National Propaganda Radio strikes again

I do my best to avoid the mainstream media – I find the bias so extreme and so blatant that I have a hard time listening to it. In my household, however, NPR is harder to avoid, as my wife is an avid listener. I usually find myself waking up to a snippet of their coverage, and their efforts to carry water for the establishment, while perhaps not as in-your-face as the commercial media, are completely transparent.

Such was the case yesterday morning, when I arose to a segment titled “Russians Devised Detailed Plan To Influence U.S. Voters, Reuters Says.” It featured one reporter interviewing another (a pet peeve of mine, done regularly on NPR). The second reporter, from Reuters, was on to talk about his “evidence” that a Russian think tank proposed a plan in 2016 to interfere in the U.S. election.

His evidence:

  • The think tank was a government entity, with the director appointed by country’s president.
  • The think tank wrote a report suggesting that US policy was harmful towards Russia, so the country should attempt to influence the election “through media and social media.”
  • The reporter asserts that “there was a very active campaign including using hacked materials from the Democratic Party and disseminating it on the Internet through Twitter and through news platforms like Russia Today and Sputnik.”
  • There was a meeting in March 2016 between the Putin administration and various Russian media outlets.

Boy, you’ve got those rotten Russians dead to rights now!

Seriously, the propaganda here is so overt, and so weak, that NPR should be embarrassed. But I’m sure they’re not – they’re just doing their part to advance the narrative. So let’s look at how incredible (as in not credible) this is.

  • The reporter fails to offer any primary sources – the reader cannot find a copy of this think tank report, nor do we know anything about his anonymous (US) sources. I suppose he thinks we’re just willing to trust him on this?
  • The Putin administration met with media outlets in March 2016, before either primary was complete. The reporter doesn’t even pretend to know the content of that meeting. (And consider that it’s pretty common for media and governments to talk – just think about the multiple off-the-record meetings with reporters in the US, not to mention the familial crossover.)
  • The think tank report comes out in June 2016, after – not before – that meeting.
  • Evidence indicates that the DNC materials were leaked (likely by Seth Rich), not hacked, and the Podesta emails were accessed through a common phishing scheme, again not a hack.
  • Did Russian media disseminate that uncovered material? You bet. It’s called reporting, something the US media failed to do. Voters deserve to have all the information they can find, and this was fair game.
  • Did Russia Today and Sputnik advance a story line favorable to Russia? Obviously. Just as the US does, both domestically and overseas (hello Voice of America!).
  • Did Russia Today and Sputnik reach many Americans? According to cable channel news ratings (via the Washington Post), Russia Today reaches less than 30,000 viewers per day in America. They get more attention via YouTube-based video clips – clips like “Trump Will Not be Permitted to Win,” an English-language clip that garnered more than 2.2 million views prior to the election – but there’s no way to tell how many of those are US viewers. (I don’t have data for Sputnik but would be stunned by information showing a wide US reach.)

Yet despite this spectacularly weak sauce, we have a national media outlet advancing this story, which was later picked up by PBS despite no hard evidence, a lack of logic, and a denial by Russia.

With “reporting” like this, is there any question as to why the vast majority of Americans are misinformed?

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USAFacts: Everything the government does is justified

What do you do when you’ve got billions of dollars and nothing to do? Apparently if you’re Steve Ballmer, former head of Microsoft, you try to untangle the Gordian Knot that is government data. He invested $10 million of his own money to create www.USAFacts.org, an apparently free website that collects data on federal, state, and local government spending and presents it in a single place.

In concept, this site is desperately needed – it’s almost impossible to compile reliable data across state and federal lines on either revenue or spending. But in practice, this is nothing more than the status quo justifying what the government does.

Here’s what the site says it’s doing:

USAFacts was inspired by a conversation Steve Ballmer had with his wife. She wanted him to get more involved in philanthropic work. He thought it made sense to first find out what government does with the money it raises. Where does the money come from and where is it spent? Whom does it serve? And most importantly, what are the outcomes?

