broken system” message. She dismisses a Time magazine story from June of 2000 showing that Minnesota’s welfare-to-work program had sharply reduced poverty, saying that it, “was a pilot project that offered far more generous child care and other subsidies than Minnesota’s actual welfare program” (Ehrenreich 218). I hardly see this as a cause for dismissal, but rather a reason for reflection. If this so-called pilot project did indeed have a positive impact on the poverty rates, then why not discuss this as a possible part of a greater solution? Put simply, it is because this small step toward progress does not comport with her radical reconstructionist views. Ehrenreich is not looking for renovation, she is looking for revolution. Her radical views are also made apparent by her belief that drug testing and prisons are simply tools of repression, and that management and the police are the beneficiary “agents of repression” (Ehrenreich 212-213).

Ehrenreich is so blinded by her militantism that she even resorts to subtle deception. She quotes an Economic Policy Institute study that “$30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children” constitutes a living wage (Ehrenreich 213). This amounts to about $14 an hour, and according to the study would be enough to cover basic needs like housing, health insurance, and childcare, but little else. Ehrenreich goes on to say that, “The shocking thing is that the majority of American workers, about 60 percent, earn less than $14 an hour” (213). Did you catch the sleight-of-hand there? Neither did I the first time I read it. The parallel language distracts you from thinking anything is amiss. What you read is that a family needs $14 an hour, but 60 percent do not receive it. What you likely did not notice is that the $14 an hour figure is based on a single adult with two children, while the “shocking” 60 percent is based simply on the American worker.

Ehrenreich gets braver as she progresses through the book, going from disingenuous to downright dishonest when she states that single mothers, “have nothing but their own wages to live on, no matter how many mouths there are to feed” (213). This is simply not true. There are many private and government programs available to women with children who need assistance. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for instance, “Provides Federal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk” (USDA). There is of course always room for progress in the many systems already in place to aid the poor, but these systems should be evaluated and improved rather than thrown out and replaced as Ehrenreich suggests.

Amid all this discussion of imperfect systems and class struggle, it is important to note that while there are legitimate concerns about class barriers, mobility does exist. In The New York Times written book Class Matters, one of the authors chronicles the life story of John Zannikos, “An illiterate [Greek] immigrant who came to New York years ago with nothing but $100 in his pocket and a willingness to work etched in his heart” (DePalma 112). He worked his way up in the restaurant industry through hard work; learning English as he went from dishwasher to short-order cook, and from small restaurant owner to successful entrepreneur. My father too, shares a similar story. He started as a janitor in a grain inspection office and over a period of years worked his way up into upper management.

Stories like these are at the heart of the American dream, but some dismiss these as anecdotal evidence that may actually be problematic to society. In Class Matters, another author states that, “These success stories reinforce perceptions of mobility” (Leonhardt 19) and labels this perception as, “Blind optimism” (Leonhardt 26). But are these merely misplaced perceptions, or justified hope? Mobility may not be as fluid or common as we would like, but it does nonetheless exist. In fact, many in America have apparently been vindicated in their optimism. In a 2005 survey by The New York Times “45 percent of respondents said they were in a higher class than when they grew up, while just 16 percent said they were in a lower one” (Leonhardt 10).

Renovation of the current system is certainly needed, but the principals of utility necessitate the use of reason over passion. While Ehrenreich presents many valid critiques of the minimum-wage system that need to be addressed, her well-intentioned suggestions would make matters far worse. Her suggested sharp increases in minimum-wage and social programs for instance, would force companies to raise prices and lay off employees in order to recover their costs. This would inevitably lead to a market stagflation; that is, higher prices but no new jobs. While some on the lower rung would now be able to live at a slightly higher standard living, we would be putting millions of people out of the job market, and consequently off the economic ladder all together. A balanced approach to improving working conditions for the minimum-wage worker should therefore be our primary short-term focus, and increased class mobility our long-term greater goal. While simple reparation certainly lacks the excitement of Ehrenreich’s proletarian revolution, it is our best hope for sustainable progress.

