Pssst! Wanna Buy a Country?

(Now that there are a lot of you I would like to conduct a survey.  Read one of the chapters from the novel I am writing (look for Hear, O Israel) and let me know: 1)great stuff, keep writing or 2)don’t quit your day job.  Thanks)

 

Ads have now begun appearing on these posts, which I suppose is a sign of having arrived.  I could prevent the ads from appearing by buying that service from Word Press for $30 a year and allowing them to pocket the income or I could establish a private domain for $18 a year and request a share of the income.  This did not seem a hard choice, especially since outside the rainforests and high Himalayas everyone on the planet is well accustomed to being bombarded by advertisements.  I am, consequently, now www.qqduckus.com.

 

Advertising, or more generally, marketing, is almost a made-in-America product.  Sellers have been touting their wares and services for millennia, but until recently that marketing was confined essentially to hawking and very limited and primitive signage at the place of business.  It was the United States, with its booming free market economy and emphasis on freedom of speech, that developed modern marketing in the nineteenth century and exported it to the world, especially with the globalization of business after the Second World War.  With the emergence of electronic media and sophisticated information technology advertising now extends into virtually every nook and cranny of our lives, and marketing has become, I believe, perhaps America’s greatest problem, more pernicious than the incredibly exaggerated threat of terrorism.

 

Marketing inherently involves the distortion or outright elimination of truth, particularly when the product, such as toothpaste or gasoline, is essentially the same as that produced by competitors.  Unfortunately, advertising serves as a sort of educational medium for an increasingly uneducated and ignorant populace, especially television advertising.  For many television cloaks everything it presents in at least a minimal air of reality, particularly when an attractive personality, like a sports or movie star, is involved, and the viewer’s understanding of the world, in most cases already filled with gaps and distortions, is further detached from reality.

 

There is clear and simple evidence that many people believe what they see and hear via advertising: it works.  Companies would hardly spend millions on marketing if it did not sell products; Procter & Gamble would not have run all those ads for so many years if Mr. Whipple did not move the rolls of Charmin off  the shelves.  Of course, many – I hope most – will buy the product not because they believe it is truly softer than other brands, but because when confronted with a choice among similar products they remember the amusing Mr. Whipple and grab his brand.  Assuming all travel websites to be essentially the same, I chose Priceline because I like Captain Kirk, not because I thought they were any better than the others.  Perhaps this is the reality for most consumers, but then what is “brand loyalty” based on?  I suggest that many begin to believe their choice is better when using the same brand year after year.  (Am I being too cynical here?  Listen to popular talk shows or read letters to the editor to see just how stupid many of our fellow citizens are.)

real person

real person

Permitting pharmaceutical companies to advertise was easily the biggest mistake the FCC has ever made, and every doctor I have asked agrees.  Seeing a drug touted on television leads many a patient to ask or demand that drug from his physician, making the latter’s  job harder.  The drug companies no longer have to bribe doctors with free stuff; they now in effect persuade the patient to sell the drug to the physician.  Big pharmo constantly justifies outrageous pricing on the grounds that research and testing is so time and money consuming (and the government contributes to this), yet for the past several years the major companies have spent more on PR than R&D.Without question the second most pernicious advertising is that produced by major international corporations, most especially those, like the oil companies, that engage in activity certainly, probably or possibly damaging to the environment or other public interests.  British Petroleum is not attempting to sell you a tankful of gas with its endless ads about the Gulf but rather to convince you – against all evidence – that despite the spills and obvious lies they are just as environmentally and socially conscious as any other global corporation (which of course is not at all).  The point of the millions spent on such marketing is not to sell a product but to create a more attractive (and generally false) image, one that will move public opinion away from any thought of regulation and limits on their business.  It is propaganda, inevitably deceptive propaganda, and apparently people believe a lot of it or why would they bother?  Remembering the state PR of the old Soviet Union, I am minded to call this corporate advertising “capitalist realism.”

"we care."

“we care.”

