History — It’s Happening Every Second!

This blog is dedicated to the work of Ron Brandstetter.

Here’s a quick guide for newcomers. My deepest work, my unique — and comprehensive — philosophy of history, which leads to my effective re-formulation of the social sciences, is here. (This is a long piece, a summary of my next book, I’m trying to cover the breadth and depth of the human experience with a new scientific vision. It will take you 20 minutes or so to read it, so please, bookmark this article and come back to it later if you don’t have the time right now. I’ve tried to make this article as easy to read as possible and I do hope you’ll enjoy taking your time to read it.)

In other pages on this site, my forward-looking political thoughts, based on decades of practical participation in American activism, are here. My unusual path to spiritual understanding, and some of the conclusions I’ve come to with this, is outlined here. Some of my most concise and hard-hitting writings and speeches, meant to emphasize a point, are here. And finally, a not-so-brief biographical sketch of this wonderful life I’ve enjoyed is is over here. The page you’re on is the current postings page, scroll down for varied and sundry reflections on politics, culture, and whatever else I feel I need to tell you about. I haven’t put up much in the last year, I enjoy a complicated life, and I like to say things of significance only. Some new ideas for postings are brewing, yet please, read the deep material I’ve placed here, dig into it. Just for example, the December 2010 post on “Presidential Politics” remains valid through the Occupy Movement and into 2012, and the “Hope Vs. Advertising” post remains far ahead of the conventional wisdom. As a writer, I have always wanted my readers to find my work both entertaining and profitable to their total life experience.

My mission, in all of this work, is to help people think better thoughts.   I’m not going to claim that this always or ever brings instant success and happiness; most of the time we humans are quite happy with our dysfunctional thought, and if that thought fits into a dysfunctional subculture, it can be successful in that context.  Getting to better thoughts can be slightly or greatly painful, and I myself hate it when a better thought forces me to change one of my deeply-ingrained personal habits or preferences.

Yet I believe that if you are an intelligent human being, you have to be able to see the evidence that we as a 7-billion strong global society, in today’s time, are spitting off too much pollution from too many sources — including huge amounts of intellectual pollution from our advertising and public relations industries — to be able to sustain our current modes of ‘civilization’ for too many more decades.

Thus the mission of this website: to help us plan and achieve positive social change to create a better world for ourselves and our grandchildren.   I do believe my effort at re-defining the social sciences to help each human being become their own best social scientist in understanding the motivations and actions of all other human beings — popularly known as “Ron’s omelet of the social sciences” or “the democratic revolution of the social sciences” — can be a helpful step in this process.

For more about who I am and my qualifications for this work, please see the About page on this blog.   For more about the new thoughts we’re going to have to think, and the work that we’re going to have to do to provide a sustainable future for our human race and the planet we live on, please follow this blog as it develops and grows, hopefully, into a force that moves the world.  I can’t do it without you.  You, perhaps, can do it without me, yet it is my goal to prove to you that moving the world will be slightly easier if we can do it together.

A comment on comments:  Please do comment on my posts, all comments will be read and considered.  However, for the short-term future while this blog is getting established, and I am still working at my demanding day job, and still working at my family-business job in which everything needs to be done immediately, no comments will be published immediately on this blog.  It’s my blog, and I want to control it.  All reasonable comments are now being published after review and approval. In the spring of 2012, the ferocious onslaught of spam comments (which are all being deleted) we experienced last year is finally slowing, yet if you’re a real person with questions or comments on anything in this website I do VERY MUCH wish to hear from you. To help make sure I don’t mistake you for a spammer, it would help if you’d say a word or two about yourself, and show that you have actually read one or more of my pages.

Because of all this, commenting here may be a little slower process than you’re accustomed to on modern websites: it will almost certainly be 2 or 3 days after your comments, and maybe as much as a week or more after your comments.    Nevertheless, I do wish to eventually make this a typical modern website where registered users have an open and lively discussion in real time, as we’re all familiar with from many fine modern websites.   If you the readers start providing scores and hundreds of intelligent comments on all our discussions here, you will accelerate my process in getting the website to that status, as I simply won’t have the time to read and approve all your comments individually.

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We Can’t Wait for the Next Mandela

I am not a historian who gives a lot of complimentary adjectives for the accomplishments of the 20th Century, I am not a big fan of “10 Best Lists” or “Greatest This-Or-That.” The standard political-scientific-entertainment figures of the American/European 20th Century did some things well, yet glossed over or never knew their errors and omissions. Nevertheless, I will unreservedly award the adjective” Great” to the three Great Leaders of creative, people-powered “liberation” movements in 20th Century politics, Mahatma Gandhi in India in the 1910s to ’40s, Dr. Martin Luther King in America in the 1950s-60′s, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa in the 1980s-90s.

We are extremely lucky, in our otherwise violent, ruthless, grasping history of so-called civilized nations in the 20th Century of the Christian era, to have had these creative, solution-seeking leaders giving us lessons in moral force, the power of non-violence, and the possibilities of breaking through man-made political/institutional barriers. If we are to be smart in our own coming struggles, we should be studying their challenges and how they overcame them, to be the best we can be when our time of challenge arrives.
Nelson Mandela in 1937
Nelson Mandela in 1937

Yet we must be clear. We can’t wait for the next Nelson Mandela to free us. We can’t wait for the next Mahatma Gandhi, we can’t wait for the next Dr. Martin Luther King. We can’t wait for generations of suffering and protest to “produce” a leader (and always remember that none of our three great leaders was ever known to be a “great leader” at the beginning of their journeys, their greatness was much more apparent in retrospect and from a distance). Our inter-knotted, inter-connected world requires an even more difficult task than producing one creative, non-violent leader, in just one time and place. Our world and our times require that we consciously build a worldwide socio-political culture that unabashedly promotes peace, love and understanding among all peoples, as sappy as that may sound, and it must be, as well, a culture in which we will all be active leaders in creating political and economic systems that will allow us and our children to survive with some health, dignity and values intact.

For me the evidence is very strong: our time of challenge is now, and it is likely to last the rest of our days. Our 20th Century civilization has dumped quite a lot of all types of waste in all the nooks and crannies of the earth’s geologic, aquatic, biological and atmospheric realms, and the atmosphere problem seems quite ready to bite us quite hard, quite soon, in our comfortable political and economic arrangements. No one knows today how, exactly, the crisis of a forthcoming tomorrow will present itself — yet again, it is likely to be something that seriously affects our daily lives, and which requires solutions which are inconceivable to the general cultural understanding of “how things should be.”

If these goals of mine, to “survive with some health, dignity and values intact” seem very modest, yes they are. As 2013 turns to 2014, I find it very hard to see good times ahead — please spare me your fantasies of driverless cars and infinitely productive nanobots, perhaps some of these things may achieve a version of truth in a small area of our global future. I am contemplating the extreme weather already occurring and wondering about future problems of basic food production, I am wondering how and where “people power” might ever emerge when faced with governments that are simultaneously too strong to be opposed by disorganized individuals and yet too elitist, selfish, corrupt and cowardly to allow any changes for the better. The trends are nearly all bad, I do fear unforeseeable breakdowns of current economic systems that will severely affect our current urban life/work cultures in extremely damaging ways, there are just too many “ifs” and worries and “unknowns” to leave me comfortable about the coming years. If anyone needs any more evidence that the very air we breathe is potentially close to becoming our most feared enemy force, Juan Cole and various contributors on his Informed Comment blog have been collecting and summarizing the science (and politics) of climate change, and I personally do support the work of the activist organization 350.org and other activists.

