July 21, 2014

Types of Climate-Change Skepticism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:03 pm

As a meteorologist, I’ve obviously got some thoughts about anthropogenic climate change.  Let’s get those out of the way first, so that it’s clear exactly where I am coming from.  (Also, there is an increasing trend, with political polarization, for people to simply name-call in “response” to a viewpoint with which they disagree.  To the point of view of a typical grassroots activist conservative/tea party type, anyone who disagrees with that ideology in any point whatsoever is a “lib” or some such.  To the viewpoint of a typical grassroots activist progressive, anyone who disagrees with anything in that ideology is a “bagger.”  With us or against us, ally or enemy, no nuance.  It is pathetic and utterly contemptible.  But I digress.)  I do not question the science of anthropogenic climate change.  I take extreme offense to one particular form of skepticism of this hypothesis, in fact… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I accept the science, but I do not particularly agree with the usual prescriptions for addressing it.  I don’t think that it is even viable to demand that everyone give up their cars, stop eating meat, reduce a first-world standard of living to a less advanced one, and move to “sustainable” urban box apartments, let alone that it would be a horrendous overreach to make such demands.  Keep out of my garage and thermostat!  Furthermore, at this point, even if the first world dropped emissions to 0, climate change would still continue because of the gas that is already in the atmosphere.  It takes a very long time for it to filter out.  I think the real solution to the problem is geoengineering to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and improvement of technologies to limit emissions (without sacrificing quality of life).  Technology caused this problem and I think technology is going to have to solve it.

Anyway, that’s the viewpoint I’m coming from.  I don’t have a lot of real allies in political circles on this subject, needless to say.  The political activists who are in agreement with me about the science mostly completely disagree with me about what to do about it (for reasons that I suspect have nothing to do with concern over the issue).  Maybe one of these days I will go after the “sustainability” crowd, who are largely deeply opposed to geoengineering, for their anti-scientific beliefs that control-freak government intervention into people’s private lives will even matter (climatologists say it won’t anymore), but that’s not the subject of this post.  This post is about the other side of the coin:  the climate-change skeptics.  It is, let us say, a taxonomy of the types of skepticism currently out there, from least anti-scientific to most.

“It’s the sun” and other alternative, but disproven, hypotheses about the cause

You don’t see too many of these people anymore, but they were abundant a number of years ago.  They did not dispute the data indicating that warming was taking place, nor that carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was on the rise, nor—in many cases—that weather events were becoming more extreme as a result of the changes.  They just disputed the primary hypothesis about the root cause, namely, man.  Instead they offered other suggestions, the most common one being the idea that the sun was increasing its radiation output.  The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was proposed as an effect of warming rather than the cause (which is scientifically plausible).

The solar hypothesis was scientific.  It was clear, defined, and testable—other effects, such as warming of all layers of the atmosphere, would have been observed, and the radiative output of the sun can itself be measured quite minutely—and therefore scientifically respectable.  Adherents of the anthropogenic hypothesis owe these types of skeptics gratitude for proposing it, in fact, because it was an idea that needed to be either validated or disproven before the anthropogenic hypothesis could move forward.  It was a rational thing to suggest.

It was just incorrect, as we now know.  The sun’s radiative output isn’t on the rise, and all layers of the atmosphere are not warming.  The warming/cooling pattern of the entire atmosphere follows the prediction of the anthropogenic hypothesis instead.

I have focused on the solar hypothesis, but if some other scientific hypothesis were to come forward that might explain the data, what I have said would apply to it also.  I respect this type of skepticism, and so should every scientist.  It has a fine tradition in the history of science and serves a great purpose even when the skeptical alternate hypotheses turn out to be incorrect.

“It’s a natural cycle,” a pseudo-scientific excuse that sounds scientific to people who don’t know better

You might have noticed a stark difference in tone between that heading and the previous one.  There’s a reason for that.  The second group of climate-change skeptics are more respectable than the third (which I’ll get to) because they don’t deny the climatic data record, but the explanation that they propose for it is not scientifically legitimate.  “It is a natural cycle” is essentially a tautology to science, which is about the predictable—i.e., cyclical with the same circumstances—workings of nature.  Taken literally, it is an acknowledgment that the phenomenon belongs in the domain of natural science, which we already know!  With the context and connotation specific to climate change, this non-explanation amounts to little more than saying, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t believe it’s what they say it is.”

Natural cycles in meteorology and climatology obviously exist.  However, in order for a proposed cycle to be accepted in the scientific canon, actual details about it—with supporting observational evidence—must be provided.  Otherwise it is not testable, not defined, and simply not a scientific hypothesis.  It is an excuse for saying “I don’t know and I’ve got nothing.”

Any proposed explanation, or hypothesis, for a set of observed data should be testable.  That means an additional set of observations can be gathered that either confirms or refutes the hypothesis (within a statistical confidence interval).  Granted, within the past few decades, the rise of progressive ideology in academia has caused postmodernist relativistic philosophy to—I’ll say to contaminate discourse about science, because I, along with almost all scientists I know, remain firmly an old-school empiricist.  If the methodology is sound, there’s no relativistic “catch” about the data gathered.  Postmodernist philosophers of science can debate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but we empiricists will consider the radius of the pinhead and the Planck length and give an exact number, in the meantime. ;) In the domain of actual scientific experimentation, especially in the realms of natural science, empiricism still rules the roost.  This means that data rule the roost, and the claim “it’s a natural cycle” with no additional explanation of what the supposed “cycle” consists of is not something for which data can even be tested.  There is no specific claim made, so there is nothing to test.

The deniers and defamers:  “They’re all making up their observations to get grant money!”

