Sunday, August 30, 2009

Prisons: Two Opposing Views

Strangely, the New York Times and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin both carried commentaries on 8/20/09 regarding our prison system and the wisdom of keeping so many people incarcerated. Compare and contrast -- have fun!

Nicholas D. Kristof, in the Times, suggests that we could probably afford better and more universal health care if we used our criminal justice money more wisely. He cites the example of Curtis Wilkerson, serving a life sentence in California for (hold your breath!) stealing a pair of socks worth $2.50. (Yes, it was his "third strike." I'm not claiming he's an angel. At the age of 19 he abetted robbery -- twice.) Kristof wonders whether we really need to spend $216,000 annually on keeping people like this in prison, comparing that sum to the $8,000 the State spends annually on each child in the Oakland public school system.

Citing a study indicating that 82% of those sentenced to state prisons were convicted of non-violent crimes, Kristof asks why the U.S. incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average.

U.S. Senator Jim Webb, in introducing a bill to establish a commission to study the situation, says "There are only two possibilities here. Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice." (I have another hypothesis: in our predominantly selfish society with a wide gap between wealthy and poor, the former will go to just about any lengths to protect what they have from the latter.)

Well, enough of rational thinking. Let's see what California State Senator Bob Dutton has to say about the situation. "Everyone knows that liberals have a soft spot for criminals," he (or his ghost writer) begins, apparently having been inspired by the very first post on this blog to make a bold attempt to emulate famous writers who encapsulate entire universes of knowledge into their initial sentence. He goes on to criticize "unelected liberal judges" for requiring the state to release 43,000 inmates in the next two years. (Even assuming that the "liberal" label actually provides legitimate information, I can't help wondering whether conservative judges aren't selected in exactly the same manner. A fine point, I know.)

Never mind that legally constituted federal courts, attempting to enforce the U.S. Constitution and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, have mandated after years of delay and inaction (during which time Dutton has been accepting public money as both a State Senator and a State Assembly member) that the time has finally come to stop the prison overcrowding that inevitably leads, as it did recently, to riots.

Dutton says that "California already has an abysmal 70 percent recidivism rate from rehabilitation programs." Not true. We might have a 70 percent recidivism rate from prisons, but just about everybody knows (not including the Senator, apparently) that very little money is spent in this state on rehabilitation. Dutton also says it would be a crime (so to speak) for a "rehabilitated" inmate (the quotes are his, implying that a "rehabilitated inmate" would be an oxymoron) to re-enter society and accept a job during this deep recession that might otherwise be taken by a "law-abiding constituent." With attitudes like this, no wonder recidivism is high!

Not embarrassed at using fear tactics, Dutton states that unless California's liberals come to their senses soon, someone could become the victim of another wanton killing. Parolee Charles Samuel, he says, has been arrested by police and is suspected of slashing the throat of a 17-year-old high school student. (Note that he doesn't say that Charles Samuel has been convicted of this crime, only that he's been arrested; another great American principle -- innocent until proven guilty -- bites the dust.) "Releasing hardened criminals to make prison more roomy and comfortable for the remaining criminals is both foolish and short-sighted...[T]he liberals' love affair with criminals now risks the safety of every Californian -- including themselves." Perhaps the conservatives' hate affair with social justice is just as much to blame.

Suppose, hypothetically, you had to be in the same room for a couple of hours with a politician who can't use the word "liberal" without combining it with character-assassination-style insults or a guy who stole a pair of socks worth $2.50. With whom would you feel safer?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lobbying and Evolution

Just in case you have other things going on in your life besides reading my blog (LOL), let me summarize the last three weeks' posts for you. At all levels of government, lobbying is ubiquitous, influential, and dominated by wealthy special interests (frequently corporations) that spend literally billions of dollars every year to promote primarily short-term, profit-oriented outcomes designed to benefit only themselves (sometimes at great cost to others).

