Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More Vindictiveness at "The Point"

Apologies for the hiatus in posts. I was out of town for a conference and then deluged with the usual midsem flood of papers and exams to grade. Things have returned to something like normality, and thus the return of the Counterpoint.

In some ways, it’s been a good week or two to have had off. Mark Hyman has had a string of rather trivial commentaries. We had the two part plea for more money for dialysis patients—
a repeat of a topic Hyman took up earlier this year as well. Hyman’s preoccupation with this specific topic suggests he has a loved-one or friend facing kidney illness, and that’s unfortunate. In fact, I agree that treatment for kidney ailments should be more widely available and more affordable. The problem I have is that Hyman is so selective in his pleas for medical care. He suggests it’s a moral imperative to help those with kidney disease, but the idea that the government should provide more comprehensive medical support for people generally is anathema to him. Yes, Mark, let’s help those facing astronomical dialysis bills, but let’s also work for those people needing expensive treatments for heart ailments, cancer, spinal cord damage, AIDS, etc.

We have another round of blaming Louisiana for Katrina, without a mention of the fact that the president placed an incompetent with no discernable job experience at the top of FEMA. We also get a rousing birthday tribute to the navy and its traditions (which, as Winston Churchill reminded us, consist of rum, sodomy, and the lash).

We’re also told that a government agency that gives out a paltry $150 million in corporate research grants to companies is a source of government waste and corporate welfare, while Hyman says nothing about the billions upon billions corporations rack up in government welfare via undeserved tax breaks. Could this have anything to do with the fact that most of the companies that receive the small pittance of government research grants happen to be located In the blue (and research-intensive) states such as California, New York, and Massachusetts? I’m just wondering.

But one Point commentary deserves a dishonorable mention for its dishonesty. In
one of his recent editorials, Hyman attacks John Kerry because one of Kerry’s spokesmen used the term “serial liars” in referring to a group of Vietnam Veterans, a group that includes Medal of Honor winners and former POWs Bud Day and Leo Thorsness. Hyman characterizes this as an unprovoked attack on wizened American heroes by a bitter and vindictive loser:

This is the latest attack in a battle that has continued since last year. A
lawsuit has been filed against Day's Vietnam veterans group. Swept up into this
are people such as Mary Jane McManus, a tireless advocate for POWs, whose own
husband was held as prisoner for nearly six years.
Just how vindictive is
John Kerry in blaming 70- and 80-year old POWs who suffered so tragically 35
years ago for his election defeat? Or is he trying to silence them for another
presidential run?

Yes, that old vindictive John Kerry is just going after these poor old American heroes out of spite and bitterness, right?

Well, no. In fact, Hyman has (as usual) turned everything upside down. The “serial liars” statement was referring not to Day and Thorness specifically, but to a larger group they belong to—the right-wing conservatives behind the propaganda piece “Stolen Honor.”

Okay, but that’s still pretty vindictive. I mean, that all happened over a year ago. It’s pretty sad for Kerry’s folks to be dragging that out again at such a late date.

Except it’s not Kerry or any of his staff that brought it up. The “serial liars” comment was made in response to a lawsuit filed by Carlton Sherwood, the filmmaker behind “Stolen Honor” against John Kerry. Wherefore the lawsuit? Because Sherwood says that Kerry and his staff “defamed” him by referring to him as “an extreme right-wing activist.” (The problem with suing somebody for defamation is that you have to prove that what they said was false, which will be pretty tough for Sherwood, given his partisan background.)

That’s right—it’s the “Stolen Honor” crowd that are still bitter and vindictive about what happened over a year ago. Hyman intentionally leaves out this important fact because this lie of omission makes it seem as if Kerry is suddenly lashing out without being provoked. Why let the truth get in the way of a good ad hominem attack?

