Whose experts, exactly?

A majority of Americans agree that global warming is happening, manmade, and “most scientists believe global warming is occurring.” Nearly one-third of Americans disagree, and it’s not necessarily because they missed out on higher education.

If you’re an American, you might have noticed a tendency for reporting to present “two sides” of every issue. There are no spectrums or quadrants; there’s simply a balance that can fall only one of two ways.

I use the word “balance” above very intentionally. Why? Lots of news organizations aim to provide “fair and balanced” reporting, which is taken to mean presenting exactly two sides of every story. This often involves reporting how some say this, and others say that. This kind of reporting can lend to an impression among readers that, hey, the verdict’s still out, concealing facts like that only a fraction of scientists reject that global warming is occurring at all.

By seeking a superficially fair balance, real–and sometimes grave–imbalances of evidence are concealed. For more on this, see, for example, Columbia Journalism Review‘s “The danger of fair and balanced.”

I was stunned to see this at play in an economics article on HBR this morning. It’s not that I was stunned that it was at play, even in an HBR article. It was that I could see exactly how the power-concealing ideas behind “fair and balanced” were playing out, knowing that August 2016 me would–and could–not have seen it.

If you read much business literature, you’ll see occasional references to “short-termism”: roughly, the notion that companies are increasingly sacrificing long-term gains for short-term ones. In this particular HBR article (“Worries About Short-Termism Are 40 Years Old, but Are They Overblown?”), the author starts by pointing out many prestigious folks who have cautioned populations about the dangers of short-termism.

Then, in a move straight from all “fair and balanced” global warming articles, the author continues, “But not everyone agrees.”

I wasn’t laughing yet. I wanted to see what arguments would be brought forth, and who would be bringing them.

It was when I read the next paragraph that I started laughing. I laughed even harder reading the next paragraph.

Which economists, exactly, were disagreeing with the existence of short-termism? Larry Summers and a University of Chicago professor. 

In other words, this article is a perfect example of how understanding which experts are being trotted forth matters.

See, Larry Summers and the University of Chicago have shown up in a lot of my readings the last year. Summers is, arguably, directly responsible for some of the suffering wrought under neoliberalism, which has played a heavy role in the rise of finance sector dominance that’s crushed so many millions of people who couldn’t point out Summers in a line-up. While Summers has shown up in at least a dozen books I’ve read the last year, here’s how he shows up in the last book alone:

  • advocated cutting corporation tax and unemployment insurance;
  • supported (while at the World Bank) the idea of rich nations exporting pollution to poor countries on the grounds that thinly populated African countries were “underpolluted”;
  • denied anthropogenic climate change and resource limits;
  • suggested women were inferior to men at scientific reasoning (for which he later apologized);
  • actively promoted the deregulation of derivatives that turned out to be toxic (those that Harvard ‘invested’ in while he was President dropped in value by $1 billion dollars), and endorsed the removal of barriers between retail and investment banking;
  • lobbied energetically for a range of financial businesses to which he gave lavishly paid speeches; in 2008 he made $1.7 million from 31 speaking engagements (Goldman Sachs paid him $135,000 for one speech);
  • before his appointment by Obama worked one day a week at a hedge fund for over $5 million a year, while holding a chair at Harvard.

And the University of Chicago Economics department? For decades, they forcibly exported their toxic economic theories to Latin America, playing an enormous contributory role in the rise of economies with nominal growth–for wealthy fractions of populations, natch–and massive, massively fatal rises in inequality. You can read all about this in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, if you’re prepared for about ten hours of being gut-punched by how much brutality has been spread to secure the enduring economic dominance of the few.

When these particular economists suggest short-termism is overblown, I understand exactly which industries–and which actors–benefit by the general populace believing the debate is still out … and that, of course, regulating anything more heavily would thus be premature. (A blow to “the market,” sigh. Can’t have that!)

I can see the puppet strings, and the fact I can do so makes me grateful for all the reading I’ve done. 

But for that, I’d still weigh every expert equally. It’s the fair and balanced thing to do, you know.


Useful insecurities

I’m a white woman married to a Black man. I’m also the mother of two Black sons.

When I write that neoliberalism created the conditions for Charlottesville, it’s not to excuse racists, white supremacists, or nationalists. It’s not to to diminish the harm they can and do cause. It’s to put their rise into historical and political context, the better to rectify its root cause, or “the fundamental reason for the occurrence of a problem.”

I am deeply interested in my family’s ongoing safety. Such safety won’t be won by painting Manichean pictures of good-versus-bad, us-versus-them totality. It is much more likely to be won beginning with nuanced examination. By looking at history and asking, “How did we reach this point? How do we get away from this point, and build political systems that ensure we stay away for a good, long time, if not forever?”

While I began following #BlackLivesMatter about three years ago, I didn’t understand how its grievances fit within a larger context of oppression. It took last year’s American Democratic primaries for me to understand there is a larger context, and to realize I’d need to read more than a few short articles to wrap my head around that. Inspired by Hamilton and my siblings, I began a reading campaign.

