Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Denialist Demagogues and the Threat to Science

by Donald R. Prothero

Shortly after Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy for President of the United States, he made additional news by not only topping the field of GOP Presidential candidates in denying climate change, but upping the ante by claiming it was all made up by a conspiracy of greedy scientists. The same position has been articulated by all the GOP candidates except Jon Huntsman. That one of these people could very well win the presidency in 2012 should worry us with not only their ignorance of science, but the even more alarming tactic of using ad hominem and “shoot the messenger” tactics to try to discredit the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists around the world.

That consensus is well represented in James Powell’s new book, The Inquisition of Climate Science, a masterful compilation of nearly all the evidence, not only for the reality of anthropogenic global warming, but especially answering point-by-point the ridiculous attempts by climate deniers to cloud and distort the issues by raising one bogus charge after another. As many people have noted, the global warming deniers use many of the same tactics that creationists use to attack evolutionary science. These tactics include quote-mining statements out of context (the entire “climategate” email kerfuffle, which Powell shows was nothing more than careless use of language); and cherry-picking data and repeating discredited statements even though they’ve been debunked (such as the false meme about “it’s been cooling since 1998,” perpetuated by right-wing media again and again). There are many other similarities between the tactics of evolution-deniers and climate change-deniers, many of which are documented in Powell’s book in great detail.

As Powell points out, the idea that climate scientists are a global left-wing conspiracy to get rich and enforce a liberal agenda is laughable on the face of it. In my own career, I have come to know hundreds of natural scientists (geologists, biologists, chemists, and physicists in many subspecialties), and if there’s one thing they almost all share, it’s a lack of interest in politics and economics, let alone a unified socialist-communist agenda. Many got into science specifically because they weren’t interested in economics and politics, and had a gift or love for doing science instead. What they are committed to is a sincere love of the truth, and a willingness to make sacrifices of their time, money, and even comfort and personal safety to find out what is really true about nature, no matter whose agenda it might support. Only rarely do most of us think about possible political or economic implications of our research. Typically scientists try to downplay those aspects because they don’t want to attract attention or controversy! If you doubt this, just look at all the negative comments that scientists heaped on Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould because they were willing to be public figures and occasionally step into the political spotlight!

As Powell argues persuasively, the very idea that a scientific community, which is built upon the foundation of peer review and challenging accepted ideas and always double-checking each other's work (especially if you disagree), would be able to put together a giant conspiracy about the data and cover it up—and that normally conservative organizations, from the insurance companies and big corporations such as General Electric and the U.S. military (all of whom have acknowledged the reality of global warming and are planning their futures around the projections of climate scientists) would all be in on the conspiracy—is ridiculous in the extreme. This shows a complete lack of understanding of science and how the scientific community really works.

Order Merchants of Doubt from Amazon

This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, because global warming denialism is entirely a PR campaign and a right-wing/energy company conspiracy, not a legitimate movement that arose from dissenting climate scientists. As Oreskes and Conway documented from memos leaked to the press and published in their book Merchants of Doubt, in April 1998 the right-wing Marshall Institute, SEPP (Fred Seitz’s lobby that aids tobacco companies and polluters), and ExxonMobil, met in secret at the American Petroleum Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. There they planned a $20 million campaign to get “respected scientists” to cast doubt on climate change, get major PR effort going, and lobby Congress that global warming wasn’t real and was not a threat. Then there was the famously cynical 2002 memo from GOP pollster and spinmeister Frank Luntz to the Bush White House:

The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science… Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.

Powell also documents that the climate science community is not “leftist” or “pursuing a socialist agenda.” In my own career, I have known both conservative and liberal scientists (but no outright communists or socialists), despite the claim that we’re all left-wingers. Some of the leading figures in climate research, such as Kerry Emanuel at MIT, are staunch Republicans. Again, global warming cannot be a left-wing ideology if it is accepted and acted upon by such major conservative organizations as insurance companies, major corporations, and the U.S. military. There are scientists who do have strong political opinions, but as scientists we try our best to prevent our political biases from influencing our scientific results. We’re human, of course, so occasionally research with a political agenda does get published—but then the rest of the scientific community will jump in and criticize it, so we don’t get away with our biases for very long. Finally, the idea that scientists do this to get rich is the most absurd charge of all. Most scientists must endure a grueling 5–7 years in graduate school on miserably small stipends to earn their Ph.D. Then we must live on paltry teachers’ salaries or even more tenuous “soft-money” grant funds to eke out a living. Most of the scientists in faculty posts don’t make six-figure incomes until they are near retirement, if ever. Meanwhile, people who spend much less time in grad school, such as lawyers and MBAs and politicians, make the really big bucks.

As Powell puts it (p. 189):

Scientists…show no evidence of being more interested in politics or ideology than the average American. Does it make sense to believe that tens of thousands of scientists would be so deeply and secretly committed to bringing down capitalism and the American way of life that they would spend years beyond their undergraduate degrees working to receive master’s and PhD degrees, then go to work in a government laboratory or university, plying the deep oceans, forbidding deserts, icy poles, and torrid jungles, all for far less money than they could have made in industry, all the while biding their time like a Russian sleeper agent in an old spy novel? Scientists tend to be independent and resist authority. That is why you are apt to find them in the laboratory or in the field, as far as possible from the prying eyes of a supervisor. Anyone who believes he could organize thousands of scientists into a conspiracy has never attended a single faculty meeting.

Powell’s main point is that the current right-wing attack on climate science is very similar to how the Inquisition threatened Galileo because he spoke truth to power. Ironically, Rick Perry even managed to further emphasize his ignorance of science when in a recent debate that he said1 he admired Galileo and how he “was outvoted for a while.” Bad analogy, Rick! If Perry actually knew any science, he would realize that Galileo was championing an unpopular scientific idea (heliocentric solar system) that was “outvoted” by the conservative power of that time, the Catholic Church and the Inquisition. Eventually, scientific truth won out, not the political delusions of the conservatives.

