July 31, 2010

Maintaining the Undue Influence of Wealth

In a 5-4 decision back in January, the Supreme Court found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) exceeded its authority when it barred Citizens United, a conservative organization, from running ads for a movie attacking Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign.  As a result of this ruling, corporations, labor unions and advocacy groups are no longer forced to funnel money through political action committees to pay for advertising, and all restrictions on the amount they can spend have been lifted.  Although the Court upheld disclosure requirements that corporations spending $10,000 or more producing election-season ads must disclaim the source of that funding, the floodgates for outsized corporate, union and interest group influence were unquestionably thrown open.

Last Tuesday, an attempt to address some of the concerns raised by this ruling died in the Senate.  H.R. 5175, the DISCLOSE Act, sought to increase transparency around the role of corporate and special-interest money in national elections.  It required organizations involved in political campaigning to disclose the names of large donors and reveal their identities in any political advertising they funded. It also forbade foreign corporations, government contractors and recipients of TARP funds from making political expenditures.

It was not perfect legislation by any means, as, in order to advance it, compromises were made, including one that exempted long-standing, large non-profit groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA).  Its aims were fairly modest; it did not even attempt to curtail funding or campaign contributions from companies, unions or advocacy groups. The  DISCLOSE Act simply required that they state who was paying for their political activities.

So, why did a relatively simple and straightforward bill with such laudable goals fall?  Democrats were unable to break a Republican filibuster - all 40 GOP senators present stood against it - preventing the legislation from coming up for a vote.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's justification for the GOP position was that H.R. 5175 would effectively tilt the next election cycle in favor of Democrats by forcing conservative action groups and corporations to reveal their influence.  In Senator McConnell's eyes, this was somehow equivalent to an assault on free speech.

The truth is that this bill would have been a worthwhile first step in giving Americans a view into just who is funding what and who is backing whom.  Corporations are indeed more likely to make bigger donations, while union members and their smaller donations would have been protected (below a threshhold of $600) from disclosure.  But the same is true in reverse: unions donating at the organizational level would have to reveal themselves, and corporate employees donating individually could remain anonymous.

One of the fundamental aims of campaign finance reform is to encourage large numbers of small donations from a broad spectrum of donors, while diminishing the undue influence of wealth. This is not  - or at least it shouldn't be - an ideological proposition.  Rather, it is foundational to ensuring fairer elections, and Tuesday's defeat of the DISCLOSE Act is a loss for anyone who thinks influence should come from building consensus rather than from having deep pockets.

July 25, 2010

The Land of Greatly Diminished Opportunity

On Saturday, the Obama Administration announced that, although it is forecasting robust economic growth of 4% annually in 2011 and 2012, it also expects unemployment to remain at close to 9% over the same period.  Given that demand is the engine that drives the economy, with nearly 1 in 10 Americans out of work for the next 24 months, it is entirely reasonable to ask just who will be fueling this healthy expansion of GDPChristina Romer, who chairs the president's Council of Economic Advisers, said the White House believes business investment and an emphasis on exports will lead the way. 

Leaving aside for the moment just what we can expect to happen to the long term unemployed during the next two years, this focus on growth driven by consumption from outside the United States is revealing.  In many ways, it is the logical culmination of the tax cut mania that has been part and parcel of national political discourse since Ronald Reagan was elected, for these policies have not - despite conventional wisdom - been the engine that drives growth for the country as a whole.  Rather, they have driven growth almost exclusively at the top of the economic ladder and been the root cause of the middle class' slow strangulation. 

As the graph below shows, the gap between the richest and poorest Americans is the widest it's been since World War I.  The largely boom years from the end of the second world war - which fueled an enormous expansion of the American middle class - have been replaced by a period in which the very rich have gotten  staggeringly wealthy, the poor even poorer, and those in the middle have been forced gradually downward.

[Click image to view at full size]

This concentration of wealth has been driven by tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  Since the Reagan Administration, it has been accepted wisdom that cutting taxes frees up money for investment by private individuals and corporations that would ordinarily be used by the government in a less efficient or effective manner.