This is the type of skepticism that I said I took extreme offense to, and I am not going to be charitable toward these people.  They are attacking the integrity of my entire discipline with no supporting evidence, and I do not owe any politeness to people who are calling my people a bunch of frauds.

It, unfortunately, seems to be on the upswing.  I suspect this is because of the political polarization that I mentioned in the very first paragraph.  The people saying this crap tend to be complete scientific illiterates, most commonly political talking heads/columnists and their legions of trained keyboard warriors.  They have a conspiracy theory mindset in which only their approved sources of “information” can be trusted and everything else is in on the conspiracy to undermine their ideology.  If the trusted people—the columnists and talking heads—say that climate scientists go to the Arctic and make up data because they love living high on the hog with their grant money, well, the keyboard ignorati will believe that without question and repeat it.

There was a scandal in the UK about climate scientists saying suspicious-sounding things in e-mails.  “Climategate,” as it was dubbed, was investigated thoroughly, and no scientific misconduct was found.  The infamous phrase “hide the decline” referred to minimizing the contamination of a climate data set by a poor source of historical data.  Why use poor data?  Well, because when it comes to any period before the Enlightenment in any area of the globe other than the West, there really aren’t human-recorded weather observations to speak of, and we use what we have in nature.  We know that some are better than others.  It is scientifically sound to discount less reliable observations in a data pool.

A character defamation suit by climatologist Michael Mann against a right-wing magazine and a writer for it is (to my knowledge) currently underway.  This rag apparently alleged that Mann falsified his data.  Again, there was a very early (late 1990s) Nature article with Mann as lead author that had some historical climate graphs of dubious statistical quality.  He has done work in the field since then, and in any case, a poor article in a borderline pop-sci magazine (as opposed to a journal of climatology, which would have higher standards) is certainly not the final word in climatology.  To hear these deniers say it, though, it is the underlying foundation of a house of cards that they clearly believe is anthropogenic climate change theory.

In sum, the skeptics who propose alternative, but scientifically testable, hypotheses about the data are respectable.  They are carrying on a long tradition of contributing to the scientific enterprise, and it really isn’t fair for ideological keyboard warriors on the other side of the aisle to bash them.  The skeptics who propose the excuse “theory” of some unspecified “natural cycle” are at least respectful of the data, but they are not operating within a true scientific framework, and they are probably further muddying the understanding of laypeople of just how the scientific profession works.  However, the skeptics who deserve no respect whatsoever, the ones who are actively undermining science by claiming that it is just part of a grand conspiracy to suppress their political ideology, are the ones who make unfounded accusations against the character of researchers.

I’ve said before that proven research fraud is a career-ender in science.  The ironic thing about these jerks is that their stream of offensive character defamation might actually make it harder for actual frauds to be rooted out in any area of science.  People have a tendency to protect their own “tribe” when they are under attack, and it is conceivable that the calls of “fraud” from people with a political agenda could harden even empirically minded scientists against the idea of appearing to cede anything to a pack of rabid dogs who are clearly not motivated by a desire for integrity within science.  Why give them fuel, one might reason.  Distrust of the first type of skeptics, the ones who are respectable, might be a casualty as well, and that would be unfortunate.  These are yet more possible outcomes of the vast and destructive reach of political polarization.  Not all climate skeptics are created equal, and it’s important to sort out the ones worth listening to from the ones who deserve the back of your hand.

June 21, 2014

Alleging a Conflict of Interest Does Not Discredit Research

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 12:02 am

A few days ago I wrote that the new populism was an anti-expert phenomenon that discounted, often even disparaged, the skills of negotiation and compromise in politics.  As it turns out, the new populism is also deeply anti-scientific, given that it appears to have just as little comprehension of the logic involved in the scientific research enterprise.  I’m speaking in particular of the practice of attempting to discredit a study by claiming that the researchers had a financial conflict of interest.  This assertion is thrown around whenever a piece of research comes out with a conclusion that a given side doesn’t like.  And the grassroots on both left and right do it.

On the right, this is prominently shown in the climate change denial crowd.  Even on FOX News, hardly a grassroots-based source, climatology studies that show warming and indicate a very high probability of its being due to human activity are dismissed on the grounds that “those scientists get grant money that’s contingent on them coming to that conclusion.”  The tea party foot soldiers (or keyboard warriors, more typically) repeat this claim ad nauseam.  On the left, this behavior is most commonly found among the anti-big-agriculture crowd.  A study comes out that finds that a dietary bogeyman of the left really isn’t bad?  Well, the study must have been influenced by Big Ag, so therefore it can be dismissed among the faithful without a second thought.

The term “conflict of interest” is thrown at scientists by these people, and they fail to realize (or more probably, simply don’t believe) that even if a researcher was receiving funding from a source that has an interest in the research conclusions, that does not discredit the research.  In fact, you can’t find any scientist anywhere who doesn’t have a “conflict of interest” of some variety.  In most sciences, positive findings (in science, this means finding a real effect instead of failing to do so) are a lot more likely to be published than null findings.  Scientists therefore have a personal interest in seeing positive results.  Scientists can also have a personal conflict of interest that is ideological rather than financial.  There is no such thing as a truly detached, objective human being, and the political populist squawking about “conflicts of interest” in science amounts to little more than the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.

What matters for assessing the credibility of research are the methodology of the research and whether the study can be replicated.  Does it “look bad” for, say, the corn industry to contribute funding to research indicating that high-fructose corn syrup isn’t harmful in moderation?  Well, yeah, it does.  But “how it looks” means NOTHING in the scientific method.  If there is a problem in the way that the study was done, then call that out.  If there isn’t an obvious problem but the study cannot be replicated by other researchers, then it might be time to question whether the claimed methodology was the actual one.  But in the absence of these other issues with the research, going after the people who paid for the study doesn’t prove a thing about its validity.

