Friday, August 27, 2010

6 Signs That You've Made It To Middle Class

In the August 27, 2010 article "6 Signs That You've Made It To Middle Class," James E. McWhinney says you are middle-class if you (1) own a home, (2) own a car, (3) send your children to college, (4) save money for retirement, (5) have health care coverage, and (6) have enough income for family vacations.

Not so long ago, most people viewed the hallmarks of success as something along the lines of a house, a white picket fence, two weeks vacation, two children and the ability to send those kids to college. Today, the middle class is a vanishing breed according to nearly every survey and statistic on the topic. Its disappearance is of such grave concern to the fabric of American society that the U.S. government launched a task force to explore the issue. Despite all of the attention to the subject, defining "middle class" remains a challenge, as everyone wants to be in the middle regardless of their income. Instead of focusing on the dollars, let's take a look at the lifestyle benchmarks that define middle class status.

Have You Made it to the Middle?
A wide variety of numbers have been thrown around in an effort to define the middle. People earning 20% of the average income and people earning 80% all claim to be part of the middle class. More than a few millionaires make the claim too. While there is no official financial standard, the middle class as defined by the government task force is characterized in terms of six financial aspirations, which we can view as benchmarks.

Home Ownership
Home ownership remains the American dream. The step up from renting to owning signifies prosperity and achievement. With median home prices ranges differing by so much in different cities across the United States, the ability to achieve this goal varies significantly by geographical location. Someone earning an income in the 50% range in Detroit may not be able to afford even a small house in Los Angeles.

Automobile Ownership
Owning an automobile provides freedom of movement and the luxury of avoiding the limited schedules and cramped quarters offered by mass transportation options such as buses and subways. Here again, the cost of cars varying widely, as does the kind of automobile required. For one driver, a used Hyundai will do the trick. For another, a new BMW signifies the achievement of this goal.

A College Education for the Kids
Helping children get ahead in life is a primary goal for middle class families. Paying for a college education for children can cost anywhere from the low tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands. Decisions about which university of college to attend can have a significant impact on the price tag.

Retirement Security
Retirement is a goal nearly everyone wants to achieve. It demonstrates success and provides a reward for decades of hard work. Once again, definitions make a difference. The amount of gold required to support your golden years will vary significantly depending on whether you want a staff of 10 at your villa in the South of France or a townhouse in Peoria, Illinois.

Health Care Coverage
The ability to obtain healthcare is an important goal for middle class wager earners and their families. The high and rising cost of medical care and prescription drugs make healthcare coverage an ever-increasing need, as going without it can have serious negative financial implications in the event of a severe illness or injury.

Family Vacation
The family vacation is a middle class staple. Vacations demonstrate that a family has disposable income and has been successful enough to take time away from work to focus on leisure.

What Happened on the Way to the Dream?
Globalization and technological advances began to reverse the growth of the middle class. The manufacturing base in the United States changed, as good-paying jobs in factories and heavy industries went overseas to lower-paying markets and labor unions lost much of their ability to bargain for high wages and good benefits. Later, white-collar jobs from accounting and data entry to reading medical images and answering telephones in call centers were also sent offshore. Many jobs that remained in the U.S. were eliminated by computers and other technological advancements that increased productivity.

To achieve or maintain a middle-class lifestyle, many households became two-income families. Achieving middle class goals became more difficult as employers eliminated their pension plans and defined-benefit plans, the cost of a college education continued to rise and the cost of healthcare jumped. For most of the 20-year period following 1990, the Commerce Department reports that real median income grew at a rate of about 20%, while the cost of a college education grew between 43% and 60%, the cost of housing rose 56% and healthcare costs jumped by 155%.

How to Get There
Although there are significant challenges to obtaining middle class status, there are some proactive steps that can help make the dream a reality. Budgeting is one of the most obvious. Understanding where your money goes each month can help you determine the exact makeup of the benchmarks you are trying to match. Are you looking for a Hyundai or a BMW?

Planning is another crucial step. Are the kids going to a state university or a private college? Are scholarships an option? Some savvy families find money for college by participating in programs which can aide families with the costs related to sending a child to university.

