Friday, September 30, 2005

Sinclair's "Fightin' Hyman" Strikes Again

In Mark Hyman’s most recent commentary, we’ve got a perfect example of how, independent of his specific views on a given issue, Hyman’s rhetoric trivializes and corrodes legitimate debate in the public sphere.

The topic du jour is the NCAA ban on Native American mascots. This is a subject that, as narrow as it might seem, leads to some interesting and important conversations about race, democracy, history, and the role of symbols in society. There are good points to be made by voices all along the spectrum of the issue, from those who say mascots are harmless cartoonish figures that shouldn’t be taken seriously, to those who think any ethnic term has no place in the pantheon of team or organizational mascots.

But Hyman doesn’t make a serious argument. Instead, he presents a laundry list of other phrases that he feels are parallel to collegiate mascot names that he thinks would have to be done away with as well. He sarcastically suggests that bans should be placed on phrases such as “Danish pastry,” “Scotch whisky,” and “Swiss army knife,” should be done away with, given the logic of the NCAA.

This is both not terribly clever and utterly irrelevant to the discussion. Humor can be a useful persuasive tool, even when discussing the most serious of issues, but it must be on target to work.

The problem is that Hyman’s analogies aren’t valid. The thinking behind the mascot ban is that it’s demeaning to use ethnic terms as mascots—a category of images that is primarily made up of animals and almost always relies on caricatures. The word “mascot” itself comes from a French slang term for “witch,” and has traditionally been associated with fantastic or imaginary creatures. It’s not surprising that some would find the use of their ethnic heritage in this way off-putting.

On the other hand, most of Hyman’s examples don’t use race or nationality this way. They are simply labels to distinguish certain objects from a larger class of items (e.g., “Polish sausage” from the more general “sausage”), and this distinguishing is based primarily on the actual origin of the item.

[Parenthetically, I can’t avoid mentioning one of the more moronic of Hyman’s examples: French’s mustard. Hyman acknowledges that in this case “French” is a family name, not a reference to the country, “but yellow is so descriptive of French foreign policy that it's still outta here.” That’s right Mark: a country that didn’t support a unilateral invasion of a country based on false evidence of WMDs must have only done so out of collective cowardice. You can say what you want about the French, but if martial prowess and sacrifice are some measure of national character (and I don’t necessarily think they are, although Hyman apparently does), let’s remember that France was instrumental in defeating the British in the American Revolution, produced the greatest military mind in the last 2000 years,
suffered more than 5.6 million casualties (including more than 1.3 million killed) in World War I (nearly 20 times U.S. losses), and lost more than four times as many of its citizens on a per capita basis than the U.S. did in World War II.]

Of course, there are a number of valid parallels one could draw to the use of Native American names and images used as mascots. The Fighting Irish, the Saints, the Angels, the Padres, the Rebels—all of these could be offensive to certain groups.

But these groups, for the most part, don’t seem to be terribly offended by these nicknames, and that’s ultimately the point: if a significant number of people feel offended by the use of an ethnic identity as a mascot, then they feel offended, and the niceties of logic aside, changing the nickname would be the decent thing to do. True, if only a handful of people protest a particular mascot, that shouldn’t necessarily cause a team or school to change mascots. But when it’s clear that thousands and thousands of people feel disparaged by a nickname (such as the use of “Redskins”), why not change it?

It’s hardly an unprecedented thing to change a mascot because it sends a negative message. Several years ago, the NBA team based in Washington D.C. changed its name from the “Bullets” to the “Wizards” because the organization felt its original nickname was inappropriate for a city that was struggling with high rates of violent crime.

This isn’t to say that the NCAA’s ruling wasn’t a bit arbitrary and indiscriminate. As I say, there’s plenty of decent arguments to be made supporting other points of view. As for myself, I think the common sense of decency rule is a fine way to go: if a sizable number of people say they feel demeaned by a particular mascot, why not change it to something more innocuous? I don’t know that we need iron clad, philosophical rules to determine the question. Common sense will serve us well.

But we won’t find it from Hyman, who manages to be unfunny, disrespectful, and completely irrelevant in a single commentary. It’s a Hyman hat trick!

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.08 [Technically, each of his invalid comparisons could count as a separate use of a propaganda technique, but I’ll be generous and only count these as one collective use of invalid comparisons. Add this to the name-calling (“yellow” French) and slippery slope (“soon everything will be plain-wrapper…” ) and you still have a healthy Hyman Index reading.]

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hyman's Voodoo Economics

Hyman touts recent Census Bureau figures as proof of strong personal finances. A few more years of this type of “vibrant” economy, and we’ll be in real trouble.

There are a number of ways Hyman mischaracterizes the statistics to suggest that the nation’s economic performance under Bush has been good. As nearly every economic indicator shows, however,
things have gone downhill since Bush took up residence at the White House.

Hyman reports that real median income in 2004 kept pace with consumer costs, and that the figures show that real median income “began to fall in early 1999” and didn’t level off until 2002 “the first year that tax relief took effect.”

This is, to put it kindly, nonsense. In fact, real median household income, after falling under Bush I,
grew steadily under Bill Clinton, experiencing an unprecedented five straight years of statistically significant improvement. Hyman claims real median income began to drop in 1999, but the Census Bureau itself (Hyman’s source) contradicts this. In fact, real median income maintained its record high through 2000. Only after George W. Bush took office did it begin falling. After going down for two straight years, it has remained stagnant in 2003 and 2004. For Hyman, this is cause to celebrate, but after the consistent yearly gains during the Clinton administration, it seems a bit pathetic to be breaking out the party hats because we’re not getting poorer every year.

Hyman says that several different ethnic groups experienced no gain in poverty, or slight reductions. What he doesn’t tell you is that over the course of the last year, poverty
has increased in the United States overall, just as it has every year during the Bush administration. What about the Clinton years? Poverty went down every year between 1993 and 2000.

Hyman also is excited about the fact that a mere 15.7 percent of Americans lack healthcare insurance, an “an improvement over the 20-year peak in 1998 when 16.3% didn't have health insurance.” What Hyman doesn’t tell you is that after 1998, the
percent of uninsured fell dramatically, to 14.2% in 2000. In other words, the number of uninsured has gone up 1.5% under Bush. In just the last year, according to the Census bureau, the number of uninsured Americans rose by 800,000, to a total of 45.8%. And what’s also left unsaid is that had the Republicans not scuttled the Clinton healthcare plan in the early 1990s, the percentage of uninsured would be effectively 0%.

Hyman attributes the “good news” to “pro growth” policies that have helped “overcome the 2000 recession and 2001 terrorist attacks.” But Hyman is lying about when the recession started. Again, according to the Census Bureau itself, the recession started in March of 2001. As for the 9/11 attacks,
a Congressional report a year later suggested that the economic effects were relatively small and short-lived.

So, over the course of the Bush administration, we’ve had a rise in poverty, a rise in the percentage of uninsured Americans, and a fall in real median income—and Hyman is trumpeting the news from the rooftops.

Sort of makes you wonder where he learned to do math, doesn’t it?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 5.23

Cowardly Commentary

Mark Hyman rolls out the “hate the troops” rhetoric for another go around, but there’s an increasing sense of desperation behind both Hyman’s rhetoric and the shenanigans in Congress that inspired his most recent commentary.

Hyman lambastes six Democratic members of the House of Representatives for their “repugnant” views (looks like someone got a thesaurus for his birthday!) that show they “don’t support our service men and women.”

What did these Representatives do to sell our troops out? Did they vote to not supply our troops with body armor or up-armored Humvees? Did they vote to institute “stop loss” programs that force soldiers who are entitled to come home to continue risking their lives? Did they vote to not send in enough troops to secure Iraq from insurgents? Did they vote to give contracts for rebuilding Iraq to private companies with whom they had personal ties and who have squandered millions upon millions of dollars? Did they vote to send American servicemen and women into harm’s way based on trumped up evidence?