But Sherwood is not alone in his suit. He is being helped out by a recently formed group called Vietnam Veterans Legacy Foundation, a group that includes (guess who) Day and Thorsness as well as Mary Jane McManus, the woman whom Hyman refers to as being “swept into all this.” In fact, McManus has been speaking out publicly in support of her group’s lawsuit against Kerry. Hyman wants you to see her as simply a loyal wife of a veteran, caught up in the maelstrom of controversy unleashed by the bitter John Kerry, but she’s an active participant in the events Hyman says she’s been “swept up in.”

Which is fine, but it should also be noted that VVLF is hardly an apolitical group supporting all veterans. It’s a front for a legal defense fund that is made up of die-hard right wingers (including Day) to fund Sherwood’s legal shenanigans.
This is all bad enough, but Hyman fails to mention the connection of his own company to the “Stolen Honor” fiasco. The precipitating event in all of this was
“Sinclairgate,” the decision by Sinclair to air “Stolen Honor” as a news segment days before the election.

As is all too typical, Hyman fails one of the most basic ethical tests of a commentator or journalist by not mentioning his own company’s role in the events he’s discussing. In fact,
Hyman himself was on national television in October of 2004 denying that the group behind “Stolen Honor” was the same group as the discredited Swift Boat Veterans for Truth [sic] when the two groups had officially announced their merger a month earlier.

Yet another bit of hypocrisy is the fact that Sinclair is championing Sherwood’s suit, given the amount of time Hyman spends attacking “trial lawyers.” But as we know, conservatives are only against trial lawyers when they represent customers or employees of large conglomerates. They have no qualms about turning around and using the legal system to file frivolous lawsuits to harass those who speak their minds.

Not only is this the case with the Sherwood lawsuit, but Sinclair’s own attempts to intimidate and punish their former star reporter, Jon Lieberman, who had the temerity to object to his company’s airing of propaganda as news and got fired for his efforts. Not content to merely fire Lieberman, the head honchos at Sinclair are piling on a year after the fact
with a lawsuit against Lieberman.

Remind us again, Mark: who’s being vindictive?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 6.08 (Wow! That’s many times the Recommended Daily Allowance of propaganda in just one editorial!)

Monday, October 10, 2005

Where Are Hyman's Wooden Shoes?

Mark Hyman just doesn’t get it.

his most recent commentary, Hyman tells us that high gas prices aren’t really hurting consumers.

Is that right, Mark?

According to Hyman’s arithmetic, the average consumer is paying an average of $45 a month more for gas now than they were a year ago. This, argues Hyman, is a trivial amount to all but those at the “lower end of the economic ladder,” and that even for these people it’s not much of an issue since “much of that group does not own personal vehicles.”

The first problem is that Hyman is simply making things up. Of households earning between $10,000 and $25,000 annually,
88% owned at least one car. In fact, more than half of households making less than $10,000 a year owned at least one car.

Where do I get these statistics? The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Where does Hyman get his statistics? To paraphrase Al Franken, he gets them from the Bureau of Hyman’s Butt.

But why do low-income families own cars? Isn’t this just an example of the poor spending priorities of the nation’s low-wage workers?

Hardly. In fact,
car ownership is often essential to finding and maintaining a job. If those “on the lower end of the economic ladder” want to have any chance of moving up a rung or two, having the access to employment that a car provides is a necessity, not a luxury.

The result is that the poorer you are, the
more of your income goes for transportation expenses. Higher gas prices hit the poor and working class disproportionately. Sure, Hyman probably doesn’t notice any major hit in his family budgeting as he zips around the Baltimore suburbs in his SUV, but the working mother who has to drive to her $8 an hour job certainly does. For her, $45 a month might be the difference between having health insurance for her kids or not.

But there are still more flaws in Hyman’s figures. Hyman’s $45-a-month number is based on the difference in expenditures per car, not per household. With two working parents being the norm, these days, having two cars is also a near necessity for many families, even among the working poor.
In 1992, the average household with an income between $10,000 and $25,000 owned 1.5 vehicles. There’s little reason to think this ratio has gone down since then; in fact, it’s almost certainly gone up. But let’s stick with the 1.5 figure. That means that, per household, the difference between $2 a gallon and $3 a gallon comes out to be $67.50.