As an example, a couple of years ago, a right-wing think tank funded a sociologist to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct a survey into the personal outcomes of adult children who had been raised by various types of families.  The study was, for a little while, used in court cases to support denying marriage to gay couples.  The claim made was that people who grew up in these households had poor life outcomes in the surveyed areas.  Naturally, there was pushback against this study, due to the political nature of its topic.  The type of pushback that ultimately went nowhere (and rightly so) was that which was based on attacking the funding source and asserting “conflict of interest.”  The pushback that was successful was to go after the methodology of the study.  As it turned out, the people that the researcher and his allies were claiming had been “raised by gay couples” were almost entirely from broken homes in which one parent was gay but was originally in a doomed marriage with an opposite-sex person.  The real takeaway from the study was that gay people shouldn’t marry straight people and definitely shouldn’t have kids with them, because—no particular surprise—kids from broken homes tended to have more issues than kids who grew up in happy families.  Making attacks on the source of the funding didn’t discredit the conclusions that were being bandied about; going after the methodology and finding that it did not support the claimed conclusions was what did the trick.  (And, as a footnote, some ideologues among the critics did not at all like that the more scientifically minded critics urged them to knock it off with the irrelevant attacks on the funder and focus on methodological problems.  This is another anecdote in support of my conviction that there is a strongly anti-scientific strain among modern-day grassroots political activists.)

The final problem with ideologues claiming “conflict of interest = discredited study” is this:  It is an implicit allegation that the scientists involved in the work committed research fraud to please their funders.  This is an incredibly serious allegation to make, the gravity of which these ideologues apparently have not a clue.  Deliberate research fraud is a permanent career-ender in science.  The world of scientific peer review is based on an honor system that what the researchers claimed they did is what they actually did.  (Replication of studies bolsters the system, but again, there is a preference for positive original research, so a lot of replication studies don’t get published.  There is awareness of this problem in the scientific community and steps are being taken to address it.)  If a person wants to claim that a scientist committed research fraud, this claim is so serious that the claimant had better have proof of it.  And yet, political activists with a definite conflict of interest (the desire to see certain results so that they are not disturbed in their ideological convictions) toss it around implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) without the slightest regard for what they are saying.

The net result of this ignorant, slanderous, conspiracy-theorist, and scientifically irrelevant line of attack has been an undermining of the trust in certain areas of science, depending on where a person falls on the political spectrum.  In other words, they’ve touched science and managed to poison it too in the public mind.  So yes, between the bad logic and a destructive mode of skepticism that completely undermines the foundation of the scientific method, I think I am entirely justified in saying that there is an anti-scientific current running through the new populism.

June 19, 2014

Good and Bad Populism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 3:59 pm

Those who know me know that, over the past couple of years, I’ve become profoundly anti-populist.  This has been a result of the antics of the tea party and new progressives—the obstruction, “my way or the highway” purist mentality, a utopian mindset, the use of America’s capital city as a slur, and the putting up of “the people” (or “the grassroots”—because they only approve of their sort of people, you see) on a pedestal, as if the problems in Washington aren’t a direct result of the increase in polarizing ideologues sent by, yes, “the people.”

Recently there have even been calls for these two factions to ally when possible, because they’re not that different.  I would agree that they’re not that different.  Both want to establish some sort of utopian society (“if everyone just followed our rules, we’d have a perfect world”) and have few reservations about how far to go in doing so.  There seems to be general agreement that rights don’t exist unless their exercise serves to advance “the good of society” (according to their utopian definition).  The person must justify a right to the state instead of the state having the burden of proof for restricting that right.  As an example, grassroots progressives seem to have no problem making the argument “because we have quasi-universal health insurance now, and everyone pays for your coverage, I have the right to legislate your lifestyle.”  (Risk pooling is how insurance works.)  Social conservative tea partiers (I specify this because there are still a few tea party-identified libertarians, and while I disagree with some of their views, they are not trying to set up an authoritarian utopia) want to restrict which adults are allowed to marry or become parents (and some want to take away the right to not have children—yes, there are anti-contraception social conservatives, Rick Santorum most prominent) because of their opinion of what household type is “best for society.”  These are far from the only examples of a behavior-controlling agenda, and the use of “we’re all connected, so your private behavior isn’t really private” as a reason to do it is the slippery slope from Hell.  Maybe it isn’t great for obesity and single parenthood to be widespread, but people have the right to be those things, so that’s no reason to apply the stick instead of the carrot.  And it certainly isn’t a reason to apply that stick to, respectively, naturally thin people and committed gay couples because of some belief (unsupported by evidence) that a BMI of 19 or a married straight couple are the only things that directly “benefit society.”  Yes, the new progressives and the social conservative wing of the tea party do have a great deal in common.

And it is precisely because of what the similarities are that I really hope these two populist utopian movements don’t figure out how to work together.  If this is being set up as “the new populism” versus “the establishment,” well, I know what side of the fence I want to be on:  the side that recognizes that governing and politics, like any other profession, require skills and experience.  Becoming a scientist has given me a new perspective on the value of skills and experience.  No, the science fanboys editing Wikipedia do NOT in fact know as much about the subject as actual credentialed scientists, and the anti-expert culture of Wikipedia in the name of populist “democracy” is an assault on knowledge.  For politics, I’m talking about skills like the ability to shake the hand and strike a deal with someone in the opposing party rather than viewing it as treason to an ideology.  The piecemeal approach of tackling issues individually rather than as part of some grand plan to reengineer society into a utopia.  Maybe—thoughtcrime incoming—the willingness to listen to what policy experts, a.k.a. lobbyists, have to say about the policies that they are trying to influence, rather than a group of armchair activists who only “know” the canned ideological talking points promoted by the Facebook page and blogs of the advocacy group that’s using their numbers as muscle.