Our challenge is much harder than the challenges faced by the popular movements led by Gandhi, King and Mandela in one important respect. In each of their cases, an identifiable population was being held powerless by another identifiable population group, (which was nationally/ethnically different than the first population). In our case, the population being held powerless is, potentially, the entire future population of the 21st Century and beyond … and the identifiable population group holding them powerless is … ourselves, our current political arrangements and economic institutions. That includes all of us who hold in our heads all the reasons these political and economic arrangements can’t be immediately changed !!

The scientific fact that we are also being held powerless by the sheer volume of waste that has already been dumped into our air and oceans, again by ourselves and our immediate ancestors is yet another complicating, challenging aspect of the struggles we face. The struggles we will face will be a different kind of struggle than Dr. King’s faithful confronting Bull O’Connor’s police lines, and it will require new kinds of tactics and strategies that we will need to invent.

It is very likely that our coming challenges will require us to re-assess basic structures in our most fundamental, personal foundations of our own personalities. It is just about absolutely certain that our coming challenges will require new and better explanations of who we are, what we’re doing here, and why we should keep doing it, than our current sciences, philosophies and religions seem to be providing. And our current political and economic institutions — which I do define widely enough to include everything from the inner conscience that prevents us from running traffic lights even when no one else is around, to the hundreds of personality choices and preferences that define and organize our most basic social actions, like getting up and getting dressed and going to work each day — all our ordinary ways of life will likely be challenged in all sorts of ironic, tragic and completely unforeseeable ways.

Getting our heads around the fact that we can’t do X any more because the biological systems that made X possible have been wiped out by climate change, is fairly certain to be something that affects large portions of our current comfortable habits. The problems of creating organizations that empower people for productive action have still not been totally solved by anyone, and we will have to face these organizational challenges as well. My suggestions for better organization in American political work are here, if we can’t work together for better futures globally and economically as well as in our local politics, our grandchildren likely won’t have many successes.

We can’t wait to get to work on the very many necessary changes, if some type of pleasant human society is to survive for our grandchildren. We have to be our own Gandhi, our own Martin Luther King, our own Nelson Mandela, if we are to change the petroleum industry and the coal industry and the socio-political arrangements that give these industries much more political power than ordinary people seem to have. All the evidence points to very pessimistic conclusions for the health of our grandchildren; the prospect that the morally corrupt oil-industry shill Senator Mary Landrieu will have a controlling power over American energy legislation seems very much like a death sentence to any practical hope for positive change in American energy policies.

Nevertheless, my intellectual life has been dedicated to showing how ordinary people can and do create significant change, in their everyday actions — and as a matter of personal psychology and social balance, it is necessary to keep our optimism strong and unwavering. We have to keep our optimism, if only because giving in to despair makes us part of the problem. Again, there won’t be a Mandela to lead us out of the environmental/political/economic conundrums our wasteful habits have created. We have to be our own leaders for creative change, we have to find a way of creating a global culture of positive change and mutual leadership, and we have to start now.

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Syria As a Mirror to the World

The Syrian nation-state is riven by civil war (exacerbated by external forces), and seems in serious danger of collapse into a state of anarchy so great, that little or nothing of the lives of its inhabitants can saved from destruction, injury and turmoil.

The world civilization that 7 billion people have created on the landscapes of our earth in the year 2013 AD by the Western calendar, is still, in an optimistic view, thriving, yet it is also quite plausible and believable to make a “realistic/pessimistic” case that our present world civilization of nation-states, powerful economic enterprises, and poorly informed masses of “ordinary citizens” is also in great danger of collapse (if on a slightly longer timescale of decades, rather than the years in which a collapse in Syria seems plausible) that will also leave the lives of its inhabitants in various states of destruction, injury and turmoil.

Thus the topic of this essay: what can we learn from considering Syria problem’s as a mirror of the world’s problems?

To begin, however, let’s look at an even more basic question.

What is the most important factor, the most important variable, that determines what you or I see, when we look in a mirror?

It’s not the light waves bouncing about between our face and the mirror – though these do determine what image is visible in the mirror to a hypothetical objective observer. Yet what you or I see in the mirror is determined by our mind, our psychology, our personality, our emotions and presumptions. Our philosophical structures (of explanations we believe in) may also play a role here. And the range of our emotions and presumptions about our appearance in a mirror is so vast, from those who have never or very seldom look in mirrors and don’t know what to expect, and then through all those of us who may expect to see a certain self-image and are either happy or disappointed to see that expected image, or else are either disappointed or happy in seeing something other than the expected image, in all the millions of ways people can be either happy or disappointed.

So let’s be very clear, when we perform an intellectual exercise like this, considering Syria as a mirror to the world, it’s all in our presumptions and prejudices and perceptions of what we think we’re seeing, when we look at complex human historical problems like Syria, or when we consider out current global society’s prospects. There will be vast disagreement according to our personalities, our systems of science, religion and philosophy, our politics and our economic interests, and we just have to live with it and learn to analyze it and love it (see here for much more on my hopes that we can accomplish these goals).

So how do we consider this intellectual exercise, Syria as a mirror to the world?

On a first shallow glancing view, it may be possible to entirely reject the comparison of Syria to the world. Syria’s problems, it might be said, arise from the specific policies of the Assad monarchical dictatorship; the rest of the world does not suffer from this particular patriarchy of despotism, and therefore there is no comparison.

In my view, however, this rejection would be an error. Yes, Syria’s current political problems are centered on the Assad regime that has been in power for over four decades. However many regions of the world, in all times, have had experiences of regimes that are similar to the political regimes “enjoyed” by Syria in its long history. As you may know, I prefer to analyze political behavior in human beings as the creation and (constant re-creation) and distribution of honor, status and rank in human societies, (leading to the tribal and state governmental structures that have elaborated so convincingly in human affairs from their roots in our concepts of status and rank).

Would it be fair to say that nearly all human societies have had their share of giving rank and political power to some of the most unworthy, authoritarian, selfish, deceptive and otherwise despotic men to be found in their societies? (And it has been overwhelmingly and nearly universally a male problem, despite the many tribal structures that have empowered women in various ways, or the more modern kingdoms that have allowed Queens and Empresses to supervise traditional structures of male authority.) Nor will I allow my native USA to wriggle out of this on some claim of liberty-loving constitutional exception, because certainly there have been plenty of local, institutionalized tyrants and abuses of power from political actors and cliques in all eras of our American history, not to mention race riots and lynchings. And how do we rate the current situation of a highly centralized, highly institutionalized national security state apparatus quite literally monitoring all our modern communications at all times and undressing us at airports, which somehow “just grew” (very specifically out of our military structures since 1945) without ever being asked for, voted on by the public, or discussed in any full or free manner in our most visible political or mass media debates/analysis, and which appears to be completely beyond any control by ordinary citizens. So yes, even if you might argue that it’s not fair to say “nearly all,” I do believe that it is fair to say that the vast majority of human societies do have an understanding of selfish, authoritarian political power wielded by those whom they honored, rightly or wrongly, with these ranks and offices.

And let us make no mistake, this is the nature of the problem in Syria, an authoritarian regime which will use any murder, any weapon, any barbarity to maintain its power. And yet the regime survives, primarily because it does have a legitimate population base of civil society – the various non-Sunni-Muslim ethnic groups and communities who find their fears of the prospect of repression and/or massacre by victorious Sunni Muslim insurgents to be greater than the fears induced by continuing the bloody, unproductive Assad regime. These 5 to 10 million people (my guess based on my quick glances at Syrian demographic statistics) are not just going to disappear from the stage of human history in the Eastern Mediterranean region in the 21st Century. They deserve support and protection as much as anyone else, I hope for their sake their fates are not tied to the fate of a regime whose attempts to protect itself seem to engender more and deeper opposition.