Surely another case in point is redundant. But major newspapers scream with examples on practically a daily basis. According to the New York Times (8/19/09), a noon rally the previous day in Houston -- the first of about 20 planned -- was designed to "organize resistance to proposed legislation that would set a limit on emissions of heat-trapping gases..." Despite its "everyman" flavor (the master of ceremonies was a local rodeo announcer), among the participants was James T. Hackett, CEO of Anadarko Petroleum, and many employees of oil companies were bused in from their workplaces. (No doubt their pay was docked for taking more than 30 minutes for lunch.) Who's behind it? A group called "Energy Citizens." Who's behind that group? The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's main trade group. If you're surprised, go to your room. (Wait! On second thought, if you're surprised, you are already spending too much time in your room.)

Here, finally (was that a sigh of relief I heard?), is my primary point. As we all know, evolution favors "survival of the fittest." With exceptions that will be introduced in weeks to come, normally survival of the fittest means behavior designed to favor the life and well-being of an individual organism. In this manner, the probability of that organism's passing its genes on to another generation increases. [Caveat: evolutionary theory can be complex; the ideas presented here are essentially accurate -- but far from comprehensive. I intend only to relate those points specifically relevant to whatever hypothesis is being described at a given point in time.]

This system worked effectively for homo sapiens in its early days thousands of years ago, when survivability meant essentially staying warm, dry, well-fed, and safe from intruders bearing spears and clubs. The last two in particular often required strength, speed, agility, and a hostile attitude toward those inclined to inflict casualties and/or steal precious resources. As a consequence, nature "selected" for future generations the kinds of behaviors that are primarily self-directed and oriented toward immediate needs. The welfare of society-at-large and the longevity of the planet did not figure into the equation. It wasn't necessary 10,000 years ago.

But evolution, for all its genius, is a notoriously slow process. According to one theory, if organisms with a beneficial mutant gene produce 5 percent more offspring, it will require about one thousand generations before virtually all organisms in that species inherit that gene. Given that one human generation equals about 25 years, it follows that even a mutation that produces substantially enhanced probability of reproductive success could require some 25,000 years to effectively permeate the species.

What we have, then, is a world that has changed exceptionally rapidly over the last 300 years or so, creating an entirely new set of survivability issues, inhabited (at least in this country) by people who have institutionalized lobbying as the legal embodiment of selfish behavior that is no longer adaptive.

For these reasons, mankind has been described by some evolutionary biologists as a "walking fossil." "Our psychological adaptations consistently produce maladaptive thought, emotion, and behavior in our modern environments." (Reference available upon request.)

And it's likely to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to lift what little restraint remains on the amount of money corporations can spend directly on elections -- and the people who claim to know about such things are placing their bets on a 5-4 vote in favor of doing just that. It might not matter a great deal, as we have already seen that corporations find legal ways of exerting enormous influence over politicians. But I see no reason to make it worse.

Will human beings be able to avoid the cataclysmic events that could be the consequence of the evolutionary "mismatch" between our stone-age brains and the modern, global, high-tech, polluting world? Will global warming, for example, result in massive political, social, military, or social unrest? Will the continued aggrandizement of wealth by those already wealthy eventually lead to upheaval? (Are we immune from such phenomena? If you think so, you may be spending too much time in your room -- but probably not reading history books.)

Please comment on this series of posts on lobbying, evolution, and their interactive relationship before global warming melts your keyboard.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lobbying: Part III

The financial meltdown of 2008 was predicted well in advance by people who understood that the repeal of regulations incorporated in the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would result in an "oligopolistic situation" -- companies that are "too big to fail" in today's lexicon (Martin McLaughlin, posted November 1, 1999 -- complete reference available for those who inquire).

Could we, or should we, have known better? According to McLaughlin, "a financial deregulation bill was passed in the early 1980s under the Reagan Administration, lifting many restrictions on the activities of savings and loan associations...The result was an orgy of speculation, profiteering and outright plundering of assets, culminating in collapse and the biggest financial bailout in US history (at the time), costing the federal government more than $500 billion."

Why, then, did former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and others push repeal of the 60-year-old law that had (except for the S&L situation) kept the country away from financial disaster since the Great Depression?

According to McLaughlin, in 1997 and 1998 alone, the banking, insurance, and brokerage industries spent over $300 million on lobbying. Gramm himself (or more correctly, his political action committees, but it's a fine point) collected more than $1.5 million from these three industries between 1994 and 1999.