The theory - basically the supply side economics of the Reagan years - says that letting people hold onto more of their money will allow them to make greater investments in a wiser fashion, since they are far more expert in their fields of endeavor than any government bureaucrat could hope to be.  These investments are in turn expected to spur economic growth and job creation that makes everyone better off.

While there is no question that for many people - myself included - the idea of having greater control of one's earnings is highly appealing, the truth of the matter is that, in aggregate, the promised effects of tax cuts haven't materialized in any sustainable fashion.  The concentration of wealth that has resulted has actually depressed real wages per capita - described in the graph below as an average in 1982-1984 dollars - which are lower now than they were in 1979.  That's right; purchasing power today - what one can buy with one's paycheck - is actually less than it was during the Carter Administration, despite steady growth in GDP.  So much for trickle-down theory:

Likewise, job growth doesn't track with tax cuts as one might intuitively expect.  Since 1992, the largest increase in employment to population ratio (the percentage of the populace that has a job) occurred after President Clinton's tax increases of 1993. By contrast, President George W. Bush's tax cuts - the very hallmark of his administration - appear to have reduced employment if they had any effect at all:

Job creation spurred by the investment of dollars that would normally go to taxes simply didn't occur at anywhere near the rate promised:

The reason?  In the wake of tax cuts, what seems to occur among the wealthiest is not enterprise re-investment or job creation, but profit-taking.  No longer incented to "protect their money from the government" by plowing it back into their businesses, the rich instead either save it - often in overseas tax havens - or spend it elsewhere.  Such spending does drive some level of growth, but on a scale altogether far inferior to that from reinvestment or even public sector spending.  It also results in a distribution of wealth that sees ten percent of the population controlling over two-thirds of the wealth in the United States:

For the bottom 90%, what appears to happen in the wake of tax cuts is a brief boom that develops into a bubble, which inevitably bursts. Worse, this illusion of growth seems to have a psychological effect on the vast majority of the population that isn't in the top-earning tier.  "Keeping up with the Joneses" drives people to live well beyond their means - apparently unaware that almost everyone else is doing the same thing - with the result that the personal savings rate plunges:

Author Larry Beinhart decided he'd check into the accepted wisdom of tax cuts, and found some very startling things:
  • Large income tax cuts are followed by a bubble and then a crash.
  • High income taxes correlate with economic growth.
  • Income tax increases are followed by economic growth.
  • Moderate income tax cuts are followed by a flat economy.
  • All of this is especially true as applied to the top tax rates, the amount paid on income that exceeds the highest bracket.
Mr. Beinhart describes the data in the following manner:
... I constantly see and hear tax cuts, particularly at the top, described as "pro-growth." So I went and looked at the numbers - tax rates, tax cuts and tax hikes - and placed them alongside job growth, the Dow Jones, growth in the GDP and median income.

The brute facts say the opposite of the myth.
But what about self-determination, hard work and success on the basis of merit - some of the core values on which Americans pride themselves? Aren't people free to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to acheive the station they deserve through industriousness and ingenuity? Aren't tax cuts a mechanism to make that happen?

Unfortunately, while that element of our national character remains strong in the hearts of the citizenry, it has become more folklore than truth. The likelihood of anyone moving from the bottom half of wealth-holders to the upper middle class has shrunk dramatically since World War II, as has the probability of anyone moving in the opposite direction.  In other words, the American class structure has become increasingly rigid:

So, does this mean that the government automatically knows best and that taxes should always be high?  No, it does not.  What it does mean is that the roles of government and private enterprise are out of balance.  Tax dollars may not always be spent efficiently, but they are at least spent, rather than squirreled away overseas or used to buy limited luxury goods.  Likewise, the success of the private sector does not come without the assistance of public assets such as infrastucture, law enforcement and market regulation.  We need to re-recognize the true relationship between these two elements of our economy. 