With his business background, Steve searched for solid, reliable, impartial numbers to tell the story… but eventually realized he wasn’t going to find them. He put together a small team of people – economists, writers, researchers – and got to work.

We soon discovered that dealing with something as big and complex as government – with its more than 90,000 jurisdictions and 23 million employees – required an organizing framework. What better place to look than the Constitution, and, more specifically, the preamble to the Constitution? It lays out four missions: “Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” While we don’t make judgments about policy, we all agree on the broad purposes of government as laid out in the preamble to the Constitution.

The trick is that Ballmer is couching all government spending within the functions of the Constitution, making it sound as if it’s all justified. So for example, interest on the federal debt is listed under “Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity.” You’re kidding, right? “Securing the blessings of liberty” also covers our obligations to government employee retirement programs, while “Promoting the General Welfare” is a catchall to justify spending in a whole range of categories.

This would have been a welcome resource if it was credible; there’s a real need for a resource that shares hard-to-find compiled data without making any interpretations or advocate for any position. But that’s not this site. And while I had my hopes up, I should have known that someone who ran Microsoft wasn’t going to finally “get religion” a la Alan Greenspan’s newfound love of gold. I’ll be avoiding this resource in the future.

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USA 2017 vs. France 1789

Most people are familiar with the story of the French Revolution: When the poor revolted against the unfairness and wealth inequality imposed by the aristocrats, they overthrew the monarchy and beheaded more than 40,000 people, mostly clergy and noblemen, as punishment for their crimes and injustices.

The days of using a guillotine may be behind us – but the anger that led to that revolution is similar to the growing anger at economic inequality in the US today, and could lead to the same kind of unrest.

In France, there were three classes: The First Estate, made up of clergy; The Second Estate, made up of the nobility; and the Third Estate, made up of everyone else. Even though the first two Estates were made up of just 3% of the population, they owned 35% of the land, paid almost no taxes, and held virtually all the political power in the country.

Where are we in America today?

Wealth distribution

If they were around today, heads still attached, French aristocrats would be mightily impressed with the wealth accumulation of America’s rich. The top 1% of the country owns 35% of the wealth; the top 10% owns 77% of the wealth. The bottom 40% owns 0% (here).

Perhaps the best summary of where we are on wealth inequality can be found in the video below:

Tax burden

Certainly, the American rich are paying more in taxes than did their pre-revolutionary French Counterparts. But as a share of income, the American poor are carrying a much heavier burden.

When most people talk about taxes, they think of income taxes, and on that front the rich do pay quite a bit more: According to the Tax Foundation, in 2015, “The top 1 percent of taxpayers paid a higher effective income tax rate than any other group, at 27.1 percent, which is over 8 times higher than taxpayers in the bottom 50 percent (3.3 percent).”

But income taxes are just one of the dozens of kinds of taxes we’re subjected to. As A World of Possible Futures notes, we’re also paying:

  • State & local income taxes
  • Sales tax
  • Social security & Medicare
  • Property tax
  • Fuel/gasoline tax
  • Other taxes such as estate tax, fees, and licenses.

I have yet to find an authoritative analysis showing total tax burden on people by income level in the US. But I expect that, as a percentage of income, the poor are paying a far higher share of their income into tax coffers than are the rich

This was borne out in England at least, where The Independent found that the wealthy are paying more in direct taxes, but far less in indirect taxes, resulting in a situation where “the poorest fifth of households paid 38.2 per cent of their income to the taxman, with the richest fifth paid just 33.6 per cent.”

Political representation

We’ve all known intuitively for some time that politicians listen to their donors, and not to their constituents. We’ve since had confirmation, both anecdotally through narratives like “The Confessions of Congressman X” and statistically through research performed by professors from Princeton and Northwestern Universities in a 2014 paper titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” In this paper, the authors reviewed 1,800 Congressional votes in which the interests of the rich were different from those of the public, and as a rule the rich won out on a consistent basis.