The most pernicious advertising?  That found in our elections.  With their splendid understanding of humanity and society the Founding Fathers created in the Constitution a document flexible enough to accommodate inevitable change yet difficult enough to alter that stability and basic principles were not threatened.  At the end of the eighteenth century, in the early morning of the Industrial Revolution, it was clear to all but the seriously dense that the world was steadily and fairly rapidly changing, yet marketing was still pretty much what it was in antiquity, despite the development of cheap paper and the printing press.  As a result, the Fathers could not possibly have comprehended the incredible danger it posed to the system.

 

An election campaign is essentially the marketing of a product – the candidate.  In the late eighteenth century this would involve some advertising – broadsheets, leaflets and support in newspapers – but for the most part the candidate had to sell himself by making the rounds, giving speeches and engaging in debates.  He was bound to stretch the truth sometimes, but deception is much more difficult when you are in such close contact with the voters and most of the issues can be fairly easily understood.  In a nation of over three hundred million people and mass electronic media this is no longer the case, and the candidate has become a carefully groomed and  presented product, generally unavailable to the average voter except as an unapproachable speaker at the end of the hall.  He is marketed exactly like laundry detergent or fast food: simple phrases, compelling imagery and a complete lack of any meaningful content.

 

The perfect political marketing storm came in the wake of World War II when television joined radio and spread rapidly and when international corporations began seriously evading the regulation of any single nation  The candidate could now theoretically reach every voter in the country and sell himself over and over and over without ever being challenged.  As the modern dictatorships have demonstrated, repetition and saturation is the key: it works in commercial advertising and it works in political advertising.  Thus, one result is that the candidate is elected more on the basis of ignorance than  knowledge – look at the number of astonishingly, embarrassingly stupid people in Congress, especially the on the extreme right.

 

The second and more fatal result of the marketing storm is the enhanced power of money in our political system.  Economic power is political power, and it consequently must always find access to the political apparatus, regardless of whether it is a kingship or a democracy.  As a result, through most of history the wealthy class has been the political class, but in an age of democracies and corporations this is no longer the case.  Granted, most of the people in Congress are rich, but the real economic power in society is now in the hands of international corporations and a few unbelievably wealthy individuals.  And marketing has provided them with an easy and legal mechanism for dramatically influencing, almost to the point of controlling, the political apparatus.

for sale

for sale

It is simply impossible to launch a credible campaign for national office (or even most state offices) without a huge amount of money, inasmuch as you cannot get elected without television advertising and that is fabulously expensive.  (It is also virtually impossible to do it without representing one of the two established parties, thus helping to preserve their shared monopoly.)  It now costs a billion dollars to run for President, a billion dollars.  But there are equally fabulous sources of money out there: wealthy individuals, organizations with a cause, lobbying groups and most of all, corporations.  All these entities will have some interest in influencing the government, and there is a perfectly legal way for them to do that – campaign contributions.  Political action committees can expedite these transfers of money, and of course the recent laughable Supreme Court decision that corporations are “persons” allows the really big boys to pour in as much as they want.

 

Regarding these “contributions,” the notion is frequently expressed, generally by the recipient, that this money comes with no strings attached.  Is there actually anyone who believes this?  Successful businesses do not give away millions unless something is coming in return.  It is clear and oh so obvious bribery, and we get the best government money can buy, which is of course one not at all beholden to the people.  Our present government may seem a collection of incompetent fools, but you may rest assured that the big donors will still get their exemptions, contracts, favors and whatever.  This is the way it has worked since the beginning of civilization, and the only difference now is that the economic elites are completely vulgar.

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Hey, Vlad! We ARE Exceptional

(This piece was posted a bit more than a year ago, but given the recent comments of General Secretary Putin about American exceptionalism, it seems a good time to repost (slightly updated), especially since I needed to be out of town this last week.  The statistics remain essentially the same.)