The idea that private enterprise is always better than public sector effort has been ingrained in our national psyche over the last three decades to such a degree that it has become accepted without question.  Almost everyone has a government horror story they can use to support that contention, but we have become a country which generally ignores or forgives similar tales associated with private malfeasance, or at least one which doesn't ascribe such misdeeds to the very character of capitalism.

Further, we have become a nation that seems to rarely bother looking at the actual results of policy.   (This goes far beyond taxation, but that's a topic for another time.) The fact that someone like Senator John Kyl can not just advocate a $678 billion tax cut that would benefit the rich, but actually deny the need to offset that cut, should tell us all we need to know about the rigor with which macro policy positions are often developed.  (And the claim by people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that tax cuts actually increase government revenues is a fantasy.)

According to a new study (PDF) by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):
  • In 2007, the share of after-tax income going to the top 1 percent hit its highest level (17.1 percent) since 1979, while the share going to the middle one-fifth of Americans shrank to its lowest level during this period (14.1 percent).
  • Between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose by 281 percent after adjusting for inflation — an increase in income of $973,100 per household — compared to increases of 25 percent ($11,200 per household) for the middle fifth of households and 16 percent ($2,400 per household) for the bottom fifth. 
  • If all groups’ after-tax incomes had grown at the same percentage rate over the 1979-2007
    period, middle-income households would have received an additional $13,042 in 2007 and
    families in the bottom fifth would have received an additional $6,010.
  • In 2007, the average household in the top 1 percent had an income of $1.3 million, up $88,800
    just from the prior year; this $88,800 gain is well above the total 2007 income of the average
    middle-income household ($55,300).
The middle class - the engine that drives the economy - is withering, and withering at an accelerating pace. The truth of the matter is this:  The current distribution of wealth and the socio-economic stangnation that comes with it are unsustainable if we wish to remain a country that is truly a land of opportunity.  Tax-cut driven policies have demonstrably failed to deliver what they have promised, and the belief that social mobility can be achieved through the mechanism of hard work is increasingly just that: an article of faith unsupported by actual fact.

It will take careful, well-considered effort - not to mention strong political will - to bring the relationship between the public and private sectors back into equilibrium.  In the meantime, however, one thing is for certain: despite the fever dreams of people like Glen Beck, olicarchy (or "oligarhy") in the United States will not arrive cloaked in the the mythological socialism of Barack Obama; it is already here, and it was delivered by Reaganomics.

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  Thanks to Gus Lubin at Business Insider for a number of the charts used here.  Mr. Lubin's 15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth and Inequality in America lives up to its billing.

July 19, 2010

The Explosive Growth of a Secret, Unaccountable and Self-Perpetuating Bureaucracy

The Washington Post's Dana Priest won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her reporting on "black sites" - secret prisons used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to torture and interrogate foreign prisoners - and, along with two colleagues, brought another Pulitzer to her paper in 2008 for an expose of the conditions under which American combat veterans were receiving treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In short, she is one of the best investigative journalists working today.

This morning, Ms. Priest and fellow reporter William Arkin unveiled a project two years in the making: Top Secret America, a holisitic and deeply disturbing view into the explosive growth of not only a secrecy-driven culture in the wake of the September 11th attacks, but a vast bureaucracy with far-reaching powers and little accountability:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
The investigation's other findings include:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
Perhaps even more troubling than the implications for fiscal responsibility, privacy and civil liberties, however, is the fact that this vast, poorly-defined entanglement of overlapping agencies is very likely making the country less safe.  The overwhelming volume of information collected, along with the sheer number of projects and initiatives undertaken, means that only a few people have any sense of the big picture, when they are able to focus on details at all. 

Below is an introductory video for Ms. Priest and Mr. Arkin's project.  Please take some time to check out Top Secret America.