No, I don’t really like the new populism very much.  (I’m thinking I probably couldn’t be a social media staffer for a U.S. Senator again, even if I wanted to.)

However, I want to be fair.  Not all populist movements are a bad thing.  In fact, a case can be made that many advances on certain issues throughout American (and any other country with Western-style republican democracy) history ultimately had roots in a populist movement.  The push for universal suffrage was a big one.  The call to eradicate slavery.  The movement to have national parks set aside.  The call for environmental regulations and worker safety regulations.  They haven’t all been on the “left” either; in eastern European countries, the fall of communism was helped along by a capitalistic, libertarian-aligned protest populist movement.

These “good” populist movements, you may notice, were mostly focused on a single issue, and they worked within a democratic-republican system of government.  They achieved their goals through advocacy, voting, and successfully defending their accomplishments as Constitutional in the courts.  They didn’t try to remake the whole system and certainly did not have an “anything goes” mentality for pushing their agenda through.  The anti-communist populist movement did work outside the system, but that was because the system was itself authoritarian.

History is full of examples of populist movements that sought to overthrow or reengineer a whole country, and it rarely judged them well, even if the system that they sought to replace was also repressive.  The French Revolutionaries are a fine example of that; the autocratic French aristocracy was a repressive system, but once the revolutionaries got power, the system they set up was just as bad.  The Bolsheviks are another example of this.  It should be noted that these revolutionary movements that started off sympathetic (because the existing system was repressive and autocratic) and went the way of Animal Farm are often left-wing in nature.  On the right, of course the most prominent example is the Nazi movement.  (I am categorizing it as right-wing because, regardless of how socialistic some of their economic ideas were, you only benefited from it if you were their approved type of human; it was all in service of an extremely nationalistic, racist, sexist, right-wing social agenda.)  They took power by democratic means rather than a coup, but their goals were just as utopian as their analogues on the populist left.  Democratic ascents to power aren’t always the case with right-wing populism, and we need not look any farther than Central and South America for that.

In fact, the revolutionary populist movement that history seems to have judged the most kindly is the American one of the 1770s.  And that is because, when they achieved power, they did not set up a repressive system, nor did they seek to completely remake society.  American law really isn’t all that different from British Common Law.  The beef of the revolutionaries was that Britain wasn’t living up to its own ideals, not that those ideals themselves needed to go (except for the notion of monarchy and a parliamentary system of elections).

This is why single-issue populism in democratic countries generally ends just fine.  It recognizes the value of these ideals and wants to work within that framework.  It is probably why populist movements to overthrow a truly repressive system generally become just as bad as what they threw out; a totalitarian set of ideas is their point of reference.  And it is why populist movements to establish a utopia over a country that is already democratic-republican tend to end worst of all.

I wish that the current populist movements in the U.S. were still the first type, but I do not think they are any longer.  Ideology is rapidly becoming a package deal:  If you believe that there should be some safety and environmental regulations on business practice, you’re probably going to buy the whole progressive “package” with it.  If you believe that welfare is being abused and something needs to be done about it, you’re probably buying the whole social conservative “package.”  And both sides will have long, wordy explanations for why you “logically” must accept the whole package if you accept one piece of it, which they then use to justify the ostracism of moderates, crossovers, and anyone who deals with the other party on respectful terms.  This is not about single-issue advocacy; this is about grand plans for remaking society.  It disturbs and frightens me, and I am not going to support it.

July 15, 2013

Independent Thinker, Independent Voter

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:11 pm

WARNING:  THIS IS A RANT.

I have reached a point where I really dislike “party base” political activists on both sides.  I have been frustrated with them for a very long time, even back some years ago when I had a minor staff position for a U.S. Senator.  Even then I was a pragmatist, and even in its infancy I loathed having to suck up to interact with “the netroots” for “base outreach,” which unfortunately was a not infrequent part of my job.  My main experience is with the Democratic side of the aisle, but I’m fully aware that it’s at least as bad—if not worse—with the Republican party base.  And it has gotten much worse over the years, even since 2006-07.  They are both shrill, narrow-minded, bound to groupthink, and utterly insecure.  It’s not enough to support a side some, or even most, of the time.  If you don’t check off all the boxes on their list, you’re not a “real” Democrat/Republican/progressive/liberal/conservative/whatever.  There are even nasty holier-than-thou acronyms for it:  RINO (Republican In Name Only), DINO, etc.

But what’s worse is that if you don’t CARE about being a “real” whatever, because you have your own views and lifestyle that you chose without reference to them, they still can’t leave you alone.  If you reject orthodoxy, you had better know your place and settle into a position of meekly accepting the moral shame that they heap upon you.  If you reject that too—especially if you laugh at them and their infantile middle-school bully mentality disguised as Serious Moral Business—well, brace yourself.  Open “rebellion” and independent thinking are far more threatening to these people than mere failure to conform (as long as you self-flagellate and accept their shaming).  For the latter, at least you haven’t committed thoughtcrime.  Independent thinking is also more threatening—believe it or not–than going all the way to the other party base and joining that hive mind.  Thoughtcrime is, after all, not applicable to those who have actually thrown their lot in with Eurasia or Eastasia (whichever is the designated enemy); it’s a domestic crime.  These people can only accept those who think either exactly the way they do on every point, or exactly the opposite from them on every point.  “With us or against us!” is all that they seem able to find comfortable.  Black or white.