As Powell documents, the right-wing fringe has gone to extreme lengths in their hostile attitude toward legitimate science. The FBI has reported2 a sharp increase in death threats and hate mail and intimidation against prominent climate scientists such as Michael Mann, James Hansen, and others. Australian climate scientists have also received death threats.3 The transition from conservative climate denialist to a dangerous anti-Semitic hate group is not difficult. One white supremacist website posted Michael Mann’s picture and those of other climate scientists and labeled it “Jew”. (In fact, most climate scientists are not Jewish, but the facts don’t matter to racists and anti-Semites). Another climate scientist told ABC News that he found a dead animal placed on his doorstep, and now he must travel with a bodyguard.4 As Mann said, “Human-caused climate change is a reality. There are clearly some who find that message inconvenient, and unfortunately they appear willing to turn to just about any tactics to try to suppress that message.”

Human-caused climate change is a reality. There are clearly some who find that message inconvenient, and unfortunately they appear willing to turn to just about any tactics to try to suppress that message.

—Michael Mann

Even more frightening are the right-wing politicians and pundits who actually target prominent scientists for intimidation. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is one of the most brazen. He listed the name of 17 prominent climate scientists5 and claimed that they engaged in “potentially criminal behavior” for violating the Federal False Statements Act. This is the classic tactic of McCarthy-style witch hunting, or analogous to how conservative authorities (such as the Inquisition) threatened Galileo with torture when he dared speak scientific truth to power. It has a tremendously chilling effect on science, not to mention what it does to the personal lives of hardworking scientists and their families. Of course, it is an entirely baseless charge, since the truth lies with the scientists, and it is Inhofe who is distorting reality. Nevertheless, an anti-scientific troglodyte like Inhofe is capable of wasting a lot of scientists’ time and money fighting and defending charges in court or in Congress, not to mention the fact that all these scientists could now be targets of gun-toting crazy right-wingers.

Scariest of all is Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. As Powell explains in detail, even before his election in 2008, he was known to be an extreme right-winger, and now he is abusing the powers of his office to push his agenda. He is suing6 to release all the raw data and emails collected by Michael Mann when he worked at the University of Virginia. (Mann is now at Penn State, so Cuccinelli cannot touch him there). Cuccinelli hopes to find some sort of “smoking gun” of conspiracy along the lines of the East Anglia “Climategate” scandal. This is despite the fact (as six independent commissions showed), there was nothing amiss in the emails, and no conspiracy was discovered, just careless and colloquial language quoted out of context. Given the right wing’s scientific incompetence and misinterpretation of the East Anglia data, there’s no reason to think that they will have any better ability to interpret Mann’s data, should they release it. Instead, we can expect that they will find things that fit their preconceptions without any scientific expertise to judge the data in the first place. Cuccinelli is trying to claim that Mann committed fraud and should return all the research money he received, along with legal fees and triple damages. Cuccinelli’s actions are part of a right-wing witch-hunt by an extremist politician who is using his relatively obscure position as state attorney general to further his political career. It is consistent with all the other ways he is using his office for political gain and street cred in the right-wing fringe. His crusades have ranged from the silly (trying to cover the naked breast of the crude sketch of the goddess on the Virginia state seal) to the serious. The latter include directing public universities to remove sexual orientation from their anti-discrimination policies, attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, filing a lawsuit challenging federal health care reform, and trying to reverse George Mason University’s policy about concealed weapons on campus. Polls7 show that the voters of Virginia are tired of his antics and want him to work on the job that most state attorney generals are paid to do: prosecuting criminals and corporations on the behalf of the state and enforcing state laws, not tilting at right-wing windmills.

One of the more measured and non-partisan analyses came from Nobel Prize-wining economist Paul Krugman:8

Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, isn’t a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. And that’s too bad, because Mr. Hunstman has been willing to say the unsayable about the G.O.P.—namely, that it is becoming the “anti-science party.” This is an enormously important development. And it should terrify us. I could point out that Mr. Perry is buying into a truly crazy conspiracy theory, which asserts that thousands of scientists all around the world are on the take, with not one willing to break the code of silence. I could also point out that multiple investigations into charges of intellectual malpractice on the part of climate scientists have ended up exonerating the accused researchers of all accusations. But never mind: Mr. Perry and those who think like him know what they want to believe, and their response to anyone who contradicts them is to start a witch hunt. So how has Mr. Romney, the other leading contender for the G.O.P. nomination, responded to Mr. Perry’s challenge? In trademark fashion: By running away. In the past, Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, has strongly endorsed the notion that man-made climate change is a real concern. But, last week, he softened that to a statement that he thinks the world is getting hotter, but “I don’t know that” and “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans.” Moral courage! Of course, we know what’s motivating Mr. Romney’s sudden lack of conviction. According to Public Policy Polling, only 21 percent of Republican voters in Iowa believe in global warming (and only 35 percent believe in evolution). Within the G.O.P., willful ignorance has become a litmus test for candidates, one that Mr. Romney is determined to pass at all costs. So it’s now highly likely that the presidential candidate of one of our two major political parties will either be a man who believes what he wants to believe, even in the teeth of scientific evidence, or a man who pretends to believe whatever he thinks the party’s base wants him to believe. And the deepening anti-intellectualism of the political right, both within and beyond the G.O.P., extends far beyond the issue of climate change. Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.

