Saturday, June 30, 2012

Trusting the Media

When I was in graduate school, they taught us how to do academic research.  Up until this point, using secondary sources, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica and popular magazine articles--so long as cited when used--were fair game for writing research.  We were taught that primary sources were more important.  Further, secondary sources can be used, but these should be double checked for accuracy and reliability of authorship.  I'm not sure why these were such breakthroughs for me, but they were.

These points were brought home recently while learning about the Supreme Court opinion concerning the Affordable Care Act.  Initially, the media reported its prediction of how the case would hash out given the tone of the arguments before the Court.  The consensus was that the ACA wouldn't pass because of the way the questioning went.  A few days ago I listened to the audio of the hearings for myself.  It was very clear from the arguments that there was no clear direction the Court was headed.  It could have went either way.  A first year law student could have told you that, but apparently, the legal scholars interviewed by the media had a different opinion.

Next, we have the ACA decision itself.  Coverage by the media was horrendous.  At first, CNN and Fox News literally reported that the ACA was overturned.  They weren't even in the ballpark.  Then, they amended their coverage, but this new "reporting" was hardly better.  Just as President Obama said that we must focus not on the political horse race concerning this decision and be mindful of what this means for the uncovered 30 million Americans who will now have access to health care, the media immediately reported the decision, focusing only on the political implications of the decision.  Whether or not the decision was a good one for the vast majority of Americans, what it would mean for future federal law, Federalism, and other issues weren't reported.  Apparently, these substantial, non superficial matters don't deserve reporting. The most startling difference was the comparison between National Public Radio and Fox News.  NPR is supposed to be unbiased, highbrow reporting.  After reviewing both pieces, the only difference between the two was that NPR didn't use it as an opportunity to bash Obama.  Neither one reported anything substantial.

In fact, to get an idea of what the Supreme Court decision actually meant, I had to read the decision myself.  Having gone to law school and taken Constitutional law, I have some background in these things and could do it.  But what about your average citizen, one who hasn't gone to law school?  The media and its failure to properly report the news is a real detriment to our democracy.  In fact, its failure to serve its institutional role as an informer is actually helping to undermine real democracy.  A citizenry left in the dark cannot meaningfully participate in the government.  That is why our country is so fucked up now.

Having read the decision, and having given the matter a few days, you would think the news coverage of the events would have improved.  Maybe some real analysis would be reported.  While things have improved somewhat, most of the coverage, even by major periodicals like the New York Times, was still sparse given the real "meat" of the decision.  Again, the focus remains whether or not this is good for Obama and what Romney has to say about it.  Perhaps this is the point--by concentrating on the horse race between the two candidates, we can hide the real issues.  We don't get to ask the real questions about what the Commerce Clause and the Spending Power are, or what the implications of this decision will mean for real people.

This is exactly the way the system likes it.

Supreme Court opinion re: Affordable Care Act

Supreme Court oral arguments re: Affordable Care Act

Monday, June 25, 2012

Schools Aren't Businesses

The problem is that schools cannot be run like businesses because they don't produce commodities. Learning is not similar to widget making. Schools are challenged with training all children, some of whom have serious learning disorders, home problems, and other behavioral issues that keep them from learning. Blaming teachers is not the proper path to take. Yet this is the route we have gone so far. Teachers are forced to work not with the best materials, but with frail human beings. The truth is that learning is not efficient, immediately profitable, or subject to "bottom lines", despite our best efforts to measure the immeasurable. You mention that business is more "efficient" than government with an excess of bureaucrats. Actually, business in this respect is completely inefficient. Corporate CEOs make salaries in the millions, and employ armies of middle managers at high salaries. This is hardly efficient. In fact, the only reason corporations now seem efficient is because they are outsourcing jobs, which cannot be done in the teaching profession. The costs are externalized to the populace while the profits are privatized. "School choice" and vouchers increase competition and reduce cooperation. Cooperation is about sharing ideas and learning. Competition results in reduced teaching outcomes. Vouchers and school choice are really just the means used by neo-conservatives to weaken the public education system, which is already taking a beating by tax reductions and tuition increases at the college level. Our public education system is being crushed. The rich don't care, because they have money to send their children to private schools. The last thing we need is less schooling in the name of "choice." When schools aren't measuring up, we need an increase in democracy--namely, the involvement of the community, not more private schools and the defunding of the public school system, which makes the matter worse, not better.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Free Market Fundamentalism