For my part, I rather like gray.  It is a nice color and suits my complexion well.  When I need to dress up in a suit and don’t want to wear black, I often put on a gray one.  I also like having a life in which I sometimes do need to wear a suit.  I like having a conversation with a bank officer about how best to invest my savings in an economy with meager interest rates.  I like not sharing my place with five roommates because rent is $3000 a month in that inner-city neighborhood and commuting is just out of the question because it leaves such a huge carbon footprint.  I like not having to self-flagellate over the fact—THE. FACT.—that no, there’s really nothing I can do to make a difference about X, Y, or Z bad thing happening on the other side of the globe, because I know I can make a difference in my own life and that of the people I know and care about.  I like being ambitious and driven and living in a clean, first-world manner.  I know as a meteorologist that climate change is already a fait accompli even if everyone in the U.S. suddenly became a dirty bohemian hipster tomorrow, so rather than sacrificing a successful professional lifestyle in the name of “reducing my carbon footprint,” I see climate change as a research opportunity—and since it so happens that we’ll understand better what we’re dealing with, I have no guilt about that either.  I also recognize that most popular “causes” du jour are things that I cannot possibly affect and that also do not affect me, and therefore I try not to let them worry me or raise my blood pressure.

I care about what I care about, and my opinions on those subjects are what they are.  Do I live in a fantasy world, focused on my own life while the world burns around me?  The people of whom I speak might say so.  I, however, think they are the ones living in a fantasy world, with their delusions that they can change every last thing they pretend to be concerned about.  Yes, “pretend.”  I don’t think it’s sincere.  I think they pretend to care about everything, and convince themselves that they have agency in everything, because that’s how they can make themselves feel like they are superior to others.  That is why independent thinkers and those of us who refuse to play their game threaten them so much:  We remind them of something in themselves that they can’t face.  It is very much a middle-school mentality, as I said before, complete with middle-school insincerity and pretensions.  Grow up, people.  It does not make you a bad person to focus on the things that you actually do care about.

But if that’s just too much to ask, then fine.  I don’t ask for the approval of any party base.  I do ask to be left alone by party bases.  Go bloviate at someone with a poorer self-image, someone who might be receptive to the moral shaming, and we’ll all be happier.

(Sorry about this.  It’s just the result of a confluence of things over the past several days.  I really, really need to stay off Facebook and not read blogs or opinion pieces.)

January 17, 2012

Thoughts On SOPA

Filed under: Politics,Sci/Tech — PolitiCalypso @ 10:49 pm

I’m not blacking out my website.

Color me jaded, cynical, or whatever adjective you choose—if it’s a synonym of that general sort, it’s almost certainly correct—but I just don’t have much—no, any—faith in the effectiveness of boycotts or protests.  That’s part of the reason why I’m not taking part in this.  I’m not going to try to convince anyone else not to shut down their site in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), however.  To each his own.

The other part of my decision not to black my site out is that, while I am absolutely against SOPA/PIPA (the Protect IP Act), I don’t particularly regard the Silicon Valley side of this as snow white and sparkly clean either, and I don’t do “solidarity” with a group that I regard as partially to blame for the very thing they are organized against.

Why do I say that?  Primarily, there are two reasons:  Large, legitimate online retailers that turn a blind eye to piracy under their own roofs (so to speak), and the relentless push of the Internet lobby for digital-only media.

Without naming names, let me just say that there are two rather large and well-known websites that let private individuals sell items, including movies and music CDs, over their domain name, and these sites take a certain percentage of every sale that these users make.  These sites do have a ratings-based system whereby users can downrate people who deal in pirated materials (or otherwise are unsatisfactory), and they can revoke seller accounts, but you see the problem, I am sure.  This system requires that some people spend money on pirated materials before this fact can be known to the broader user base.  Although they take a cut out of the sale, these sites do not guarantee purchases made by private users from private users.  On one hand, it is understandable; it would, after all, be very easy for somebody to make a purchase of legitimate material, pirate a DVD themselves, and then claim that it came from the private seller, and there would be no way to prove otherwise.  But the fact remains that if (for some reason) you want a collection of pirated DVDs, the best websites to get them from are based right in the U.S.A., and the companies cannot be unaware of this fact.  This makes me seriously question if the websites to which I am referring have other motives for opposing SOPA/PIPA than merely opposition to censorship.  (Told you I was cynical.)

The other issue is a more subtle one, and it’s one I haven’t seen addressed at great length anywhere.  I have deep misgivings about the push for everything—movies, music, and books—to be shifted over to digital-only format and for the physical items to be phased out.  This is one thing that the Internet lobby has been pushing for ever since the Napster era, claiming that “big media hasn’t kept pace with changes in the marketplace” represented by the Internet and digital media, and now that we’re arriving at that very destination with piracy unabated, I lay the blame squarely in their lap.