And if we take a pessimistic view that humans will not solve the problems of un-sustainability in our present state of civilization, the crisis that will be facing our children and grandchildren will be the problem of entrenched political and business elites who refuse to alter their regimes, no matter the seriousness of the ecological problems confronting us, whether this is the ecology of a relentlessly rising coastline combined with much greater hurricane activity, or a human economic ecological disaster like successfully launching a robotic manufacturing and simple-services economy while refusing to make any basic changes in economic postulates to ensure the survival of hundreds of millions of people now deprived of traditional means of sustaining themselves. So in this instance, the prospects of the world as a whole over the coming decades does mirror the prospects of the Syrian polity over the coming months and years: very poor prospects indeed, in any kind of “realistic” assumptions about human ability to reform political and economic institutions that give undue rewards to small elites while depriving large masses in small, less-than-obvious ways.

Here I would like to take some time to shoot down a notion I saw expressed in comments on a Syrian article on a major press service’s website, to the effect that “we don’t need to care about these quarrelsome little ethnic groups that have been fighting each other for millenia.” Again, I hope my other writings express why we need to care about everybody in world history if we care about ourselves, and our history. And as for the Eastern Mediterranean region in general (in which “Syria” was seen as a vague region within a general Arab-Muslim culture and was not formally defined until the map-making exercises of the victorious Allies of World War I) and traditional and modern Syria in particular, actually the various little ethnic groups (and the predominant Sunni Muslim Arab ethnic group) did a fair job of living and letting their neighboring communities live. There was not a continuous war of community against community, and all the major wars of the region after the establishment of the Islamic hemisphere in the 6-800′s AD represented invasions by Muslim, Mongol or Crusader imperialists arising not from Syria or its immediate neighbors. And the book I pulled from my dated shelves to refresh myself on Syrian history, Howard Sachar’s excellent “Europe Leaves the Middle East, 1936-54″, 1st ed. 1972, starts off by reminding us that the Mongol invasions and epidemic diseases of the 1200-1300′s AD had seriously depopulated and impoverished the region, “ravaged its forests and silted its irrigation canals,” (p. 5), and no regimes until the colonial regimes of the Europeans after World War I had attempted seriously to remedy the situation. Nevertheless, during all this time, the various ruling empires maintained an overall peace, and the various ethnic groups of the Syrian territory did not continually war against each other. And that when the Europeans did come in after 1919, they did so in complete contempt of the Arab majority’s attempt to establish an Arab kingdom in Damascus. And in the overall story of how Syria achieved its full independence of colonialism relatively peacefully in 1946, the relative unity of Syrians in their many strikes, protests and riots against French colonial rule was an important factor.

Indeed, if the conflict in Syria now gives us the horrifying prospect of extreme ideological versions of Sunni and Shi’a Islamic thought locked in mortal conflict – al Qaida and Hezbollah battling over the Syrian landscape, in conventional journalistic shorthand – this must be seen as a reflection in today’s Syria of the grand ideological wars of the 20th Century world in Europe and East Asia, and certainly not as something arising from the political and economic competition of two neighboring communities in the hills southwest of Damascus. The roots and models for this type of ideological conflict lie in London and Paris and Berlin and Moscow and other European capitals in late 1800′s and early 1900′s, in the development of nationalisms and socialism/communism, its ugly reflection in a fundamentally deadly schism in the Islamic world of the early 2100′s is an example of history echoing it previous cries – yet an example that is neither fully appreciable by many as a tragedy, yet cannot be, in any viewpoint, a farce that is pleasant and amusing.

And so, in our intellectual exercise of considering Syria as a mirror to the world, we see how both how the world resembles the Syrian mirror, while Syria reflects the world that interfaces with it. Whether the image that we see of Syria and the world is ugly and pessimistic and doomed to catastrophic collapse, or whether there are possibilities that increased self-education and organization amongst the world’s peoples, and increased success of democratic-progressive tendencies among national and global political bodies, and increased world political/diplomatic cooperation on all types of issues, everywhere, from stronger efforts at caring for refugees and providing food stability and other positive institutions of civil societies, while somehow negotiating a sustainable peace among bitter enemies, whether this can actually occur to really result in positive outcomes in the Syrian situation over the next few years, and whether similar efforts on our part can result in positive outcomes for the world situation over the next few decades, again that is a function of our own psychological structures, our emotions and our presumptions, our cynicisms and pessimisms, or our hopes and efforts to find a viable solution.

Is there any glimmer of hope that can relieve our forebodings over Syria? A few days after this article originally posted, we must praise the Russian-American accord on identifying, controlling and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons — hopefully with the real cooperation of the Syrian government — as a very real step forward by some of the world’s largest political malefactors. True, the actual outcome is still uncertain and these governments have much, more more to accomplish towards actual world peace and progress, yet the situation of an awkward agreement today is still a better outcome than the unilateral American missile strikes that looked likely yesterday.

Yet overall, the global question haunting our futures remains: can our desperate belief that we will somehow maneuver our civilization to survive the crises created by our own waste products (and counting our authoritarian, despotic government actors among the most toxic items in our garbage), will our desperation somehow bring about actual fundamental reforms for long-term viability? All of these dancing images flash across our intellectual mirror as our attitudes and emotions carry on their eternal dance of joy and despair … yet inevitably, our verifiable actions (and our unconscious omissions) will, in their overall sum totals as the 2010′s and the 2020′s and the 2030′s roll along, second by second and minute by minute and hour by inescapable, inexorable hour, these actions and omissions on our part will determine the history and outcome of our human future.

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Advanced Theodicy for Practical People

Let’s see if we can’t get a little deeper into the question of theodicy, the question of why “god” allows evil to exist in the world. I am qualified to be your guide today, as I do consider myself to be both a man of science, and a man of the spirit. I see no contradiction in this, as I do believe my spiritual journeys have been empirical and evidence-based – at least in my own opinion. And all spiritual discussions and pronouncements, by anyone, need to be prefaced, of course, with the statement ”in my opinion.” I do believe, for myself, the evidence I’ve discovered for my spiritual understandings; however I do NOT expect YOU to also believe, necessarily for yourself, my evidence that I’ve discovered for my spiritual understandings.

And in the last few days since the tragic, and most likely terroristic, bombings in Boston Massachusetts, we have heard, on all types of media, a lot of poorly informed, artlessly expressed and just plain old silly and shallow discussion of what the world is like and how terrible it is that terrible things like this mass murder can occur. Let’s see what we can do to raise the level of discussion of these problems on the internet.

So why does “god” allow evil to occur in this world, why does “god” allow a hateful person or persons to fill backpacks with pressure cooker bombs filled with projectiles meant to cause severe and widespread injury and detonate them at a time of public celebration?

First off, as a spiritual person, this is why I put the word “god” in quotation marks, and why in my own writings I refer to the “Unknowable Universal Essence” as my synonym for words like God, Jehovah, Allah, The Lord, and so on. The image of an all-knowing patriarch who “knows” every detail of every life, who knows the course of every set of future events, is not an image that has ever attracted me spiritually, or one that comports with the reality of the spiritual Universe as I understand it. I do maintain that what I call the Unknowable Universal Essence “is present in” or “participates in” all the matter and all the energy in the Universe – yet please notice how this formulation is deliberately much more vague, uncertain and open-ended than the idea that a Fundamentalist Protestant Lord knows and controls your every future action. (And for the skeptical, I will point out that I specifically acknowledge that the “spiritual essence” I find to be present in the Universe as a whole, may well turn out to be some aspect of cosmic astrophysics which we humans just can’t yet understand or define scientifically.)