Does lobbying buy results? Cause and effect is hard to prove. Common sense suggests that it does; in fact, if it did not, would the supposedly rational corporations continue to throw millions of dollars into it? Not likely.

Here's a typical recent news report, stating basically what we all already know: special interests exercise virtual veto power over legislation they strongly oppose. "To win industry support in enlisting more of his collegues, Mr. Durbin (Senator from Illinois) approached trade associations. Shortly after negotiations began, the American Bankers Association abandoned the talks, saying there was no compromise they could ever support. (Senator Durbin's) legislation went nowhere...There was no counterweight to that legislative muscle" (New York Times, 6/5/09).

Academic studies verify the phenomenon. David Parsley, professor of management at Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management (and his co-authors) "suggest that lobbying activities significantly and positively impact the bottom line of companies who do it. In addition, lobbying expenses appear to positively impact firms' stock prices and returns" (reference available). Kroszner and Stratmann theorize, in a paper published in the American Economic Review (Vol. 88, No. 5, Dec. 1998) that the entire Congressional committee structure facilitates the transfer of corporate contributions to powerful committe leaders.

If all this special interest lobbying worked to the benefit of the country as a whole, then who could possibly oppose it? But, for the most part, it doesn't. An entire treatise could be written on the efforts of utility and coal companies to derail environmental regulation, and the impact is dirtier air and the challenge of potentially cataclysmic climate change.

Here's a recent example: you're no doubt familiar with the "cash for clunkers" legislation that is providing large rebates to purchasers who trade in "old" vehicles for more fuel efficient models. But why were vehicles manufactured prior to 1984 excluded? According to the Los Angeles Times (8/13/09), "the restrictions were pushed by lobbyists for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a group that represents companies that sell parts and services to classic and antique car collectors...The association opposed the entire concept because such a program could shrink the size of the market for aftermarket parts."

Is the 1984 limit in the national interest, considering that the legislation was intended primarily to reduce pollution and act as a stimulus for new car sales? "Experts at the California Air Resources Board say cars built before modern engine controls were fully developed in the 1980s are significantly dirtier than new cars. For example, a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu, when new, produced 400 times the smog-forming pollutants that a new 2010 Malibu produces...Older vehicles also are among the least fuel efficient. In 1975, the overall new-car fleet averaged just 13 mpg, compared to 22 mpg in 1985" (LA Times, 8/13/09).

Let me remind you that this series is about lobbying and its impact on achievement of national goals, e.g. "the general welfare." (Reference: Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.) Who's winning -- general welfare or special interests? It doesn't even seem to be a fair fight!

Could it be that evolution is playing a role? I'll have some ideas on that next week.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lobbying (continued from last week)

In last week's post I described the ubiquitous nature of lobbying in California. I doubt that any reader will find it difficult to extrapolate this situation to the national scene, where lobbying is legendary and the "game" is played for very high stakes -- billions if not trillions of dollars.

The amount of money spent on lobbying reveals the importance of the activity to those with skin in the game. Before I throw a few numbers at you, however, let me reassure you that I strongly support the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, certainly including the right to free speech. If lobbying were limited to presenting information to governmental officials and attempting to persuade them to engage (or not engage) in certain activities, I wouldn't be writing this. But common knowledge about Political Action Committees, gifts and travel, etc., added to the fact that lobbying involves far more money than could ever be spent on education and persuasion alone, leads us to the inevitable conclusion that more than free speech is involved.

OK, are you ready for some stark statistics? According to the Center for Responsive Politics (visit the website at, total lobbying at the federal level alone in 2008 amounted to $3.30 billion. That's well over twice the amount spent ten years earlier. It's also about $1,000 for every man, woman, and child living in the United States -- every year -- without even including the prodigious amounts spent on lobbying at the state and local levels.

According to The Hill, a congressional newspaper with a special focus on business and lobbying, the top 100 lobbying firms posted revenue of $414 million in the first half of 2009. Firms ranked 101 to 200 brought in another $125 million. Extrapolating to the full year, it follows that the top 200 lobbying firms in the country will rake in well in excess of $1 billion in 2009.

