You disagree with me? LAAA LAAA LAAA

As a social scientist I’m fully aware of the fact that people tend to listen to, observe, and even seek out media and information that support their existing beliefs (this is a subset of both confirmation bias and self-justification).  Along with this is the tendency of people to avoid, criticize, and even demean any media or information that disagrees with their existing beliefs.  The result of such behavior, of course, is extreme polarization and a reduced ability to see the perspectives of people with whom you disagree.  In layperson’s terms: Once you stop listening to people with different opinions, it becomes nearly impossible to accept the idea that they may have something worthwhile to say.

Enter Barack Obama.  This Tuesday he plans to speak to the nation’s school children.  Thanks the polarizing efforts of Fox News’s scallywag blowhards, the parents of the nation’s school children are freaking out.  Now, turn the clocks back almost 20 years and George H.W. Bush (the dad) did the same thing.  I was in high school at that point.  Was there an uproar?  Did the parents of the nation’s school children freak out?  Were liberals running through streets demanding that their “socialist” children not listen to this god-fearing capitalist propagandist?  Um… No…

This raises two questions:

1) Should the President of the U.S. be allowed to talk to school children?

I’m pretty sure the Rush Limbaugh’s, Sean Hannity’s, and Glenn Beck’s have conveniently failed to mention the fact that Presidents of the US regularly visit schools and classrooms.  In fact, George W. Bush was reading a kid’s book to students in an elementary class when the September 11th terrorist attacks took place.  I wonder how many of the parents of those kids threw fits when they found out THE PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. was coming to visit their kids and talk to them?

While George Bush was President, I regularly used him as an example of someone with power.  I would tell my students that, if he were to suddenly walk into my classroom, regardless of how important I considered the topic of discussion at that moment, I would turn the floor over to him.  I’m not a fan of George Bush and I disagree with him politically on just about everything.  But because of his position (i.e. “status” in sociology), I would still listen to him and assume that what he had to say to my students would be worth hearing.

Additionally, I am a believer in listening to people who disagree with you precisely because it forces you to rethink what it is you believe (this is why we went to see Mitt Romney and John McCain speak during the election last year).  If you only ever listen to people who agree with you, you fall prey to groupthink.  And, your views are often ill-founded and not carefully developed.  In short, you think what you think not because it is a well-developed argument but because you’re afraid to think and have not considered thinking anything else.

So, the short answer to this question: Parents should be ecstatic that the President of the U.S. is taking time out of his schedule to talk to their children, regardless of his politics.  That he is doing so reflects the importance he puts on school.

2) What has changed to result in this type of a response?  While I’m not an expert on this particular social psychological phenomenon, my guess is that the media is playing a particularly large role in this.  While having a free and mostly unrestricted press (George Bush certainly didn’t give the press free reign in Iraq or Afghanistan during his wars there) is a hallmark of a liberal and open country, this also means the press can work to undermine the leadership of the country.  You would likely not find such criticism in the media in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has cracked down on the press.  So, I fully support the right of the media to say what they want regarding Barack Obama’s address to the nation’s school children.  I’d even die for their right to say what they are saying.

But I can’t help but see the media that is pushing this as remarkably hypocritical.  They demand the right to criticize the President and even try to get students to avoid listening to him give an innocuous speech about staying in school.  But if anyone were to criticize their right to say what they are saying, they would be up in arms about Constitutional Rights.  So, they support peoples’ rights to listen to them, but not to anyone who disagrees with them.  This is hypocrisy 101.

As for why this response now?  I think it does reflect both a growing divide in the U.S. between conservatives and progressives.  Luckily for those of us who are somewhat in touch with reality, it appears as though progressives are winning some of these battles.  The Republican Party is shrinking.  Religious fundamentalism is shrinking.  People are realizing that you can’t fight progress forever.  Doing so will ultimately doom your society.  So, my guess as to why this is happening now is because the religious right and conservatives in the U.S. are feeling increasingly marginalized (because they are), but they retain control over much of the media (most of the CEOs of media conglomerates are wealthy white men with vested interests in maintaining the status quo).  So, as wealthy white men lose a little bit of their power and control, they are fighting back, using the tools they have – the media and the unfailing loyalty of those who are too closed-minded to listen to anyone with whom they might possibly disagree.

Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but it seems like what we are hearing are the death throes of conservativism in the U.S.  It may be a long, loud, and painful death, but I’m hoping it is a death nonetheless.  That death may lead to the rise of Libertarians, but I’m guessing Libertarians wouldn’t run away from the opposition with their hands over their ears screaming at the top of their lungs so they can’t hear the opinions of those who disagree with them.

big government vs. little government

For all you fans of reducing government out there, maybe you should reconsider.  This NYTimes article gives a good illustration of situations when small government doesn’t make sense.  For years the government has allowed private companies to provide student loans at virtually no risk to the companies as the government insures the loans and provides the funding.  The companies just make money off that arrangement.  When the government makes the loans directly (even if it uses a private company to manage the loans), it saves billions.  In short, sub-contracting out to private companies services that government can provide directly only increases the cost.  It doesn’t decrease the cost, and here’s why: You introduce profit into the equation.

Do the math.  When the government runs the program, it looks like this:

cost of program = cost to provide the services

When government subcontracts programs, it looks like this:

cost of program = cost to provide the services + profit for corporation

In what situation can “profit for corporation” lead to lower costs of programs?  (It certainly hasn’t in healthcare; one of the primary reasons healthcare costs in the US keep going up is because insurance companies keep increasing their profits.  Take them out of the equation and healthcare costs will go down, not up.)

When I read that article this morning I remembered thinking about my father’s military experience. When he was in the military soldiers did the cooking and cleaning.  That was part of being a soldier.  Today, all of that is subcontracted out at ridiculous rates.  Soldiers don’t cook the food.  Why?  Can they not cook?  Of course they can.  The reason they don’t is because defense contractors see that as one more way to take money from taxpayers.  How could it possibly be less expensive to have soldiers cook their own food?

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a rant against soldiers having more leisure time.  It’s a rant about wasteful spending.  I’d love to pay less in taxes, just like everyone else.  But that means cutting out these ridiculous subcontractor scenarios where they simply add “profit for corporations” to the equation and then claim that it is cheaper for the American taxpayer because it “reduces government.”  That, of course, is crap!  It may mean bigger government to get rid of the subcontractors, but, ironically, bigger government sometimes means lower taxes.

Why the Republican Party needs to dissolve…

I caught this article in the NYTimes yesterday about the corruption and excess of the New York state Senate under the rule of Republicans over the last 40 years. Here’s an excerpt:

They [Democrats] recently realized there are some 75 employees working at the Senate’s own printing plant, a plain brick building on the outskirts of Albany. On Long Island, they found a small television studio, which had been set up — all with public money, with two press aides on hand to help operate it — for the exclusive use of Republican senators to record cable TV shows. Democrats also came across what they are calling the “Brunomobile,” a $50,000 specially outfitted GMC van, with six leather captain’s chairs (some swiveling), a navigation system, rearview camera and meeting table. Joseph L. Bruno, the former Senate majority leader who was recently indicted on corruption charges, traveled in the van after his use of state helicopters sparked a feud with the Spitzer administration. Then there are the parking spots, always at a premium near the Capitol. Democrats had been given roughly one spot per senator — there were 30 Democrats last year — and guessed there were perhaps double or even triple that controlled by the majority. Instead, they have learned, there are more than 800.

Now, before you say it, let me cut you off and say it: I’m guessing Democrats, if left in power for 40 years, may have a tendency to do similar things. That’s certainly possible and I won’t deny it. But the main point of this post is not just to rail against a bunch of Republican state senators but to make a larger argument about how the political parties seem to view government. I’m not an expert on politics, of course, so this is just my two cents, for what they are worth…

It seems like the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats want to use government to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor while Republicans want to use government to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. Republicans seem to see government as a personal piggy bank, open to be raided whenever they are: (1) in power or (2) in hard times. Otherwise, Republicans seem to want government to stay away from businesses and keep them unregulated.

Now, as most readers of the blog will know already, I’m not a fan of the current Republican mentality. It really is, fundamentally, about making the rich wealthier and out and out greed. So, here’s what I’m suggesting: If you’re a Republican because you are a fan of small government (which is what Republicans have often claimed) or because you are a fiscal conservative, become a Libertarian. I disagree with Libertarians on a lot of issues, but I don’t think they’re generally as hypocritical as Republicans. Libertarians really do want to shrink the size of government and really would do it. Republicans just say they do, but end up growing it to enrich themselves and their friends. If, however, you’re Republican because you are a social conservative (oppose abortion, etc.), then you should start your own party: The Christian Socialist Party (or maybe The Religious Socialist Party). Your key issues should be social issues, like abortion, gay rights, etc. (again, of course, I’m going to disagree with you). But you should also side with Democrats on some key issues, like helping the poor (considering that is a teaching of most religions). This way, religious conservatives can vote their conscience: they vote socially conservative, but are also pro social welfare. Republicans simply use social conservatism to get the religious to vote in ways that help enrich them. If you’re a Republican because you are a social conservative, you’re a tool of the wealthy and greedy!

a symbolic representation of my post: an elephant (Republicans) being attacked by lions (Libertarians and Religious Socialist Party)