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July 14, 2010

J. Christian Adams Takes On the Public Record and Loses

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  Key points in this post are a bit esoteric, and the timelines and roles of the individuals involved are somewhat challenging. However, the accusations that are being made in conservative circles and by rightwing media outlets - that there is institutionalized racism against whites at the Department of Justice under President Obama - are not only serious, but also reliant on that same complexity for their success to date, as it is sufficient barrier to prevent most consumers of news from digging further.  With that in mind, I have endeavored to clarify the issues as much as possible, and in addition to the extensive citations I always include, have provided additional links after the post. 

During the 2008 presidential elections, two members of the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) - an organization categorized as a racist hate group by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and condemned by the members of the original Black Panthers - were observed outside a polling place in Philadelphia, PA. Both men were attired in the paramilitary dress of the NBPP's "militia," and while one of them was actually a fully-credentialed election observer, the other was not, and carried a nightstick. Local police were called to the scene, and the man with the truncheon was removed from the premises.

On January 7, 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dropped criminal charges, but filed a civil suit over the incident against the New Black Panther Party and three of its members, alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The suit sought an injunction preventing further violations of the Act, and when the defendants failed to appear in court, a default judgment - essentially a forfeit by the NBPP - was handed down in favor of the government. The following May, the DOJ requested and received an injunction against the man who had carried the nightstick, but ordered the suit against the remaining members dropped citing the lack of a pattern of intimidation.  (The Philadelphia District Attorney's office stated categorically that it did not receive a single complaint about voter intimidation at the poll where the incident occurred.)

The decision to drop charges against the NBPP and its members, however, has not gone quietly into the night.  In a two-part interview with Fox New Channel's Megyn Kelly (links: part 1part 2), former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams alleged that the Obama Administration not only improperly failed to pursue justice agasinst the New Black Panther Party and its members, but that the decision to do so was part of a broader agenda of institutionalized racial prejudice against whites:
There is a hostility in the voting section and in the Civil Rights Division to bringing cases on behalf of white victims for the benefit of national racial minorities. That's a fact. It was on open display in the department.
The story has been picked up by just about every major right wing pundit, and Fox's Kelly has aggressively pursued Mr. Adams' allegations, echoing in subsequent broadcasts his statement that "there is a mandate" at the DOJ to refuse prosecution of voter intimidation cases in which the perpetrator is black and the victim white.  To lend added weight to these claims, Ms. Kelly brought onto her program a man named Bartle Bull - who was described as a Democratic civil rights attorney who had worked with both Robert and Ted Kennedy - to condemn what they agreed was an unprecedented failure to enforce the Voting Rights Act:

This is indeed a serious charge, if true.  However, although this particular propaganda effort is more complicated to untangle than the recent claim on FoxNation.com that President Obama had "given a major strip of AZ back to Mexico", it is every bit as much a fantasy.

To begin with, the players involved are hardly the apolitical - or even liberal - figures they claim or are potrayed to be.  Bartle Bull, for instance, testifed under oath (PDF) that he was a poll watcher for the McCain/Palin campaign during the 2008 election, and chairman of a group called Democrats for McCain in New York State.  There's certainly nothing wrong or unsavory about that fact, but it's a glaring omission from the Fox interviews with Mr. Bull, given the wealth of other information provided about him.  On Fox, Mr. Bull is purposefully cast as the antithesis of a conservative mouth piece, but that's because knowing he campaigned actively for John McCain would make the viewer question his motivations.  (Especially given the fact that, again, no complaints of voter intimidation at the polling station in question were filed with the Philadelphia District Attorney.)