Working is another one of the requirements. A second job or a side business might be just what you need to boost your income and achieve some of your goals. Putting your money to work is also an important consideration. Investing has helped build wealth for generations. In fact, income earners ranked in the top 1% enjoyed significant increases in wealth even as the middle class fell into decline. Most of that wealth came from investments. Even if you don't have the means to invest for current income, you can take a few dollars from each paycheck and save for your retirement.

The Bottom Line
Don't underestimate the role of hard work and luck. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time or taking one particular course of action over another can make all the difference. So keep watching for opportunities and make the most of them when you find them. As motion-picture mogul Samuel Goldwyn said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How the Stimulus Is Changing America

In the August 26, 2010 TIME magazine article "How the Stimulus Is Changing America," Michael Grunwald provides an analysis of its impact.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — President Obama's $787 billion stimulus — has been marketed as a jobs bill, and that's how it's been judged. The White House says it has saved or created about 3 million jobs, helping avoid a depression and end a recession. Republicans mock it as a Big Government boondoggle that has failed to prevent rampant unemployment despite a massive expansion of the deficit. Liberals complain that it wasn't massive enough.

It's an interesting debate. Politically, it's awkward to argue that things would have been even worse without the stimulus, even though that's what most nonpartisan economists believe. But the battle over the Recovery Act's short-term rescue has obscured its more enduring mission: a long-term push to change the country. It was about jobs, sure, but also about fighting oil addiction and global warming, transforming health care and education, and building a competitive 21st century economy. Some Republicans have called it an under-the-radar scramble to advance Obama's agenda — and they've got a point.

Yes, the stimulus has cut taxes for 95% of working Americans, bailed out every state, hustled record amounts of unemployment benefits and other aid to struggling families and funded more than 100,000 projects to upgrade roads, subways, schools, airports, military bases and much more. But in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, Obama's effusive Recovery Act point man, "Now the fun stuff starts!" The "fun stuff," about one-sixth of the total cost, is an all-out effort to exploit the crisis to make green energy, green building and green transportation real; launch green manufacturing industries; computerize a pen-and-paper health system; promote data-driven school reforms; and ramp up the research of the future. "This is a chance to do something big, man!" Biden said during a 90-minute interview with TIME.

For starters, the Recovery Act is the most ambitious energy legislation in history, converting the Energy Department into the world's largest venture-capital fund. It's pouring $90 billion into clean energy, including unprecedented investments in a smart grid; energy efficiency; electric cars; renewable power from the sun, wind and earth; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; and factories to manufacture green stuff in the U.S. The act will also triple the number of smart electric meters in our homes, quadruple the number of hybrids in the federal auto fleet and finance far-out energy research through a new government incubator modeled after the Pentagon agency that fathered the Internet.

The only stimulus energy program that's gotten much attention so far — chiefly because it got off to a slow start — is a $5 billion effort to weatherize homes. But the Recovery Act's line items represent the first steps to a low-carbon economy. "It will leverage a very different energy future," says Kristin Mayes, the Republican chair of Arizona's utility commission. "It really moves us toward a tipping point."

The stimulus is also stocked with nonenergy game changers, like a tenfold increase in funding to expand access to broadband and an effort to sequence more than 2,300 complete human genomes — when only 34 were sequenced with all previous aid. There's $8 billion for a high-speed passenger rail network, the boldest federal transportation initiative since the interstate highways. There's $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to promote accountability in public schools, perhaps the most significant federal education initiative ever — it's already prompted 35 states and the District of Columbia to adopt reforms to qualify for the cash. There's $20 billion to move health records into the digital age, which should reduce redundant tests, dangerous drug interactions and errors caused by doctors with chicken-scratch handwriting. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius calls that initiative the foundation for Obama's health care reform and "maybe the single biggest component in improving quality and lowering costs."

Any of those programs would have been a revolution in its own right. "We've seen more reform in the last year than we've seen in decades, and we haven't spent a dime yet," says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "It's staggering how the Recovery Act is driving change."

That was the point. Critics have complained that while the New Deal left behind iconic monuments — courthouses, parks, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Grand Coulee Dam — this New New Deal will leave a mundane legacy of sewage plants, repaved roads, bus repairs and caulked windows. In fact, it will create new icons too: solar arrays, zero-energy border stations, an eco-friendly Coast Guard headquarters, an "advanced synchrotron light source" in a New York lab. But its main legacy will be change. The stimulus passed just a month after Obama's inauguration, but it may be his signature effort to reshape America — as well as its government.