Nope. Those are all things the Bush administration did, and apparently Hyman has no problem with any of these actions, since he hasn’t devoted a single word to criticizing them.

Instead, Hyman implies these Representatives are traitorous because they voted against
House Resolution 427.

HR 427 is the most recent example of “ideological pork barrel” legislation: you put together a bill that just about everyone would be happy to vote for, but you slip in some self-interested language that forces people to tacitly agree with you, or risk looking like obstructionists.

The resolution was passed just before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and was nominally an effort to acknowledge the losses of those whose loved ones perished that day. It also is intended as a vote of confidence for the troops in Iraq. So far, so good. But in doing this, the resolution uses language that is designed to (yet again) conflate the events of 9/11 with the ongoing war in Iraq through the amorphous term “Global War on Terrorism.”

Representative Fortney Stark of California, one of the six slandered by Hyman, put it eloquently in his speech on the House floor:

I cannot vote for a resolution supporting a "global war on
terrorism" because there is no such thing. The only war the United States is
engaged in is the misguided Iraq War. To support a resolution simply so
President Bush can continue to carry out actions in the name of this false
global war of terrorism only encourages this Administration to lead this country
into additional unnecessary military actions.
Instead of honoring the
victims of 9/11 and their families, this resolution only encourages the
President to sacrifice more American lives for wars that have nothing to do with
terrorism or the events of that tragic day.
When the House leadership
presents a resolution that truly honors the victims of 9/11, I will vote for it.
Until that happens, I urge my fellow Members of Congress to vote against this
resolution and others that endorse President Bush's misguided foreign policies.

It would have been easy enough to simply put forward a resolution honoring the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families. It would have been just as easy to draft a resolution that voices support for the troops in the field without tainting this support with the disagreements over how and why they got there. But this would have been far too civilized and decent for Rep. Henry Hyde and the other Republicans behind this cynical resolution. Instead of honoring the victims of 9/11 and honoring the troops, Hyde & Co. abuse the respect the nation has for these people by using it for pork barrel politics, using the cowardly tactic of hiding behind those who have fought and fallen rather than arguing openly and cleanly for the policies they support.

And Hyman does exactly the same thing. By using the troops as ideological cannon fodder, Hyman dishonors them and disgraces himself.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.01

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

You Reap What You Sow

A mere four weeks after Katrina made landfall in the Gulf, Mark Hyman has something to say about it, but it all sounds eerily familiar.

That’s because Hyman has fallen into lock step with the Bush administration and its supporters, placing the blame for the lackadaisical response to the disaster on the government—local and state government, that is.

Spending an entire commentary ripping on the mayor of New Orleans for his alleged role in the human disaster that followed the natural one, Hyman does not even mention President Bush or any aspect of the federal government. Instead, he repeats the falsehood that there were dozens and dozens of school buses that Mayor Nagin could have used to evacuate citizens but didn’t, and claims that evacuation protocols were not followed by either the state or local governments.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the poor response to Katrina. The point is not that there aren’t valid charges to lay at the feet of state and local governments; the issue is that the federal government must also own up to its responsibility. Even conservative commentators have had to
acknowledge the weakness of the federal response (well, except our Mark, of course).

For example, when the president of the United States puts a friend of a friend at the top of FEMA, a man whose claim to fame was running horse shows (and not very well, apparently), that’s an abuse of power that must be owned up to and remedied. Yet Michael Brown is inexplicably
still on the federal payroll, helping a Republican-dominated Congressional committee dig into what went wrong. Well, I suppose he would know, wouldn’t he?

But as NPR’s
Daniel Schorr correctly notes in a recent commentary, this is a problem that goes beyond “Brownie.” It’s the result of having leaders who have contempt for the very government they lead. Why should we expect someone like Bush to do anything other than hand out federal jobs to buddies? If the government can’t or shouldn’t do anything, incompetence is actually a desirable quality in a job applicant.

But Bush, aided by yes-men both inside and outside of Washington, continues to demonstrate his personal psycho-pathology that precludes him from admitting a mistake.

Another thing
Bush isn’t good at is getting the American people to make sacrifices. As any number of commentators have noted, Bush never once asked Americans to make any sort of sacrifice at all in the wake of 9/11 (except to bite the bullet and shop more). And although it was reported that Bush had called on Americans to become more energy conscious and frugal when it comes to gasoline in the wake of Katrina and Rita, an actual reading of the president’s remarks reveals something quite different.

He begins to barely suggest that Americans might want to think about carpooling and not taking non-essential trips, when he suddenly jerks back into anti-government rhetoric by saying that it’s really the federal government employees who should be taking these measures (as if getting the secretarial pool at HUD to share rides to the office would actually accomplish anything).

It’s as if Bush has a cognitive blockage that prevents him from asking Americans to not use so much gasoline; when he looks like he’s about to, back comes the dopey rhetoric that suggests if we could just cut enough “pork” from the federal government, everyone’s problems will be solved.

Some suggest that Bush, while bearing some responsibility, is bearing an unfair amount of the public’s anger—that his symbolic role as leader of the nation is causing people to tie him to the events in the Gulf in ways that aren’t fully justified.

Well, he who lives by the symbol dies by the symbol. His is a presidency that is based on symbolic transfer of emotions. Had 9/11 not happened, would Bush have been awarded the mantle of a valiant leader (which he was almost immediately, in an understandable sense of patriotism and loyalty right after the attacks)? There was precious little Bush did to deserve such accolades, but he accepted them and ran.

Ran all the way to Iraq—a country invaded only because of the ability of the Bush administration to symbolically associate Saddam Hussein with 9/11. Even when such ties were shown to be demonstrably untrue, and when none of the dreaded (and promised) WMDs were discovered, the Bush administration has continued to use rhetoric that is intended to transfer fear and anger about terrorist attacks to the war in Iraq.

Bush owes his second term and the original (and, thankfully, eroded) support of the American people for his war of choice in the Middle East to the symbolic transfer of emotions to his cause without any facts to support the beliefs that go along with them. That
Bush’s incredible shrinking presidency is due in part to the symbolic association of catastrophes with his administration’s poor leadership is hardly unfair, “for they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind." ~ Hosea 8:7.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.65


I want to thank Broadcasting and Cable, a leading television industry journal, for the nice write up they did in their most recent issue of Iowans for Better Local Television, a group I had the honor to be a part of while in Iowa City, and with whom I still keep in touch.

The focus of the piece is on IBLTV’s efforts to challenge the license of the local Sinclair-owned station, and the piece mentions The Counterpoint blog in the context of the events that led to the forming of IBLTV.

I know this will come as a shock, but when Allison Romano, the author of the article, tried to contact Mark Hyman to get a comment from him, he never returned her call.


Sunday, September 25, 2005

Mark "Kettles" Hyman Trades in More Race Baiting

In '>his latest commentary, Mark Hyman has the gumption to camouflage his racist rhetoric with the words of a Founding Father—a morally criminal act, to be sure, but perhaps one our Mark can’t help, given the possible genetic influences that might be at work. (Click on the link at the end of this post to see what I’m alluding to).

