Monday, November 30, 2015

Something for nothing leaves nothing

About a week ago, Vox contributor Dylan Matthews pointed out that the media has no idea how to deal with Donal Trump's constant lying. I have mixed feelings about Matthews' assertion, partly because he forgot that "media" is a plural noun.

While I agree that many journalists like George Stephanopoulos seem stymied, there are some media personalities that have a better grip on Americans' current infatuation with political outsiders -- which is a nice way to call someone unqualified. I'm partial to the Stephen Colbert approach: making fun of them. Humor, after all, is based in the absurd, and there are few things in this world more absurd than whatever Donald Trump says at pretty much any given moment.

Of course comedic figures like Colbert have a key advantage in that there's no real concern about appearing partisan. Were a journalist to truly take many of these candidates to task, he or she might be labeled as liberal and therefore biased. The moderators of the CNBC GOP debate learned that lesson the hard way. Still, I fail to see how asking about a candidate's proposed tax policies constitutes a "gotcha" question, or how CNN's Democratic debate was the love fest Republicans claimed.

But perceptions persist in the face of facts, and in many cases, exposure to facts actually strengthens the effects of misinformation. Cognitive dissonance lies at the heart of such effects. Once individuals identify with a particular position, they find it difficult to process information that contradicts that position. Rather than changing their stances -- which is psychologically difficult -- they simply double down on their stupid.

And this brings me back to the Matthews' Vox article, and in particular the third paragraph:
But Trump also has a tendency to use his appearances on TV news to spout flagrant lies about a variety of topics. His statements aren't false the way that, say, Marco Rubio's claim that he can cut taxes by $12 trillion and still balance the budget is false. False claims of that variety are a long and distinguished tradition in American electoral politics, and it's an established policy on programs like This Week to not challenge them too aggressively.
Double take. Say that again? Media -- journalistic media -- have an "established policy" not to question falsehoods, and that is somehow okay?

Most of what Trump says is obviously bullshit, meaning we as the public require less help from media in seeing it as such. But many other candidates operate using covert bullshit, and we need more help sniffing it out, not less.

From what I can tell, elections are based in fantasy, appealing contradictions, and careful maneuvering. It's more or less a constant peddling of nonsense. You can't pay for universal healthcare and universal college education simply by raising taxes on the top 1%. You can't cut taxes and increase military spending and claim to be fiscally responsible. You can't be for states' rights and against state laws legalizing recreational marijuana use. You can't be for smaller government and against gay marriage. You can't be for free speech and against flag burning. And so on, and so on...

But in a democracy, the behavior of our potential leaders may say more about us than it does about them. Politicians lie to us for one simple reason: we don't want the truth. We say we do, but we don't.

In his so-called malaise speech, Jimmy Carter warned us very clearly about focusing too clearly on materialistic goals:
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
But rather than working to restore a sense of community and deeper purpose, we ousted Carter and elected Ronald Reagan, mostly because he told us we could have everything without paying for it. Moreover, the two men who tried to address Reagan's disastrous fiscal legacy -- his 1984 challenger, Walter Mondale, and his 1988 successor, George H.W. Bush -- were marginalized and ultimately defeated for telling the truth: more tax money was needed to pay for the Reagan spending spree.

And despite my derision of conservatives, liberals don't fare much better. I was pleased to see a New York Times report this morning stating that two-thirds of Americans want the U.S. to join a climate change pact. Well, that is so long as we don't actually have to do anything:
Thinking about policies to reduce carbon emissions, Americans generally favor regulating business activity more than taxing consumers. The poll found broad support for capping power plant emissions. Half of all Americans said they thought the government should take steps to restrict drilling, logging and mining on public lands, compared with 45 percent who opposed such restrictions. Support for limiting mineral extraction on public lands rose to 58 percent among Democrats. But just one in five Americans favored increasing taxes on electricity as a way to fight global warming; six in 10 were strongly opposed, including 49 percent of Democrats. And support was not much higher for increasing gasoline taxes, at 36 percent over all.
There's no incentive to supply the truth when lies are in high demand. Accepting a fantasy is easy. It requires nothing from us. Living in reality is hard. It means making tough decisions, accepting tradeoffs, and dealing with opportunity costs. Americans have been running full speed from hard truths toward an impending dead end. Someday soon we're going to hit the brakes or hit the wall, and in large part, our willingness to accept ideological falsehoods may be the determining factor.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why Mitch McConnell Hates Coal Miners

Earlier this week, the Senate voted to block two key initiatives from the EPA intended to reduce emission from coal-fired power plants and halt global warming. Using a familiar tactic, Republicans leading the fight justified their votes by pitting progress on climate change against progress on job growth. In reality, we don't need to choose between the two, and even if we did, we shouldn't care that much about protecting coal mining jobs.