"Let's Just Go Build It!"

After Obama's election, Depression scholar Christina Romer delivered a freak-out briefing to his transition team, warning that to avoid a 1930s-style collapse, Washington needed to pump at least $800 billion into the frozen economy — and fast. "We were in a tailspin," recalls Romer, who is about to step down as chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. "I was completely sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn't just dig ditches and fill them in. But saving the economy had to be paramount." Obama's economists argued for tax cuts and income transfers to get cash circulating quickly, emergency aid to states to prevent layoffs of cops and teachers and off-the-shelf highway projects to put people to work. They wanted a textbook Keynesian response to an economy in cardiac arrest: adding money to existing programs via existing formulas or handing it to governors, seniors and first-time home buyers. They weren't keen to reinvent the wheel.

But Obama and Biden also saw a golden opportunity to address priorities; they emphasized shovel-worthy as well as shovel-ready. Biden recalls brainstorming with Obama about an all-in push for a smarter electrical grid that would reduce blackouts, promote renewables and give families more control over their energy diet: "We said, 'God, wouldn't it be wonderful? Why don't we invest $100 billion? Let's just go build it!' "

It wasn't that easy. Utilities control the grid, and new wires create thorny not-in-my-backyard zoning issues; there wasn't $100 billion worth of remotely shovel-ready grid projects. It's hard to transform on a timeline, and some congressional Democrats were less interested in transforming government than growing it. For instance, after securing $100 billion for traditional education programs, House Appropriations Committee chairman Dave Obey tried to stop any of it from going to Race to the Top, which is unpopular with teachers' unions.

Ultimately, even Obama's speed focused economists agreed that stimulus spending shouldn't dry up in 2010. And some Democrats were serious about investing wisely, not just spending more. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted on $17 billion for research. House Education and Labor Committee chairman George Miller fought to save Race to the Top. And while the grid didn't get a $100 billion reinvention, it did get $11 billion after decades of neglect, which could shape trillions of dollars in future utility investments.

It takes time to set up new programs, but now money is flowing to deliver high-speed Internet to rural areas, spread successful quit-smoking programs and design the first high-speed rail link from Tampa to Orlando. And deep in the Energy Department's basement — in a room dubbed the dungeon — a former McKinsey & Co. partner named Matt Rogers has created a government version of Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road, blasting billions of dollars into clean-energy projects through a slew of oversubscribed grant programs. "The idea is to transform the entire energy sector," Rogers says. "What's exciting is the way it fits all together."

"They Won't All Succeed"

The green industrial revolution begins with gee-whiz companies like A123 Systems of Watertown, Mass. Founded in 2001 by MIT nanotechnology geeks who landed a $100,000 federal grant, A123 grew into a global player in the lithium-ion battery market, with 1,800 employees and five factories in China. It has won $249 million to build two plants in Michigan, where it will help supply the first generation of mass-market electric cars. At least four of A123's suppliers received stimulus money too. The Administration is also financing three of the world's first electric-car plants, including a $529 million loan to help Fisker Automotive reopen a shuttered General Motors factory in Delaware (Biden's home state) to build sedans powered by A123 batteries. Another A123 customer, Navistar, got cash to build electric trucks in Indiana. And since electric vehicles need juice, the stimulus will also boost the number of U.S. battery-charging stations by 3,200%.

"Without government, there's no way we would've done this in the U.S.," A123 chief technology officer Bart Riley told TIME. "But now you're going to see the industry reach critical mass here."

The Recovery Act's clean-energy push is designed not only to reduce our old economy dependence on fossil fuels that broil the planet, blacken the Gulf and strengthen foreign petro-thugs but also to avoid replacing it with a new economy that is just as dependent on foreign countries for technology and manufacturing. Last year, exactly two U.S. factories made advanced batteries for electric vehicles. The stimulus will create 30 new ones, expanding U.S. production capacity from 1% of the global market to 20%, supporting half a million plug-ins and hybrids. The idea is as old as land-grant colleges: to use tax dollars as an engine of innovation. It rejects free-market purism but also the old industrial-policy approach of dumping cash into a few favored firms. Instead, the Recovery Act floods the zone, targeting a variety of energy problems and providing seed money for firms with a variety of potential solutions. The winners must attract private capital to match public dollars — A123 held an IPO to raise the required cash — and after competing for grants, they still must compete in the marketplace. "They won't all succeed," Rogers says. "But some will, and they'll change the world."