So, in my understanding of the “Unknowable Universal Essence,” it embraces ALL LIFE – viruses, mosquitoes, strange life-forms using non-carbon/oxygen chemistries in extreme environments – and it also embraces all apparently “non-living” matter as well. As long as matter and energy don’t violate the “laws” of physics and chemistry, they’re good to go in this Universe and be a portion of the universal love song. We do live with viruses and bacteria and cancer cells in our bodies nearly all the time. If the viruses or cancer cells grow stronger than the human body, I can be sad for you and your family, however the Unknowable Universal Essence is not offended. Or another example, we do live on earth with an atmosphere that helps keep our environment within a limited temperature range, while providing us oxygen to breathe and shielding us from the harsh environment of outer space. If the waste products of our economic activities upset that atmosphere so it can no longer be counted on to provide those elements of our convenience, the Unknowable Universal Essence will embrace the new life forms that evolve to thrive in the new, changed atmosphere which no longer supports our survival.

If you have an ideology that there is a one unified intelligence with Lordly Powers over all life, and which is specifically interested in earth-bound human lives over all other lives, then you do still have a problem with the question of “theodicy,” or why your Lord allows evil things to happen to human beings. And as I don’t really share your assumptions, I can’t help you much with a solution. The suggestion that your Lord who is especially interested in human beings, allows evil human behaviors to occur (over and over again!) as a test of individual human choices in a context of free will – making it all the more important to make non-evil choices – is as good an explanation as any other, given the assumptions.

As for the question of humans creating “evil” behavior which tortures, torments and murders other human lives, that, unfortunately, is a practical and scientific question which requires scientific answers (which we should be smart enough to provide). The problem is complicated further because the term “evil,” while it is a widely used term which everyone thinks they can recognize when they see it, is (like all the other words we commonly use when talking about “morality”) a subjective term of personal definition, rather than an objective scientific term with a definition that scientists can agree on. Everyone will have somewhat different definition of what “evil” or “morality” is (or should be), and there is no authority we can rest on to be sure of our definitions (besides the authority of having more human beings agree with our definitions of “good” and “evil” than disagree).

For today, we can say that the vast majority of humanity does agree that mass murder, for any motive, is indeed “evil” and is indeed to be condemned and repudiated. Nevertheless, we do find, and we will continue to find, that individual human beings do create for themselves sick, strange and angry psychological structures, and these same people will embrace divisive, arrogant and hate-filled versions of science and/or religion. From here it is but a short step for such angry people to gravitate towards choices of what human behaviors to give honor and status to, which enable political ideologies that allow them to think it is somehow “good” to commit specific mass murders in specific circumstances. And while many of the small minority that take these first three steps towards mass murder may never, fortunately, find the circumstances that allow them to express these murderous thoughts in action, a few will find themselves in economic circumstances that do allow them to gather the tools of murder, and the time and personal “security” to believe that they can and should take action on their murderous belief (whether or not they believe they can “get away with it”).

Humans create their own evils, just as they create their own positive accomplishments. As I’ve done my best to explain scientifically, we human beings create both good and evil through our creation and borrowing of our personalities/psychologies, through our creation and borrowing of specific philosophical, scientific and religious ideas, through our creation and borrowing of specific ideas of what human persons and behaviors should be given honor, status, and official rank/authority (a set of behaviors we understand under the heading of “politics”), and through our creation and borrowing of ideas of economic values, and our creation and distribution of specific goods and services to fulfill those economic values.

Our human lives, our thoughts and actions, our human history, are in the end our own human responsibility. I firmly believe our thoughts and actions are subject to scientific explanation. I do believe there is a universal spirit, which mostly feels like “love” to our subjective minds, which is present in all matter and all energy in this universe. This spirit may nourish us psychically to the extent that we seek it out. Yet if we wander twisted paths that lead to hateful and murderous behavior, the universal spirit will not directly interfere or intervene (to the extent that we remain within the realms of ordinary physics and chemistry.)

We like to think of ourselves as “good,” we like to think of ourselves as supporting the best values of humanity. We don’t like to confront ambiguous situations of mixed morality over which we feel we have little direct control, for example, being American citizens who believe in republican virtues and democratic values, who have somehow in the last 70 years created an over-arching military empire claiming supremacy over all human beings on earth, or the situation of being residents of the economically-advanced areas of North America and Europe in the last two hundred years, whose pursuit of economic values for our families and our communities (while neglecting the effects of the waste products of those pursuits) puts us in the position where our “goods” today seem to directly threaten the health and prosperity of our own children and all the future children of the world.

Fewer and fewer of us seem to believe in a patriarchal God who can or will rescue us from our own moral ambiguities. My understanding of the Unknowable Universal Essence tells me it will certainly not rescue us from our problems without a lot more specific, positive political and economic action, immediately taken, on our part. There is no “god” who is going to prevent human beings from being evil, there is no positive force in the Universe that is going to clean up our human messes for us. It’s entirely up to us, human beings. We can’t change the past that our human predecessors have given us, we can change our own thoughts and behavior going forward into the future – and my understanding of “morality” insists we get started on that process, right away.

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No, Public Managers Shouldn’t Get Business Manager Salaries

Author’s note: This article is a result of my recent foray into local activism, investigating the situation of my dysfunctional local agency that provides water to myself and thousands of my neighbors. The results of that investigation are a bit too locally-specific for this website (however if you too are in this locality I’ll be glad to tell you about it elsewhere). However, the whole experience of interviewing local officials and trying to write up the results did lead to the larger argument that I make below.

I did try to write this up for some local publications, who chose not to use it. Here I am keeping the initial paragraphs that refer to the local political situation in 2013, however here are some notes to make things more clear for my global readers. Clackamas County is the local government where I live, with an overall population of about 384,000 people over a fairly large geographic landscape with a variety of urban, suburban and rural communities. It is one of 3 counties (with Multnomah and Washington Counties) that make up the “metropolitan Portland” area, which contains a third or more of Oregon’s population. Tri-Met is the local regional government agency, first formed in 1969, which provides bus and rail public transit services to the most urban portions of the 3-County metropolitan area. In the most recent elections, Clackamas County’s governing board of 5 Commissioners was won by a new majority group generally representing the Republican Party, right-wing “tea party” movement which claims to favor smaller government and lower taxation in nearly all circumstances.

No, Public Managers Shouldn’t Get Business Manager Salaries

Is TriMet trying to ensure that Clackamas County voters will ban their already-deeply-into-construction light rail expansion into Milwaukie and Oak Grove, setting up years of legal and political conflict to come? It seems that will certainly be one result of the news that came last week, that TriMet was secretly giving top managers a collective $910,000 salary increase – while raising fares, cutting routes, and publicly claiming that they had a pay hike freeze in effect.

That’s all very interesting to speculate on, and as a Clackamas County progressive activist I feel slapped in the face by TriMet’s fiasco. How can I stand up at a Board of Commissioners meeting and defend light rail after this fiasco? It was bad enough last June, when the little-noticed confab of labor and environmental activists revealed that even the progressive activists of the Laborers Union, who are getting some of the TriMet construction jobs, thought that TriMet was too focused on light rail and not enough on buses. Still, I defended TriMet’s light rail as an investment in the future – even though it was already clear that TriMet didn’t share my grandparent’s sense of thrift as a virtue. Now that we see it was an investment in a select clique, why should I give up my time for activism to fight the hordes of tea-partiers in any upcoming Clackamas County special elections against TriMet?