Once again in the presidential campaign, the so-called conservatives keep clamoring for the virtues of the "free market."  Apparently, the capitalist marketplace--you know, the one that brought us the Great Depression, the housing bubble, and our failed privatized health care system--is some paragon of virtue and goodness that will bring us earthly utopia.  Ever since the Great Depression, no one has taken laissez faire capitalism seriously.  It has been understood that a mixed system of government regulation of the market has helped balance a system that would otherwise move from boom to bust and cause great devastation in its wake.  The deregulation of the Reagan and Bush years caused a serious rollback of health and safety protections, along with social spending cuts that helped keep childhood poverty and hunger at Third World levels.  Not to be outdone by our archenemy Cuba, our health and mortality outcomes are much worse, even though our economy is massive compared to that tiny, impoverished island.

Now it appears that our corporate bought Supreme Court might overturn the minimal protections to the populace at the hands of the inefficient health insurance industry passed in the Affordable Care Act.  Another step backward for a country that is as far Right as it gets.  Part of the problem is that many Americans have a warped sense of freedom.  This shows the current media supported indoctrination system works well.  People believe that if they have to pay taxes, purchase insurance, or if an employer has to provide them minimal health coverage, that somehow this violates their "freedoms."  Freedom means nothing if you lack power.  If someone else has the "freedom" to take advantage of me, that reduces my freedom--it doesn't enlarge it.  When corporations are declared "people" and have the same rights as people, they actually end up with more rights and can become bullies.  A corporation lives forever, it can be in several places at once, cannot be easily killed, and can aggregate resources at a level that no individual could compete with.  This isn't a person--this is what we call a god.  The new American gods have the right to buy elections, take away our jobs, move production overseas, and dictate policy.  By virtue of their strength, they can take advantage of those who have the same freedoms as them.  After all, an indentured servant and a chattel slave are practically in the same position.

Much of this has to do with our society becoming very atomized.  Trade unions, churches, and civic organizations used to be much stronger.  These organizations proved to be a strong countervailing force against the corporate elite and their public relations industry.  These organizations have been decimated over the last 30 years.  Add to this the Apple ethic---the myth that what you buy is an expression of who you are as a person.  If I buy Apple, for example, I am someone who supposedly "thinks different."  Judging by their sales figures, everyone in America must be thinking differently lately.  Companies will have us believe that our true selves are expressed not through civic engagement, creative activities, or our personalities, but through what we consume.  As people become more materialistic and less other-focused, they also become more individualistic and more selfish.  This helps feed the warped sense of freedom that Republicans like to peddle for their own interests.  In actuality, private corporations and the free market are actually more tyrannical and anti-democratic than government.  A corporation is a hierarchical, privately held tyranny.  It is not transparent.  Management makes the decisions on its own.  There is almost no accountability to the public.  The government, by comparison, is much freer.  At least the government is accountable to the people.  It is more democratic.  If we don't like what Exxon or GM does, that's our problem.

If people think business is efficient, then try to call the telephone company, your cell phone carrier, or your health insurance company and solve a problem.  If you get a human on the telephone, you are lucky.  Of course, once you do, they are going to transfer you ten times because no one is empowered enough to solve your customer service problem.  The entire system is designed to only solve a very narrow range of issues.  Anything beyond that, and you are fucked.  And why shouldn't you be?  It is more cost effective for them to use computers and Indians who can't speak English than to hire American workers who are permitted to solve problems.  The costs are externalized to you.  Never mind if you have to wait on the telephone for 3 hours to get a response, or whether your time and effort is wasted.  That doesn't influence the corporate bottom line.