The investments extend all along the food chain. A brave new world of electric cars powered by coal plants could be dirtier than the oil-soaked status quo, so the stimulus includes an unheard-of $3.4 billion for clean-coal projects aiming to sequester or reuse carbon. There are also lucrative loan guarantees for constructing the first American nuclear plants in three decades. And after the credit crunch froze financing for green energy, stimulus cash has fueled a comeback, putting the U.S. on track to exceed Obama's goal of doubling renewable power by 2012. The wind industry added a record 10,000 megawatts in 2009. The stimulus is also supporting the nation's largest photovoltaic solar plant, in Florida, and what will be the world's two largest solar thermal plants, in Arizona and California, plus thousands of solar installations on homes and buildings.

The stimulus is helping scores of manufacturers of wind turbines and solar products expand as well, but today's grid can only handle so much wind and solar. A key problem is connecting remote wind farms to population centers, so there are billions of dollars for new transmission lines. Then there is the need to find storage capacity for when it isn't windy or sunny outside. The current grid is like a phone system without voice mail, a just-in-time network where power is wasted if it doesn't reach a user the moment it's generated. That's why the Recovery Act is funding dozens of smart-grid approaches. For instance, A123 is providing truckloads of batteries for a grid-storage project in California and recycled electric-car batteries for a similar effort in Detroit. "If we can show the utilities this stuff works," says Riley, "it will take off on its own."

Today, grid-scale storage, solar energy and many other green technologies are too costly to compete without subsidies. That's why the stimulus launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a blue-sky fund inspired by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the incubator for GPS and the M-16 rifle as well as the Internet. Located in an office building a block from the rest of the Energy Department, ARPA-E will finance energy research too risky for private funders, focusing on speculative technologies that might dramatically cut the cost of, say, carbon capture — or not. "We're taking chances, because that's how you put a man on the moon," says director Arun Majumdar, a materials scientist from the University of California, Berkeley. "Our idea is it's O.K. to fail. You think America's pioneers never failed?"

ARPA-E is funding the new pioneers — mad scientists and engineers with ideas for wind turbines based on jet engines, bacteria to convert carbon dioxide into gasoline, and tiny molten-metal batteries to provide cheap high-voltage storage. That last idea is the brainchild of MIT's Donald Sadoway, who already has a prototype fuel cell the size of a shot glass. The stimulus will help him create a kind of reverse aluminum smelter to make prototypes the size of a hockey puck and a pizza box. The ultimate goal is a commercial scale battery the size of a tractor trailer that could power an entire neighborhood. "We need radical breakthroughs, so we need radical experiments," Sadoway says. "These projects send chills down the spine of the carbon world. If a few of them work, [Venezuela's Hugo] Chávez and [Iran's Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad are out of power."

Then again, the easiest way to blow up the energy world would be to stop wasting so much. That's the final link in the chain, a full-throttle push to make energy efficiency a national norm. The Recovery Act is weatherizing 250,000 homes this year. It gave homeowners rebates for energy-efficient appliances, much as the Cash for Clunkers program subsidized fuel-efficient cars. It's retrofitting juice-sucking server farms, factories and power plants; financing research into superefficient lighting, windows and machinery; and funneling billions into state and local efficiency efforts.

It will also retrofit 3 in 4 federal buildings. The U.S. government is the nation's largest energy consumer, so this will save big money while boosting demand for geothermal heat pumps, LED lighting and other energy-saving products. "We're so huge, we make markets," says Bob Peck, the General Services Administration's public-buildings commissioner. GSA's 93-year-old headquarters, now featuring clunky window air conditioners and wires duct-taped to ceilings, will get energy optimized heating, cooling and lighting systems, glass facades with solar membranes and a green roof; the makeover should cut its energy use 55%. It might even beta-test stimulus-funded windows that harvest sunlight. "We'll be the proving ground for innovation in the building industry," Peck says. "It all starts with renovating the government."