Works Cited
Commission, Equal Employment Opportunity. U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 22 1 2009 .
DePalma, Anthony. "Fifteen Years on the Bottom Rung." Times, The New York. Class Matters. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005. 112.
Economics, Gatton College of Business and. University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research. 22 1 2009 .
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.
Federal Student Aid, Free Application for. About Federal Student Aid. 7 4 2008. 22 1 2009 .
Leonhardt, Scott , David, Janny. "Shadowy Lines That Still Divide." Times, New York. Class Matters. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005. 10.
USDA, Food and Nutrition Services. Women, Infants, and Children. 19 12 2008. 23 1 2009 .

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Fairness Doctrine

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that started in 1949 and placed broadcast guidelines on private radio and television stations regarding content. This policy was an attempt to prevent one-sidedness of ideas given the limited number of frequencies available to the public. The Fairness Doctrine required that for each minute of coverage on a potentially controversial issue, an equal amount of time must be given to the opposing view, thereby limiting agenda driven social influence by the media. The Fairness Doctrine was later dissolved by the FCC in 1987 after deeming it unnecessary given the large amount of growth in radio and television channels, and the broad range of alternative media options that had since become available. (Hershey, 1987)

Though the abrogation of the Fairness Doctrine greatly eased restrictions on radio and television, it by no means was an end to content regulation. The equal opportunity provision of the Federal Communications Act, better known as the equal time rule, remained relatively unchanged. The equal time rule requires that radio, television, and cable stations treat legally qualified political candidates equally in regard to selling or giving away airtime. (Klieman, Museum of Broadcast Communications)

There is now discussion to bring back the Fairness Doctrine to help broaden the ideas presented in the media, particularly on talk-radio. On the surface the Fairness Doctrine seems not only fair, especially given the name, but also reasonable. After all, frequencies are limited, and the public needs to hear both sides of a given issue lest a dominant view become the dominant dialog. To fully understand this complex issue, three key questions must be explored. First, what important developments have been made since the 1940s in communications? Second, who would decide what is objective and what is partisan opinion? And third, can the Fairness Doctrine actually achieve its goal of stimulating broader dialog in the media? By examining these questions we can see that the Fairness Doctrine is not only unnecessary, but also unconstitutional.

While the Fairness Doctrine at its inception seemed necessary given the limited means of communication at that time, much has changed since it was issued in 1949. Thanks to the technological revolution, society today does not face those limitations. Internet news and blog sites, Cable TV, e-mail newsletters and periodicals, satellite radio, and others have been added to the already established newspaper, television, and radio mediums. In fact, in 1987 when the Fairness Doctrine was dissolved there were more than 1,300 television stations and over 10,000 radio stations in America, all subjected to restriction by the FCC through the Fairness Doctrine. This in contrast to only 1,700 daily newspapers that were exempt from these restrictions. (Hershey, 1987)

With other forms of communication now more widely available, the Fairness Doctrine has become even more unnecessary. Kevin Martin, the current FCC Chairman wrote in an open letter to Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, “Indeed with the continued proliferation of additional sources of information and programming, including satellite broadcasting and the internet, the need for the Fairness Doctrine has lessened ever further since 1987.” (2007)

The second issue that arises with the Fairness Doctrine is the question of who would monitor the media and distinguish between opinion and objectivity. This of course would be the government through the FCC, a patent infringement of the freedom of speech promised by the first amendment of the Constitution. Though the intention of this infringement would be to provide “fairness”, it is tantamount to government censorship of ideas and precisely what the American founders fought against. As Thomas Jefferson asserted, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” (1900)

If the President of the United States appoints the head of the FCC, and the FCC regulates the media content, who is actually regulating the media? This concept is elementary; the more regulatory power granted to the FCC, the more regulatory power ultimately in the hands of one person. With the Fairness Doctrine granting the FCC the power to refuse broadcast licenses to companies who do not comply with FCC regulation, the government would have the power to silence any opposition it deemed “unfair”. Fairness is a high value, but fairness is in the eye of the beholder; this is why freedom must supersede fairness.