Hyman alludes to an essay by Benjamin Franklin in which he sarcastically suggested that in return for Britain sending convicted criminals to the American colonies, America should send rattlesnakes to inhabit London parks. After summing up Franklin’s essay, we get a bizarre rhetorical turn:


The U.S. has a gigantic immigration problem today. Legal immigrants
are and should be welcome in America. The problem is the mind-staggering number
of illegal aliens who enter this country daily. What we need is a Ben Franklin
in charge who probably wouldn't hesitate in sending a few crates of rattlesnakes
to the leaders of some of the offending countries to stop the flow of illegal

Let’s track this analogy closely: according to Hyman, undocumented immigrants are the equivalent of convicted convicts forcibly sent to America. People whose crime is limited to crossing the border without documentation are equated with murderers and thieves, and a government’s inability to fence its citizens in is equated with the deliberate transporting of its criminal class to a colony.

But the words by themselves don’t do justice to the ugliness to Hyman’s editorial. As his voiceover intones the words “Legal immigrants are and should be welcome in America,” we see a shot of a busy sidewalk, populated almost exclusively by Caucasians. As soon as we hear the phrase “The problem is the mind-staggering number of illegal aliens,” the video jump cuts to stock footage of Hispanic individuals climbing a fence and running through a culvert.

Here are a few facts Hyman leaves out (and hopes you won’t know): According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the employment rate for male undocumented immigrants is 92%. Roughly a quarter of undocumented immigrants have some college education, and half have completed high school.

You don’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal to see the what these immigrants bring to the table; the United States Chamber of Commerce (not an organization well-known for left wing tendencies) has argued that the problem is not undocumented immigrants themselves (who, as they point out, take on any number of vital jobs that might go unfilled otherwise), but rather the fact that there is so little chance for those who want to come here legally to do so.

And despite the claim that undocumented immigrants are a drain on taxpayer resources, studies suggest that these workers actually contribute more than they receive from government programs.

Government bureaucracy in both the United States and in the native countries of immigrants (most notably, Mexico) turn the honest quest for an immigrant to make a new life for himself into a Kafkaesque nightmare of endless forms and endless waiting, often with no resolution.

But the ethical and moral concerns of treating fellow human beings with decency and the practical arguments about providing needed labor don’t move Hyman, a man who has (let us remember) called undocumented immigrants “terrorists” and compared them to al-Qaeda.

Hyman’s comparison of transported convicts (who were often criminals sentenced to death who were given a reprieve and sent to the colonies instead) with undocumented immigrants whose main crime is wanting to make a better life for themselves is a case of apples and oranges (or perhaps rotten tomatoes to oranges).

But in one way, Hyman’s analogy with the words of Franklin are apt: just as Hyman is shortsighted in his estimation of what immigrants can bring to this country, perhaps old Ben was also a bit too harsh in evaluating what the convicts sent to America’s shores might produce.

After all, it might just be that some well-known contemporary Americans might have had ancestors who fell afoul of the law back in the old country.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.92

Equus Mortuus Redux

Mark Hyman repeated a number of falsehoods about Social Security in his viewer mail segment, and again used his tried and true technique of handpicking critical comments that caricature those on the other side of the issue.

Hyman quotes a viewer who says that Social Security “needs to be fixed to protect MY money” [emphasis in original], but fails to mention that under the current system, today’s workers will average receiving more in benefits than they will contribute to the system. He also quotes a viewer who writes hat he doesn’t understand “what the big problem is with fixing . . . [the] system.”

Quoting this comment without any additional context suggests that the question is a reasonable one, but as we pointed out in our rebuttals to Hyman’s series on Social Security, the premise that the system is in need of “fixing” is overstated at best, and is mistaken in fundamental ways.

Hyman also uses a viewer comment as an invitation to introduce a red herring into the argument. Pointing out that the AARP markets retirement funds, Hyman implies that the AARP is hypocritical in opposing privatization of the Social Security system. But one has nothing to do with the other. No one, including the AARP, suggests that private investment is not worthwhile; the issue is that this should be in addition to the guaranteed benefit offered by Social Security, a benefit that will not be subject to the whims of the marketplace.

Hyman also chides a viewer who notes that the Social Security system is sustainable for “30 years” [sic]. Hyman repeats the falsehood that the system will be “broke” by 2042, adding sarcastically, “why worry about it now?” But as we noted in our response to Hyman’s series, the eventual disappearance of the surplus is not the same as the system going “broke,” but is rather a predictable result of baby boomers paying into the system now and collecting benefits after retirement. This period of the system being over-funded is an anomaly for what is essentially a “pay-as-you-go” system. As any number of economists have noted, Social Security will not only not go “broke,” but be able to pay out benefits with few adjustments for the foreseeable future.

Finally, Hyman’s only true nod to the opposition comes when he quotes a viewer who writes that arguments for Social Security privatization are “support for an over-privileged, alcoholic, coke head's plan to put the rich ahead.”

Despite the essential validity of the viewer’s characterization, Hyman has carefully chosen this quotation to suggest that those who disagree with him are unreasonable ideologues who rely on name-calling instead of valid argumentation.

The words “pot” and “kettle” come to mind, don’t they?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.18

Short Smears

Mark Hyman’s recent “Short Takes” segment would have been more accurately titled “Short Smears.”

First, Hyman (in his first mention of the Hurricane Katrina disaster) tells us that “at least two” people used the $2000 government-issued debit cards for $800 handbags. Apparently, the idiocy of these two people (presuming they actually exist) is supposed to convince us that the government shouldn’t have been so foolish as to offer an entire two thousand dollars to the tens of thousands of those left without homes and jobs.

Hyman also cites a recent Harris poll showing that while firefighters, doctors, nurses, and scientists are among the most prestigious professions among Americans, journalists ranked “fourth from the bottom.”

A couple of things here: it says everything one needs to know about Sinclair’s approach to their avowed profession that their mouthpiece continually reviles journalists in general as well as the individuals who practice it. Second, I can’t help but point out that teachers, a group routinely savaged by Hyman, are also among the most prestigious professionals in the country, and the only group to have a net increase in prestige since Harris started collecting data in 1977. Finally, it might bode ill for Hyman’s pals in Sinclair Corporate Headquarters that business executives were in a statistical dead heat with journalists near the bottom of the prestige scale. As for Hyman’s own profession, he understandably didn’t mention that actors were the group most identified as having “hardly any prestige at all.”

In a comment about the anti-war rally planned for September 24 in Washington, D.C., Hyman repeats the misleading claim that this gathering is the work of a single group, International ANSWER. He also misinforms his viewers about the purpose of the demonstration, saying nothing about the anti-war theme that is the centerpiece of the gathering, instead claiming that International ANSWER is protesting because they believe the evacuations of New Orleans were a “conspiracy” by real estate interests who wanted to buy up cheap property.

In fact, the anti-war demonstrations in Washington drew from a wide political range, including those who support President Bush in most issues, with the exception of the Iraq war. The gathering drew around 100,000 participants, far more than the less than 10,000 at the pro-war demonstration orchestrated by the Pentagon on September 11. This shouldn’t be surprising, however. After all, the folks gathering in Washington on Saturday were voicing
the opinion held by a sizable majority of their countrymen.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.80

Friday, September 23, 2005

Hurricane-Shmurricane--I Wanna Attack the ACLU Some More!

Two historic hurricanes, violence in Iraq, a controversial nomination to the Supreme Court—there’s no shortage of timely, important topics that could and should be discussed in the public forum. But Mark Hyman squanders the public’s time and airwaves on yet more attacks on the ACLU.

his last two editorials, Hyman has charged that the ACLU is profiteering from taking cases to court and getting awarded attorney’s fees for their work.

Hyman, characteristically, leaves out some facts.

First, the law that allows the ACLU to collect compensation for representing its clients (
42 U.S.C. §1988) is there to compensate those who defend the civil rights of individuals. Almost by definition, civil rights issues involve a single individual or a minority community challenging a large and powerful entity (e.g., a state or local government, a corporation, etc.). Such cases could rarely be brought if the plaintiffs had to pay for their own lawyers. Allowing the court to provide compensation to plaintiffs’ attorneys allows the ACLU and other civil rights groups to take cases without charging the individuals they represent.