Order The Inquisition of Climate Science from Amazon

As a counter to the GOP’s inquisition of climate scientists, let us remember that in the last year or so, UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller re-examined all the temperature data from the NOAA, East Anglia Hadley Climate Research Unit, and the Goddard Institute of Space Science sources. Even though Muller started out as a skeptic of the temperature data, and he was funded by the Koch brothers and other oil company sources, he carefully checked and re-checked the research himself. When the GOP leaders called him to testify before the House Science and Technology Committee last spring, they were expecting him to discredit the temperature data showed real change. Instead, Muller shocked his GOP sponsors by demonstrating his scientific integrity and telling truth to power: the temperature increase was real, and the scientists who had demonstrated climate was changing were right.9

This is the essence of the scientific method at its best. There may be biases in our perceptions, and we may want to find data that fits our preconceptions about the world, but if science is done properly, we get a real answer, often one we did not expect. That’s the true test of when science is giving us a reality check: when it tells us something we do not want to hear, but is inescapable if one follows the scientific method and analyzes the data honestly.

Thomas Henry Huxley said it best over 150 years ago: “Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

About the Author


DR. DONALD R. PROTHERO is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University in 1982, and a B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 25 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and three trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for Geology, Paleobiology and Journal of Paleontology. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and the Linnaean Society of London, and has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation. He has served as the Vice President of the Pacific Section of SEPM (Society of Sedimentary Geology), and five years as the Program Chair for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1991, he received the Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society for the outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld (BBC), Prehistoric Monsters Revealed (History Channel), Entelodon and Hyaenodon (National Geographic Channel) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (BBC). Check out Donald Prothero’s page at Shop Skeptic.



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Monday, September 26, 2011

Tomatoes of Wrath

Posted on Sep 26, 2011

By Chris Hedges

It is 6 a.m. in the parking lot outside the La Fiesta supermarket in Immokalee, Fla. Rodrigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farmworker, waits forlornly in the half light for work in the tomato fields. White-painted school buses with logos such as “P. Cardenas Harvesting” are slowly filling with fieldworkers. Knots of men and a few women, speaking softly in Spanish and Creole, are clustered on the asphalt or seated at a few picnic tables waiting for crew leaders to herd them onto the buses, some of which will travel two hours to fields. Roosters are crowing as the first light of dawn rises over the cacophony. Men shovel ice into 10-gallon plastic containers from an ice maker next to the supermarket, which opens at 3:30 a.m. to sell tacos and other food to the workers. The containers—which they lug to pickup trucks—provide water for the pickers in the sweltering, humid fields where temperatures soar to 90 degrees and above.

Ortiz, a short man in a tattered baseball cap and soiled black pants that are too long and spill over the tops of his worn canvas sneakers, is not fortunate this day. By 7 a.m. the last buses leave without him. He heads back to the overcrowded trailer he shares with several other men. There are always workers left behind at these predawn pickup sites where hundreds congregate in the hopes of getting work. Nearly 90 percent of the workers are young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper documents or authorization to work in the United States.

Harvesting tomatoes is an endeavor that comes with erratic and unpredictable hours, weeks with overtime and weeks with little to do and no guarantees about wages. Once it starts to rain, workers are packed back onto the buses and sent home, their workday abruptly at an end. Ortiz and the other laborers congregate at the pickup points every morning never sure if there will be work. And when they do find daywork they are paid only for what they pick.

“I only had three days of work this week,” Ortiz says mournfully. “I don’t know how I will pay my rent.”

Ortiz, who along with many others among these migrant workers sends about $100 home to Mexico every month to support elderly parents, works under conditions in these fields that replicate medieval serfdom and at times descend into outright slavery. He lives far below the poverty line. He has no job security, no workers’ compensation, no disability insurance, no paid time off, no access to medical care, Social Security, Medicaid or food stamps and no protection from the abusive conditions in the fields. The agricultural industry has a death rate nearly six times higher than most other industries, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the 2 million farmworkers in the United States 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning every year.

But this may change as one of the most important battles in the history of migrant labor is launched by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). If this battle succeeds it will nearly double the wages of the farmworkers who labor in the $600 million tomato-growing industry. A victory over the supermarket chains also would hold out the possibility of significantly alleviating the draconian conditions that permit forced labor, crippling poverty and egregious human rights abuses, including documented cases of slavery, in the nation’s tomato fields. If the CIW campaign—which is designed to pressure supermarket chains including Publix, Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Ahold brands Giant and Stop & Shop to sign the CIW Fair Food Agreement—fails, however, it threatens to roll back the modest gains made by farmworkers. It depends on us.

“We are standing on the threshold of achieving significant change in the agricultural industry,” Marc Rodrigues, with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, tells me later in the day at the CIW office in Immokalee. “But if the supermarkets do not participate and support it then it will not go any further. Their lack of participation threatens to undermine what the workers and their allies have accomplished. They represent a tremendous amount of tomato purchasing. They wield a lot of influence over conditions in the field. For those growers not enamored of the concept of workers attaining rights and being treated with dignity, they will know that there is always a market for their tomatoes with no questions asked, where nothing is governed by a code of conduct or transparency. If we succeed, this will help lift farmworkers, who do one of the most important, dangerous and undervalued jobs in our society, out of grinding poverty into one where they can have a slightly more decent and normal life and provide for their families.”

The next major mobilization in the campaign will take place at noon Oct. 21 outside Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters in Monrovia, Calif. This will follow a week of local actions to target supermarkets across the country. To thwart the campaign, the public relations departments of Trader Joe’s, Publix and other supermarkets are churning out lies and half truths, as well as engaging in unsettling acts of intimidation and surveillance. Publix sent out an employee posing as a documentary filmmaker to record the activities of the organizers.