The biggest problem with digital-only media is that it creates a one-way, top-down marketplace.  For movies and e-books, if you buy something, that’s it.  It’s yours.  You can’t resell it.  If you had bought that book or movie (or CD) in a physical format, you could turn around and sell it to someone else who might like it better, or to a resale store, and everyone wins.  You get the money back that you spent, somebody else gets the product they wanted, and unless it is a direct transaction, another business benefits from the sale as well, which helps the broader economy.  In an e-edition-only marketplace, there are only a few legitimate retailers from which to buy media, and it’s very difficult for a new business to become licensed and compete with these giants.  Consumers are eternally consumers; they cannot become sellers themselves.  This is what the Internet lobby has pushed upon us by promoting digital media not as an adjunct, but to the exclusion of physical media, and pushing the idea that physical media of all varieties are hopelessly obsolete.  It was a fine idea for music; music albums are collections of individual, distinct items that usually stand on their own.  People wanted to buy songs individually, and now they can.  They didn’t particularly care about the CD itself, and they also didn’t particularly care about whether the song was played on a stereo system or a computer as long as the sound was good.  However, movies and most books are not collections of disparate items.  They are unified pieces of work.  Unlike music, they are engrossing; it’s not easy to do other things while reading a book or (especially) watching a movie.  And there is a natural way to watch a movie or read a book, and it does not involve a computer.  (Not saying it can’t or shouldn’t be done on a computer, of course, just that this isn’t the natural way to do it, especially for movies where a family or group of friends all view it together.)  But there has been no distinction made between the way albums, as opposed to books and movies, are created and used, and practically no recognition of the fact that what works for one (digital-only sales) may not work so well for the others.

Incidentally, problem 1 and problem 2 end up feeding upon each other.  When trust in third-party sellers is undermined because large websites do not properly police the users whose sales they profit from, people are not going to want to buy from private individuals or small shops through these venues.  They’ll buy certain types of products (particularly DVDs, Blu-Rays, and CDs) only from the “official” retailer itself rather than risk spending money on a pirated copy.  I know this is true for me, and I can vouch for another person in my family who has said the same.  And I can understand how many people would become impatient, and rather than waiting for the movie to arrive in the mail, would simply purchase a digital copy instead.  And I also rather suspect that some people would simply download a pirated digital movie instead of buying anything at all.

That’s why, while I do indeed oppose SOPA/PIPA, I am not going to turn a blind eye to the sins of the Internet lobby that is also on that side.  Now, what about the other side?  Surely you didn’t think I would let them off scot-free.

There is no doubt in my mind that the entertainment industry would love to have sole control over sales of their products, completely eliminating middlemen and resales.  After all, if you buy a movie, don’t care for it, and resell it to a friend, then that’s one net purchase from the viewpoint of Hollywood.  If you and your friend bought digital copies because you couldn’t sell yours, that’s two net purchases.  The entertainment industry’s numbers alleging enormous losses to piracy are quite questionable (they assume that everyone who pirates something automatically would have bought it if pirating hadn’t been an option, which is absolutely false), but I don’t think it’s because they don’t know how to do math.  While the large websites that I was alluding to above benefit financially from piracy by taking a cut of all sales (including of pirated materials) made through their servers, Hollywood would probably want even legitimate resales of material eliminated.  I’m sure they’d want to have total control over sales.  Anyone who thinks that just because they are business, they are in favor of “the free market,” needs a reality check.  They are in favor of their own bottom line.  They are not in favor of competition.  It’s against their self-interest.  They are in the “contest.”

And finally, I think a good case could be made that certain kinds of activity that are technically piracy—oh, yes—benefit sales of movies and music, and the entertainment industry would do well to take advantage of this.  I doubt this applies to the people who steal torrents of full DVDs, but it is highly plausible that, after enjoying watching a movie or listening to a song that was uploaded to YouTube (you know you’ve done it), a person would want to go out and buy a perfect, high-quality, complete copy of it.  I certainly would; in fact, I’d regard it as an obligation to support the people responsible for the piece of art.  I’m a writer.  I thoroughly understand and agree with the right of creative individuals to be compensated for their work.  However, people like to know what they are buying, and that must be considered too.  I produce creative work, but if I had a published manuscript, I’d also be involved in the business of selling it (through the publisher), and with a business decision comes the need to consider what your buyers want.  If they want to know what they’re buying and won’t buy it unless they have the opportunity, the logical thing to do from a business standpoint is to let them try it out.  Would our hypothetical movie-streaming person have made the purchase if he or she had not found that “rip” online and liked it?  Sometimes yes, if there were recommendations given from sources that he trusted, but not always.  (The notion that he always would have, as I said earlier, is the big fallacy in the entertainment industry’s accounting for the costs of piracy.)  When people go shopping for clothes, they often like to try them on and see how they look before they make the purchase.  When people buy cars, they do a test drive first.  In bookstores, people can sit and even read the whole book (if they have time) before buying it!  Of course, the “try before you buy” analogy isn’t true for every type of product, but those products for which it is not true usually are either returnable (such as things like tools) or perishable (food) anyway.

Wait, you might say; that’s what Netflix et al. do!  That’s what Amazon Prime does!  And you’re right.  You will also note that these companies have been runaway successes.  (It’s also worth noting, however, that for books, a completely free method of “trying before buying” is available:  a library.)  If sites such as YouTube (which is owned by Google, hardly a struggling little company) also had a partnership with the entertainment industry whereby they could stream movies at comparatively low quality legally and through a protocol that did not allow for video files to be downloaded via browser plugins, I bet it’d do spectacularly.  In point of fact, this is done for music; a great many artists have official YouTube pages where their music videos, concert performances, and sometimes even whole albums are streamed over YouTube at no cost to the end user.  For movies, make it ad-supported; TV channels stick commercials in movies they show, after all.  Watermark them, for that matter.  Encrypt them so that the commercials cannot be edited out.  These are just a few ideas off the top of my head for making a system like this work, and these measures need not affect the videos on these sites that truly are user-created original work.  Those could stay as they are.  Though I have said I disagree with the push to make media sales digital-only, I concede that the web lobby does have a legitimate point that the entertainment industry needs to keep pace with Internet technology.  This would essentially set up a web-based system strikingly similar to cable/satellite TV showings of movies over hundreds of channels, though augmented, as users could choose from a much broader catalog online.  If they liked a movie, they could then go and buy a proper copy uninterrupted by commercials.