TriMet’s latest snafu, however, is only an entry point to a larger argument that I would like to make: we need to push back against the argument that is so often heard, “We need to pay public managers the top rates ever earned in the private sector, to attract the best people.” No, absolutely not, for two major reasons. The two environments of private business management and public government management are completely different, and we do not need to attract the greediest people to public government management.

I have been a self-employed (micro) businessperson full-time for 29 years, and have continued as a part-time businessperson another decade. Much of that time I have been an activist observing local governments. The two environments are completely different.

Private businesses experience a much higher degree of month-to-month and quarter-to-quarter fluctuation of basic revenue than public government administrations ever do. Perhaps the revenue fluctuations of the slowest, most stable industries can be compared to government revenues – but those are the businesses where most managers still make significantly less than six-figure salaries. Public government administration is generally far more stable than the business world, revenues will fluctuate with the most major ups and downs of the economy as a whole, but usually not too much more.

And in business environment, the manager’s decisions appear to be much more important for the entity’s revenue results than in public government. Now in the reality of millions of people engaging the marketplace in American life, many people are mediocre and many things even out over time, that’s how people and capitalism survive. Yet it can happen that if you the business manager make one or two bad guesses, while your competition rolls out a popular new product, you really suffer. And on the other hand if your latest brainstorm is a hit, while the competition’s new line stinks, you’re celebrating in the best restaurants. Government administration is generally not like that, a welfare agency or a water district doesn’t have competitors actively trying to take away their “customers.” A transit agency like TriMet does have to “compete” with cars and other alternatives in general, are they really doing such a great job that their managers deserve the top rates of pay of any categories of business managers? Further, when revenues do fall in the business world, managers are much more likely to be de-budgeted or sidetracked, if not fired — even if the shortfalls are not directly their fault. This happens much less often in the government environment, even if lagging results are in fact management’s fault.

A business plan does need to be tweaked every 30 to 60 days; intensely competing businesses are constantly responding to each others’ moves. A well-designed government policy and administration should need much less marketing attention: the revenues are coming in because the population needs your government service, and/or the population is legally required to pay their taxes. And while many types of government agencies have some legitimate need to maintain good public relations, frankly the decline of the print journalism industry offers the chance to pick up very experienced people for public relations management for less than six-figure salaries. If government managers are so great they need top rates of pay, why are they so seldom as cost-conscious and bargain-seeking as business managers can often be?

Frankly we don’t need the most selfish, most “gimme” managers in public service. Which brings up another part of the problem (and further illustrates the difference in the public and private environments). While being a highly successful business manager has many rewards, there are limits to how far the most selfish can “institutionalize” their power. Sure, this year your business is booming and you’re head of your industry group and you’re a big wheel in your political party, but in 10 or 12 years you probably won’t be all those things. On the other hand, the clever and selfish government manager, well-versed in the arts of the misleading press release, the rewarding of friends and the punishment of enemies, can entrench themselves in local government and politics and be a “power” for 15 years or more. Those powerful public managers are precisely the reason that bureaucracy is a dirty word, and that many citizens feel that government doesn’t listen to them. Do we really need to recruit and encourage such selfish managers with the top rates of pay for any industry?

Every citizen, every elected official needs to stay awake and fight back against the argument that “we need to pay government managers the top salaries of the most lucrative industries to attract good talent.” No, absolutely not. We should be able to offer public management jobs at rates 10-15% less than private managers in comparable categories are getting, and we should consciously be seeking people who see value in stability, who appreciate the lesser risks generally encountered in government service, and who feel rewarded by knowing how they are of service to their community.

I do believe that government workers making less than $50,000 annually should probably be getting raises; and saving money by getting better public agency management for less money is a great way to fund that goal. We don’t need the most selfish managers; if they really think they’re worth it, they need to go find those big bucks in the private sector. We do need managers who understand that the taxpayer is their ultimate employer, and that the taxpayer’s need for cost-conscious, service-oriented government is paramount in the public environment.

Business doesn’t exist to provide government or wisdom; it exists keep us all fed, sheltered and entertained, and give people incomes to do those things. Government does exist to do tough jobs that business can’t take on profitably. Let’s not get the two very different environments mixed up.

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Moments of History – Obama Should Know Better

As a historian and a follower of momentous political changes, I happen to think that President Obama did a pretty deft job in his public reactions, at least as far we know now, dancing on the shifting sands of the people-powered uprising and revolution in Egypt, over the recent 18 days from January 25th to Feb. 11th. However, there was an item in his prepared remarks after the resignation of Mubarak, on Feb. 11th, which was completely stupid and misleading, setting a very bad example for any young people who may have been trying to learn something from the occasion.

The President really should have known better than to make the silly statement he made; for charity’s sake, I will assume that this was a case of an unimaginative speech writer just trying to get something out quickly (and I’ve been in that position enough times in my business writing career).

In opening his remarks, Mr. Obama voiced the following words “There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times (source here).”

This idea that history only takes place at certain specific moments is a big part of a false world view, propagated in millions of old and new sources, that helps keep the average American (and every global citizen) stupid and powerless. “History is not about You!,” this false world view shouts. “History is only about kings and queens and powerful politicians. History is serious stuff, and it’s not for you, and it only happens at certain times when we say so!”

Well, I for one am here to say that’s not how life works, that’s not the way it is. And the Egyptian uprising is one of the best proofs that History is indeed about every one of us, it’s about every one of our seconds and minutes in real time in our real lives as ordinary inhabitants of this marvelously spinning globe we find ourselves living on. History is not just Hosni Mubarak, finally realizing after sundown local time on Friday February 11th that he needed to no longer be the President of Egypt.

History is, and must be, all about all the lives of all the 80 million-plus Egyptian people, every day over the last three decades, all of their thoughts and experiences, all the sights and sounds they experienced, all their joys and sorrows and indifferences, and how the totality of those experiences were present on the evening of January 24th, creating a mood which most palpably existed in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people even though on Jan. 24th it had not yet expressed itself in any tangible “political events” that outside reporters might have latched onto and written about. History was taking place that afternoon and evening of Jan. 24th, no less than it was 24 hours later on Jan. 25th when the mood of the Egyptian people did express itself in tangible events that could be reported, and every single one of the thoughts and actions of every one of the Egyptian people over the next 18 days made its small but vital contribution to the outcome that finally occurred on Feb. 11th, when Hosni Mubarak resigned the Presidency.

Now if Obama’s hurried speech writer had said something like, “there are very few moments in our lives when we have the privilege of witnessing Sudden Large Changes in Historical Patterns Which Are Immediately Obvious as Big Significant Changes,” I might be a bit more inclined to go along with that – yet again, President Obama’s own life and our recent times show that this is still an exaggeration that misleads us about the nature of History. And Obama of all people, should know that the choices of average citizens are crucial to the results of History.

Just to tick off a few of the Sudden Large Changes that have occurred to all of us over the recent years, there were the Republican gains in the 2010 elections, when tens of millions of average citizens in 2008 failed to turn out in 2010. These Republican Party gains were also aided by the moral travesty of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, which may have been the revenge of the politically-biased Supreme Court faction for the election of President Obama in November 2008, which was based on Obama’s remarkable success in enlisting the average intelligent citizen to his cause. As Obama should know, his ability to accomplish this was indirectly fueled by the disaster of the Iraqi insurgency of 2004-6, which of course arose from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. That American invasion was sold to Americans as a response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which almost certainly were the result of George Bush and Condi Rice ignoring the many warnings of this coming attack, and that incompetent administration was only in place because of the Supreme Court’s intervention and dubious decision in awarding the 2000 Presidential elections to Bush instead of Gore. As time goes by, the things that we thought were Sudden Large Changes in the 1990′s are looking a bit less meaningful, yet nevertheless these kind of sudden, highly visible and obviously momentous happenings that we think of as History are not, and never have been, “very few” moments in our lives, as President Obama’s harried speech writer would have us believe.