Second, the fees are only awarded at the discretion of the court, and are defined by law as only covering “reasonable” expenses. It’s certainly possible that in any individual case, specific costs might seem (and be) unreasonable, but then again, attorneys’ fees in general often seem unreasonable. Hyman offers no evidence that the fees awarded to the ACLU are any more exorbitant than the going market rate for legal services.

Third, Hyman ignores the fact that the ACLU represents groups across the political and social spectrum, from
Jerry Falwell and Christian conservatives to lesbian and gay rights groups. In fact, despite the fact that Hyman decries the fact that the ACLU recovered attorneys’ fees for filing suit against the Boy Scouts, the law Hyman wants changed has also helped the Boy Scouts secure legal representation. In a 2002 Florida case, the ACLU was on the side of the Boy Scouts when they filed suit against a local school board who refused to allow the Scouts to use public school facilities. The Boy Scouts’ complaint specifically invoked 42 U.S.C. §1988 to receive compensation for their legal team.

While Hyman might not like the fact that the A.C.L.U. received money for suing the Boy Scouts, there are almost certainly gay and lesbian individuals who don’t like their tax dollars being spent to support the Boy Scouts, a group that has made a point of discriminating against them.

Part of living in a democracy is dealing with the fact that some of the money you contribute to the upkeep of your society is going to be used in ways you might not choose to use it yourself. Lord knows I’d love to have the I.R.S. cut me a check for my share of the expenses paid for the war in Iraq. But we don’t get to pick and choose. In the case of 42 U.S.C. §1988, the people’s representatives have made a decision that if civil rights are going to be a reality rather than just pie-in-the-sky happy talk, we as a society should make it feasible for attorneys to spend the time and effort working for groups and individuals that rarely have the resources to go after deep-pocketed entities like the government, corporate behemoths, and national organizations.

And although compensation for representing certain plaintiffs might ruffle feathers of various groups from time to time, the fact that the law specifically mandates reasonable compensation, that the decision of what is reasonable is left up to neutral judges rather than the plaintiff’s lawyers, and that (at least in the case of the ACLU) those who might sue a group in the name of civil rights might turn around and support this same group in a different case when their rights are attacked, should be reason enough to question the ideological jihad that those like Hyman call for against civil rights groups and the legislation that protects them.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index “ACLU Profiteering” : 5.37
“ACLU Profiteering Prevention” : 3.64

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Clear Lack of Intelligence, Part Duh

The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke talked a lot about a phenomenon he called “scapegoating.” This doesn’t simply mean simply finding someone to blame for something unpleasant. For Burke, it means the drive to expunge or alleviate guilt by projecting it onto something else, then attempting to destroy this “something else” as a way of destroying one’s own sense of responsibility.

I offer this as a way of understanding the otherwise
inexplicable attempt of Mark Hyman to lay the blame for today’s intelligence failures on actions President Jimmy Carter took nearly 30 years ago.

Yes, in a continuation of his remarks about intelligence failures, Hyman claims that it’s all the fault of Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in particular.

Hyman charges that the downfall of American intelligence began with a “case of a wimpy conscience” in the wake of the Church Committee hearings in 1974. These were hearings (one of several sets of such hearings) designed to look into the abuse of U.S. intelligence services (especially the C.I.A.). Apparently for Hyman, “wimpy conscience” means not allowing the president to use the C.I.A. to spy on domestic political opponents or assassinating foreign leaders (these being two of the more important results of the hearings).

Of course, these hearings were precipitated by abuses of intelligence services by the Nixon White House, both at home and abroad (particularly with regard to the war in Vietnam), but Hyman glosses that point. He also fails to mention that although Jimmy Carter did codify a number of the Church Commission’s suggestions through
Executive Order 12036, this happened in 1978—four years after the Church Commission. He also fails to mention that Carter was simply following in the footsteps of President Ford, who had put most of these measures in place two years earlier in his Executive Order 11905. Finally, Hyman doesn’t acknowledge that in 1981, President Reagan undid much of these restrictions when he rescinded Carter’s order with his own Executive Order 12333.

To believe Hyman’s tale, one would not only have to ignore the fact that it was Ford who started the reforms, but that somehow Carter so decimated the intelligence service in less than three years that the following 12 years of Republican rule (four of which were under a president who had served in the C.I.A.) couldn’t undo them.

Hyman also tries to lay blame at the feet of the Clinton administration by saying they “handcuffed” intelligence operations during their tenure. Unfortunately, Hyman doesn’t say how they did this. Nothing. It’s the very definition of a baseless charge. He does, however, make a separate charge that Jamie Gorelick, deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration, had created a “firewall” that prevented intelligence sharing. This has been a favorite point of rabid right webpages and talk radio, but
even John Ashcroft has said it’s an invalid charge.

So implying that our current intelligence woes are the fault of a man who was president for four years more than a quarter century ago and offering charges without a lick of support are obvious signs of desperation. But why so desperate, Mark?

Perhaps it’s because the current Bush administration has so much to answer for when it comes to intelligence failures. Richard Clarke, who served in the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations has said that the current administration ignored his pleadings to take al-Qaida seriously. And he has proof. Clarke
wrote a memo immediately after the Bushies took power telling them explicitly and with urgency that they needed to deal with al-Qaida. They didn’t. Even a week before 9/11, the Bush administration was still not listening to an increasingly frustrated Clarke beg them to pay attention to al-Qaida.

As Clarke himself said, such a loss of focus would not have happened in the Clinton administration. Remember, by the way, that the Clinton administration fired missiles at suspected al-Qaida targets in 1998 and had been planning on launching another strike at the very beginning of 2001, only to decide that it would be more proper to pass along the plan to the new administration rather than begin such an operation in the last few days of their time in office. The Bush administration promptly shelved the whole issue.

And in our previous post, we’ve already touched on the nightmare scenario that we find ourselves in due to the willful ignorance (and manipulation) of existing intelligence by the Bush administration in order to start a war in Iraq.

Yes, I suppose if I was a member of the Bush administration or one of its leading cheerleaders, I’d be desperate to do anything that would destroy my sense of responsibility for what’s happened in the last five years. And who knows—maybe blaming Jimmy Carter for the whole mess actually lets people like Hyman sleep easier at night.

But I can’t help but wonder if, after he’s gone to bed at 9:00 p.m. and drifted off to Never-Never land, the president sees some of the faces of the 2000 young Americans who have died because of his “lack of intelligence.”

And that’s The Counterpoint

Hyman Index: 2.41

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Clear Lack of Intelligence

In his most recent editorial, Mark Hyman begins a series of commentaries on the lack of human intelligence. Whatever one might say about Hyman, you must admit the man has credentials when it comes to the topic of lack of intelligence.

Hyman notes that U.S. failures in the area of spying and related activities outnumber successes, failures which range “From the collapse of the Soviet Union to India's nuclear testing to Russia's offensive against Chechnya to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, just to name a few.”

Yes, just to name a few. The elephant in the room Hyman is trying to ignore
is the one that’s led to the deaths of nearly 2,000 soldiers, the wounding of ten times that number, and the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens. Other than a tangential mention of “Baghdad,” Hyman remains mum about the intelligence failure that led to ongoing war in Iraq.

But actually Hyman might have a point, here. After all, it wasn’t really an intelligence failure that led to the war in Iraq; it was
a failure of character on the part of the president. Hyman attempts a cutesy dig at Joseph Wilson (“[Spying] is not the job for those French-cuff wearing bureaucrats who drink sweet mint tea and shop for souvenirs”), but ignore the fact that Wilson’s report was right—there was no conclusive evidence Iraq sought to by uranium from Niger. Moreover, weapons inspectors on the ground and many members of the intelligence community were telling anyone who would listen that there were no WMDs in Iraq.