The New Venture Capitalists

The stimulus really is starting to change Washington — and not just the buildings. Every contract and lobbying contact is posted at, with quarterly data detailing where the money went. A Recovery Board was created to scrutinize every dollar, with help from every major agency's independent watchdog. And Biden has promised state and local officials answers to all stimulus questions within 24 hours. It's a test-drive for a new approach to government: more transparent, more focused on results than compliance, not just bigger but better. Biden himself always saw the Recovery Act as a test — not only of the new Administration but of federal spending itself. He knew high-profile screwups could be fatal, stoking antigovernment anger about bureaucrats and two-car funerals. So he spends hours checking in, buttering up and banging heads to keep the stimulus on track, harassing Cabinet secretaries, governors and mayors about unspent broadband funds, weatherization delays and fishy projects. He has blocked some 260 skate parks, picnic tables and highway beautifications that flunked his what-would-your-mom-think test. "Imagine they could have proved we wasted a billion dollars," Biden says. "Gone, man. Gone!"

So far, despite furor over cash it supposedly funneled to contraception (deleted from the bill) and phantom congressional districts (simply typos), the earmark-free Recovery Act has produced surprisingly few scandals. Prosecutors are investigating a few fraud allegations, and critics have found some goofy expenditures, like $51,500 for water-safety-mascot costumes or a $50,000 arts grant to a kinky-film house. But those are minor warts, given that unprecedented scrutiny. Biden knows it's early — "I ain't saying mission accomplished!" — but he calls waste and fraud "the dogs that haven't barked."

The Recovery Act's deeper reform has been its focus on intense competition for grants instead of everybody-wins formulas, forcing public officials to consider not only whether applicants have submitted the required traffic studies and small-business hiring plans but also whether their projects make sense. Already staffed by top technologists from MIT, Duke and Intel, ARPA-E recruited 4,500 outside experts to winnow 3,700 applications down to 37 first-round grants. "We've taken the best and brightest from the tech world and created a venture fund — except we're looking for returns for the country," Majumdar says. These change agents didn't uproot their lives to fill out forms in triplicate and shovel money by formula. They want to reinvent the economy, not just stimulate it. Sadoway, the MIT battery scientist, is tired of reporting how many jobs he's created in his lab: "If this works, I'll create a million jobs!"

Obama has spent most of his first term trying to clean up messes — in the Gulf of Mexico, Iraq and Afghanistan, on Wall Street and Main Street — but the details in the stimulus plan are his real down payment on change. The question is which changes will last. Will electric cars disappear after the subsidies disappear? Will advanced battery factories migrate back to China? Will bullet trains ever get built? The President wants to extend transformative programs like ARPA-E. But would they be substitutes for the status quo or just additions to tack onto the deficit? And would they survive a Republican Congress?

Polls suggest the actual contents of the Recovery Act are popular. But the idea of the stimulus itself remains toxic — and probably will as long as the recovery remains tepid. "Today, it's judged by jobs," Rogers says of the act. "But in 10 years, it'll be judged by whether it transformed our economy."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Building a Nation of Know-Nothings

In the August 25, 2010 New York Times editorial "Building a Nation of Know-Nothings," Timothy Egan suggests that in the consideration of politics, many people are willfully ignorant of the truth.
Having shed much of his dignity, core convictions and reputation for straight talk, Senator John McCain won his primary on Tuesday against the flat-earth wing of his party. Now McCain can go search for his lost character, which was last on display late in his 2008 campaign for president.

Remember the moment: a woman with matted hair and a shaky voice rose to express her doubts about Barack Obama. “I have read about him,” she said, “and he’s not — he’s an Arab.”

McCain was quick to knock down the lie. “No, ma’am,” he said, “he’s a decent family man, a citizen.”

That ill-informed woman — her head stuffed with fabrications that could be disproved by a pre-schooler — now makes up a representative third or more of the Republican party. It’s not just that 46 percent of Republicans believe the lie that Obama is a Muslim, or that 27 percent in the party doubt that the president of the United States is a citizen. But fully half of them believe falsely that the big bailout of banks and insurance companies under TARP was enacted by Obama, and not by President Bush.