By no means am I asserting that our government is tyrannical, but a free press is our most powerful safeguard against the development of such a government. As Justice William Douglas once said, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” (1951)

Perhaps the most devastating argument against the Fairness Doctrine is that it is incapable of achieving its goal. While the Fairness Doctrine was designed to promote open debate and to present a broader range of ideas to the public, the opposite was observed during its practice. Anytime a broadcaster covered a potentially controversial story, they risked being forced to give away an unknown amount of air time to opposing views. This is relatively easy to comply with if there are only two sides to an issue, but this is rarely the case. “There is more than one way to skin a cat”, does not imply that there are only two ways. Apprehensive of facing either legal battles with special interest groups seeking what amounts to free air time, or penalties from the FCC that could include the loss of their license, broadcasters began to avoid potentially controversial issues. According to Diane Killory, the FCC general counsel at that time, these policies, “Completely frustrate the goal of the doctrine to foster robust debate and diversity of views.” (Hershey, 1987)

This idea that government restriction can produce fairness is predicated on the idea that the government is fair minded; however, as previously mentioned, fairness is quite subjective. Recent comments by Republican Whip Trent Lott highlighted this problem. After a 2007 immigration reform bill died on the floor of the Senate, Lott lamented in an interview, “Talk-radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.” (Zeleny, 2007) This would be a difficult position to defend given the fact that talk-radio hosts overwhelmingly support school vouchers, greater restrictions on abortion, and the fair tax just to name a few; however, these are conspicuously missing from any current major legislation. As Lott later said of talk-radio in a particularly eloquent moment, “When they’re with you, it’s great. When they’re not, it’s not good.” (Murray, 2007) Truer words may not have been spoken, but that is the nature of the press, not a problem to be dealt with.

As has been laid out in these arguments, the Fairness Doctrine was justly repealed by the FCC. The developments in communication now provide the public with broad access to ideas and have clearly rendered the Fairness Doctrine obsolete. Further, reinstating the Fairness Doctrine would be neither logical, given its inability to achieve its goal, nor constitutional, given its method of enforcement. An unrestricted press, as imperfect as it may be, is the only means by which people can compete in the arena of ideas. Our founding fathers understood the temptation of government suppression which is why the freedom of the press transcended law and was made a constitutional right. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Fisher Ames, member of the first Congress of the United States, was correct in his description of the press when he said it is, “A precious pest, and a necessary mischief, and there would be no liberty without it.” (1809)

Works Cited
Ames, F. (1809). Works of Fisher Ames. T.B. Wait.
Douglas, W. O. (1951, December 3). American Liberty Association. Retrieved July 25, 2008, from
Hershey, R. D. (1987, August 5). New York Times. F.C.C. Votes Down Fairness Doctrine In A 4-0 Decision .
Jefferson, T. (1900). The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia. (J. P. Foley, Ed.) London, England: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
Klieman, H. (n.d.). Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 7 12, 2008, from
Martin, K. (2007, July 23). Retrieved July 25, 2008, from
Murray, J. W. (2007, June 20). Republicans Hearing Static From Conservative Radio Hosts. Washington Post .
Zeleny, R. P. (2007, June 15). Senate Leaders Agree to Revive Immigration Bill. New York Times .

Monday, May 12, 2008

Affirmative Action and Discrimination

Affirmative action entered the public forum in 1961, when John F. Kennedy issued an executive order (1) creating the, President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. This committee was directed, “immediately to scrutinize and study employment practices of the Government of the United States, and to consider and recommend additional affirmative steps which should be taken by executive departments and agencies to realize more fully the national policy of nondiscrimination within the executive branch of the Government.” (2) While the focus of this executive order was primarily on government contractors, the administrations purpose in forming the EEO was to expand nondiscrimination into US law. Three years later in 1964, the civil rights act was passed into law and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed.