History is the story of us – all of us. Like any good story, it often works better as a convincing narrative if it is skillfully edited and condensed and presented by a creative storyteller. But even the dull bits of your ordinary life are part of the story – they are influencing your life, your ideas, your choices and your future actions. Even if you really are the dullest, most apathetic, disconnected, unmotivated consumer, your consumer choices are affecting our cultural and economic history, and your bad example is motivating someone else to take actions that will have an effect.

I’ll get off my hobby horse now, and let us both get back to work, if you’d like to hear more about how History really is the story of all human beings and what that means for each of us, I’ve got the condensed version of that story here. As long as you understand: History is not some big rare thing that happens to someone else, that we can witness History every moment of every day if our eyes and ears are open (even if we don’t always understand what we’re seeing and hearing), and President Obama, of all people, should know better than to repeat some speech writer’s prattle about the “few moments” of “history taking place.”

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Is There A Talking Lizard In Your Subconscious Mind? Hope versus Advertising

Is there a talking lizard, with a cute Australian accent, implanted in your subconscious mind? There should be, because they’ve been paying literally billions over the last few years to put it there. Nevertheless, despite all the evidence that the advertising industry has won, and American intelligence and individual freedom has lost in the battle over your mind-space, this article would like to take up the cause of hope, against the advertising industry.

In our world of capitalism and business, advertising is a necessary function of doing business. I’ve mostly been a small businessperson in my adult career, I’ve advertised my businesses, I’ve written ads for my own and others’ ventures, and for grassroots political causes I’ve been involved in. I want to advertise in the future, for business or political ventures I might become interested in. As a consumer, I’ve sometimes benefitted from discovering new (to me) products, or from sales opportunities or better prices that I learned about through advertising. Advertising is probably here to stay.

Yet as progressive citizens of the United States, as inhabitants of the earth who wish to see our grandchildren also enjoy a relatively supportive planet to live on, I hope it’s clear to most of us that most modern advertising, video advertising in particular, has far more negative economic and cultural effects than positive effects. Advertising is a form of pollution, a pollution of the personal space of each of us, a pollution of our culture’s common human space, a pollution of our culture’s common social space. Advertising pollutes our public discourse, it pollutes our inner thoughts. Advertising pollutes our family and social relationships, and advertising – false, lying advertising conceived in pure cynicism and hypocrisy with budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars – most certainly pollutes our political civic life. The advertising industry’s excellence of craftsmanship in their ability to manipulate our emotions from one second to another increases and exacerbates the negative effects of advertising on our common social space, even as it sometimes succeeds in its manipulative purpose of distracting us and making us laugh so a brand image can be implanted into our subconscious.

As citizens of the world who need a better future than our capitalist democracy is currently providing, I hope it’s clear to us that we cannot get to that better future without somehow bringing serious and fundamental reforms to the current advertising industry. Interestingly, the Supreme Court’s efforts to shield the freedom of advertising speech from government interference may have left two very interesting avenues for progressive action, arising ironically from the very excellence of manipulative craftsmanship in today’s video advertising presentations, and I’ll be discussing that after a few more introductory thoughts.

While I am here to criticize the advertising industry from a progressive stance, it’s important to note that people who value the preservation of their traditional culture, people who value the importance of their traditional religious beliefs, are precisely the people who should be criticizing the advertising industry the most. Modern advertising, with its desperate need to grab your attention, is perfectly willing to satirize any belief, make parodies of any cultural institution, or act like a bully to any identifiable population group – since it’s proven that an outrageous statement or image that seems to either defy cultural expectations, or exaggerate cultural prejudices, is an easy, and very effective, method for getting people’s attention. Video advertising in particular acts like a type of “super sulfuric acid” in slowly dissolving traditional beliefs and customs – that is, when it’s not acting like napalm or dynamite in directly burning and exploding traditional beliefs and customs. Yet somehow the cultural conservatives in America have become so unthinkingly “pro-business” in their reactions, that even though the modern advertising industry is more damaging to their cultural traditions, and to their ability to maintain their cultural traditions, than it is damaging to the culture of relatively iconoclastic, free-thinking left-liberals, American cultural conservatives can, at least so far, be counted on to unthinkingly defend the right of advertisers to peddle the type of lies and nonsense that are dissolving the authority and foundations of the traditional beliefs the cultural conservatives claim to revere so fondly.

Now let’s take a look at how the Supreme Court, in attempting to set up a corporate-friendly legal regime protecting some free speech rights for advertisers, has inadvertently set up a loophole through which intelligent citizens can try to fight back against the corporate behemoth of deceptive advertising.

TAXING DECEPTIVE ADVERTISING

The Supreme Court has ruled on the free speech rights of advertisers in a number of cases, which generally establish that businesses do have some rights to free speech in advertising – yet that “commercial speech” is a form of speech which may be regulated, if the government has a “substantial interest” in such regulation. A summary of the law can be found here.

The established case law is fairly clear, and on the face of things, it generally looks like a very pro-business stance on the part of the Supreme Court. (I’m a progressive and a radical, so I do hope and pray for a future where we can get a Supreme Court that favors the people’s interests over the business owner’s interests.) According to the existing rulings, commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment against government regulation if several conditions are met. The commercial speech must be for lawful products or services and must not be deceptive, the governmental interest must be substantial, and the proposed governmental remedies must “directly advance” the government’s interest, and not be “more extensive” than necessary.

Do you get it? Just about all modern big-budget video & radio advertising IS IN FACT DECEPTIVE! And in being deceptive, it is therefore subject to regulation, including the possibility of prohibition of such deceptive advertising.

Further, ambitious young legal minds should be sharpening their intellectual swords to go after the theory that ALL advertising aimed at implanting a branding strategy into the consumer’s subconscious is BY DEFINITION deceptive, since the consumer’s true interest is to be skeptical of all brand claims – and even if a brand is a reliable supplier of quality potato chips or adult diapers or whatever for some period of time, it is in the interest of the consumer to remain alert for the possibilities that other brands are just as good, that brands which aren’t spending huge amounts to implant their image through advertising should be able to deliver the product at a lower cost, and for the probability that the known brand will eventually change or decline in ways that are not to the consumer’s interest. Even if the known brand doesn’t decline, it may be overtaken by other brands improving their products and services. Branding strategies are entirely logical for businesses with the resources to carry them out, yet from the consumer’s point of view, they are fundamentally deceptive, their basic purpose is to implant a necessarily false idea in our minds, somewhere deeper than rational thought is able to form and hold the ideas that the individual actually wishes to hold.

So it is absolutely legal and constitutional to talk about taxing deceptive advertising, and/or advertising which is intended to amuse or distract the consumer while a branding image is implanted into the consumer’s subconscious mind (a strategy of deception on the face of it). It should be fairly easy to argue that the government does have a strong and abiding interest in protecting its citizen’s minds from deception, nonsense and selfish subconscious manipulation, as well as in protecting the federally-owned broadcast spectrum and other public forums from lies, deception and other forms of commercial pollution.