“Publix has a cabal of labor relations, human relations and public relations employees who very frequently descend from corporate headquarters in Lakeland, Fla.—or one of their regional offices—and show up at our demonstrations,” says Rodrigues. “They watch us with or without cameras. They constantly attempt to deflect us: If we attempt to speak to consumers or store managers these people will intercept us and try to guide us away. These people in suits and ties come up to us and refer to us by our first names—as if they know us—in a sort of bizarre, naked attempt at intimidation.”

If you live in a community that has a Whole Foods, which is the only major supermarket chain to sign the agreement, shop there and send a letter to competing supermarkets telling them that you will not return as a customer until they too sign the CIW Fair Food Agreement. Details about planned protests around the country can be found on the CIW website.

Workers in the fields earn about 50 cents for picking a bucket containing 32 pounds of tomatoes. These workers make only $10,000 to $12,000 a year, much of which they send home. The $10,000-$12,000 range, because it includes the higher pay of supervisors, means the real wages of the pickers are usually less than $10,000 a year. Wages have remained stagnant since 1980. A worker must pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes to make minimum wage during one of the grueling 10-hour workdays. This is twice what they had to pick 30 years ago for the same amount of money. Most workers pick about 150 buckets a day. And these workers have been rendered powerless by law. In Florida, collective bargaining is illegal, one of the legacies of Jim Crow practices designed to keep blacks poor and disempowered. Today the ban on collective bargaining serves the same purpose in thwarting the organizing efforts of the some 30,000 Hispanic, Mayan and Haitian agricultural laborers who plant and harvest 30,000 acres of tomatoes.

The CIW, which organized a nationwide boycott in 2001 against Taco Bell, forced several major fast food chains including Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, Bon App├ętit Management Co., Aramark and Sodexo to sign the agreement, which demands more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers and an increase of a penny per bucket. But if the major supermarkets too do not sign this agreement, growers who verbally, sexually and physically abuse workers will be able to continue selling tomatoes to the supermarkets. This could leave at least half of all the fields without protection, making uniform enforcement of the agreement throughout the fields difficult if not impossible.

“Supply chains are very opaque and secretive,” says Gerardo Reyes, a farmworker and CIW staff member. “This is one of the reasons a lot of these abuses continue. The corporations can always feign that they did not know the abuses were happening or that they had any responsibility for them as long as there is no transparency or accountability.”

One of the most celebrated modern cases of fieldworker slavery was uncovered in November 2007 after three workers escaped from a box truck in which they had been locked. They and 12 others had been held as slaves for two and a half years. They had to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck at night and pay five dollars if they wanted to bathe with a garden hose. They were routinely beaten. Some were chained to poles at times. During the days they worked on some of the largest farms in Florida. It was the seventh such documented case of slavery in a decade.

“As long as the supermarket industry refuses to sign this agreement it gives the growers an escape,” says Reyes. “We need to bring the pressure of more buyers who will sign the agreement to protect the workers. We have gotten all of the major corporations within the fast food industry and food providers to sign this agreement. Two of the three most important buyers within the industry are on board. But if these supermarkets continue to hold out they can put all the mechanisms we have set in place for control at risk. If Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s and other supermarkets say the only criteria is buying from those growers who offer the lowest possible price then we will not be able to curb abuses. If the agreement is in place and there is another case of slavery then the growers will be put in a penalty box. If we do not have the ability to impose penalties then there will always be a way for abusive growers to sell. The agreement calls on these corporations to stop buying from growers, for example, that use slave labor. Without the agreement there is no check on these practices.”

“Supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s, insist they are responsible and fair,” Reyes goes on. “They use their public relations to present themselves as a good corporation. They sell this idea of fairness, this disguise. They use this more sophisticated public relations campaign, one that presents them as a friend of workers, while at the same time locking workers out of the discussion and kicking us out of the room. They want business as usual. They do not want people to question how their profits are created. We have to fight not only them but this sophisticated public relations tactic. We are on the verge of a systemic change, but corporations like Trader Joe’s are using all their power to push us back.”

Members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will march from a Trader Joe’s store at 604 W. Huntington Dr. in Monrovia, Calif., to the market chain’s headquarters a mile away, starting at noon Oct. 21. The farmworkers organization is demanding that Trader Joe’s support the human rights of the men and women who harvest tomatoes sold in its stores. For more information, click here, send an email to or telephone (510) 725-8752.

Illustration by Mr. Fish

Friday, September 23, 2011

What REAL class warfare looks like

September 22, 2011

The Social Contract


This week President Obama said the obvious: that wealthy Americans, many of whom pay remarkably little in taxes, should bear part of the cost of reducing the long-run budget deficit. And Republicans like Representative Paul Ryan responded with shrieks of “class warfare.”

It was, of course, nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it’s people like Mr. Ryan, who want to exempt the very rich from bearing any of the burden of making our finances sustainable, who are waging class war.

As background, it helps to know what has been happening to incomes over the past three decades. Detailed estimates from the Congressional Budget Office — which only go up to 2005, but the basic picture surely hasn’t changed — show that between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted income of families in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. That’s growth, but it’s slow, especially compared with the 100 percent rise in median income over a generation after World War II.

Meanwhile, over the same period, the income of the very rich, the top 100th of 1 percent of the income distribution, rose by 480 percent. No, that isn’t a misprint. In 2005 dollars, the average annual income of that group rose from $4.2 million to $24.3 million.

So do the wealthy look to you like the victims of class warfare?

To be fair, there is argument about the extent to which government policy was responsible for the spectacular disparity in income growth. What we know for sure, however, is that policy has consistently tilted to the advantage of the wealthy as opposed to the middle class.

Some of the most important aspects of that tilt involved such things as the sustained attack on organized labor and financial deregulation, which created huge fortunes even as it paved the way for economic disaster. For today, however, let’s focus just on taxes.