With each book I read, I understand more keenly exactly how we reached this point. I understand intuitively, if not yet at a readily articulated level, what it will take to go–and stay–somewhere else.

I read Princeton professor Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy, Inc. in May. More than any other, this book helped me understand how a very specific sequence of actions and inactions brought the U.S. people the Trump presidency: Continue reading “Useful insecurities”

No warrant other than power

Only 72 pages into U.K. professor Andrew Sayer’s Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, I already have much I’d like to write about it. Instead, given current time constraints, I’ll share a couple short quotes for you to ponder along with me.

Government debt … can be thought of as a means for upward redistribution of income, from ordinary taxpayers to rich bondholders. Instead of taxing rich people, governments borrow from them, and pay them interest for the privilege.

The above quote was excerpted from Doug Henwood’s Wall Street: How It Works, and for Whom. The below quote is direct from Sayer, and sums up neoliberalism just about as succinctly as I’ve seen:

The rich would rather lend to the rest at interest and enlarge their unearned income than have to pay taxes to support them. Neoliberal governments obligingly cut the taxes of the rich, sell off public assets to them and replace government spending on education with loans to students that will yield interest. Governments then have to borrow more from the private sector to fund the public sector, thereby increasing the power of the rich and their ability to dictate policy.

For a little more context, Sayer distinguishes between earned and unearned income: “While earned income depends on providing goods or services, unearned income does not.” He breaks unearned income into two forms, “transfers” (entitlements) and “extracted unearned income,” concluding:

whereas earned income is work based and depends on producing use-values, transfers (or donated unearned income) are warranted on the grounds of needs, while unearned income based on control of assets has no warrant other than power.

Condemning curiosity 

About a year ago, I took a one-day course on continuous improvement. Part of our discussion that day involved examples of people wasting huge amounts of effort (and money!) to keep not-fixing problems. They’d tackle individual symptoms and then move on as if all were well. Sometimes that was enough; other times, it just led to greater total resource drain.

I offered up an example. I described a situation where folks in one region of China were having some pretty extreme health problems. Some Western medics came in with vaccines against what seemed to be a variant of another virus. Someone else cautioned against vaccinating without further root cause exploration, so they explored. They discovered soil extremely low in selenium, and so gave those ailing selenium supplements. That took care of the problem, whereas vaccinating against it could have yielded even worse problems from selenium deficiency.

I couldn’t remember where I’d read about this, a puzzle I just solved.

A couple years back, I bought Dr. Kelly Brogan’s A Mind of Your Own. I read up through the section cautioning against unquestioning praise of vaccines, and then set the book aside. “Man, is this lady paranoid!” I told myself.

Recently, though, I’ve had a hard time getting back to my previous healthy ways. I still eat mostly Paleo and walk a bunch, but I’m “supplementing” my Paleo with beer and not dedicating nearly enough time to quiet, restorative time necessary for stress management. My husband asked what he could do to help me get back on track; I replied candidly that I needed to dive back into my old readings and get in the right frame of mind, so that I want to do the right-for-me thing instead of just trying to force myself into it based on dusty old recollections.

So I picked up this book, and it’s cracking me up to remember how I felt about all this then. What seemed totally paranoid before I read dozens of books on politics seems perfectly reasonable now.

Most things mandated by the U.S. government these days aren’t mandated for the sake of citizens, whom legislators commonly refer to as “consumers.” They benefit transnational companies who long ago captured the government, enabling transfer of huge amounts of government funds to corporations.

Technology and epinephrine in schools, for example? Sure, there are arguably good things that come from that, but those are distractions from the core purpose: profit by engaging far, far more lucrative customers (governments) than any individual human. If individual consumers crushed by neoliberal policies can no longer increase consumption to improve profits, well, what then? Get that profit on a grander scale!

If any of this were really about human well being, my country’s government would not tolerate tens of millions of citizens–many of them children–starving, unsafe, and living (often dying) on the streets. It would not station millions of military personnel (and, increasingly, contractors–because profit!!!) at hundreds of bases around the world at great detriment to local peoples. It would not be the world’s most massive arm dealer, or itself kill so many millions of people overseas in pursuit “strategic” objectives.

Does this mean I think vaccines are bad? No. It means I know enough to understand that I should look deeper than this ridiculous good/bad dichotomy to explore the deeper context. Are vaccines as they exist now, mandated by the government for some corporations’ immense profit, really an unmitigated good? Who is regulating these vaccines, exploring their peripheral ingredients to ensure those aren’t detrimental in isolation and, especially, in combination? How much funding is given to such exploration? Is there independent oversight? If so, who oversees the overseers? Who responds to reports of adverse reactions, when, and with what urgency? My list of questions now is endless.

In another world, one where my government didn’t so often and flagrantly show its disregard for human life, I might be more unquestioningly accepting of vaccines … as I was when I set aside this book a couple years ago.

Now, I know enough to be wary and to always, always ask, for answer not by my government but by myself, cui bono?

Where most everyone around me kicks, knee-jerk, at the suggestion questions should be asked, I take that as virtual confirmation of a highly successful campaign of indoctrination. Why ought mere curiosity inspire such condemnation?!

The devil is, as always, in the details.