Again, the Supreme Court over the years has been trying to erect a fence that would protect the commercial speech of big corporations trying to get little citizens to hand over their money … but the over-reaching excesses of the corporations, in which EVERY automobile commercial has to have a disclaimer saying “uh, it’s not actually legal or possible to drive like we’re showing you,” where scores of huge corporations run ad campaigns filled with magical realities and foolish impossibilities and cartoon nonsense in order to sneak in a branding message to your subconscious, have created a situation in which the whole deceptive apparatus of modern advertising has placed itself in a trap where an active citizenry CAN demand regulation, according to the existing doctrines of the Supreme Court!

The inherent deceptiveness of branding campaigns is not just some fluke of whacky ad-men, it is part of a whole body of scientifically-planned, tested and proven theories of how to manipulate your thoughts to the advertiser’s advantage. No matter who you may believe yourself to be, no matter how strong-willed or individualistic you may believe yourself to be, the advertisers know exactly how to grab your attention with cultural images and emotion-inducing sound effects, they know exactly how to play your assumptions and prejudices to achieve any almost any mental effect they wish to create.

Is it in the interests of the advertiser to persuade you that white is black? They will carefully craft three different social narratives, each of which can be presented in 8 seconds, with very careful role casting and set design, showing social situations in which a person you can identify with does something silly or embarrassing, yet understandable – and all three will be tagged with the line, spoken by others addressing the embarrassed person – “Oh, you didn’t even know white was black?” This will be finished off with an eye-grabbing cartoon or computer generated image in which a number of white images are apparently visually transformed in black images, and with some appropriately punchy music will deliver the headline “White – Now it’s Black.” The negative images for white will have all been tested and proven to have negative emotional effects on people, and the positive images used for black will all have been tested and proven to have positive emotional effects on people. And it can all be wrapped up in thirty seconds.

Oh, and that’s exactly how they sell you cars, and how they sell you phone networks, and how they sell you prescription drugs and political candidates and everything else. And it is deception through and through, and citizens who care about their culture and the future of their culture should be able to lead their politicians to tax and regulate this commercial deception, no matter what outrageous claims the ad industry will come up with to defend themselves.

What would be an effective and efficient form of regulation, that would advance the interests of citizens and government without unduly burdening legitimate businesses that need to sell their products? I see a regime of taxation on total deceptive advertising spending, which would start with an absolute exemption on the first $100,000 or $150,000 that a company (or an individual) spends each year on advertising. So there will be no question of taxing your ads on Craig’s list for your garage sale, no question of taxing the flyers and coupons put out by your local pizza parlor or dog-washing salon. And even the worst fly-by-night hawkers of crappy Chinese plastic could put together a low-production-value 30-minute infomercial, with any kind of lies they like, and run it three or five times late at night on the cable channels, and not have to pay any tax because they are still under the $150,000 exemption. The intent of the exemption is to is precisely to exempt nearly all local businesses and everyone attempting to establish a business. A business would typically have to be up to $5-600,000 in sales in a very high-margin field, and up to $3 million or more in sales in most low-margin fields, before it would start feeling any effects of deceptive advertising taxes, no matter what they were saying or presenting.

For businesses that are spending more than $150,000 a year on advertising, I envision an after-the-fact tax rate of 3% to 12 or 15% of total spending, depending on the degree of deception that is found to be occurring. If advertisers were willing and able to limit themselves to provably factual statements about the virtues of their products, the availability at various retail outlets and prices, and non-exaggerated claims about the suitability of the products for various consumer needs, they get home free, no tax for deceptive advertising is incurred.

For the normal stretching of claims that occurs so easily once one starts writing an ad – “You’ll love the taste of new Sugar Oatie O’s!” – we have a category called something like “moderate narrative exaggeration” and it gets a tax of 3% of the company’s total spending on advertising (after the exemption). When we get presentations like a little drama showing the whole family being transformed by eating new Sugar Oatie O’s, or the ad that’s actually running currently that shows the woman going to her high school reunion and getting the guy she’s always wanted, thanks to her new skin-disease prescription drug – and not getting any of the horrendous side effects that are legally required to be listed that take up 90% of the ad’s time – we have a category called “extreme narrative exaggeration” and it costs a 6 or 7% tax. Using cartoon characters, human-like talking lizards and other magical realism to dramatize your message gets you a 9 or 10% tax rate. And going on the theory that branding campaigns are always deceptive, saturation buys of advertising space to run messages that use humor or other distractions to sneak in a branding message should be a special category of its own that also earns you at least a 10% tax rate.

And for those who need to put together a political advertisement that takes a third party’s negative interpretation of something that a politician said or did in the past, exaggerates that into a more direct threat-statement aimed at raising the fears of voters, uses creepy music and huge block-font print messages to work on voter’s subconscious emotional responses, and thus trashes one candidate while never mentioning the opposing candidate, and hides the ad’s sponsorship behind a committee name that has also been chosen to play on voter’s emotions, there needs to be a top, punitive tax rate of 15% or more, and legal language that prevents one individual or group of individuals from setting up dozens of such committees to game the initial exemption of the first $150,000 of ad spending to their advantage.

The tricky question is, of course, who makes all these judgements and interpretations to assess the tax, and I do see some sort of 5-person board, under the FTC or the IRS, to retroactively look at a company’s advertising over the previous time period and make a tax assessment. Of course the professional reactionaries and the economic libertarians would hate this, but it is a reasonable response that protects the interests of the government in ensuring that citizens are not being deceived, and that the common cultural space is not being overly polluted, gives businesses and political candidates an incentive to construct ads that are not deceptive, and does not unduly burden businesses – honest businesses incur no burden, and even the deceptive ones still get to poison the air with their crap. They just have to pay a tax on it, after a significant initial exemption, to compensate society (in the form of the federal government) for their misuse of the intellectual environment.

And if the professional reactionaries can still win an election without their deceptive negative ads, or even with them and paying a tax on them, of course they can put their flunkies on the board, and the board will suddenly find all sorts of excuses to give companies no tax assessment at all, or assessments at the lowest possible rates.

CAVEAT VENDOR

An even more elegant and libertarian solution to the problem of deceptive advertising lies in changing the legal assumption of “caveat emptor,” or “buyer beware,” that underlies nearly all business and commercial law. If advertisers are put on the legal assumption of “caveat vendor,” or “seller beware,” and consumers are allowed to bring lawsuits against deceptive advertising, the problem practically solves itself. The rational company quickly learns to use just a few saving adjectives in its low-key, fact-based advertising – “you may find that new Sugar Oatie O’s really taste great, and probably help you start your day with the nutrition you need” – and the deceptive company either changes its behavior or gets quickly driven from the marketplace after paying off consumer’s successful lawsuits.

The potential for overwhelming courts and businesses with lawsuits under such a regime is real, and some rational limits could well be written into the law. Perhaps there should be a mandatory class-action requirement, the complainants would need to get 1% or so of the population of the jurisdiction to sign on to a class lawsuit in order to be heard – whatever number works out so that it is easy to reach it for truly abusive business liars, yet tough to reach for cases where there are more gray areas. Alternatively, plaintiffs might be limited to those who actually suckered for the ad and forked over money to the possibly deceptive business.

Other important details would be that cases must be brought in the complaining customer’s jurisdiction, and that companies must have proper identification on their products to enable victims of possibly deceptive advertising know who they’re looking for. And if such law does lead to a huge wave of cases that threatens to tie up courts, I would not object to procedural laws that set up special courts with accelerated procedures such as no oral arguments or appearances whatever, everyone would submit their paperwork and special judges would make their determinations within a 30 or 60 day time limit.