J. Christian Adams, meanwhile, is, in fact, directly tied to the politicization of the Department of Justice, but through the U.S. Attorneys scandal during George W. Bush's second term, rather than by malfeasance from the Obama White House. For those who aren't familiar with said scandal, investigators from the Department of Justice's Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility came to the following conclusions (full report here) about recruiting and advancement practices in the DOJ's Civil Rights Division under Bradley Schlozman, who hired Mr. Adams in 2005:
  1. The Civil Rights Division improperly used political or ideological affiliations in assessing applicants for career attorney positions, including hiring for both experienced attorneys and entry-level attorneys through the Honors Program;
  2. Political or ideological affiliations resulted in other personnel actions that affected career attorneys in the Division, such as attorney transfers and attorney case assignments;
  3. The Division’s senior management exercised inappropriate oversight of Schlozman’s actions in the hiring and treatment of career attorneys; and
  4. Schlozman made false statements in his testimony to Congress about these matters.
To be fair, the fact that Mr. Adams was hired by a man known to have actively subverted the impartiality of the Department of Justice through biased recruitment and management practices doesn't mean he himself is biased.  However, Mr. Adams has been pretty public about his rightist leanings, arguing on a conservative blog that health care reform is a threat to liberty, and penning an article comparing President Obama to advocates for the appeasement of Nazi Germany, among other activities.  Again, there is nothing illegal or even necessarily nefarious about either of these facts, but they represent behavior that is far from typical among career attorneys at the Department of Justice, who almost universally - at least prior to the Bush Administration - strive to remain as politically neutral as possible. 

Taking this information as background, we come to the substantive - and substantial - problems with the "Racism at the DOJ" storyline.  First, Mr. Adams admitted in his interview with Megyn Kelly that he actually has no firsthand knowledge of the allegations he is making. During his conversation with the Fox News host, he stated that he wasn't present during some of the events he describes, and that he relied on the statements of others - heresay, in other words - for significant elements of his accusations. Additionally, he refused to name the person who supposedly called for the anti-white voter intimidation mandate he claims exists.  (Mr. Adams named names in later public comments, but I'll address that below.)

Second, and far more importantly, according to testimony (PDF) by Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights back in May:
After reviewing the matter, the Civil Rights Division determined that the facts did not constitute a prosecutable violation of the criminal statutes. The Department did, however, file a civil action on January 7th, 2009, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief under 11(b) against four defendants.
The date described in the testimony above indicates that the decision not to bring criminal charges against the New Black Panther Party members at the Philadelphia polling station was made by the Bush Administration - not the Obama Administration - since it occurred a full 11 days before Mr. Obama was inaugurated, and 26 days before Eric Holder became Attorney General of the United States.

Third, J. Christian Adams later identified Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, an Obama political appointee, as the individual who supposedly overruled a unanimous recommendation for continued criminal prosecution by Adams and other attorneys involved in the NBPP case.  The problem with that, however - in addition to the timeline for Mr. Obama's swearing-in - is that Mr. Perrelli wasn't confirmed until March, almost three months after the decision was made to downgrade the charges from criminal to civil status.

Fourth, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes, who was also later alleged by Mr. Adams to be the Justice Department official who declared "Never bring another lawsuit against a black or other national minority... no matter what they do," did not begin working at the DOJ until June 2009, five months after the case was downgraded from criminal to civil, and one month after further civil prosecution was dropped.  Additionally, no one else has come forward to confirm the alleged mandate from Ms. Fernandes, and even if she actually made such an incredible statement, she wasn't in any position to influence the handling of the New Black Panther Party case.

Finally, the decision not to pursue further civil action was made in a transparent manner consistent with precedent:
... The allegation that would have supported pursuing a broader case was the idea that there was a nationwide effort to place New Black Panthers at polling stations for the purpose of suppressing white votes - the original complaint read that the NBPP "made statements and posted notice that over 300 members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would be deployed at polling locations during voting on November 4, 2008, throughout the United States." The career attorneys recommended dismissing the case on the basis that there wasn't enough evidence to support that claim.

Not only did no voters come forward to say they had been intimidated by the NBPP that day, there were no further incidents on Election Day 2008 that would have suggested a large-scale conspiracy to intimidate white voters. According to a letter (PDF) sent to Rep. Lamar Smith by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, the NBPP "suspended" its Philadelphia political chapter over the incident and subsequently disavowed their actions, which seems like an odd thing to do for an organization that is supposedly disclosing its attempt to intimidate white voters in its publicly available materials.
In summary, then, the allegations made by the man accusing the Obama Administration and the Department of Justice of institutionalized racism, J. Christian Adams, are unsubstantiated by anyone else and are not just unsupported, but completely undermined by the public record.  The individuals Mr. Adams claims are behind this nefarious plot weren't working at the Justice Department when the events he describes took place; it was a Bush Administration team that downgraded the NBPP case from criminal to civil; and the subsequent decision not to pursue further civil charges - while approved by an Obama appointee - was made by career DOJ attorneys in a manner consistent with precedent.  In short, Mr. Adams' accusations are very much related to politicization of the Justice Department, but by the Bush White House, rather than President Obama. 