The EEOC was to become the leading enforcement agency of civil rights laws. Though it lacked any real enforcement power, (such as the ability to fine or jail those found in noncompliance) the commission did make progress in desegregation. It focused on defining discrimination in the workplace, assisting private litigants in federal courts, and seeking conciliation with employers to desegregate their companies. The EEOC also expanded its efforts into educating the public, seeking voluntary compliance through print and video media, as well as hosting educational conferences. (3)

Both the necessity for and the good produced by affirmative action at its conception is undeniable. Almost 100 years after the civil war, and nearly 50 years after the nineteenth amendment was ratified (the amendment allowing women to vote), inequalities remained in many companies, educational institutions and in many areas of society. Without laws to protect the rights of minorities, and some form of accountability for institutions that violated those rights, change did not seem to be on the American horizon. The goal of affirmative action at its establishment is clear, the question remains however, has it worked?

There are a multitude of elements and arguments to consider in answering this question, however for the sake of brevity I will explore the three that I believe are key to illuminating this issue. These are: Can affirmative action achieve its goal of equality? Should affirmative action have an expiration date? And, What is the logical outcome of affirmative action? I will be focusing primarily on race-based affirmative action since to discuss it in its entirety would take a book not a paper. This is by no means an exhaustive study, but will serve as a foundation for the consideration of this important issue.

To begin, an important distinction needs to be made between two key terms that are sometimes conflated in this debate; nondiscrimination and affirmative action. Nondiscrimination is self-definitional, and is simply the act of not discriminating based on a person’s race, sex, religion, politics, etc. This is foundational to the Constitution, central to our American values, and is held in my estimation to be a nonnegotiable moral necessity. Affirmative action, which is sometimes wrongly used interchangeably with nondiscrimination, is actions taken to enforce nondiscrimination.

On the first question, can affirmative action bring about equality? I would argue that history has responded with a resounding NO. While affirmative action began nobly as a drive toward equality, it has become something very different. Instead of considering all people as equals, it divides people into categories based on all of the things that it contends at the same time people should not be judged on. This can be seen in many universities that maintain “quotas” for student enrolment. (While quotas are illegal in the US, the term is sometimes grayed by points systems that award students bonus points on applications based on race.) In short, it seeks to achieve racial equality through inequality. Further, if race is not an issue then why is race a question on virtually every college application?

To the next question, should affirmative action have an expiration date? The affirmative action that was created in the sixties to desegregate America has long since disappeared, and the affirmative action that has emerged in its place is divisive and should therefore expire. Equality through discrimination is a contradiction in terms, and that is what affirmative action has become today. The goal of affirmative action to protect the rights of minorities through state and federal laws has been achieved, but instead of fading into the background as progress is made, its advocates continue to divide America. Courts have gone from trying cases of discrimination, to cases of reverse discrimination. Instead of minimizing differences affirmative action serves only to magnify them, fanning the small flames of racial tensions that still exist.

Admittedly, there is much disagreement on what level or racial tension does exists today, and on this matter I believe good people can differ. Some like Rev. Jeremiah Write and Rev. Jesse Jackson view racism in America as endemic, while others like Justice Clarence Thomas and Sen. Barack Obama see racism as the aberration. Racism has always and likely will always exist to some degree, the question is, does it exist to a level that warrants affirmative action? I would argue that it does not, and that continuing focus on unimportant differences like race only serves to divides people.

To the last question, what is the logical outcome of affirmative action? Following affirmative action to its logical conclusion is a perpetuation of division. Affirmative action has suffered from what is known as the law of unintended consequences. What its founders intended to use as an axe to cut down our long past of racism, has become a wedge that threatens to keep us divided forever. Affirmative action and equality are mutually exclusive, and the inequality that it produces breeds racism. If preferential treatment is given to certain groups, how is one to view a person from that group who achieves success? The question in the back of many peoples' minds is was their success earned, or given? Preferential treatment not only devalues the success of minorities, but also sends a mixed message. Out of one side of our mouth we say that we are equal, and out of the other side that minorities can't achieve their goals without a handout.

On an emotional level affirmative action can be well argued as a moral good, but on an intellectual level its outcome is contrary to its intentions. This begs the question, what chance do we have at equality if we continue to focus on our differences? If equality is truly our intention, then it will only be fully realized by truly treating people as equals.

(1) Presidential E.O. 10925
(2) E.O. 10925 part 2 section 201