Again, if companies would just sprinkle their ads with “it may be” and “probably” they could argue their way out of most lawsuits, and thus over time lawsuits wouldn’t be sought in cases that were not likely to be won by the plaintiffs. Of course this might lead to lawyers aggressively specializing in assembling such classes and cases – and wouldn’t the Chamber of Commerce types have some fun going after a lawyer they believed made deceptive ads to do so? After an initial period of testing by both sides, it is likely the whole field could become self-regulating, with little or no burden on the courts. And the advertising the consumer is subjected to will hopefully be much less burdensome to both their conscious and subconscious minds.

For my satisfaction, either the law should be written so that the use of humorous distractions, cartoon characters, magical realism or unrealistically unbelievable social situations to establish branding strategies is necessarily considered deceptive, or judges need to establish this through case law. While I would still consider all branding strategies to be inherently deceptive to the consumer’s best interests, if companies could only carry them out in a fact-based way – “you may need plumbing products, and you probably want the best plumbing products. We’ve been making plumbing products for 85 years, thousands of independent plumbing contractors consider our products reliable and economical” – that would be a big reduction in contemporary intellectual pollution, and a big reduction in the amount of nonsense being carried around in the subconscious brains of hundreds of millions of consumers, and I would be happy with that.

I’m too much the historian to unequivocally look forward to unalloyed good endings in human affairs, yet I remain hopeful that a legal regime of “caveat vendor” that allowed the public to take legal action on their own initiative against deceptive advertising could lead to a much better environment in this area of human life, with only deceptive businesses being disadvantaged. Advertising could and would flow as before, in terms of volume, yet hopefully in a much more calm, fact-based atmosphere that actually showed respect for the customer’s intelligence. There would be no government board inspecting advertising either before or after the fact, and after an initial period when some grey-area exaggerations get some frivolous lawsuits, there would be no undue burden on honest businesses and political candidates, and only those businesses and political candidates who need to rely on deception to promote their causes would be disadvantaged.

And at the Fox News empire, they would trash me for “talking the fun out of advertising,” and I would be glad to bask in their criticism, knowing what I had done to help free the subconscious minds of my fellow Americans from their abuses and pollution.

GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE

Of course, all of this speculation on my part is far, far in advance of the actual state of American culture and politics at the beginning of the year 2011, and I could not criticize anyone who criticized this article for engaging in far-out fantastical speculation in this matter. It does seem more likely right now, that instead of my musings here coming true, that a future President Bachmann or Santorum would push to allow big corporations to use some sort of new microwave or neutrino-beam technology to send advertising messages through the walls of our homes and directly into our brains – just before that President bumbles into a nuclear war with China, the oceans die, and the cockroaches take over. (The talking lizards might then evolve in another million years!)

No, right now the weak and cowardly Congressional Democrats can’t even protect themselves against the hypocritically false, mouth-foaming TV advertisements that have been unleashed by the un-precedented Citizens United ruling from our biased Supreme Court; they certainly aren’t going to be passing any laws that put the brakes on big corporations. And even if liberals and progressives were able to win Congressional seats for a majority that actually represented liberals and progressives, the politically-biased Roberts-Scalia-Thomas clique that dominates our Supreme Court would make up some new arguments that invalidated the kind of laws I’ve been talking about in this article.

So we Americans who can still think rationally, without magical realism and talking lizards cluttering up our brains too deeply, we have tons and tons of work to do before we’ll be making any of the reforms I’ve discussed here (and I hope I’ve addressed those issues elsewhere). And there are so many pressing problems facing modern America, that reforming the sicknesses of today’s advertising industry is far down the list of domestic policy changes we’ll be making if we can ever overcome the obstacles facing actual liberal politics in 21st Century America.

Nevertheless, these are good issues to be thinking about and to be discussing, because the manipulative excellence of the craftsmanship in today’s video ads is only going to become more insidious, more penetrating of our personal mind-spaces, and more polluting to the kind of cultural and intellectual public common space we should be treasuring more dearly. And it is a good issue to bring before the public, as they do understand at some level that most advertising is nonsense and deception, and that’s why hundreds of millions of American consumers do their best to “tune out” advertising on a conscious basis (which of course leads the big advertisers to work even harder on reaching our subconscious minds).

And as a parting shot, there is one non-legislative program that sincere independents and liberals should be able to join in now, that takes on one of the worst portions of modern advertising’s assault on American ideals of liberty and self-reliance. In the wake of the tragic attacks on Congresswoman Giffords and Judge Roll in Tucson this January, there have been many calls for a greater civility in American public life. Well, can the rich, powerful and successful members of the National Association of Broadcasters do anything to advance the cause of civility? Yes, they can. The National Association of Broadcasters and the state broadcasters associations are fairly tight industry associations with a near-universal membership among broadcasters, and they do, if they wish, have the power to enforce some basic, minimum standards for negative campaign advertising over broadcast radio and television. We’re not talking about achieving utopia here, we accept that negative advertising will exist, just some basic minimums of civility. First, the attack must be based on something the target actually said or did in a reasonable past period of time, 2 or 4 years, and not based on the advertiser’s, or some third-party’s negative interpretation of what the target did. If the claim is that the candidate voted for/against a particular issue, but this vote was part of a large bill that addressed many topics, that would have to be noted. Second, all music is disallowed; they can have their claims in words, but they can’t have music’s ability to communicate (negative or positive) emotionality. Third, no photo-morphing of the target candidate into some other (negatively-regarded) person or image – no matter how closely the attacking advertisers want to tie the two together. All claims of a link between the attacked candidate and another negatively-regarded person or concept must be made in words, of course without music and without photo-morphing or jump cuts or subliminal images or any other video trickery. And fourth, any claims on the future behavior, or the results of the future behavior, of the attacked candidate must be reality-based and relatively civil. You won’t be able to claim “if candidate X is elected it will lead to fascism/communism/apocalypse!”, but you could say things like “if candidate X is elected he will most likely continue to vote against (our issue).” Fifth, if the negative ad is being placed by independent groups, they must include a brief statement of who they do wish to be elected to the position in question – no fair attacking the target and never mentioning the candidate they really desire (and if they favor abstention, a spoiled ballot campaign or a write-in or whatever, they have to say that). And finally, all images of guns or violence are disallowed in either negative or positive campaign advertising – no matter how closely the candidate wants to tie himself to such imagery. They can express their love of guns in words, but no showing one. It just isn’t civil, or conducive to civility.

This is an issue that well-intentioned people should be able to take to the National Association of Broadcasters and state broadcasting associations right now, and ask respectfully for attention and action. Of course the National Association of Broadcasters is not in the business of preventing its members from running advertisements, indeed it wants them to be successful which means selling more ads. But no ad spending need be turned away under this policy, they just need to craft their message with a little respect for our common future. The question is whether the National Association of Broadcasters is going to do something concrete to fulfill its purposes of making America a better place, and its broadcasters into even better and more respected citizens than they already are.

Or are they going to tell us, in essence, that spreading hate and incivility in our political life through deceptive advertising and negative emotional manipulation are just fine, as long as the members of the National Association of Broadcasters rake in the money during campaign season? (Unfettered by the Citizens United decision, spending on broadcast ads has already skyrocketed.) America’s good citizens who do wish for civility need to know the answers to these questions.

It would be great to see all sorts of independent, concerned groups from both political and the more general community raising questions like this with our broadcasters. It’s a small first step, on a very long road that will have to be traveled before the American people can actually have a tangible, meaningful victory over corporate power invading their most personal spaces. But the advertising flank is a good flank to fight on. Nearly everyone understands how annoying advertising can be, advertising is a very tangible evidence of corporate power over individuals, markets and governments, and the very excellence of the combination of scientific research and creativity with which ads now manage to manipulate us has carried the industry into a brave new world, where established law allows activists to find ways to legislate against their excesses.

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