Take a look at Tuesday night’s box score in the baseball game between New York and Toronto. The Yankees won, 11-5. Now look at the weather summary, showing a high of 71 for New York. The score and temperature are not subject to debate.

Yet a president’s birthday or whether he was even in the White House on the day TARP was passed are apparently open questions. A growing segment of the party poised to take control of Congress has bought into denial of the basic truths of Barack Obama’s life. What’s more, this astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design, and has been aided by a press afraid to call out the primary architects of the lies.

The Democrats may deserve to lose in November. They have been terrible at trying to explain who they stand for and the larger goal of their governance. But if they lose, it should be because their policies are unpopular or ill-conceived — not because millions of people believe a lie.

In the much-discussed Pew poll reporting the spike in ignorance, those who believe Obama to be Muslim say they got their information from the media. But no reputable news agency — that is, fact-based, one that corrects its errors quickly — has spread such inaccuracies.

So where is this “media?” Two sources, and they are — no surprise here — the usual suspects. The first, of course, is Rush Limbaugh, who claims the largest radio audience in the land among the microphone demagogues, and his word is Biblical among Republicans. A few quick examples of the Limbaugh method:

“Tomorrow is Obama’s birthday — not that we’ve seen any proof of that,” he said on Aug. 3. “They tell us Aug. 4 is the birthday; we haven’t seen any proof of that.”

Of course, there is proof as clear as that baseball box score. Look here,, for starters, one of many places posting Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate.

On the Muslim deception, Limbaugh has sprinkled lie dust all over the place. “Obama says he’s a Christian, but where’s the evidence?” he said on Aug. 19. He has repeatedly called the president “imam Obama,” and said, “I’m just throwing things out there, folks, because people are questioning his Christianity.”

You see how he works. He drops in suggestions, hints, notes that “people are questioning” things. The design is to make Obama un-American. Then he says it’s a tweak, a provocation. He says this as a preemptive way to keep the press from calling him out. And it works; long profiles of Limbaugh have largely gone easy on him.

Once Limbaugh has planted a lie, a prominent politician can pick it up, with little nuance. So, over the weekend, Kim Lehman, one of Iowa’s two Republican National Committee members, went public with doubts on Obama’s Christianity. Of course, she was not condemned by party leaders.

It’s curious, also, that any felon, drug addict, or recovering hedonist can loudly proclaim a sudden embrace of Jesus and be welcomed without doubt by leaders of the religious right. But a thoughtful Christian like Obama is still distrusted.

“I am a devout Christian,” Obama told Christianity Today in 2008. “I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” That’s not enough, apparently, for Rev. Franklin Graham, the partisan son of the great evangelical leader, who said last week that Obama was “born a Muslim because of the religious seed passed on from his father.”

Actually, he was born from two non-practicing parents, and his Kenyan father was absent for all of his upbringing. Obama came to his Christianity like millions of people, through searching and questioning.

Finally, there is Fox News, whose parent company has given $1 million to Republican causes this year but still masquerades as a legitimate source of news. Their chat and opinion programs spread innuendo daily. The founder of Politifact, another nonpartisan referee to the daily rumble, said two of the site’s five most popular items on its Truth-o-meter are corrections of Glenn Beck.

Beck tosses off enough half-truths in a month to keep Politifact working overtime. Of late, he has gone after Michelle Obama, whose vacation in Spain was “just for her and approximately 40 of her friends.” Limbaugh had a similar line, saying the First Lady “is taking 40 of her best friends and leasing 60 rooms at a five-star hotel — paid for by you.”

The White House said Michelle Obama and her daughter Sasha were accompanied by just a few friends — and they paid their own costs. But, wink, wink, the damage is done. He’s Muslim and foreign. She’s living the luxe life on your dime. They don’t even have to mention race. The code words do it for them.

Climate-change denial is a special category all its own. Once on the fringe, dismissal of scientific consensus is now an article of faith among leading Republicans, again taking their cue from Limbaugh and Fox.