If you’re at the median income for American households, you own right around 2.0 cars. That means your monthly increase is $90 a month. That’s nearly $1100 a year, which is real money to most Americans. That’s $1100 that’s not being spent on consumer goods, invested in retirement savings, salted away for children’s college education, put toward the down payment on a home, or used for any other useful purpose. It’s just going out the tailpipe of our cars.

And remember that Hyman touted the Bush tax cuts as setting the American economy “on fire” (a metaphor that only works if you cast Bush in the role of Nero). But the 2001-2003 tax cuts that Hyman trumpeted only gave the middle 20% of American households
$980 back per year. For those in the bottom 20%, the tax break was a mere $230 per year.

So, the increase in consumer costs for gasoline that Hyman dismisses as trivial swamp the amount of the tax cuts Hyman has championed for so long.

Of course, intellectual consistency is irrelevant to Hyman who, like the little Dutch boy, is trying to put his finger in one of the many holes in the Bush administration’s dike.

But he’s still all wet.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.45

Friday, October 07, 2005

Hyman Has the Right to Remain Silent . . . and Should

Is Mark Hyman sure he wants to go there?

In his most recent commentary, Hyman goes after
philanthropist George Soros, focusing almost exclusively on a civil lawsuit Soros settled out of court involving a man who claimed to have been attacked by Soros’ son’s dog.

No, Hyman doesn’t say why he’s attacking Soros (he gives money to Democrats). No, Hyman doesn’t say why Soros’ son’s dog biting someone says anything about Soros himself (nothing). No, Hyman doesn’t say why anyone should care about any of this (they shouldn’t).

This is classic Hyman: throwing mud at someone whose politics he disagrees, not being honest about his motivations, and wasting viewers’ time and airwaves to carry out his personal attacks.

Given the folks Hyman usually jabbers in support of, I don’t think it’s wise to make family legal difficulties a measure of political decency or ideological correctness. We don’t even need to venture into shadiness of folks like Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, or Karl Rove; the Bush family itself provides enough criminality to provide a season’s worth of plots for Law and Order.

There are, of course,
the notorious Bush twins, who carouse while their father sends other young men and women their age to die in Iraq.

the president himself, who has had his share of run-ins with the law, despite the countless strings that have been pulled for him by his father.

There are
the Bush brothers as a group, whose collective resume is a collection of influence peddling, shady business deals, and cashing in on the family name, all while showing virtually no evidence of talent in any area of respectable endeavor.

second generation of Bush children are no better, with Jeb’s kids alone racking up impressive rap sheets.

Does this mean George W. Bush is a bad president or his policies immoral? No. There’s plenty of direct evidence that confirm these facts. I offer this litany of Bush family malfeasance simply as a shot across Hyman’s bow that if he wants to make court appearances the measure of political indecency, the wind’s in his face.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 4.20

Faux Finances II and III Redux

As noted in our previous post, Mark Hyman's recent series of commentaries simply regurgitates points he made in April of this year. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I am reproducing my original responses to this series. The following are Parts II and III of the three-part series.

Faux Finances Parts II and III

Mark Hyman’s idea of letting congressional budget committees write budgets that have the force of law is problematic. Of course, it was problematic back when Congress actually voted on this idea five years ago (and rejected it overwhelmingly by a count of 250 to 166).

Knowing how strongly he feels about plagiarism, I hate to even suggest that Hyman is recycling ideas without giving credit to those who came up with them, but his ideas of making the budget into law and requiring a 2/3 majority to change it are old ideas. At least as far back as 1997, Republican Christopher Cox of California has advocated just such a system. During the 106th Congress, a bill largely based on his ideas was debated and voted on, going down to a bipartisan defeat.