It’s very easy, especially in this day of black and white thinking, to take a side on an issue like this and regard everything your chosen side says and does as absolutely Right, both factually and morally.  It’s also very easy to take a simple step such as putting up a black page, redirecting your whole website to it, and calling this a protest.  It’s not so easy to think long and hard about the issue and all those who have stakes in it.

November 9, 2011

Incivility In Politics, Past and Present

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:04 pm

Political rhetoric in this country seems to have reached a new low.  Why, look at the following statements, made by and about various political figures:

  • “[Name removed] is a filthy, lying son of a b**ch, and a very dangerous man.”
  • “When Judas betrayed Christ, his heart was not blacker than this scoundrel [name removed] in deceiving the Democracy. [...] He is an old bag of beef and I am going to Washington with a pitchfork and prod him in his old fat ribs.”
  • “[Name removed] is so dumb he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. [...] He is a nice fellow, but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet.”
  • “Old [name removed] stands lowest, I think, in the dirty catalog of treasonable mischief-makers.”
  • “Naturally dull and stupid, extremely illiterate, indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him, pusillanimous, and of course, hypocritical, [name removed] has no opinion on any subject, and will always be under the government of the worst men [...].”
  • “Reformers are the worst possible political advisers—upstarts, conceited, foolish, vain, without knowledge of measures, ignorant of men, shouting a shibboleth.”

Even the dead have not been left alone. This was said about a political figure who had been recently assassinated: “The cynical impudence with which the reformers have tried to manufacture an ideal statesman out of the late shady politician beats anything in novel-writing.”

One politician had a drink or two in very hot weather and gave a rambling speech as a result of it. Despite that this person was not a habitual drinker, let alone an alcoholic, the political cartoonists did not let up on that portrayal of him.

Another politician was overweight, and the man’s opponents, as well as the political media and cartoonists, never failed to make ad hominem references to this fact, despite how irrelevant it was to anything and how personally vicious it was.

Yet another politician had an unusual tilt to his neck. His opponents ignorantly and baselessly speculated that it was because he had attempted to hang himself.

However, the problem is not limited to ill-natured rhetoric against other people in politics. Politicians have developed such a sense of self-entitlement and power-lust that they have taken it upon themselves to threaten members of the media with assault. When one prominent politician’s daughter performed music in public and was panned by a critic, this politician publicly threatened to break the critic’s nose and blacken his eyes.

Speaking of assault, the House of Representatives itself has not been immune to threats, and indeed acts, of violence. A Congressman from the South beat up a Congressman from the North with his walking stick after the northern Congressman had insulted a Senator who was a close family member of the Southerner. And far from paying a huge political price for this, the Congressman, after resigning the office, ran again the next time and was re-elected!

That brings us to campaigns. The cynical, dishonest, muckraking tactics that have been used in political campaigns are nothing short of abominable. In one election, the Republican candidate failed to immediately condemn a speech by a preacher supporter that contained anti-Catholic references, and the Democratic Party accused the candidate himself of being anti-Catholic. In retaliation, the Republican Party leaked the information that their man’s opponent had an illegitimate child! The Republican candidate later referred to the bigoted supporter as “an ass in the shape of a preacher.”

In another campaign, the Democratic Party made fun of the Republican candidate’s slogan “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” by passing around the slogan, “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.”

And for many years, one party, in a cynical effort to distract voters from current problems, was liable to accuse the other of being unpatriotic and having supported treasonous activity in the past, even going so far as to bring out clothes owned by people who had been beaten within an inch of their lives by violent mobs and parade these articles on the campaign trail. Have they no shame?


In case you have not yet figured it out, every single one of these quotations and incidents occurred prior to 1980, and most of them occurred before 1920.

  • The first quote was about Richard Nixon and was made in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, his opponent in the presidential election.
  • The second was about Grover Cleveland and was made in 1894 by a state governor who was running for the U.S. Senate. He won his election.
  • The third was about Gerald Ford and was made by Lyndon Johnson.
  • The fourth was about James Buchanan and was made in 1861.
  • The fifth was about James Monroe and was made in 1815.
  • The sixth was made in 1883 by James Blaine, who was infamously corrupt.
  • The seventh was about James Garfield and was made in 1881, less than half a year after his death.
  • The politician who was ruthlessly slandered and libeled as a drunk after one misjudgment was Andrew Johnson (1865-1869).
  • The overweight politician whose opponents never failed to mention it was William Howard Taft (1909-1913).
  • The politician who was baselessly accused of having attempted suicide was James Buchanan.
  • The politician who threatened the music critic with a beating was Harry Truman in 1950.
  • The Congressman who beat up another Member of Congress held office before the Civil War, and the dispute was ultimately about the North-South tension.
  • The political campaign involving the anti-Catholic speech was the presidential election of 1884.
  • The political campaign where one presidential candidate was ridiculed as insane in a mocking political slogan was the 1964 election.
  • The tactic of displaying bloodstained clothing on the campaign trail and blaming the other party for the violence was called “Waving the Bloody Shirt” and it was perpetrated in the late 19th century by the GOP.

This is merely a small selection of such incidents. The overriding point I want to make is that nasty personal attacks and gutter-level rhetoric are a long-standing tradition of American politics.  So why is it that it seems so much worse today?  Most people that you asked would probably still agree that politics today is more debased, uncivil, and barbaric even than these incidents were.  This is a bit peculiar, but there are, as I see it, two possibilities for why this perception exists, and there’s probably some truth to each of them.