Marie Antoinette, before her head and body went their separate ways

So where’s my revolution?

If the rich are so exponentially better off than the poor in this country – why do the poor take it? Why do they passively grumble and let it continue?

I think today’s leaders have learned some lessons from the past, which explains the following:

  • Welfare state – In the France of 1789, there was no welfare state. If you were sick, you would get no doctor; if you were hungry, you starved. Today, more than half of the US population receives some kind of government benefit, including 21.3% who receive direct assistance related to poverty. Why bite the hand that feeds you?
  • Drugs – Our country is awash in drugs that keep us numb. In 2014, there were 245 million prescriptions filled for opioid pain relievers. In 2015, 17.9% of adults held a diagnosis for a mental disorder, while a 2010 study found that 46.3% of children ages 13-18 had a mental disorder at some point in their young lives, and the majority of those adults and children are given prescriptions. And don’t forget the legal and illegal drugs, ranging from alcohol to heroin, that we use to self-medicate.
  • Distractions – In the 1980s, marketers Al Reis and Jack Trout identified America as the world’s first overcommunicated society; that was in the days of a handful of television channels and no internet. Today we are completely enveloped in media, and continue our fascination with other distractions like sports.

I think there will be a disruption in the future, but I can’t see it coming from a domestic mass movement. Today’s Third Estate has been handled; the rich have clearly learned their lessons from the past.

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Protest songs

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to a lot of protest songs from the 60s and 70s – songs opposing the Vietnam War. They resonate as I watch Trump turn 180 degrees from the non-interventionist that he promised to be into someone dropping bombs (illegally) on a Syrian military base and threatening to start wars there and in North Korea.

Vietnam was a horrible war. We had no business going in, and the death toll was incredibly high. According to Britannica:

The human costs of the long conflict were harsh for all involved. Not until 1995 did Vietnam release its official estimate of war dead: as many as 2 million civilians on both sides and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. The U.S. military has estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died in the war. In 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., inscribed with the names of 57,939 members of U.S. armed forces who had died or were missing as a result of the war. Over the following years, additions to the list have brought the total past 58,200. (At least 100 names on the memorial are those of servicemen who were actually Canadian citizens.) Among other countries that fought for South Vietnam on a smaller scale, South Korea suffered more than 4,000 dead, Thailand about 350, Australia more than 500, and New Zealand some three dozen.

Those are just deaths of course. There are hundreds of thousands, or likely millions, or people walking around with physical or mental injuries that will never fully heal.

I think about the Vietnam War – one that millions opposed, yet that went on for a total of 20 years – and I think about our rush into Afghanistan and Iraq (neither one resolved yet), the chaos we’ve caused in places from Libya to Ukraine, and our thirst for more. And it sickens me.

We have no national interest in any war today. And yet the politicians and the media are all behind the new President as he rushes in. And, like Iraq, the public will be ignored if they disagree.

I guess the reason for the protest songs is that I just need to hear someone say “no.” Just hear someone say this isn’t right; I don’t approve. That the toll on the lives of the young people we send into battle cannot be justified just to make our politicians look good and make our companies rich.

While there are lots of good songs, from artists ranging from Arlo Guthrie to Creedence Clearwater Revival, one sticks with me in particular: “I can’t write left handed” by Bill Withers (one of my favorite artists anyway). Take a listen, and understand that if you oppose war, you’re not alone.

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Lincoln saw it coming

There were a lot of issues that led to the Civil War, with the primary two being slavery (obviously reprehensible) and state rights (one of our founding principles). I think it’s safe to pity Lincoln, insofar as he was forced to address an issue that the Founding Fathers punted since they couldn’t solve it. So, depending on which issue you focus on, you can frame Lincoln as a hero or a villain, and that’s not something I hope to be able to settle.