Those opposed to health care reform say they think the government shouldn't intrude and the market should determine health care distribution.  The problem is that the market is too inefficient to deal with the human side of the health care crisis.  As human beings, we don't deny emergency care to those who cannot afford to pay because we believe in the value of human life.  The same goes for those with preexisting conditions.  Republicans claim that high risk pools will lead to the reduction of health care costs because insurers will compete for the business of sick people.  This proposition is laughable.  The reason insurers won't cover those with serious illnesses is because it costs them too much money.  They aren't going to compete to cover massive expenses for those with cancer, AIDS, and heart disease.  This means the sickest of people won't get the proper preventative and maintenance care that will lead them to have less costs in the future.  So instead of giving $1 test strips to diabetics, we'll wait until they will need dialysis and then put them on government assistance.  Or instead of giving anti-hypertensive drugs to those with high blood pressure, we will wait until they have a stroke and require life-long nursing home care.  That's "personal responsibility" and "market discipline."  The good old invisible hand at work.  The same goes for the purchase of healthcare mandate.  People claim their freedom is impeded if they have to purchase health insurance.  But isn't your freedom hindered anyway?  How free are you if you have to stay at a shitty job that you hate just because your employer pays for your health insurance because you cannot afford  health insurance on your own?  What if we had single payer health coverage--then people could actually start their own small businesses, go back to school, or stay home to raise their children.  But Republicans don't care about these values.  If they did, they wouldn't be fighting against the public option or the single payer option.  

Or take Social Security.  It is entirely self-funded and incredibly efficient.  Administrative costs are less than 3%.  It helps the old and disabled have a minimal income so they don't starve.  With the right reforms, it could continue indefinitely.  But Republicans have us believe that it is bankrupting this country and needs to be privatized.  When the next market crash comes and millions of old and disabled people are left without the basics of subsistence, well, that's their problem.  They have to rely on private charity.  No nanny state for those entitled parapalegics demanding basic care.  They also need to learn personal responsibility and the values of market discipline.

America is a pretty fucked up place.  While we do have some real freedom in the area of free speech compared with very oppressive countries like France or Red China, we have some very backward notions of freedom when it comes to our sense of economic social justice.  It is surprising how many working class adults vote against their interests on a regular basis, all out of a warped sense of freedom and morality.  Maybe one day, when this country has become a Third World type nation, with the top few percent living in walled cities and the rest living in total squalor, they will wake up--but I highly doubt it.  Once they can't afford the newest iGadget from Apple, then the true social reforms will begin.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Enough About the $^^$$*!#@ Cloud Already!

Every time I read a news magazine, turn on the radio, or read tech magazines, I keep hearing about "The Cloud," and all the wonderful things it is supposed to do for me.  It's apparently bigger than Windows 95, which we all remember involved promotion by the cast of "Friends."  No doubt that hip, good looking 90's people were heavy Windows 95 users.

The idea behind it is that large corporations with excess server space want to sell you some of the storage space to make money.  Amazon, for example, has huge amounts of storage space and wants to rent out more.  Google, Microsoft, and others are looking to join the bandwagon.  With the cost of storage dropping each year, this makes plenty of sense for them.  But "The Cloud" is like soybean oil.  What used to be the garbage they threw away, corporations decided to turn into liquid gold--with a little marketing.

Here's the problem--I don't need the fucking cloud.  I don't want corporate America holding my precious data.  As a lawyer, my client files are precious and need to remain secure--that means me controlling them with encryption.  I don't need some Third World hacker breaking into Apple's Cloud and stealing my data, thank you very much.  Life is hard enough.  I don't need security concerns as well.  If NASA can be hacked 6 times in one year, I have no faith in Apple or Microsoft to do better, especially Microsoft, considering how terrible Vista was.

It may not seem like it, but Facebook won't last forever.  And if I count on it to store my precious photos, I may end up with nothing.  I can buy a 3 TB drive that will hold hundreds of thousands of photos, hours and hours of video, and thousands of photos for $140 and the price is decreasing every year.  By the time I fill that extra hard drive up, I will be able to get a 6 TB drive for the same price.

Not to mention upload time--cable broadband Internet is great, but the upload times are not.  Time Warner throttles upload speeds so people don't run a server from their homes.  This means my large video files would take days to upload to the Cloud.  No thanks, I don't have that kind of time.

Part of this Cloud nonsense is designed to sell us more expensive gadgets at higher cost.  So instead of just putting a huge hard drive into an iPad or laptop computer, Apple or Amazon can sell you a cheaper device with less storage capacity under the guise of the item being a Cloud capable device.  It's like the self-checkout line at the grocery store--they are passing the cost of checking you out to you and trying to make that a selling point.  In reality, you are paying the same or more to get less.

Even if the Cloud were a great idea--which I don't believe it is--I refuse to succumb to the hype.  Give me my hard drive or give me death!  Or, even better, I will use the Cloud when you pry my hard drive from my cold, dead fingers!