Mitch McConnell, senior senator from Kentucky (and senior mutant neocon turtle), led the attack on the EPA and President Obama:
These regulations make it clearer than ever that the president and his administration have gone too far, and that Congress should act to stop this regulatory assault. [...] Here's what is lost in this administration's crusade for ideological purity: the livelihoods of our coal miners and their families. Folks who haven't done anything to deserve a 'war' being declared upon them.
As a native Kentuckian myself, I admit there's an instinctual response to defend coal miners. We're a coal state after all, right?

Well, yes and no. Kentucky is the third largest coal producing state, behind Wyoming and West Virginia. However, there are only about 12,000 coal miners employed in Kentucky, which accounts for less that 1% of total jobs statewide. Moreover,  coal mine production amounts to just over 1% of the state's total GDP.

So it turns out, coal isn't as big a part of the Kentucky economy as you might think. In fact, there aren't that many coal miners in the U.S. as a whole. The Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence estimates that there are 78,300 coal mining jobs in America. Fortune puts that number a bit higher at just over 93,000. That means coal mining employs .006% of the current workforce -- at best.

But when you think about it, those numbers aren't all that surprising. Alternative energies are growing as technologies become more affordable. Plus, coal mining is a shitty job. The life of a coal miner is nasty, brutish, and short -- largely thanks to diseases like cancer and black lung, in combination with poor safety conditions in mines. And coal mining doesn't pay particularly well either. Again, looking just at Kentucky, the Appalachian counties in which coal mining is most prevalent are consistently among the poorest counties in the U.S.

Finally, it's worth noting that progress always comes at a price. Remember the pianist who played Vaudeville tunes to accompany silent films. Of course you don't. Since you've been alive, theaters have only shown "talkies." Huzzah! Hell, the expansion of electrical services that coal-fired power plants contributed to also perpetuated the decline of kerosine lamp manufacturing. It was worth the trade each time, and the same is true now.

It's disingenuous to accuse Obama of waging a war on coal miners when in truth their jobs are just collateral damage in a larger battle. I doubt there are many politicians that truly relish in eliminating jobs. But quite frankly, coal mining jobs aren't worth protecting, especially at the cost of addressing the more pressing problem of global warming. And if Mitch McConnell and the other Senate Republicans really gave a damn about coal miners, they'd try to find them better jobs, doing literally anything else.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Blogger's 10 Commandments

"Moses with the Ten Commandments"
by Rembrandt, 1659
The world changes quickly. Faster when you’re in PR. Even faster if you deal with online communication. Still, we have to keep up.

Think about how much has changed in just the last decade. Tweeting use to be something only birds did, “friend” is a verb now and around every turn you’ll find a variety of specialized blogs (which is short for “web log,” though it sounds like some species of monsters that lived in your childhood closet).

Blogs are great ways for organizations and individuals to communicate ideas to anyone interested in listening. The problem is that a lot of blogs suck...hard.

Bloggers commit several errors, usually because they write before they think. Blogging is like all other writing: it’s systematic, it’s rules-driven and it takes time to master. But rather than leave you to wander for years in the digital desert learning this stuff the hard way, I thought you could use some guidance. I give to you, my chosen people, The Blogger’s 10 Commandments:

I.) Remember your audience. Every blog reader asks the same thing: How does this affect ME? It’s sometimes okay to inject yourself and your personal stories into your posts, but make sure you offer a clear take-away for your readers. A blog caters to them, not you.

II.) Master writing headlines. This is the most important part of each post. Few people will make it past the headline unless you give them a reason. Create reader interest with your headlines. Some helpful headline techniques include: asking questions, using superlatives, creating intriguing analogies or employing numbers – particularly if you’re making a list like I am. How many “Top #” lists have you seen just today?

III.) Stay focused on your purpose. Every blog serves some purpose and every post should advance that purpose. Most blog hosting sites let writers clearly state what they intend to accomplish with their blogs, so follow the guidelines you set.

IV.) Be conscious of length. Posts should be long enough to cover the topic at hand, but not so long that readers lose interest. A good rule of thumb is to keep blogs between 200 and 500 words if you post frequently. Feature length blogs are sometimes appropriate, but be careful with those.

V.) Write like you speak. Blogs are meant to be conversational, so bend the rules of grammar to match your speech: end a sentence in a preposition, start sentences with conjunctions, even split an infinitive or two. But don’t get sloppy. And don’t, like, you know, take it too far, like, like...ugh.