More important than Hyman borrowing Cox’s ideas are the reasons why these ideas are suspect. No one loves the way the budgeting process works now, but that doesn’t mean that any changes in it are by definition good. Supporters of a Cox-type budgeting scheme suggest that by making the budget a law that outlines broad spending priorities, it will make it easier to reach consensus between the president and Congress early in the budgeting process. They also suggest that it will make the risk of government shutdowns a thing of the past because if an agreement isn’t reached, spending limits from the previous year will kick in.

That’s hunky-dory as long as the president and the Congress are more or less on the same page to begin with. But that’s often not the case. Currently, the threat of government shutdown forces the major players to come up with at least stop-gap compromises to keep things going. Under the Cox plan, there would be no such motivation, and if an impasse was reached, last years spending limits go into effect.

The most obvious problem with this is that the needs of the nation change from year to year. Spending the same amount on the same things year after year (should a compromise budget not be reached) is fiscally idiotic. What would have happened (for example) had Congress and the president not reached an agreement on a budget in 2002 and spending on domestic security ended up being locked in at 2001 (i.e., pre-9/11) levels?

Proponents will say, “Oh, well that’s what the 2/3 majority vote would be for—it would allow for emergency changes in spending.” But while Hyman champions the idea of a 2/3 majority required to change budgeting levels as a goad to greater bipartisanship, it effectively allows a minority the chance to hold the budget hostage. If 1/3 (+1) of the members of either the House or Senate decided they didn’t want any additions made to the budget, that would be it.

And that’s ultimately why those who support this version of the budget-as-law come primarily from the ranks of the right-wing. The underlying motivation is that it would be fine and dandy with most of these folks to have a budget impasse every year, one that would automatically revert spending to the level of the year before. This would result in de facto cuts in all government programs. Education, health care, Social Security . . . all of it gets cut without anyone actually having to go on record as voting against these things. It’s a way for arch-conservatives to achieve their ends without having to actually fight an intellectually honest battle (which they would certainly lose).

In the meantime, I’m off to the campus coffee shop to get my latte.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

For more on the problems with this type of budgeting approach, see this article by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Faux Finances Redux

One wouldn't have guessed that a member of the radical right would be as big of a fan of recycling as Hyman appears to be.

In a recent series of of commentaries, Hyman repeats nearly the exactly the same argument he made just a few months ago (April of 2005) about the need for a budget "law" that would require a 2/3 majority to change spending limits.

As we pointed out at the time, Hyman's story (one of an "out of control" Congress that is spending us into deficit and needs the paternal hand of the executive to control it) is one that is meant to sound like good ol' fashioned common sense, when in fact it is a radical redistribution of powers between the legislative and the executive branches and a direct assault on the role of government. It is, to borrow Grover Norquist's disturbing metaphor, an attempt to "shrink government down so that the radical right can "drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Such a move is contrary both to the Constitution and to the desires of an overwhelming number of Americans.

Since Hyman has chosen to simply repeat an earlier argument, I'll include my original response to the first commentary he did on the subject below. In my next post, I'll include Parts II and III of my rebuttal of Hyman's paean to the wonders of budgetary law and the supermajority.

Faux Finances [Originally posted Sunday, April 24, 2005]

In his first of a promised (threatened?) several part series on his cures for the financial woes of the country,
Mark Hyman suggests entitlements such as Social Security shouldn’t be “off budget” and that pork should be slashed.

A couple of brief notes here: first,
Social Security’s “off budget” status is a bit hazy to begin with. Whether it is or isn’t depends in large measure on whom you ask and in what context. To the extent that it is off-budget, it is to protect the program’s funding. Bring Social Security back on budget and suddenly it becomes easier to cut it.

Unless, of course, you go the opposite way. Some Republicans want to put the possible $2 trillion costs of moving to a privatization scheme “off budget” because that’s the only way they can hide the debt-swelling costs of the program.