These numbers may under-report the truth. Some companies don't register their in-house lobbyists unless and until some watchdog agency calls them on the carpet (Archer Daniels Midland is one example, according to The Hill). Therefore, those expenditures don't get reported.

Needless to say, these lobbying efforts are focused on accomplishing specific objectives. So I know you won't be surprised that health care, insurance, and finance companies spent a bundle recently. In fact, according to the New York Times (8/2/09), the health care industry spent $263.3 million on lobbying in the first half of 2009. The combined finance, insurance, and real estate industries came in a close second at $222.7 million. PhRMA, the powerful association of pharmaceutical companies, spent $6.1 million, up 23% compared to the comparable period in 2008.

Do you suppose that companies receiving TARP funds from the government (bail-out money!) ceased their lobbying activities, claiming poverty? Nope. According to the Commonwealth Institute, TARP recipients spent $114 million on lobbying in 2008, including $14.8 million during the last quarter alone when "relief" funds were actually being distributed.

What exactly does all this lobbying buy? (Academic studies, as well as articles in the popular media, give us the answer.) In what ways did lobbying result in the financial meltdown to begin with? Stay tuned, faithful readers!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Self-Preservation: The Ultimate Ironic Mega-Mismatch

The title of this blog entry is the working title for a chapter in my book "I Pledge Allegiance: To What? The Paradox of 'Me.' " (Don't look for it on the bookshelves yet! LOL) Due to space limitations, it will require several weeks for me to fully explore this topic here. Generally, though, the thesis is that our evolutionary, genetically-based behavior patterns -- successful though they were thousands of years ago in a completely different environment -- may lead to our undoing in the modern, high-tech, globalized society we now inhabit. Evolutionary psychologists refer to this situation as a "mismatch" -- an unintended disconnect between what once was a behavioral trait leading successfully to self-preservation through reproductive advantage and the impact of that same behavioral trait in a totally different world.

In the United States today, selfish and self-serving behavior -- once a necessity for survival -- has become institutionalized in powerful and inevitably dysfunctional ways. The ubiquitous corporation, an entity with the official legal status of a person and required by custom and well-established law to act solely in its own best interests, uses its accumulated wealth and power to preserve the status quo, sometimes at the expense of the general welfare. And to the extent that such status quo endangers the planet and/or results in social injustice on a scale that could conceivably lead to social unrest -- thereby putting at risk all that the corporations wish to preserve -- the self-serving behavior may ultimately and ironically become just the opposite.

Please note that this is not a condemnation of either capitalism or democracy. It is, however, a warning that unregulated, unenlightened, short-term self-serving behavior may eventually cause the demise of both.

Let us begin by simply expanding on the obvious: those powerful and wealthy enough to do so frequently hire lobbyists to peddle political influence, with the objective of preserving and/or enhancing such power and wealth. In the State of California, according to the website of the Secretary of State, there are more than 2,300 organizations that employ professional lobbyists. I will list below only a few of these organizations, grouped in accordance with certain traits or habits possessed by California residents:

Those who were born (hmm, OK, that's pretty inclusive): California Medical Association, California Nurses Association, California Hospital Association.

Those who live in an apartment or a house: California Apartment Association, California Building Industry Association, California Association of Realtors, Escrow Institute of California, California Construction & Industry Materials Association.

Those who eat: California Grocers Association, California League of Food Processors, Dairy Institute of California, California Restaurant Association, California Farm Bureau Association.

Those who buy anything: California Chamber of Commerce, California Business Alliance, California Retailers Association, Direct Marketing Association.

Those who purchase insurance: Anthem Blue Cross, Associaton of California Insurance Companies, California Association of Health Plans, Alliance of Insurance Agents & Brokers, Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies.

Those who use the telephone: Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc and Its Affiliates.

Those who will eventually die: Cemetery and Mortuary Association of California.

Special interests hire lobbyists to influence your life from cradle to grave. Are you surprised? I doubt it. But you may be surprised at how powerful these interests are. Tune in again next week.