But the Bush administration refused to listen and made a bogus case for war. And to punish Wilson for having the temerity to mention facts that didn’t square with the administration’s desires, they exposed his wife’s identity.

As if that weren’t petty enough, the administration and its flacks went after Richard Clarke, the coordinator for counterterrorism in the National Security Council, when he pointed out that the Bush administration had little to no interest in terrorism, despite the fact that they had been warned about Osama bin Laden specifically by members of the outgoing Clinton administration.

Why would we expect our intelligence services to attract promising recruits when the Bush administration has proven that it A) doesn’t much care about intelligence when it contradicts with what it wants, and B) has no hesitation to expose its agents to danger and slander them to cover its collective hindquarters?

And it doesn’t stop there.
Insiders note that even since 9/11, the Bush administration has done precious little to bolster the intelligence services. And most of our intelligence operatives are booked up handling the quagmire in Iraq instead of dealing with global terror.

Lastly, the best intelligence system in the world won’t help if the president refuses to be bothered by details. Hyman invokes 9/11 as proof of the high price we pay for poor intelligence. But as we now know, the president was told a month before September 11 that bin Laden was determined to attack the U.S. and did nothing about it, and he also was aware that Islamic terrorists might try to use airplanes as weapons of terror.

Yes, there’s much that needs to be done to improve our clandestine services, but when it comes to a lack of human intelligence, the most cavernous void is in the Oval Office.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.55

Monday, September 19, 2005

Dare We Dream?

Thanks to Mark Hyman for offering one of the most cogent arguments for not turning Social Security over to privateers.

In his
most recent commentary, Hyman gnashes his pearly whites about the possible shortfall in local and state pensions, particularly in regard to the amount of money he claims U.S. taxpayers will have to pony up to make up these shortfalls. Repeating the lie that Social Security is facing “insolvency,” Hyman tries to scare his audience into believing government-run retirement plans are all rat holes.

But Hyman’s telling less than half the story. An even bigger financial iceberg looms ahead (and which we actually have already begun colliding with): the shortfall in private sector corporate pensions. Not only does the mismanagement and irrational exuberance of corporate pensions bode ill for employees who had put their faith and retirement savings into them, but it also exposes taxpayers to even more risk than all the state and local pension shortfalls combined.

Hyman would love for you to think that only public sector pensions are hurting and might cost you money to bail them out. This is just the latest example of the government/corporate = devil/God analogy that lurks beneath much right wing rhetoric.

But the fact is that taxpayers also bail out private pensions. In 1974, the government created the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) to serve as an insurance policy for those employees who might be left in the lurch if the company they worked for went belly up. For years, the PBGC operated just fine, with very little demands on its resources.

In recent years, however, things have changed. The economic explosion of the Clinton era caused corporate pension managers to become overly optimistic about future returns. CFOs wanted to have their cake and eat it too by offering glitzy benefits packages to employees while not actually socking away enough money to guarantee the ability to pay for these packages. When economic malaise set in shortly after the election of George W. Bush, this mismanagement surfaced, and many of the nation’s biggest and oldest corporations faced financial crisis because of unwise (and often unethical) financial decisions and reliance on hypothetical earnings to make their balance sheet arithmetic work out (see: “Enron”).

The result? Corporate pensions face a collective shortfall of around $450 billion, more than $100 billion more than the figure cited by Hyman regarding public pension shortfalls. This kind of debt
threatens to swamp the PBGC (which is already begging Congress for a bail-out). In a situation reminiscent of the Savings & Loan debacle of the 1980s, American taxpayers could very well end up paying for the fiscal mismanagement of these private pensions.

In the case of state and local governments (whose pension funds were weakened primarily by the economic downturn of the last several years), lawmakers and citizens are cooperating to reconfigure retirement funds so that they can remain solvent and pay benefits. Hyman cites Houston’s situation as a nightmare scenario, but the people and city leaders
released themselves from their earlier pension format and are recreating the city’s retirement plan so that it can pay employees what they’re owed without going deeply into the red. It’s less than clear if corporate leaders will take the initiative to rework pension benefits for the good of all employees or if they will continue to drop their debt onto the American people (usually while the executives responsible for the mess retire early with multi-million-dollar portfolios).

What the pension shortfall in both the public and private sector shows is the high level of
risk involved in putting all your retirement eggs into Wall Street’s basket. Even “diversified” portfolios managed relatively conservatively can end up in the red.

If only there was some sort of system in which citizens provided a baseline of financial stability to all retirees, some system that was designed to weather storms of the financial markets by pooling our collective resources and investing them in the future of the nation via government bonds rather than wagering them on profit-driven companies; a plan that would be able to say with confidence that it could pay out benefits at an expected rate for decades to come, and perhaps even indefinitely as long as politicians didn’t pander to their wealthy friends by spending this collective money on tax cuts for only one percent of Americans; a plan that offered all workers, regardless of income, a guaranteed source of retirement resources. . . a sort of social security system.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

PS. I consider the
article by Professor Michael Hudson referenced above to be a must-read piece about not only the pension issue, but Social Security in general. Offering the analysis of an expert with the clarity of an accomplished writer, Hudson’s piece offers a streamlined but comprehensive analysis of much that is wrong with the privateers’ arguments.

Hyman Index: 3.97

Friday, September 16, 2005

Friends Don't Let Friends Watch "The Point"

Hyman squanders another precious couple of minutes of your airtime going over a story that’s more than a month old; this time, he’s upset about a judge who ruled that it was unconstitutional to presume someone drunk given a certain blood alcohol level, since people have different tolerances.

Yes, the ruling seems a bit silly. After all, the law regarding drunk driving makes the act of driving with an alcohol level above a certain defined point to be illegal; to my knowledge, no state defines drunk driving by proving precisely how incapacitated someone is.

But Hyman distorts the situation by saying that the judge who made the ruling determined that the defendant in question was not drunk. In fact, the judge was simply ruling that since we all have the presumption of innocence, it’s unconstitutional to presume guilt based on the reading of a breathalyzer.

As we just noted, this is a weak argument given the ways DUI laws are written, but to say that because drunk drivers kill people that judges should rig their reading of the Constitution for the purpose of throwing the book at them goes against the sort of strict constructionism that conservatives are usually so besotted with. You can take issue with the judge’s interpretation of the law (and I do), but to pretend that the law should simply be ignored when it’s inconvenient (which is what Hyman is advocating) is dopey.

The bigger picture here is that Hyman is going after a particular judge as a way of contributing to the right wing wind machine that’s been going after so-called “activist judges” for some time, now. Note that at the end of his commentary, Hyman pointedly mentions “bad judges”—plural. Even though the decision he comments on is the work of a single judge and no one else has ruled similarly, Hyman broadens the scope of his attack.

It’s a small but telling detail that reveals a tactic we’ve seen from Hyman many times before, as well as from his political brethren: keep throwing out negative remarks about people or groups you want to undercut, no matter what the context—every little bit of mud helps. Enough condemnations of particularly bad judgments and the connections of these to the judiciary as a whole, and pretty soon the cries of “judicial activism” every time someone interprets the law in a way conservatives disagree with will find some traction among the general public.

But to give Hyman credit, it’s not his fault that he’s had to scrape up a commentary about a single legal case from over a month ago. Not much worth noting has happened in the last few weeks, right?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.07

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Isn't Namecalling a Bit Dangerous . . .

. . . when your name is "Hyman"?