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most recent tyrant, has in a piece in the New York Times questioned America’s claim to be “exceptional,” except perhaps in the area of being a global busybody, which has of course been entirely unexceptional behavior on the part of major powers, including Russia.  That Putin should be lecturing another nation concerning its behavior and play the part of the peacemaker and champion of free speech is of course a wonderful study in irony, brought on to a great degree by the current administration.  And he is dead wrong on the exceptionalism issue.

most buff Russian dictator ever

most buff Russian dictator ever

“American exceptionalism” has been a phrase dear to the hearts of all politicians but most especially Republicans, who, however, never bother to specify exactly what it means.  Presumably they are thinking of the America of the 19th century, when we were the only serious power with a fully functioning democracy and without any traditional class distinctions.  Ours was the society that rewarded hard work and cleverness and afforded the individual the greatest opportunity to improve his condition, regardless of his background.  Of course it was also a society that accepted a high level of individual violence and lagged behind western Europe in abolishing slavery and establishing mechanisms of social welfare, but it was nevertheless exceptional, as Tocqueville recognized.

perceptive Frenchman

perceptive Frenchman

But this is the now the 21st century and virtually all the industrial democracies display the characteristics that once made us exceptional.  Yet one can still speak, as the conservatives do, about an American exceptionalism.  The problem is that we are now exceptional in ways that one might be reluctant to brag about.

We are of course still the richest nation on earth, but we now lead the industrial democracies in income inequality, that is, our rich-poor gap is wider and becoming more so.  In roughly the last 30 years the income of the top 1% has increased by 275%, that of the next 19% by only 62%, the next 60% by 40% and the bottom 20% by a mere 18%.  We are #50 in income distribution, with 30.5% of all income going to the top 10%; Russia is the only European country below us in this category.

But we sure know what to do with all that wealth.  We are #1 in spending ($4271 per capita per year), #1 in military expenditure (but only #3 in military personnel), #1 in energy use (equivalent of 8.35 tons of oil per capita per year), #2 in coal use (1.06 million short tons per year; China edges us out, whereas #3 India uses only .339 million), #1 in carbon dioxide emissions (5.7 million metric tons per year – this is probably changing), but alas, only #2 in biggest environmental footprint (the UAE is #1).

We are #1 in per capita health care expenditure ($6096) and #1 in health care expenditure as a percentage of GDP (15.4%).  Yet, for all that money we are #44 in doctors per 1000 people (2.67; little commie Cuba is #2 with 6.4), #14 in nurses and midwives per 1000 people (9.8), #77 in hospital beds per 1000 people (3.1) and #1 in obesity (30.6% of the population) but only #49 in life expectancy (78.37 years).  And this is a health care system that does not include some 30 million citizens, unlike the total population coverage present in every other industrialized democracy.  Sure, we have the best health care system in world, as conservatives like to say – if you can afford it.

We are #37 in percentage of GDP spent on education (5.7%), but that is of course a big number in dollars.  Still, we are #12 in years of adult schooling and #18 in math literacy.  On the other hand, we are #1 in teen pregnancy (22% of all 20 year old women), so they are doing something in school.

Incidentally, most Republicans like to think of the US as a “Christian” nation, even though most of the Founding Fathers were not Christian.  Well, as the teen pregnancy indicates, some of us are not engaged in very Christian behavior.  Further, we also have the #1 divorce rate (4.95 per 1000 people) and #1 incarceration rate (715 per 1000 people; #2 Russia has 584).  In 2007 we were #7 in executions (42), up in the top ten with such enlightened countries as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Considering our firearm policies, we were only a disappointing #4 in homicides with guns, but we are certainly #1 in civilian firearms (94.3 guns per 100 people; Serbia is #2 with only 58.2 – and this is the Balkans!)  Hardly surprising, we are #1 in motor vehicle deaths (15.5 per 1000 people); the death toll from 9/11 in fact represents a slow month on America’s highways.

But I suspect most Americans are completely unaware of our new exceptionalism.  They are too busy: we are after all #1 in TV viewing (28 hours per week).

(The statistics are mostly from the last decade and from the UN via nationmaster.com.)

#1

#1

#1

#1

#1

#1

Another Lost Poem of Rudyard Kipling

(Enough of Syria and stupid politicians for a time.  The next post may be a little late since I need to leave town for a while.  Meanwhile, these satirical poems may be lost on those whose mother tongue is not English, but this is one of the things I do.