As I wrote in 2008, the consequences of political influence in the legal system are not to be taken lightly, and in this case they were made worse by the aid of complicit media outlets more interested in pushing a political agenda and ratings than in quality reporting.  But what is perhaps of even greater concern is what this whole indicident says about the state of both race relations and critical thinking among the public.  There exists in this country a substantial population which finds it plausible that, not only would a federal attorney publicly declare official policy to be, effectively, "open season on whitey," but that an entire bureaucracy of career lawyers would go along with such a mandate, and that it would be supported by a president whose own mother is white.  That fact,- while perhaps unsurprising in the current political climate - is deeply depressing.


July 8, 2010

Climategate: Not So Much

Back in February, as large swaths of the United States were being hammered by blizzards with record snowfall, the wags at Fox News Channel trotted out this bit of stupidity, equating temperatures in this country with global climate and ignoring that last winter would prove to be the fifth warmest on record:

Interestingly - although perhaps not unexpectedly - now that both the U.S. and Canada have been broiling in record high-temperatures for the past several days, the climate change deniers are nowhere to be found.  Not that the current North American heatwave "proves" climate change anymore than a series of localized blizzards disproves it, but at a minimum, it pretty clearly demonstrates a lack of consistency on the part of so-called "warming skeptics".

In any case, now seems like an appropriate time to revisit one of the biggest "scandals" of the past twelve months in the debate over the state of the planet: "Climategate."  For those who may have forgotten, last November, hundreds of private eMails and documents belonging to members of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at Britain's University of East Anglia (EAU) were hacked from a server.  A report in the New York Times accurately predicted that they would provoke a storm of controversy:
The eMail messages, attributed to prominent American and British climate researchers, include discussions of scientific data and whether it should be released, exchanges about how best to combat the arguments of skeptics, and casual comments — in some cases derisive — about specific people known for their skeptical views. Drafts of scientific papers and a photo collage that portrays climate skeptics on an ice floe were also among the hacked data, some of which dates back 13 years.

In one eMail exchange, a scientist writes of using a statistical “trick” in a chart illustrating a recent sharp warming trend. In another, a scientist refers to climate skeptics as “idiots.”

Some skeptics asserted Friday that the correspondence revealed an effort to withhold scientific information. “This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,” said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist who has long faulted evidence pointing to human-driven warming and is criticized in the documents.
Climate change deniers jumped all over the news, with the Times of London calling it "The Great Climate Change Science Scandal", and noted amateur climatologist and deep thinker Sean Hannity stating definitively that it "exposed global warming as a myth":

Unfortunately for Mr. Hannity and the rest, that simply wasn't the case.  Several independent reviews of the University of East Anglia's CRU have concluded that, while the scientists involved could be fairly criticized for not being as open as might be desired, they had engaged in no scientific malpractice whatsoever.  The most recent, and final, investigation was perhaps the most clear in its exoneration, covering in detail the scientific and mathematical criticisms of the work exposed in the stolen documents, but also stating plainly that the climate team at EAU was broadly unworthy of scientific criticism:
1.3 Findings

13. Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.

14. In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC
[Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] assessments.

15. But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of U.K. climate science.
Meanwhile, the Times of London, which, in addition to attacking CRU, had also savaged the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has begun - to its limited credit - to retract sweeping statements it made about the IPCC's research and conclusions.  (Link goes to World Wildlife Fund article quoting the retraction; original Times article is available only by subscription.)  Unfortunately, the damage of Climategate has been done, and if past performance is any indication, it is highly unlikely we will see Mr. Hannity acknowledge the wreckless overreaching of his previous statements.