The budget office’s numbers show that the federal tax burden has fallen for all income classes, which itself runs counter to the rhetoric you hear from the usual suspects. But that burden has fallen much more, as a percentage of income, for the wealthy. Partly this reflects big cuts in top income tax rates, but, beyond that, there has been a major shift of taxation away from wealth and toward work: tax rates on corporate profits, capital gains and dividends have all fallen, while the payroll tax — the main tax paid by most workers — has gone up.

And one consequence of the shift of taxation away from wealth and toward work is the creation of many situations in which — just as Warren Buffett and Mr. Obama say — people with multimillion-dollar incomes, who typically derive much of that income from capital gains and other sources that face low taxes, end up paying a lower overall tax rate than middle-class workers. And we’re not talking about a few exceptional cases.

According to new estimates by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, one-fourth of those with incomes of more than $1 million a year pay income and payroll tax of 12.6 percent of their income or less, putting their tax burden below that of many in the middle class.

Now, I know how the right will respond to these facts: with misleading statistics and dubious moral claims.

On one side, we have the claim that the rising share of taxes paid by the rich shows that their burden is rising, not falling. To point out the obvious, the rich are paying more taxes because they’re much richer than they used to be. When middle-class incomes barely grow while the incomes of the wealthiest rise by a factor of six, how could the tax share of the rich not go up, even if their tax rate is falling?

On the other side, we have the claim that the rich have the right to keep their money — which misses the point that all of us live in and benefit from being part of a larger society.

Elizabeth Warren, the financial reformer who is now running for the United States Senate in Massachusetts, recently made some eloquent remarks to this effect that are, rightly, getting a lot of attention. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” she declared, pointing out that the rich can only get rich thanks to the “social contract” that provides a decent, functioning society in which they can prosper.

Which brings us back to those cries of “class warfare.”

Republicans claim to be deeply worried by budget deficits. Indeed, Mr. Ryan has called the deficit an “existential threat” to America. Yet they are insisting that the wealthy — who presumably have as much of a stake as everyone else in the nation’s future — should not be called upon to play any role in warding off that existential threat.

Well, that amounts to a demand that a small number of very lucky people be exempted from the social contract that applies to everyone else. And that, in case you’re wondering, is what real class warfare looks like.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations

By Charles Q. Choi | Monday, September 12, 2011 | 107

Near-death experiences are often thought of as mystical phenomena, but research is now revealing scientific explanations for virtually all of their common features. The details of what happens in near-death experiences are now known widely—a sense of being dead, a feeling that one's "soul" has left the body, a voyage toward a bright light, and a departure to another reality where love and bliss are all-encompassing.

Approximately 3 percent of the U.S. population says they have had a near-death experience, according to a Gallup poll. Near-death experiences are reported across cultures, with written records of them dating back to ancient Greece. Not all of these experiences actually coincide with brushes with death—one study of 58 patients who recounted near-death experiences found 30 were not actually in danger of dying, although most of them thought they were.

Recently, a host of studies has revealed potential underpinnings for all the elements of such experiences. "Many of the phenomena associated with near-death experiences can be biologically explained," says neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, at the University of Cambridge's Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. Mobbs and Caroline Watt at the University of Edinburgh detailed this research online August 17 in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

For instance, the feeling of being dead is not limited to near-death experiences—patients with Cotard or "walking corpse" syndrome hold the delusional belief that they are deceased. This disorder has occurred following trauma, such as during advanced stages of typhoid and multiple sclerosis, and has been linked with brain regions such as the parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex—"the parietal cortex is typically involved in attentional processes, and the prefrontal cortex is involved in delusions observed in psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia," Mobbs explains. Although the mechanism behind the syndrome remains unknown, one possible explanation is that patients are trying to make sense of the strange experiences they are having.

Out-of-body experiences are also now known to be common during interrupted sleep patterns that immediately precede sleeping or waking. For instance, sleep paralysis, or the experience of feeling paralyzed while still aware of the outside world, is reported in up to 40 percent of all people and is linked with vivid dreamlike hallucinations that can result in the sensation of floating above one's body. A 2005 study found that out-of-body experiences can be artificially triggered by stimulating the right temporoparietal junction in the brain, suggesting that confusion regarding sensory information can radically alter how one experiences one's body.

A variety of explanations might also account for reports by those dying of meeting the deceased. Parkinson's disease patients, for example, have reported visions of ghosts, even monsters. The explanation? Parkinson's involves abnormal functioning of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can evoke hallucinations. And when it comes to the common experience of reliving moments from one's life, one culprit might be the locus coeruleus, a midbrain region that releases noradrenaline, a stress hormone one would expect to be released in high levels during trauma. The locus coeruleus is highly connected with brain regions that mediate emotion and memory, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus.

In addition, research now shows that a number of medicinal and recreational drugs can mirror the euphoria often felt in near-death experiences, such as the anesthetic ketamine, which can also trigger out-of-body experiences and hallucinations. Ketamine affects the brain's opioid system, which can naturally become active even without drugs when animals are under attack, suggesting trauma might set off this aspect of near-death experiences, Mobbs explains.

Finally, one of the most famous aspects of near-death hallucinations is moving through a tunnel toward a bright light. Although the specific causes of this part of near-death experiences remain unclear, tunnel vision can occur when blood and oxygen flow is depleted to the eye, as can happen with the extreme fear and oxygen loss that are both common to dying.

Altogether, scientific evidence suggests that all features of the near-death experience have some basis in normal brain function gone awry. Moreover, the very knowledge of the lore regarding near-death episodes might play a crucial role in experiencing them—a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such findings "provide scientific evidence for something that has always been in the realm of paranormality," Mobbs says. "I personally believe that understanding the process of dying can help us come to terms with this inevitable part of life."