Recessional is an odd Kipling poem [look it up], musing on the fall of the British Empire at its peak of pomp and power during Queen Victoria’s Diamond jubilee in 1897. This makes it very timely for Americans.)

 

Lore of our Fathers, known of old-
The nation’s guide through all our time-
The principles by which we hold
Dominion over plain and pine-
Wisdom of old, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

The firefights and shelling dies-
The Captains and the Spooks depart-
But we return still no more wise,
Still arrogant and cold in heart.
Wisdom of old, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

 

Far-called our carriers sail away-
On dune and village falls the fire-
Lo, all our Good of yesterday
Has sunk into the corp’rate mire!
Hand of our enemies, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

 

Now drunk with sight of power we loose
Wild blows of death and shock and awe,
Such weapons as aggressors use,
And fascist states without the Law-
Wisdom of old, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

 

For brutal heart that buys and tries
The guns and shells and screaming drones –
For damning lies all built on lies,
To claim they serve but hide the bones.
For people killed and missiles hurled,
Your mercy on our nation, world!

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

King Victoria?

King Victoria?

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

Secretary of State Dumpty Speaks

          

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

                                                                        Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

 

It would appear that the Obama administration has chosen to pursue this looking-glass linguistic philosophy, and Secretary of State Kerry is clearly the Humpty Dumpty in Chief.  And while they probably are aware of the deceit that is being practiced, they certainly do not see the silliness.  Politicians have of course always needed to be careful of exactly what they say, and this is all the more a concern in an age when there are microphones and cameras everywhere.  But inasmuch as a politician has an agenda and is inclined to keep it simple for the voters (and his colleagues), this care does not lead to clear and unambiguous statements but rather distortions of the truth and ultimately outright lies.

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, politician

John Kerry, politician

 

It begins with euphemisms, which is an easy approach since Americans are accustomed to dealing in euphemisms for all sorts of things that are for some reason embarrassing, such as sex and body functions.   The most notorious, and clever, euphemism is well known: collateral damage.  This illustrates perfectly the goal of such expressions, that is, to defuse statements that are unpleasant or counterproductive by attempting to remove the accompanying imagery.  Unlike “civilian casualties,” “collateral damage” is colorless, suggesting broken windows rather than mangled bodies of women and children.

 

Less prominent but a favorite of mine is “degrade” as a substitute for destroy, blow apart or kill, as in “the Republican Guard division was degraded.”  Most listeners will not immediately imagine what that actually means: burned and dismembered bodies scattered all over the place.  “Degrading” Assad’s assets sure sounds more mellow than blowing things apart, including Syrians.  It is a pity that generals are not required to explain in precise detail what occurred or is about to occur.

a degraded unit

a degraded unit

 

We have now reached the point where euphemisms will not suffice and words are simply redefined to mean what the speaker wants them to mean.  This had already caught my attention when a car bomb parked in Times Square was described as a “weapon of mass destruction,” dramatically increasing the magnitude of the charges against the perpetrator.  Or when people who leak classified information to the press are labeled “spies,” despite the absence of any foreign power, which I had thought integral to the definition of espionage.  Also, when did every inquiry about future developments (e.g., if x happens what will you do) become a “hypothetical” and thus not worthy of an answer?

 

Well, Secretary Dumpty has now raised the bar extremely high, asserting that bombing Syria would not constitute a “war” because no American troops would enter the country.  Indeed?  For millennia humans have defined war as doing violence to another tribe or state, whether it was undertaken with spears or cruise missiles.  Certainly, virtually all Americans, including Kerry and his friends, would consider it an act of war if someone bombed this country, and because of such an attack we went so far as to declare war essentially against an idea, terrorism.  According to Secretary Kerry the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not constitute an act of war since there were no Japanese “boots on the ground.”

 

This is all blatant misuse of the language in the service of dissembling, but no one really cares.  The military is after all simply using technical terms, which they do all the time, and people, I suspect, now think first of collateral damage rather than civilian casualties.  For the most part, however, Americans do not care because all but the stupidest no longer believe anything politicians say.  Besides, the citizen who agrees with the policy will be quick to embrace the Humpty Dumpty philosophy.