Both for the Hyman’s of the world who want Social Security more vulnerable to congressional whim and those who want to camouflage the privatization of the system by putting these costs “off budget,” the goal is the same: to gut the system as it is currently practiced. Social Security is one of the most productive and useful governmental programs ever created, keeping countless millions of elderly out of poverty. For right-wing conservatives, however, it’s simply an entitlement, and that means it should be starved of cash until it withers and dies. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric of “saving” Social Security.

And as long as we’re talking about putting things “on budget” so they can be accounted for accurately, we wonder what Hyman has to say about the
$100 billion “emergency” funding in the last year of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the president exempts from his budgets. Shouldn’t such expenses be counted as well? Hyman doesn’t say.

Speaking of Iraq, Hyman bemoans the pork barrel spending that he says has added up to $25 billion in the last year. True, this figure is tiny in comparison with the overall budget. Also true is the fact that governmental
spending has risen under Bush and a Republican Congress, not gone down. But let’s grant that pork should be cut. What about money that just goes missing, however? According to recent audits, around $9 billion dollars, more than a third of the total pork barrel spending Hyman gnashes his teeth about, has simply vanished in Iraq with nothing to show for it.

Perhaps we might start getting our financial house in order by being a bit more honest and careful about how we spend our money in other countries.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Foolish Consistency

Mark Hyman has finally conceded defeat in the debate over the war in Iraq. No, he hasn’t admitted that he or the Bush administration was wrong to go to war—not in so many words. But he might as well have, given his most recent defense of the war.

Reaching the absolute bottom of the philosophical barrel when it comes to rationalizations for the war, Hyman’s argument is simply that since we started the war, we should keep at it. It is, Hyman suggests, the only American thing to do.

Likening the war in Iraq with World War I, World War II, and the battles against cancer and AIDS, Hyman says Americans are “known for committing to causes and seeing them to successful outcomes” and therefore we need to keep the war up in Iraq because “our heritage demands we follow through and see our tasks to successful completion.”

So it’s come to this, has it Mark?

Let’s table for now the fallacious parallels between the causes Hyman mentions and the war in Iraq. I’d like to focus on the presumption that our “heritage” demands that we not abandon a cause.

Perhaps Americans are known for their determination to see things through, but we also have a collective heritage of recognizing and correcting egregious ethical, moral, and practical mistakes (albeit often much later than would have been ideal). Here are just a handful of causes that Americans have embraced in the past that we’ve abandoned, and for good reason:

hanging women for witchcraft
male-only voting
child labor
the systematic murder of Native Americans (although this was mainly abandoned because it was all but completed)
government sponsored segregation
the war in Vietnam
arming and supporting Saddam Hussein
arming and supporting Osama bin Laden
arming and supporting the Taliban

The list could go on and on.

Needless to say, many of these causes were abandoned only when the issue was forced, but the larger issue is that a couple of other qualities Americans pride themselves on in addition to stick-to-it-ivness are a sense of decency and a sense of pragmatism. These have both gone a long way in halting and undoing some of our more colossal collective blunders. We don’t think of ourselves as a people who continue to do something simply because “that’s the way it’s done.” We like to think that we learn from our mistakes and don’t continue to do things that are both dumb and wrong.

The war in Iraq is both dumb and wrong, and for many of the same reasons the war in Vietnam was dumb and wrong. Take for example Hyman’s assertion that we need to “follow through” with the war to attain a “free Iraq.” Free to do what? From the beginning, I’ve always found it incredible that the Bush administration has simultaneously invoked “democracy” and “self-determination” as ideals we are bringing to the Iraqi people. But these are not synonymous. What if what most Iraqis want is a theocracy? What if what most Iraqis want is a legal system based on a strict interpretation of the Koran? What if what most Iraqis want is to ally themselves with Iran? What if most Iraqis want a highly nationalistic economy that doesn’t do business with (e.g., sell oil to) non-Muslim countries? What if what most Iraqis want is to systematically oppress their Kurdish population? Are we only bringing “self-determination” and “freedom” to the Iraqis to the extent that these conform to the desires of the United States?