I’ve said many times that of the wide variety of issues I have with Mark Hyman, his specific opinions on issues rank no higher than third, as far as importance. Above his specific positions are the fact that he is forced on viewers by Sinclair Broadcasting and, most importantly, his hopelessly sloppy thought and argument.

His latest offering is a case in point. Hyman rails against the New York Times (I’ll pause a moment to let you get over your shock) for editorializing against allowing 14-year-old girls to be wed to adult men. (By the way, this commentary is a Reader’s Digest version of a longer article Hyman penned for that esteemed periodical, The American Spectator.)

Is Hyman upset because this might put a crimp in his social life? I’m assuming not; instead, I take him at his word—that he thinks the newspaper has a double standard because they have also editorialized against parental notification laws. According to Hyman, this means that the Times doesn’t value the well-being of underage girls and is ignoring their welfare in order to trumpet the wonders of abortion-on-demand.

Here’s the thing: I don’t necessarily have a problem with parental notification for underage girls to get abortions. It’s a surgical procedure, and one that their legal guardians are entitled to know about.

What I do have a problem with is simplistic reasoning and namecalling in lieu of actual argument. While I might not agree with the Times’ position on parental notification, I can understand their argument (and those of others on that side): minors who reveal their pregnancy might be punished by parents, particularly if the pregnancy is the result of incest.

There is nothing inconsistent with the Times’ reasoning—the difference is in the situations involved. The Times is against underage marriage because to allow such unions would lead to the possibility of physical and sexual abuse of the child. The same concern is at issue with parental notification of abortions.

Moreover, opposition to underage marriage is an opposition to an act that could lead to the sexual abuse of the child. It is, if you’ll pardon the unintentional pun, a prophylactic move—one to prevent a future action from occurring. With an underage child who is already pregnant, the damage (in a sense) has already been done, and the idea is to minimize its negative consequences. It’s an issue that involves what happens “after the fact.”

Again, this isn’t to say I agree with the arguments against parental notification. But to pretend that there aren’t legitimate concerns on both sides of the issue and that the Times’ positions on these two separate issues represent some egregious lapse in ethical consistency impoverishes the debate on all issues by falling back on what is essentially name-calling: your positions seem contradictory, ergo you must be incapable of reasonable thought and are not arguing in good faith. Not only is this name calling, but it’s inaccurate name-calling to boot.

Just in case he felt this version of the name-calling technique was too subtle, Hyman ends the commentary with a flurry of vitriol, claiming the Times’ editorial board represents the thinking of “free-love hippies” suffering from “drug-induced psychosis.”

It’s exactly this sort of poisoning of the well of public discourse that is Hyman’s greatest sin.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.63

Hyman: "I Have Not Yet Begun to Slander the ACLU!"

Add another grand tradition of the Navy: rum, sodomy, and the lash . . . and forced prayer.

In his latest editorial, our favorite powder monkey, Mark Hyman, calls the ACLU the anti-American Criminal Liberties Union, which raises the question: can the estate of Senator Joe McCarthy can claim copyright infringement for appropriating his rhetoric without acknowledgment? Of course, I couldn’t care less about plagiarism so I’ll leave that for you all to discuss amongst yourselves. ;-)

What has caused Hyman to unload yet another broadside
at the ACLU? Their opposition to institutionalized prayer at the Naval Academy, where midshipmen are led in a public prayer at mealtime, or else must stand conspicuously silent among their comrades.

We already talked a bit about this when Hyman commented on the same topic several weeks ago. As we noted then, the ACLU has a long track record of fighting for individual religious liberty, including the rights of conservative Christians.

What Hyman erroneously suggests is a contradiction—the ACLU’s opposition of institutional prayer at the Naval Academy and its support of religious rights of detainees suspected of terrorism—is actually an example of the organization’s straightforward position on religion: individuals should be free to practice (or not practice) their religion as they choose; government has no business telling people how they should or shouldn’t practice religion.

It’s odd that conservatives, who generally feel government is inherently bad, think that it should play any role at all in one of the most sacred aspects of each person’s identity: their spirituality. In fact, the ACLU is standing up for the vital importance of spirituality by fighting against the intrusion of government into this most private of matters.

But then again, intellectual coherence is not something we should be looking for from the doldrum-becalmed brain of Monsieur Hyman.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.55

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Less Than Zero

It’s not clear to me what more Hyman can do to reveal himself as a low-life thug. Perhaps kicking puppies? Cat juggling?

Even those seem positively refined behavior compared to the politically motivated savaging of a mother who lost her son.

As far as celebrating the nuclear family and honoring the families of those who serve in the military, it all goes out the window when politics is at stake, at least for Mark Hyman and many others on the Rabid Right. In his commentary "Heroes and Zeroes," Hyman joins
the rogues’ gallery of talking heads who have called Cindy Sheehan every name in the book because she has committed the sin of not grieving for her son in what they deem a politically correct manner.

Those of us who have lost someone we love know that there’s no “right” way to grieve. Everyone does it in their own way. Cindy Sheehan has turned to protesting the war in which her son was killed as a way of expressing her grief. That’s every bit as valid and understandable as those families who vocally support the war, hold “support the troops” rallies, and praise President Bush to the skies. I might disagree with the opinions of those who’ve lost a child and are in favor of the war, but I would never suggest that they were somehow expressing their grief in an inappropriate way or were “wackos.” I can only imagine what it’s like to lose a son or daughter, particularly if they are the victim of violence. Whatever helps such families keep their sanity is fine by me.

Which is simply to point out the obvious: you can disagree strongly with Cindy Sheehan’s opinions on the war without lowering yourself to going after her personally. After all, she’s a mother who raised a son of apparently strong character, conviction, accomplishment, and bravery. Then she lost that son. You don’t have to agree with her ideas or her actions. It’s certainly fine to voice these feelings. But Goddamn it: show the woman some basic human decency—she’s earned it.

Would you be surprised to learn that Mr. Hyman falls a bit short of this minimal goal? Rather than acknowledging her pain and offering a thoughtful argument to counter hers, we get more of Hyman’s ad hominem attacks—this time against a Gold Star mother!

Hyman labels Sheehan an “obnoxious” woman who has “exploited a family tragedy.” He says her husband divorced her over her “antics” and that she was fired from her job for absenteeism. In fact, her marriage broke apart long before “Camp Casey” was formed under the stress of the grief the couple felt and their different ways of working through it. Absenteeism? You bet—she was busy dealing with the aftermath of losing her son. Yet Hyman suggests that these are somehow indicators that Sheehan is a bad human being. Heck, even if her husband divorced her because she was cheating on him and she didn’t go to work for a week because she was on drugs, it wouldn’t mean that her grief isn’t real or suggest that she was wrong to say the things she’s said.

Hyman erroneously tells us that Sheehan’s entire family has begged her to stop her “shenanigans.” He repeats the falsehood that Sheehan’s story has mysteriously changed over time. He also accuses her of making “totally wacko” claims that the U.S. has used nuclear weapons in Iraq and of making anti-Semitic remarks. Both of these accusations are patent nonsense. Sheehan never suggested the U.S. is dropping hydrogen bombs on Baghdad; she did suggest that the war is causing nuclear contamination in Iraq, a reference to the use of depleted uranium ammunition by the U.S. And the charge of anti-Semitism is even more distorted and obscene, based on the assertion that when Sheehan has criticized “neo-cons,” that she is actually just using a code word for “Jews in the Pentagon.”

Can there be a better example of an utter lack of class than this? As I say, one need not give Sheehan a free pass to show her basic decency. Being a Gold Star mom doesn’t mean she automatically becomes some unchallengeable oracle of truth. It does mean she deserves respect. But as we saw last fall with Hyman’s slander of John Kerry’s service record, honoring the troops and their families is just something that’s given lip service by the Rabid Right. When ideology gets in the way, lying and dishonoring are par for the course.