One potential obstacle to further research on near-death experiences will be analyzing them experimentally, says cognitive neuroscientist Olaf Blanke at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne in Switzerland, who has investigated out-of-body experiences. Still, "our work has shown that this can be done for out-of-body experiences, so why not for near-death-experience-associated sensations?"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Laying off teachers is NOT the answer!

September 18, 2011

The Bleeding Cure


Doctors used to believe that by draining a patient’s blood they could purge the evil “humors” that were thought to cause disease. In reality, of course, all their bloodletting did was make the patient weaker, and more likely to succumb.

Fortunately, physicians no longer believe that bleeding the sick will make them healthy. Unfortunately, many of the makers of economic policy still do. And economic bloodletting isn’t just inflicting vast pain; it’s starting to undermine our long-run growth prospects.

Some background: For the past year and a half, policy discourse in both Europe and the United States has been dominated by calls for fiscal austerity. By slashing spending and reducing deficits, we were told, nations could restore confidence and drive economic revival.

And the austerity has been real. In Europe, troubled nations like Greece and Ireland have imposed savage cuts, even as stronger nations have imposed milder austerity programs of their own. In the United States, the modest federal stimulus of 2009 has faded out, while state and local governments have slashed their budgets, so that over all we’ve had a de facto move toward austerity not so different from Europe’s.

Strange to say, however, confidence hasn’t surged. Somehow, businesses and consumers seem much more concerned about the lack of customers and jobs, respectively, than they are reassured by the fiscal righteousness of their governments. And growth seems to be stalling, while unemployment remains disastrously high on both sides of the Atlantic.

But, say apologists for the bad results so far, shouldn’t we be focused on the long run rather than short-run pain? Actually, no: the economy needs real help now, not hypothetical payoffs a decade from now. In any case, evidence is starting to emerge that the economy’s “short run” troubles — now in their fourth year, and being made worse by the focus on austerity — are taking a toll on its long-run prospects as well.

Consider, in particular, what is happening to America’s manufacturing base. In normal times manufacturing capacity rises 2 or 3 percent every year. But faced with a persistently weak economy, industry has been reducing, not increasing, its productive capacity. At this point, according to Federal Reserve estimates, manufacturing capacity is almost 5 percent lower than it was in December 2007.

What this means is that if and when a real recovery finally gets going, the economy will run into capacity constraints and production bottlenecks much sooner than it should. That is, the weak economy, which is partly the result of budget-cutting, is hurting the future as well as the present.

Furthermore, the decline in manufacturing capacity is probably only the beginning of the bad news. Similar cuts in capacity will probably take place in the service sector — indeed, they may already be taking place. And with long-term unemployment at its highest level since the Great Depression, there is a real risk that many of the unemployed will come to be seen as unemployable.

Oh, and the brunt of those cuts in public spending is falling on education. Somehow, laying off hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers doesn’t seem like a good way to win the future.

In fact, when you combine the growing evidence that fiscal austerity is reducing our future prospects with the very low interest rates on U.S. government debt, it’s hard to avoid a startling conclusion: budget austerity may well be counterproductive even from a purely fiscal point of view, because lower future growth means lower tax receipts.

What should be happening? The answer is that we need a major push to get the economy moving, not at some future date, but right now. For the time being we need more, not less, government spending, supported by aggressively expansionary policies from the Federal Reserve and its counterparts abroad. And it’s not just pointy-headed economists saying this; business leaders like Google’s Eric Schmidt are saying the same thing, and the bond market, by buying U.S. debt at such low interest rates, is in effect pleading for a more expansionary policy.

And to be fair, some policy players seem to get it. President Obama’s new jobs plan is a step in the right direction, while some board members of the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England — though not, sad to say, the European Central Bank — have been calling for much more growth-oriented policies.

What we really need, however, is to convince a substantial number of people with political power or influence that they’ve spent the last year and a half going in exactly the wrong direction, and that they need to make a U-turn.

It’s not going to be easy. But until that U-turn happens, the bleeding — which is making our economy weaker now, and undermining its future at the same time — will continue.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Free to Die

September 15, 2011


Back in 1980, just as America was making its political turn to the right, Milton Friedman lent his voice to the change with the famous TV series “Free to Choose.” In episode after episode, the genial economist identified laissez-faire economics with personal choice and empowerment, an upbeat vision that would be echoed and amplified by Ronald Reagan.

But that was then. Today, “free to choose” has become “free to die.”

I’m referring, as you might guess, to what happened during Monday’s G.O.P. presidential debate. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Representative Ron Paul what we should do if a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance suddenly found himself in need of six months of intensive care. Mr. Paul replied, “That’s what freedom is all about — taking your own risks.” Mr. Blitzer pressed him again, asking whether “society should just let him die.”

And the crowd erupted with cheers and shouts of “Yeah!”

The incident highlighted something that I don’t think most political commentators have fully absorbed: at this point, American politics is fundamentally about different moral visions.

Now, there are two things you should know about the Blitzer-Paul exchange. The first is that after the crowd weighed in, Mr. Paul basically tried to evade the question, asserting that warm-hearted doctors and charitable individuals would always make sure that people received the care they needed — or at least they would if they hadn’t been corrupted by the welfare state. Sorry, but that’s a fantasy. People who can’t afford essential medical care often fail to get it, and always have — and sometimes they die as a result.

The second is that very few of those who die from lack of medical care look like Mr. Blitzer’s hypothetical individual who could and should have bought insurance. In reality, most uninsured Americans either have low incomes and cannot afford insurance, or are rejected by insurers because they have chronic conditions.