Once upon a time, I thought that, as much as I was against getting into the war to begin with, once we had put more than 100,000 troops on the ground, we needed to stay in Iraq until the country created a self-sustaining, stable government (even if that meant being there for decades).

It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that the American presence is something that will always stand in the way of Iraq (or whatever combination of states emerges from it) becoming its own country. At this point, American forces are playing the role of a socio-political anti-coagulant, preventing any real healing from happening.

Of course, the risk (and it’s actually a likelihood, in my opinion) is that the removal of American forces will cause the country to fall into a civil war once the artificial stability (such as it is) imposed by the military presence in Iraq is gone. And if that indeed happens, we will collectively bear the moral responsibility for creating the mess.

But the only chance Iraq has to create itself anew is if we allow them to do it without our interference. As long as we’re their, we’ll continue to have this low-grade fever of a conflict going on ad infinitum, with innocent Iraqis paying the heaviest price.

It’s not a terribly hopeful scenario any way you look at it, but the argument that we need to keep sacrificing American lives in a pig-headed attempt to “see things through” is the height of idiocy (particularly when there’s quite a bit of evidence that this continual sacrifice is actually counterproductive to our stated goals). The fact that Hyman trots out this argument speaks to the absolute philosophical and moral bankruptcy of the pro-war position.

Rather than get led along by those who tell us it’s “un-American” to do anything other than continue to send young people to kill and die half a world away, let’s listen to the very American voices from our past that remind us that it is no sin to acknowledge a mistake, and it is often both the practical and ethical thing to do to remedy an error once it’s obvious (or to at least cease continuing to make the mistake).

Hyman suggests that to not “follow through” in Iraq is to be inconsistent in some way that is un-American.

But let’s remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great voice of the American way of looking at things, who said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.57

Hyman Hypocrisy

Just a brief note about one of the supposed hypocrisies Hyman featured on his recent “Short Takes” segment: Hyman claims the New York Times is hypocritical because its editorial page has come out against the practice of allowing one company to own two television stations in the same market (a practice made possible by the dismantling of existing regulations and which has benefited Sinclair Broadcasting mightily.

What Hyman fails to mention is that the New York Times’ editorial page is not the tool of the New York Times Company, the corporate entity that owns the Times and many other media outlets. While the owning of two stations in the same market is a bad thing, it’s unfair to criticize the New York Times editorial page for disagreeing with its corporate leaders. This is actually a sign of a (relatively) healthy relationship between the corporate ownership of a journalistic enterprise and the journalists themselves.

It’s the specter of corporate masters forcing their journalists to toe the company line in their reporting that is one of the central risks of media consolidation. Thus far, at least, the New York Times has the independence to take its own editorial positions, regardless of the attitudes of its corporate leaders.

To be fair to Hyman, it’s unrealistic to expect someone like him to understand this, given the corporate climate in which he works (and which, in fact, is responsible for his existence as a public figure). For Sinclair, the idea of separation between journalistic practice and corporate goals is anathema.

Speaking of Sinclair’s lack of sound journalistic practice, I can’t help but notice that Hyman commits an all-too-familiar breach of basic journalistic ethics in his commentary. Whenever a reputable journalistic outlet does a story or editorial that touches on their own business practices, even tangentially, they are ethically obliged to make note of this for their audience, so that they can decide for themselves how much stock to put into a story or commentary that has the potential to be self serving.

What does this have to do with Mr. Hyman? The market in which the New York Times Company now owns two television stations is Oklahoma City. Now, take a wild guess at
what company owns both of the stations that are directly competing with those of the Times Company.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Cost of the War in Iraq
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