Hyman ends his commentary with a comparison that is as dopey as the rest of the commentary is despicable. Hyman claims that the coverage of Sheehan has dwarfed the media attention paid to Paul Smith, the first soldier to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in Iraq (Smith received the award posthumously after being killed in a firefight last April). A brief Googling of Paul Smith reveals good and plenty of press coverage of his award. That Sheehan would get more coverage makes sense simply because hers is an ongoing and developing story; Smith’s story is dramatic and touching, but static. Should the media have offered recaps of the medal ceremony at the White House for an entire month?

But for Hyman, this basic reality of journalism is somehow evidence of a vast media conspiracy to side with the “obnoxious” Sheehan and her political views.

But I can’t help wondering, Mark: Smith was killed nearly six months ago, and as far as I’m aware, this is the first time you’ve mentioned him on “The Point.” Over that period of time, how many commentaries have you devoted supporting your own political causes and attacking your enemies, commentaries that could have been used to celebrate the sacrifice of Sergeant Smith? If you’re really concerned about the media ignoring his story in order to advance certain political positions, perhaps you should take a good look in the mirror before you point fingers.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 5.39

Ad Hymanem

While the rest of the country focuses on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the plight of those whose jobs, homes, and lives were taken from them, Hyman continues to wage a war against his fellow Americans by accusing anyone who disagrees with him about the Iraq war of “blaming America.”

Even by Hyman’s notoriously low standards, his argument here is weak. The crux of his commentary is juxtaposing the Defense Department’s “
America Supports You Freedom Walk” with the upcoming anti-war protests scheduled for Washington and other cities around the country on September 24.

In a textbook example of guilt by association, Hyman frames the September 24 events and criticism of the Pentagon walk as the doing of International ANSWER, a group Hyman accuses of being “a front for the Marxist World Workers Party.” Ergo, both the protests and any criticism of the DOD walk must be the work of anti-American yahoos.

But the trouble is that whatever you might think of International ANSWER, they are only one of an impressively large coalition of groups involved in the planned September 24 rallies. In fact, groups participating in the events include veterans groups and families of those serving in Iraq. And these groups are doing nothing more than voicing the opinion held by a
sizable majority of their countrymen: the Iraq war is bad. Are all these people also “blaming America,” or are they blaming the Bush administration for a failed policy? As we’ve seen so many times, this is a meaningless question for Hyman; the Bush administration and “America” are one in the same.

Not only does Hyman mislead his audience by implying that the protests of the 24th only involve “radical” groups, but he also suggests that criticism of the “Freedom Walk” at the Pentagon on September 11 also comes from the political fringes. But in fact, the commemoration (the brainchild of Donald Rumsfeld)
has been widely criticized, including by families of those who died in the 9/11 attacks. The Washington Post, at first a co-sponsor of the event, pulled their support when it became clear that this “commemoration” was in fact an orchestrated political event.

Hyman misleadingly says that the Department of Defense has honored those who died at the Pentagon on 9/11 every year, implying that this year’s commemoration is no different. But it is. The “America Supports You Freedom Walk” was billed as a way of honoring the fallen of September 11 AND supporting the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, Secretary Rumsfeld is using the bodies of those killed at the Pentagon as a makeshift soapbox from which to hold a pep rally for the president’s unpopular policies in the Mideast. What could be more insulting to the memories of those who died (and their families) than to co-opt the nation’s sympathy and grief for them to push a political agenda? As if that weren’t bad enough, this juxtaposition of commemoration for the fallen of 9/11 and support for the president’s war in Iraq intentionally fosters the long-ago-disproven claim that Iraq had something to do with the attacks of September 11. The administration has used this canard from the very beginning, and shamelessly continues to do so. Hyman, of course, avoids any mention of the pro-war aspect of the march. Why let facts get in the way of a good ad hominem attack?

As if using the dead to support more killing wasn’t obscene enough, there’s a laughably ironic twist to the “Freedom March”: you had to submit a pre-registration form in order to participate (the better to check your background with, my dear) and the marchers walked down a fenced pathway to make sure no unregistered folks joined in the commemorating. After
the appropriately vetted and well-herded crowd completed their walk, they were treated to a concert by Clint Black, the maestro who penned “Iraq and Roll.” MLK at the Lincoln Memorial in ’63, this ain’t.

But Hyman neatly collapses this for his audience, foregoing the troublesome issue of facts or valid argument. Commemorating the dead (even when it’s actually using the dead to celebrate a war): good and American. Disagreeing with the policies of the government: bad and un-American. In fact, according to Hyman, if you disagree with the president, you may very well be a member of the “wild-eyed campus radicals, or unbathed, ratty-haired protestors who join in every nutty cause.”

Hyman ends his commentary by saying that the people who have done the most to uphold the right to free expression are servicemen and women. True enough. But how much would you like to bet that there will be more veterans protesting the Iraq war on September 24th than walked (after pre-registering, of course) in the Department of Defense’s
obscene rally?

How about it, Mark: wanna take that bet?

Nope, I didn’t think so.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 5.63

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Selling Snakeoil, Part 5

Hyman comes through with a couple of classic propaganda chestnuts in the final installment of his Social Security “benefit” series.


Benefit #9 - A self-sustaining Social Security investment fund with personal
retirement accounts could include retirement options such as earlier retirement
ages with graduated benefits. A worker would not necessarily have to wait until
age 67 but could instead opt to retire at, say age 60, with reduced benefits. A
worker with a terminal illness who will never survive to age 67 and is unable to
work could opt to begin drawing benefits earlier if it would ease his final

You might notice that unlike most of his other comments, Hyman doesn’t make a direct comparison here between the “benefit” of private accounts and Social Security. That’s because there’s virtually no difference between what Hyman suggests and the current system. Not only does the retirement age of 67 only apply to the youngest of today’s workers, but anyone can retire early and still receive Social Security benefits. You can retire as early as age 62 and receive benefits. Although your monthly payouts will be slightly less, you will more than likely get as much in benefits because you’ll be collecting for more years.


Benefit #10 - Revamping Social Security today would avoid the punishing fixes
our children or our children's children will have to endure in the years ahead.
Left unchanged, Social Security will go broke.

This is a classic scare tactic, and one that is 180 degrees removed from the truth. In fact, the data shows that we will pass on a huge debt to the next several generations of Americans if a privatization scheme is instituted. The reason? Shifting money into private accounts would take away money that is owed to today’s retirees. The trust fund would be depleted far more rapidly than it would if left alone. While the current pay-as-you-go system would still keep a healthy flow of money coming into the system from workers to provide benefits to retirees, a privatization scheme would dry up much, if not all, of this revenue stream. The result would be a dramatic cut in benefits and/or huge tax hikes or deficit spending to make up the difference.

Additionally, the collective national debt that such a move would produce would slow overall economic growth, becoming an anchor around the American economy. Not only would Social Security (or whatever it might be called) suffer, but the fiscal health of the nation would take major hit.

But such period would be brief and would soon be a thing of the past given the huge revenue that private investment accounts would create, right?

No. In fact, even
Business Week (generally a proponent of conservative economic policy) acknowledges that it will take a century before the supposed benefits of private accounts would have a chance of making up for the shortfalls in the system that such a change would require. The president’s privatization scheme essentially asks Americans to sell out their children, grand children, and great grandchildren for hypothetical benefits to be reaped by their great-great grandchildren.

And to repeat just one more time: Hyman’s premise (which he restates at the end of the commentary) that Social Security is going broke is a lie. Social Security (as Hyman himself notes) is a pay-as-you-go system. The surplus that’s been built up by the baby boomers entry into the workforce will eventually be paid back to them in the form of Social Security benefits, but even when this happens (around the middle of this century, or so), incoming worker contributions will still be available to provide benefits to the next generation of retirees.