But I will say one thing: This very smart man saw how things would ultimately play out in this country:

“We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood. . . . It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”

The passage appears in a letter from Lincoln to (Col.) William F. Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864. (Source: “Abraham Lincoln, a New Portrait” (1931)).

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When will things fall apart?

As I look through articles about the clear unsustainability of our current system, the most common comment from readers of sites like ZeroHedge, The Burning Platform and others is: “We KNOW things are going to hell. That doesn’t help. Tell us WHEN it’s going to break!”

I get the attraction of a big event that causes some kind of dislocation. And yes, it feels weird to say that, since I’m not actually looking forward to experiencing such an event: It’s going to be really unpleasant for everyone. But it’s partly a “let’s get it over with” kind of feeling, like waiting for a doctor to pop your shoulder back in, and it’s partly an “I told you so” kind of feeling, so you can show all those people who thought you were Chicken Little that there actually, really, truly is something wrong.

The problem lies with idea of looking for some event as the trigger, when in reality it’s a process – a slow one. It’s like an untreated cavity: You get to a point where it’s too late to save the tooth, but the rot hasn’t hit the nerve yet. At some point the pain will force you to the dentist, where you’re in for some deep drilling or a total removal. But we’re not there yet.

But make no mistake, we’re on our way there. We have $20 trillion in actual debt, plus tens or even hundreds of trillions in unfunded government liabilities. We have entire industries – autos, education, healthcare, finance – that have grown beyond their means through false promises and free money. We have total political discord, with the idea of “common ground” and “national interest” as quaint memories. And there are countless other indicators of dysfunction and rot.

When will the rot hit the nerve? I don’t know. But there’s no doubt that it will, and every day before then is a day to enjoy and a day to prepare.

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While you were distracted by war…

The threat of war certainly gets the attention of the American people, and within the last couple of weeks we’ve been presented with the idea of direct conflict with both Syria and North Korea along with some serious saber-rattling against Russia. As a result, public discourse has focused largely on this one topic to the exclusion of all else.

Of course, that’s a great thing for a political system experiencing epic failures across the board. So let’s think for a minute about what’s happening, and what the politicians don’t want us to think about, while they divert our attention:

  • In order to get their nominee for the Supreme Court through the Senate, Republicans invoked the “nuclear option,” changing the rules so they didn’t have to rely on Democratic support. For an otherwise noncontroversial appointment, this illustrates the level of divisiveness between the parties.
  • Trump and Ryan’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare went down in flames, and the issue is likely tabled for the foreseeable future. Republicans had seven years to come up with an alternative yet failed to put anything of value on the table, causing Trump to break a major campaign promise (the first of many I’m sure).
  • A second promise, tax reform, seems to be similarly dead in the water. The Republicans have no plan at the moment. Same goes for the promise of a stimulus plan.
  • After being suspended since 2015, the debt ceiling was put back in place on March 15; a new level will need to be voted on if we want to continue borrowing new money. Interestingly, the Treasury department had built a $425 billion war chest prior to the election, but with Trump in power they’ve spent down most of that rather than continue borrowing, which ensures the Treasury has as little wiggle room as possible to navigate.
  • Job creation in March came in at half of what was expected (98,000 vs. 180,000).
  • The European Union is in danger. Britain has just sent official notice that it will leave the union after last year’s Brexit vote. France, Germany, and Italy all have elections coming up in the next 12 months, any one of which could see an upset by a nationalist “exit the EU” candidate.
  • The Federal Reserve has hiked rates twice since Trump’s election, plans to hike two more times in 2017, and is now talking about reducing its balance sheet. These moves will increase the price of money and remove liquidity from the market, both of which will put pressure on the financial system.
  • The last continuing resolution passed by Congress funds government activities through April 28 and a new one has yet to be approved, leading to the possibility of a government shutdown.

With news like that, a distraction sure would come in handy for all involved…

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