So would people on the right be willing to let those who are uninsured through no fault of their own die from lack of care? The answer, based on recent history, is a resounding “Yeah!”

Think, in particular, of the children.

The day after the debate, the Census Bureau released its latest estimates on income, poverty and health insurance. The overall picture was terrible: the weak economy continues to wreak havoc on American lives. One relatively bright spot, however, was health care for children: the percentage of children without health coverage was lower in 2010 than before the recession, largely thanks to the 2009 expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-chip.

And the reason S-chip was expanded in 2009 but not earlier was, of course, that former President George W. Bush blocked earlier attempts to cover more children — to the cheers of many on the right. Did I mention that one in six children in Texas lacks health insurance, the second-highest rate in the nation?

So the freedom to die extends, in practice, to children and the unlucky as well as the improvident. And the right’s embrace of that notion signals an important shift in the nature of American politics.

In the past, conservatives accepted the need for a government-provided safety net on humanitarian grounds. Don’t take it from me, take it from Friedrich Hayek, the conservative intellectual hero, who specifically declared in “The Road to Serfdom” his support for “a comprehensive system of social insurance” to protect citizens against “the common hazards of life,” and singled out health in particular.

Given the agreed-upon desirability of protecting citizens against the worst, the question then became one of costs and benefits — and health care was one of those areas where even conservatives used to be willing to accept government intervention in the name of compassion, given the clear evidence that covering the uninsured would not, in fact, cost very much money. As many observers have pointed out, the Obama health care plan was largely based on past Republican plans, and is virtually identical to Mitt Romney’s health reform in Massachusetts.

Now, however, compassion is out of fashion — indeed, lack of compassion has become a matter of principle, at least among the G.O.P.’s base.

And what this means is that modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

Are voters ready to embrace such a radical rejection of the kind of America we’ve all grown up in? I guess we’ll find out next year.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sam Harris on remembering…

September 11, 2011


(Photo by Sprengben)

Yesterday my daughter asked, “Where does gravity come from?” She is two and a half years old. I could say many things on this subject—most of which she could not possibly understand—but the deep and honest answer is “I don’t know.”

What if I had said, “Gravity comes from God”? That would be merely to stifle her intelligence—and to teach her to stifle it. What if I told her, “Gravity is God’s way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire. And you will burn there forever if you doubt that God exists”? No Christian or Muslim can offer a compelling reason why I shouldn’t say such a thing—or something morally equivalent—and yet this would be nothing less than the emotional and intellectual abuse of a child. In fact, I have heard from thousands of people who were oppressed this way, from the moment they could speak, by the terrifying ignorance and fanaticism of their parents.

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

What is the meaning of life? What is our purpose on earth? These are some of the great, false questions of religion. We need not answer them—for they are badly posed—but we can live our answers all the same. At a minimum, we must create the conditions for human flourishing in this life—the only life of which we can be certain. That means we should not terrify our children with thoughts of hell, or poison them with hatred for infidels. We should not teach our sons to consider women their future property, or convince our daughters that they are property even now. And we must decline to tell our children that human history began with magic and will end with bloody magic—perhaps soon, in a glorious war between the righteous and the rest. One must be religious to fail the young so abysmally—to derange them with fear, bigotry, and superstition even as their minds are forming—and one cannot be a serious Christian, Muslim, or Jew without doing so in some measure.

Such sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, of course—but they lie at its core. As for the rest—charity, community, ritual, and the contemplative life—we need not take anything on faith to embrace these goods. And it is one of the most damaging canards of religion to insist that we must.

People of faith recoil from observations like these. They reflexively point to all the good that has been done in the name of God and to the millions of devout men and women, even within conservative Muslim societies, who do no harm to anyone. And they insist that people at every point on the spectrum of belief and unbelief commit atrocities from time to time. This is all true, of course, and truly irrelevant. The groves of faith are now ringed by a forest of non sequiturs.

Whatever else may be wrong with our world, it remains a fact that some of the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity would be unthinkable without religion. And the other ideologies that inspire people to behave like monsters—Stalinism, fascism, etc.—are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions. Sacrifice for the Dear Leader, however secular, is an act of cultic conformity and worship. Whenever human obsession is channeled in these ways, we can see the ancient framework upon which every religion was built. In our ignorance, fear, and craving for order, we created the gods. And ignorance, fear, and craving keep them with us.

What defenders of religion cannot say is that anyone has ever gone berserk, or that a society ever failed, because people became too reasonable, intellectually honest, or unwilling to be duped by the dogmatism of their neighbors. This skeptical attitude, born of equal parts care and curiosity, is all that “atheists” recommend—and it is typical of nearly every intellectual pursuit apart from theology. Only on the subject of God can smart people still imagine that they reap the fruits of human intelligence even as they plow them under.

Ten years have passed since a group of mostly educated and middle-class men decided to obliterate themselves, along with three thousand innocents, to gain entrance to an imaginary Paradise. This problem was always deeper than the threat of terrorism—and our waging an interminable “war on terror” is no answer to it. Yes, we must destroy al Qaeda. But humanity has a larger project—to become sane. If September 11, 2001, should have taught us anything, it is that we must find honest consolation in our capacity for love, creativity, and understanding. This remains possible. It is also necessary. And the alternatives are bleak.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The real ‘christians’ of the Right…

September 1, 2011

Eric and Irene


“Have you left no sense of decency?” That’s the question Joseph Welch famously asked Joseph McCarthy, as the red-baiting demagogue tried to ruin yet another innocent citizen. And these days, it’s the question I find myself wanting to ask Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who has done more than anyone else to make policy blackmail — using innocent Americans as hostages — standard operating procedure for the G.O.P.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Cantor was the hard man in the confrontation over the debt ceiling; he was willing to endanger America’s financial credibility, putting our whole economy at risk, in order to extract budget concessions from President Obama. Now he’s doing it again, this time over disaster relief, making headlines by insisting that any federal aid to the victims of Hurricane Irene be offset by cuts in other spending. In effect, he is threatening to take Irene’s victims hostage.