VI.) Participate in the conversation. Speaking of conversation…you know those little comment thingies? They aren’t there to facilitate random rants. They exist to facilitate conversation, both among readers and between you and your readers. Shorter posts leave room for them to interject, and for you to respond.

VII.) Keep a schedule. Your readers expect to hear from you at certain intervals. Don’t disappoint. Keep a posting schedule. Usually twice a week is a good way to go, but depending on your purpose you might post more or less often. Different content requires different schedules. I find the 1-7-30-4-2-1 mnemonic pretty helpful.

VIII.) Think past words. It’s the internet! You have endless amounts of information to rely on, so don’t use only words. Embed photos and video. Link to relevant information. Just like any other medium, you want to make full use of this one. But be aware of copyright limitations or you can get into serious trouble.

IX.) Know the power of design. Everything about your blog communicates something. The template, style and background are no different. Select ones that advance your set purpose and speak to your audience. Usually these overarching design choices are done through cascading style sheets (CSS), but bloggers often introduce subtle design elements using HTML code. If you want to bold, italicize or underline something, there’s code for that. Similar codes are often used for photos, videos and links.

X.) Move the audience to act. Give readers something to do. Engaging them in your message is a means to an end, so provide an end. Prompt them to share the post. Ask them to make comments. Invite them to ask questions about products or services. Direct them to sites to buy tickets for events. Creating enthusiasm about your topic only takes readers so far. Show them where to go next.

This list is not a complete guide to blogging. I’m not sure there even is such a thing. But this list should at least get you started as you sit down to write your first posts. After some practice, maybe you can comment here and impart your wisdom on me. The learning never ends…not for anyone. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

It's Democracy, Dumb Ass!

On Tuesday, my home state of Kentucky elected Republican Matt Bevin as governor. To outsiders, this hardly seems surprising. Kentucky consistently votes conservative in national elections. Currently both senators and five of the state's six representatives are Republican. Since the 1960s, Democratic presidential candidates have only carried the state four times, and each time the candidate was a Southerner (LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton -- twice).

However, state-level elections typically tell a different story. Democrats have held the governorship for 40 of the last 44 years. Additionally, the Kentucky House of Representatives is the only state legislative body in the South currently held by Democrats. So why the change?

Voter turnout has become the scapegoat. Indeed, the numbers are troubling. Results show that Bevin captured 52.5%, while the Democratic challenger Jack Conway came in at 43.8%. This appears like a pretty resounding mandate, until you consider that voter turnout was 30.7%, which is abysmally low.

It's also worth noting that their are more registered Democrats in Kentucky than Republicans, meaning that lower turnout benefits conservatives -- as it does in much of the country. It's sad for the Republican Party that suppressed voter turnout is its best ally, but arguably even sadder for the Democratic Party that its constituents can't be bothered to vote.

Low voter turnout is a national problem, and there are several proposal to correct it: make voter registration automatic rather than an opt-in process, expand early voting, move Election Day to the weekend, etc.

I agree that voter registration should be automatic. A recent Census Bureau report estimates that a little over 35% of eligible voters are not registered. Still, expanded registration won't truly solve the problem as fewer than half of registered voters bother to vote in non-presidential election years.

Convenience could be a factor. Expanding early voting would likely help, though I'm skeptical about moving elections to the weekend: Would Americans be more likely to take time out of an off day than a work day? Perhaps a better solution may be to develop a system voters might cast their ballots at any polling station. After all, it's not 1850. Many Americans don't live and work in the same proximity that they once did, and voting at a polling place closer to work might help boost turnout.

But still, that doesn't fix the apathy. Part of the problem is that Americans are uninterested and ignorant of political issues and processes. Voters perceive national, and in particular presidential, elections to be most important because they involve higher offices; voter turnout supports this assumption. Presumably, they see the stakes as higher and they show up.

But this is democracy, dumb ass! The stakes are always high. State and local elections are just as important -- and arguably more so -- than national elections. Meaningful change happens at these levels and voters have enhanced influence. Mathematically, your vote has more meaning because the pool of voters is smaller and the ridiculousness of an electoral college is a nonfactor. Not to mention the fact that you may actually have real access to and influence over the candidate.

Indeed, local politics may be the last bastion of representative democracy left in America. The U.S. Congress now has more millionaires than non-millionaires. In what way are these people our peers? In state and local elections, there at least remains the hope of true citizen governance, where intelligent and civic minded people can serve without being independently rich or owned by moneyed interests.

Until citizens understand the importance of civic engagement -- at all levels -- all other efforts will be half-measures at best. Wake up, America. Let 'em know you're there.