Sunday, October 31, 2010

Palin: Professor of Freedom?

Every now and then we read allegations that colleges and universities exhibit a significant bias toward liberal and progressive viewpoints, resulting in a lack of academic diversity and a consequent inability to provide students with a wide range of opinions on critical issues of the day.

So I wasn't surprised when Richard E. Redding, a professor at Chapman University School of Law, in his October 25, 2010 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (p. A15), cited statistics indicating that "on average, liberal professors outnumber conservatives and libertarians by about 8 to 1, with the imbalance being much greater at elite institutions."

Redding concludes that "our colleges and universities [are] unimaginative places" and strongly implies that these institutions deliberately exclude and disrespect "a wide range of political ideas."

For the purposes of this discussion, I'll grant Redding's statistics. What I won't grant is his "reasoning" or his conclusion.

Let's stop for a moment and think about what the job requirements are for being an academician. First, one must normally have a doctorate. In order to earn such a degree, one must demonstrate (among other things) critical thinking skills and the ability to articulate an original research project in a comprehensive, rigorous, and intellectually consistent dissertation.

I don't know as much about critical thinking skills as I would like to. But I strongly suspect that articulating one's position using ill-defined name calling and broad over-generalizations does not qualify. Nor does ignoring well-established facts. Nor does a string of nicely alliterated words necessarily constitute a persuasive, well-reasoned argument, regardless of how clever the writing. On the other hand, intellectual consistency would be a virtue.

I have close friends who are conservative, intelligent, and articulate. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Witness George Will's recent comment (2/21/10) on global warming -- which is established beyond a doubt as a factual and potentially catastrophic, largely man-made phenomenon -- accusing scientists of "trying to stampede the world into a spasm of prophylactic statism." Is this argument worthy of academic circles?

Examine, if you will, the statement made on Fox News several months ago by one of George W. Bush's former press aides that no terrorist attack occurred in this country during that President's tenure. Talk about "political Alzheimer's disease" -- this one tops the charts. And this clearly fallacious comment was not even challenged by the Fox News anchors who witnessed it! Do they all deserve academic appointments?

I once encountered California State Senator Bob Dutton at the airport. Since we have a passing acquaintance due to my professional position, we had a brief conversation. In less than two minutes (literally), he was blaming Democrats for every political problem under the sun. (I didn't have the guts to disagree -- I just rolled my eyes and kept my mouth shut.) Would Dutton's statement conceivably be considered an over-generalization? Might it indicate the lack of ability to think in nuances? Is he qualified for an academic position at an "elite" university?

Redding claims that he values innovative solutions, creativity, and quality decision-making. Most conservatives and libertarians probably value them as well. Why, then, does the conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce spend millions of dollars backing political candidates who then devote their careers to protecting the self-interests of existing businesses? Don't they believe in the capitalist dream -- the power of creative thinking and entrepreneurship to guide them through challenging and changing times without the help of the government? Where is the intellectual consistency?

Finally, Redding can't help using a buzzword from conservative circles intended to be derogatory -- the word "elite" -- without bothering to define it. While his transgression is minor compared to Sarah Palin and others who promulgate "freedom" in the broadest possible terms without giving the word a microsecond of intellectual analysis, he is nevertheless typical of the political ilk rapidly gaining a frightening constituency in this country.

Occam's razor -- a philosophical and decision-making principle of long standing -- suggests that, when theories compete to explain a known phenomenon, it is best to select the one that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question. In other words, keep it as simple as possible.

In accordance with Occam's razor, I suggest that it is not necessary to postulate bias against conservatives as the reason for the preponderance of liberals in academia. The simpler answer is that conservatives (with exceptions! I don't want to over-generalize!) are less able (or at least less inclined) to engage in critical thinking worthy of an academic environment. People who are unwilling to think carefully, consider all known facts, and construct intellectually consistent arguments don't deserve academic positions. Maybe that's why they don't get them.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Should We Regulate Cities?

I can't help thinking what the "deregulation contingent" of political thinkers would do about the situation in Bell, California, where a corrupt city council, in collusion with a city manager accused of criminal activity, raped the treasury of millions of dollars by paying themselves excessive salaries, sometimes for meetings that lasted only a few minutes.

While most city managers are hard-working, dedicated civil servants who earn upper-middle class wages in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000 per year, the guy in Bell was "earning" more than a million, including benefits -- and Bell is a small city! Four of the five city council members were "earning" more than $100,000 annually -- for part-time jobs.

Now, if we're going to deregulate multi-billion dollar companies, as the capitalist purists would have us do, then philosophically we also have to deregulate cities. I can hear some people favoring this strategy already -- let the citizens patrol their own elected officials and vote them out of office if necessary! And let the elected officials supervise the city employees.

OK, that might work in a perfect world, where people are reasonably honest (if not always intelligent or guided by true public service) and information is available to those who attempt to monitor events. But more and more, we see that such a world eludes us.

Take the banks, for example. First they (and other mortgage companies) screwed members of the lower-middle class by putting them into unaffordable loans guaranteed to fail, in order to make short-term profits. After that little fiasco just about brought the country to its financial knees, we discover that some of the same institutions are now foreclosing without paying any attention to proper procedures -- once again, in the headlong rush to make money. These are the companies we are supposed to trust to regulate themselves?

No, self-interest is a powerful motivator, in the public sector (unfortunately) as well as in the private sector. The founders understood this clearly, by the way -- in a vastly more sophisticated fashion than today's Tea Party members and other deregulatory proponents. At a minimum, we need reporting rules so that enterprising citizens (and fortunately, media outlets like the Los Angeles Times that still perform the valuable service of investigative reporting) can legally demand information that people in charge would rather hide. And yes, reporting is one form of regulation. Without that essential element, we might as well not have laws, because public interest organizations would be hamstrung in their ability to identify and expose malfeasance.