Mr. Cantor’s critics have been quick to accuse him of hypocrisy, and with good reason. After all, he and his Republican colleagues showed no comparable interest in paying for the Bush administration’s huge unfunded initiatives. In particular, they did nothing to offset the cost of the Iraq war, which now stands at $800 billion and counting.

And it turns out that in 2004, when his home state of Virginia was struck by Tropical Storm Gaston, Mr. Cantor voted against a bill that would have required the same pay-as-you-go rule that he now advocates.

But, as I see it, hypocrisy is a secondary issue here. The primary issue should be the extraordinary nihilism now on display by Mr. Cantor and his colleagues — their willingness to flout all the usual conventions of fair play and, well, decency in order to get what they want.

Not long ago, a political party seeking to change U.S. policy would try to achieve that goal by building popular support for its ideas, then implementing those ideas through legislation. That, after all, is how our political system was designed to work.

But today’s G.O.P. has decided to bypass all that and go for a quicker route. Never mind getting enough votes to pass legislation; it gets what it wants by threatening to hurt America if its demands aren’t met. That’s what happened with the debt-ceiling fight, and now it’s what’s happening over disaster aid. In effect, Mr. Cantor and his allies are threatening to take hurricane victims hostage, using their suffering as a bargaining chip.

Of course, Mr. Cantor would have you believe that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. But that’s no more than a cover story.

Should disaster aid, as a matter of sound public finance, be offset by immediate cuts in other spending? No. The time-honored principle, backed by economists right and left, is that temporary bursts of spending — which usually arise when there’s a war to fight, but can also arise from other causes, including financial crises and natural disasters — are a good reason to run temporary budget deficits. Rather than imposing sharp cuts in other spending or sharply raising taxes, governments can and should spread the burden over time, borrowing now and repaying gradually via a combination of lower spending and higher taxes.

But can the U.S. government borrow to pay for disaster aid? Isn’t the government broke? Yes, it can, and, no, it isn’t. America has a long-run deficit problem, which should be met with long-run budget measures. But it’s having no problem at all borrowing to pay for current expenses. Moreover, it’s able to borrow funds at extremely low interest rates. Notably, right now the interest rate on the benchmark 10-year U.S. government bond is only slightly more than half what it was in 2004 when Mr. Cantor felt that it wasn’t necessary to pay for disaster relief.

So the claim that fiscal responsibility requires immediate spending cuts to offset the cost of disaster relief is just wrong, in both theory and practice. As I said, it’s just a cover story for the real game being played here.

Now, Mr. Cantor may end up backing down on this one, if only because several of the hard-hit states have Republican governors, who want and need aid soon, without strings attached. But that won’t put an end to the larger issue: What will happen to America now that people like Mr. Cantor are calling the shots for one of its two major political parties?

And, yes, I mean one of our parties. There are plenty of bad things to be said about the Democrats, who have their fair share of cynics and careerists. There may even be Democrats in Congress who would be as willing as Mr. Cantor to advance their goals through sabotage and blackmail (although I can’t think of any). But, if they exist, they aren’t in important leadership positions. Mr. Cantor is. And that should worry anyone who cares about our nation’s future.

Can It Get Anymore Disgusting?

September 1, 2011

Oh, Grow Up

Whenever we think Washington couldn’t get more cynical or more craven, it proves us wrong. So we will resist the temptation to say it’s hard to imagine anything more base than the food fight over President Obama’s planned speech to Congress.

The contemptuous reaction from the House speaker, John Boehner, to the president’s request to address a joint session next Wednesday — the day Congress returns from its summer recess — was appalling. No matter how he feels about Mr. Obama personally or politically, there can be no excuse for his lack of respect for the office, to which he is second in the line of succession. And it was distressing to watch President Obama fail, once again, to stand up to an opposition that won’t brook the smallest compromise.

What made this even more appalling is that the president will be speaking on the country’s most pressing problem — the need to create jobs and stave off another destructive recession.

Mr. Obama’s request should have been routine. And The Times on Thursday quoted a White House official as saying it was: Obama aides consulted Boehner aides and then sent a formal request for a joint session on Wednesday. But Mr. Boehner said the date wasn’t convenient, a rebuff of the chief executive that the Senate historian’s office said seemed unprecedented.

It’s possible that the White House failed to seek Mr. Boehner’s back-room agreement before making its formal request. That’s hard to believe, even from an administration that is maladroit politically, to put it kindly.

But even if that were true. So what?

Mr. Boehner said there are votes scheduled on Wednesday evening, but they seem to be profoundly unimportant and, in any case, this is the same speaker who repeatedly postponed votes on whether to save the nation from default. What could possibly be so pressing this time?

It’s also possible that the White House failed to notice that the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have a debate on Wednesday, or deliberately tried to upstage it. If either is true, shame on the White House.

But, again, so what?

The Republican candidates did not seem to care. Some seemed eager to be up against Mr. Obama on television. And a presidential address on jobs and the faltering economy certainly trumps one of 20 planned debates among the contenders for the Republican nomination.

Mr. Obama’s people negotiated with Mr. Boehner’s people behind closed doors. When they emerged, the White House caved, to no one’s surprise. The speech will take place on Thursday.

One day won’t make a difference, but the political spectacle and the final result only served to further underscore the president’s weakness. Worse, the vital importance of the speech — and the need for Congress to take its full responsibility for creating jobs and reviving the economy — was upstaged by yet another Washington soap opera.