Make no mistake: there IS a Social Security crisis. But the crisis is in the attempt of those who embrace an “every man for himself” ethos to undermine perhaps the most successful government program in the nation’s history. What needs to be privatized is not the Social Security system, but the lives of the now public officials who are willing to lie to the American people in order to create a dystopian culture of selfishness and greed that they (in their bizarre analysis) think of as the epitome of a moral society.

And those are the Counterpoints.

Hyman Index: 2.84

PS. I love getting comments from all of you out there! Don’t be discouraged by the word-recognition step I’ve been forced to use; spammers are now using automated blog comments as a way of intruding into our lives, and Blogger has kindly provided this service as a way to keep the automated tripe out and the intelligent comments coming.

Selling Snakeoil, Part 4

Hyman continues to barely recast his criticisms of Social Security into paeans to the “positive benefits” (as opposed to “negative benefits,” I suppose) of privatizing Social Security (or, as Hyman euphemistically refers to it, “properly restructuring” Social Security).


Benefit #7 - Personal retirement accounts earmarked for each retiree could be
inherited. A retiree who neither needs nor desires the retirement benefits or
who dies early in their retirement years can pass the balance of their account
to a relative such as a grandchild to pay for college or to a son or daughter to
buy a home.

Fact 7: We’ve already dealt with this at some length in a related response to Hyman’s criticisms of Social Security, but the current system already allows workers to pass on the benefits they earned to a spouse or to minor children. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that a private account would ensure enough money for the retiree to live on to begin with, let alone enough to pass on anything meaningful to children. Moreover, if a retiree’s portfolio is in the red, their family inherits that debt (to say nothing of the colossal collective debt we will pass on to future generations from the costs of privatization).

Benefit #8 - A revamped Social Security system with accumulated wealth would
allow all workers to have access to the money they've paid in. Millions of
today's workers including those who are employed for less than 10 years and
spouses who are married less than a decade never see a single dime they have
paid in. Workers who die before they could begin collecting benefits -- this is
especially true of minorities -- are also denied the money they have spent a
lifetime paying into the system. A personal retirement account would allow them
to collect on their own investments and/or pass them on to an heir.

Fact 8: Actually, workers would not have access to the money they’ve paid in. The president’s plan, while touting individual ownership, provides the risks of investment without the flexibility. Worker’s would have their money locked away from them, and would have to
purchase an annuity at retirement to provide income. As we’ve also noted, Social Security (unlike privatized accounts) is an insurance policy that pays benefits to disabled workers and to the families of those workers who die early (these recipients collectively make up about a third of Social Security beneficiaries). You might remember that we also exposed the supposed benefit to minorities as a canard: Hyman’s arithmetic is based on data that mistakenly suggests that minorities who reach retirement age die significantly sooner than their white counterparts. In fact, life expectancy for retirees is roughly the same; it is the higher morbidity rates of minorities in middle age that skews the numbers, and such workers already are able to have their benefits passed on to their spouse or minor children.

And those are the Counterpoints.

Hyman Index: 2.19

Selling Snakeoil, Part 3

Hyman continues the Social Security hocus pocus with two more “benefits.”


Benefit #5 - A Social Security investment fund with personal
retirement accounts would actually provide ownership to workers. They actually
own nothing in today's Social Security fund.

Fact 5: Two things here: first, workers “own nothing” in the way you own nothing with your car, home, or health insurance. While you might not be able to put your hands on what your premiums pay for, you certainly get value for your investment (so much so that you are required to have car and home insurance to purchase those items). As with any insurance plan, Social Security offers financial security through pooling resources with other investors. Secondly, while the president’s privatization scheme would give people limited ownership of certain financial goods (e.g. bonds, stocks, etc.), it would also cause workers to own very real debt if these goods end up losing value. In other words, unlike with Social Security, a worker could very well end up owning (quite literally) less than nothing if the system is even partially privatized.


Benefit #6 - Personal retirement accounts would allow workers to
control how their money is invested. A portion of investment dollars could be
directed to a variety of government-approved investment vehicles such as
federal, state and local bonds. Workers satisfied with the lowest rate of return
on their investments could keep all of their money in an investment account that
looks like today's Social Security fund. Whereas, other workers could invest a
portion -- not to exceed a predetermined percentage -- of their contributions in
sound government projects.

Fact 6: Hyman touts individual control as if it’s a good thing, but in fact it’s not. Economists at both Yale and Princeton have found that most individuals (including those who truly think they know what they’re doing) consistently under perform the market generally. For individuals to squander their own investment money is one thing, but if the system responsible for keeping millions of the nation’s seniors is put in the hands of individual investors, there will almost certainly be a rise in poverty among the elderly. This will put a huge drain on families who must use their savings to take care of retired family members, as well as society as a whole, which will need to pick up the tab to take care of those who don’t have enough money to get by in their retirement (unless we are collectively willing to let the losers of the privatization lottery go hungry—perhaps Hyman has no problem with that possibility, but most Americans would).

And those are the Counterpoints.

Hyman Index: 2.54

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Selling Snakeoil, Part 2

Hyman continues to slightly repackage his “facts” from last week’s series on Social Security in the guise of proposing solutions to the alleged crisis facing the system. Hyman’s “benefits” are described in only the vaguest of terms, and for good reason: they’re based on premises that are demonstrably false.


Benefit #3 - A sound investment fund managed by the government just as it
manages the Thrift Savings Plan for federal employees would allow workers to
actually accumulate retirement funds. Social Security's rate of return for
today's young workers is so bad that the typical next generation worker will
actually receive less money in inflation-adjusted benefits than he will ever pay

Hyman, like President Bush, is suggesting that the Thrift Savings Plan that members of Congress contribute to is what privatizing Social Security will create for all workers. But the TSP is a retirement plan that is in addition to Social Security benefits, not an alternative to it.

More importantly, Hyman is completely wrong when he states the return on Social Security investment will be worse for future generations of retirees. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office calculates that because Social Security benefits are indexed to inflation and based on wages (which tend to go up faster than inflation),
retirees in the future will receive greater benefits in terms of real buying power than today’s retirees receive. And as the Washington Post noted, this is true even if nothing is done to eliminate the projected shortfall in benefits 50 years from now. In short, if we do nothing with Social Security, the grandchild of someone who retires today will receive significantly more in benefits than her grandparent.


Benefit #4 - Because an investment fund with actual monies would exist, the
system would guarantee benefits to retirees. Today's Social Security is not
guaranteed. Congress has the power to change Social Security as it sees fit.
Raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 is one way Congress has already cut
benefits, meaning workers will earn less over a retired lifetime.

This is simply a rehash (in fact, a near verbatim repetition) of one of Hyman’s alleged “facts” from a previous commentary on the state of Social Security. As we noted, Social Security benefits are tied to U.S. bonds, and the government has never defaulted on a bond payment. Benefits are guaranteed.

Moreover, the raising of the retirement age only applies to the youngest of today’s workers, a group whose life expectancy is far above that of retirees when the Social Security system was put in place. Even after the retirement age has been raised two years, today’s young worker can expect over a decade of benefits, while his counterpart in 1935 (when Social Security was created) could only expect to collect three years of benefits, based on average life expectancies. Raising the retirement age by a mere two years is nothing but an acknowledgment of the reality of much longer, healthier lives.

And those who want to retire earlier certainly can. Retirees can start collecting benefits at age 62 if they wish. Although their monthly benefits will be slightly less because of this, the additional time they will be collecting Social Security makes up for this.

And those are the Counterpoints.

Hyman Index: 3.21

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