It would be nice to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless, the price of having such a large, messy democracy. Plenty of hate-filled partisans swore that Abraham Lincoln was a Catholic and Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew. So what if one-in-five believe the sun revolves around the earth, or aren’t sure from which country the United States gained its independence?

But false belief in weapons of mass-destruction led the United States to a trillion-dollar war. And trust in rising home value as a truism as reliable as a sunrise was a major contributor to the catastrophic collapse of the economy. At its worst extreme, a culture of misinformation can produce something like Iran, which is run by a Holocaust denier.

It’s one thing to forget the past, with predictable consequences, as the favorite aphorism goes. But what about those who refuse to comprehend the present?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Why are we so willing to repeat history's mistakes?

In the August 20, 2010 Salon editorial "
Why are we so willing to repeat history's mistakes?," David Sirota suggests that the pursuit of money and devotion to ideology cause people to overlook important lessons from history:
Out of all the famous quotations, few better describe this eerily familiar time than those attributed to George Santayana and Yogi Berra. The former, a philosopher, warned that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The latter, a baseball player, stumbled into prophecy by declaring, "It's déjà vu all over again."

As movies give us bad remakes of already bad productions (hello, "Predators"), television resuscitates ancient clowns (howdy, Dee Snider) and music revives pure schlock (I'm looking at you, Devo), we are now surrounded by the obvious mistakes of yesteryear. And it might be funny -- it might be downright hilarious -- if only this cycle didn't infect the deadly serious stuff.

Vietnam showed us the perils of occupation, then the Iraq war showed us the same thing -- and yet now, we are somehow doing it all over again in Afghanistan. The Great Depression underscored the downsides of laissez-faire economics, the Great Recession highlighted the same danger -- and yet the new financial "reform" bill leaves that laissez-faire attitude largely intact. Ronald Reagan proved the failure of trickle-down tax cuts to spread prosperity before George W. Bush proved the same thing -- and yet now, in a recession, Congress is considering more tax cuts all over again.

These are but a few examples of mistakes being repeated ad infinitum. In a Yogi Berra country, the jarring lessons of history are remembered as mere flickers of déjà vu -- if they are remembered at all. Most often, we forget completely, seeing in George Santayana's refrain not a dark warning, but a cheery celebration. And the logical question is: Why? Why have we become so dismissive of history's lessons and therefore so willing to repeat history's mistakes?

Some of it is the modern information miasma. Though the Internet makes eons of history instantly available, the 24-7, moment-to-moment typhoon of cable screamfests, blogs, tweets, e-mail alerts and "breaking news" graphics makes last week's news feel old, and last month's news feel positively paleolithic. Add to this reportage that is increasingly presented with zero context, and it's clear that journalism is sowing mass senility.

Politicians also make significant contributions to the problem. With the age of the permanent campaign intensifying and the era of the long-term electoral majority ending, both parties deliberately focus only on the very recent past -- and obscure the larger historical record. From the national debt to poverty to the downsides of American empire, Republicans tell us it's all the fault of Democrats' two-year-old reign, while Democrats blame it on Bush's eight-year presidency. This, even though these emergencies developed over decades.

And then, of course, there is ideology.

With the present so radically departing from our past, history has become a damning package of inconvenient truths -- and those truths are often shunned because they threaten today's most powerful ideological interests.

This is why in the debates over war, economics and taxes, we aren't urged to consider past conflicts; we aren't encouraged to remember that America experienced its most storied growth under the New Deal's aggressive financial regulation; and we aren't told that wages and job growth expanded in the mid-20th century with a top income tax bracket above 70 percent. We aren't reminded of these facts because they threaten the defense industry, Wall Street and high-income taxpayers, respectively -- and those forces exert enormous influence over our political discourse, whether through media sponsorship, political campaign contributions or lobbying.

No matter the issue, this axiom is the same: When money has a vested interest in burying history, history is inevitably buried, ultimately leading us from Santayana and Berra's aphorisms to Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over again and somehow expecting different results.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Basil Marceaux

In this episode of The Colbert Report, "Basil & Obama's Birthday,"
"Stephen reminds Tennessee viewers to vote for Basil and refuses to celebrate President Obama's birthday. (02:16)"

Not all political candidates are as clueless as Marceaux, but too many of them are, especially on issues of economic policy.