For whom does the regulation Bell toll? It tolls for all of us. Because if the capitalist system that thrives on self-interest were "free" to operate unfettered, corruption would be even more widespread than it is now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mining the Disaster for an Important Lesson

Like millions of people around the world, I followed the effort to rescue the 33 miners trapped below ground in Chile, and I rejoiced in their rescue. Talk about teamwork -- drilling crews came from near and far with the best technology available. NASA contributed knowledge gleaned from the space program to promote the physical and mental health of the men both before and during the rescue -- men who faced a life-threatening situation through no fault of their own.

It was a modern, global version of neighbors helping neighbors put up the barn on the family farm.

Tragedies can and do (sometimes) bring people together in noble ventures. But not always.

Remember Hurricane Katrina? More than 1,400 people were killed; more than 200,000 homes were lost. The government response was tepid and incompetent -- not surprising under the "leadership" of President George W. Bush, but nevertheless "unAmerican" in its lack of caring for fellow citizens. We didn't help rebuild the "barn" in any organized sense of the word. We didn't tax ourselves to provide the resources required to generate the massive rebuilding effort that would have been worthy of the term "community." No, what resources we did expend we borrowed from the next generation, so we wouldn't have to burden ourselves with higher taxes. And more than five years later, the wounds are still inescapable.

According to the Los Angeles Times (10/19/10), more than 21 children have died so far in 2010 at the hands of the County foster family "system" -- adding to the 26 tragic deaths in 2009 and 18 in 2008. (That's if you believe the "system" is reporting accurately.) Small numbers, perhaps, by comparison with the number of children served, and not entirely the fault of lack of resources, as the primacy of "family unification" seems to be playing a role (at the expense of the children). Nevertheless, can we truly say we have successfully addressed the plight of those who, through no fault of their own, face life-threatening situations? I think not.

Why is it that we sometimes respond to tragedy in a helpful, resourceful, and generous fashion, and other times we circle the wagons? I suspect it has to do with the perceived magnitude of the problem and the degree of sacrifice required to undertake a meaningful response.

Did it really require sacrifice for us to "care" about the 33 miners trapped in Chile? To the best of my knowledge, no American risked his life for the cause. It didn't cost anyone a cent. All we had to do was watch TV, read the paper, and hope that things would turn out OK.

In contrast, many of our other problems are both massive and personal. They are not easily resolved. They overwhelm the ability of the organism to respond in a manner that seems helpful but is not excessively painful, either psychologically or financially. They require time, effort, and resources -- in short, sacrifice. And that doesn't seem like something most Americans are prepared to do anymore.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Discouraging News

A lot has happened since my last post. There have been five well-publicized suicides -- one a generally admired public school teacher whose students' test scores (published by the Los Angeles Times) were low, and four gay teenagers who were bullied and/or "outed." These occurred in what we loosely refer to as "civilized society."

But behind the headlines are other stories -- if not as dramatic or tragic, at least discouraging, especially when placed in juxtaposition. Michael Hiltzik reports in the LA Times (10/3/10, page B1) that the pay of American corporate CEOs has risen from 24 times the pay of the average worker in 1965 to 411 times the pay of the average worker in 2005.

Careful Times readers (9/28/10, page B4) also learned that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two bills intended to reduce corporate theft of wages earned by those average workers, which has been estimated in a recent UCLA study to amount to $26 million PER WEEK in Los Angeles County alone. The Governor claimed that these bills, one of which would have created a MISDEMEANOR crime for employers that willfully fail to pay wages due within 90 days, were unnecessary. (Why wouldn't it have been a FELONY?)

So, will someone please explain to me how CEOs getting wealthy and average workers being cheated out of hard-earned wages is part of the American dream?

As a salaried employee, my earnings are subject to income tax withholding. I don't have the opportunity to pay bills with money owed to the State of California and then tell the tax collectors that, oops, I already spent it. But guess what some businesses are doing -- exactly that! According to the Times (9/28, page A1), businesses are NOT required to remit sales taxes collected from consumers immediately; they pay either monthly or quarterly. Not only is that unfair because money invested can earn more money (and heaven knows the State of California needs it!) -- but it also results in default if a business goes bankrupt (or claims to) before the taxes are paid. Especially egregious, apparently, are the auto dealerships. One such dealership owes the State about $1.2 million but cannot pay because "the money was mixed in with the revenue from car sales and was not sequestered in a tax only account" (according to the Times). Of course, the dealers themselves defend the practice. According to the spokesman for their trade association, "if you shorten the time you have to remit sales taxes, that has a huge effect on the cash flow of dealers." Wow, no kidding. Since it's such a good deal, I think I'll just take a little longer to pay my state income tax and purchase an extra package of hot dogs.

Finally, we find (LA Times, 9/30/10, page AA3) that three former LA County Sheriff deputies lost their jobs because they beat an inmate, fracturing his cheekbone and causing injuries to his rib cage and his ear. Are they in prison now -- like a poor guy probably would be if he stole a loaf of bread to feed his family (maybe not on a first offense, but certainly if it were a "third strike")? Nope. All three got probation -- two of them "unsupervised" -- which is apparently what they were when the incident occurred. And it would never have been discovered (or at least proven) had a fourth deputy not recanted his previous false testimony during a subsequent job interview.

OK, nobody promised Americans a rose garden. But I just don't get the "...and justice for all" thing. It simply isn't true. Not even close.


Special thanks to those who missed my posts and contacted me about my absence. No, I wasn't sick. Maybe I was just sick of discouraging news.