Be that as it may, as the James Inhofes of the world continue to declare "global warming... the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," there is a very simple fact worth keeping in mind: the vast majority of the scientists who publish peer-reviewed work on climate change support the idea that human activity is warming the earth.  A study by the National Academy of Sciences describes it this way:
Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC [anthropogenic climate change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers. 
In other words, almost 100% of the most highly regarded and widely-published climatologists agree that mankind is behind ongoing climate change.  Not only that, but the expertise of scientists skeptical of humanity's role in planetary warming is significantly less than that of the scientists who back anthropogenic climate change.

So, if you've been under the impression that the debate over climate change is one between equally matched and qualified factions, it's not.  In fact, it's one in which the vast preponderence of knowledge and reputation is ranged fully against the idea that the dramatic changes in climate we are seeing in recent years aren't caused by humans.  That's worth remembering the next time someone claims a snowstorm in the United States proves climate change is a myth.

July 2, 2010

Demonstrating Pro-Government Bias in the Media

Two weeks ago, Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings published a lengthy piece entitled "The Runaway General" that provided an unguarded portrait of General Stanley McChyrstal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.  The portrait was so unguarded, in fact, that General McChrystal was recalled to Washington to explain contemptuous and insulting remarks he and his staff made about various civilian leaders, including President Obama and Vice President Biden.  A day later, General McChrystal resigned, and was replaced by General David Petraeus.

In the days that have followed, there was shock and angry criticism among establishment journalists about Mr. Hastings' coverage.  Numerous outlets wondered how a pop culture publication like Rolling Stone had managed to get such access to General McChrystal, and even the usually excellent Lara Logan - chief foreign correspondent for CBS News - raged at the disruption to the established order:
What I find is the most telling thing about what Michael Hastings said in your interview is that he talked about his manner as pretending to build an illusion of trust and, you know, he's laid out there what his game is… That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do, who don't - I don't go around in my personal life pretending to be one thing and then being something else. I mean, I find it egregious that anyone would do that in their professional life."
Despite Ms. Logan's opinion, however, the real most telling moment came when The Politico revealed a little too much in its coverage of the journalistic uproar in an article that has since had the intensely damning final sentences of the following passage expunged [emphasis mine]:
McChrystal, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, has long been thought to be uniquely qualified to lead in Afghanistan. But he is not known for being media savvy. Hastings, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two years, according to the magazine, is not well-known within the Defense Department. And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.
The widely-held view of "The Runaway General" among establishment journalists was that it was not only written by someone who hadn't earned the access to power so coveted by the political press, but that it violated unwritten rules about protecting highly-placed government sources from themselves. 

Jon Stewart rightly pointed out that what was really wrong here was not Mr. Hastings' story, but the fact that, with all of their existing access, reporters for major media organizations hadn't produced anything of even vaguely similar depth and incisiveness in nearly a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Worse, almost none of the reporting on General McChrystal in the wake of the Rolling Stone article even bothered to mention his role in the egregious treatment of Pat Tillman's family in the wake of the military's use of the latter's death for propaganda purposes.

If there was any doubt remaining - and for a number of us, there hasn't been for some time - that the national political press corps is more enamored of access to power than hard-hitting journalism, it was quickly put to rest by a recent study (PDF) from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University that suddenly seemed extremely relevant.  Released in April, it documents empirically the supportive role the mainstream media plays in furthering questionable - and even illegal - government policy:
The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding.

From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture:
The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In
The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.
Accusations of media bias have been pervasive in American politics for years - if not decades - but the reaction of establishment journalists to Michael Hastings' article on General McChrystal brings into sharp relief an aspect of the issue not often discussed in today's hyper-polarized political landscape.  It, along with the Harvard study, confirms that not only do consumers of news need to be alert to political favortism, but that press corps affinity for access to the powerful is a demonstrably pervasive problem among the corporate media.