In short, it’s time for the Republican party to die. It’s been used as a tool for the last 40 years or so to basically make Republicans wealthy. And, well, look where that has gotten us: growing unemployment, falling home prices, and an economic crisis like we haven’t seen since The Great Depression. If you’re a Republican for any reason other you want to personally enrich yourself via government, you need to get out of that party and pursue your real agenda.

last pre-election political post

A sociology colleague of mine sent me the following email last night.  I know I’ve been more political than usual lately (for obvious reasons), but I’m hoping this is seen as more sociological than political, even though it is politically biased:

Subject: What if…

Obama/Biden vs McCain/Palin

What if things were switched around?…..think about it.  Would the country’s collective point of view be different? Could racism be the culprit?  You decide… Ponder the following:

  • What if the Obamas had paraded five children across the stage, including a three month old infant and an unwed, pregnant teenage daughter?
  • What if John McCain was a former president of the Harvard Law Review?
  • What if Barack Obama finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class?
  • What if McCain had only married once, and Obama was a divorcee?
  • What if Obama was the candidate who left his first wife after a severe disfiguring car accident, when she no longer measured up to his standards?
  • What if Obama had met his second wife in a bar and had a long affair while he was still married?
  • What if Michelle Obama was the wife who not only became addicted to pain killers but also acquired them illegally through her charitable organization?
  • What if Cindy McCain graduated from Harvard?
  • What if Biden couldn’t complete a coherent sentence and didn’t have a clue regarding any national or international policy issues?
  • What if Obama had been a member of the Keating Five?  (The Keating Five were five United States Senators accused of corruption in 1989, igniting a major political scandal as part of the larger Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s.)
  • What if McCain was a charismatic, eloquent speaker?
  • What if Obama couldn’t read from a teleprompter?
  • What if McCain had been a professor of constitutional law at a prestigious university and Obama had been a politician his whole career?
  • What if Obama was the one who had military experience that included discipline problems and a record of crashing five planes?
  • What if Obama was the one who was known to display publicly, on many occasions, a serious anger management problem?
  • What if Michelle Obama’s family had made their money from beer distribution?
  • What if the Obamas had adopted a white child?

You could easily add to this list. If these questions reflected reality, do you really believe the election numbers would be as close as they are? This is what racism does. It covers up, rationalizes and  minimizes positive qualities in one candidate and emphasizes negative qualities in another when there is a color difference.

As a final thought, look at the candidates educational backgrounds:

Barack Obama:

  • Columbia University- B.A. Political Science with a Specialization in International Relations.
  • Harvard – Juris Doctor(J.D.) Magna Cum Laude

Joseph Biden:

  • Universityof Delaware- B.A. in History and B.A. in Political Science.
  • Syracuse University College of Law – Juris Doctor(J.D.)

vs.

John McCain:

  • United States Naval Academy – Class rank: 894 of 899

Sarah Palin:

  • Hawaii Pacific University- 1 semester
  • North Idaho College- 2 semesters – general study
  • University of Idaho- 2 semesters –  journalism
  • Matanuska-Susitna College- 1 semester
  • University of Idaho- 3 semesters – B.A. in Journalism

Education isn’t everything, but this is about the two highest offices in the land as well as our standing in the world.  You make the call.

(Ryan again…)  The interesting thing about this election is that, had John McCain not turned toward the Republican base, this would have been a much tougher call in my opinion.  McCain had a record of breaking with Republicans on a number of issues that made him more of a moderate.  Obama is also running as a centrist/moderate, just on the other side (liberal vs. conservative).  But in order to get the support of his party, McCain has given up his Maverick ways and pandered to the Republican base, alienating many along the way.

Last thought… Debi and I had to pick up a few items from Sam’s Club yesterday.  Our Sam’s Club is in South Tampa.  The quickest route from University of Tampa to South Tampa is via Bayshore Blvd., which is a beautiful area, but also the wealthiest part of town.  Here are some home valuations courtesy of Zillow.com:

As we drove Bayshore Blvd. we saw dozens of campaign signs.  Take a guess who they were for?

Of the probably 50+ signs we saw, only 2 were for Obama/Biden.  The rest were for McCain/Palin.  And one of the Obama/Biden signs was on the most rundown house we saw.  The take home lesson: A vote for McCain/Palin is a vote for inequality and wealth concentration.  The wealthy know this.  I just wish more poor and middle income people would realize it.

Anyway, even if you don’t agree with my politics, please read up on the issues and the candidates and vote.  What good is a democracy if over 50% of eligible voters choose not to exercise that right?  Our politicians reflect the views of a minority of the population, and that shouldn’t be the case.