America Goes Soft?

Is the real problem that people (perhaps especially people in the media) cannot deal with anything in real life that isn’t bland, colorless, or vapid?  One can take a good look at the political correctness movement, the self-esteem movement, and the empty-headed trash that passes for so much of our popular entertainment and suspect that this may be correct.  This culture laps up outrageous levels of profanity, violence, and obscenity in entertainment without blinking a collective eye, and yet when a politician or party operative says or does something unusually crass, it is a major-league scandal. Many critics openly mock movies that do not titillate the lower aspects of human nature, but their friends in the news media clutch their pearls at the first sign of a street-level political taunt. That tends to suggest that people have become afraid of dealing with the dark side of human nature in those we perceive as authority figures, so it has been relegated to the world of fantasy, the traditional outlet for creating cultural archetypes.  It’s safer in a country gone soft for leader-type characters in a movie to behave crassly than for actual social leaders to display these traits.

This Time, It’s Personal

However, I don’t think the “softening” theory explains everything.  One important point to note is that the historical incidents I listed involved politicians, party operatives, and those who chose to involve themselves with them (such as members of the media).  They did not involve regular people and their family and friends.  That has changed.  These days, you don’t have to be a member of a party committee to make a political statement that gets read far and wide.  You don’t even have to depend on an editorial board to publish a letter that you wrote to the newspaper.  All you have to have is a blog, Facebook account, Twitter page, or something similar.

There is an adage that “all politics is local.”  Undoubtedly that used to be true, but I have my doubts that it actually applies anymore.  If it does, then “local” isn’t what it used to be.  These days, even local candidates for office are judged based on their party affiliation and are often tied, via that party affiliation, to an unpopular national political figure of the same party.  The candidate’s individual views are often irrelevant in this situation.  Outside money flows in for House and Senate races because particular contests could tip the scale in favor of one party or another.  It has nothing to do with the local issues, which frequently get submerged in the national media narrative and fierce dogfight between the national parties and their associated issue groups.

Speaking of those single-issue groups, these outside organizations frequently decide that they are going to use a particular locality as a testing ground to promote their cause, so they haul their carpetbags into that area, set up shop, and commence the propaganda.  Focusing (or, one might argue, fixating) on a single issue has the unfortunate tendency to promote one-sided thinking, emotionally-driven rhetoric, competing sets of “facts” (and the attendant conspiracy theories about how these different versions of the truth came to be), and plenty of encouragement of personal invective.  A particularly ugly campaign of this nature just occurred in my home state.  Outside organizations came into the state and started stirring up emotions and distributing literature about an issue that pre-existing local organizations could have advanced any time that they wanted, if that had been their goal.  The issue became nationalized, with outside money being poured in, and this witches’ brew produced exactly what one would expect:  soured relations and toxic discourse among the locals.  I’ve heard of people calling those that they have known their whole lives “allied with Satan” and “child killers” and even worse.  This campaign has left a sour taste in my mouth.  An outside group can come into a region and sow division like this, then pack its bags and merrily go on its way, leaving metaphorical wreckage behind among the people that they cynically used for their “cause.”  You think the national political machine cares?  If so, I have some swampland for sale for you.

This polarizing emotional rhetoric at local scales to promote a national agenda is intimately linked with blogging and online activism because the latter make it so easy to do now.  Indeed, if not for the nationalization (even globalization) of speech by anyone who has something to say—me included—then politics probably would still be local.  This, I think, is the critical difference between the incivility of the past and the incivility of the present.  In the past, the ugliness involved professional politicians, muckraking journalists, and journalists who chose to cover people associated with politics.  Everyday discourse among regular people was civil, comparatively speaking.  The very subject of politics was, in the past, regarded as somewhat low and definitely unsuitable for polite conversation unless they knew each other very, very well.  People had their opinions, of course, but the divisive aspect of politics was just accepted as the basic nature of the beast.  Politicians certainly weren’t regarded as modern messiahs for “the cause” (whatever that cause might be).They weren’t even necessarily regarded as the social leaders of the time.  They were regarded as flawed human beings. It was okay for them to be flawed; it was accepted as a part of that aspect of life.

These days, it is everyday political discourse among regular people that is barbaric and debased.  People in the pre-WWI era who made slimy gutter-level attacks upon the political points of view of their acquaintances would be labeled absolute boors, unfit to be around.  Today, we attack each other without qualm.  A simple disagreement in opinion is a sign that the other person is irredeemably evil or stupid or both, is not fit to associate with, and can safely be dehumanized in online rhetoric.  We do apparently expect more out of our “leaders” and “authority figures” in politics, but this may well be a modern tendency to regard these people, as I said, as messiahs for a great national cause and thus superhuman. Some of the worst deeds in history were done in the name of a charismatic “leader” and a grand cause; these things seem to be really effective at making people see others as subhuman. I don’t know.  But if I am at all on the right track with this, this is an extremely unhealthy and unnatural state of affairs, and it is long past time for it to stop.  Unfortunately, since the Internet plays a part in its development and a lot of people actually seem to like turning into barbarians in their “debates” with each other, I fear that this is not going to happen any time soon.

November 6, 2011

Defending “Apathy” and the “Mushy Middle”

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 7:11 pm

I am inclined to say that a large number of the problems in this country today are attributable to obsessive political activism and protest movements.  Now, I am not talking about people who have a cause or two that they deeply care about and work on from their home in a way that actually accomplishes something, such as animal rescue, local environmental work, charity, or something similar.  These people actually do something instead of going to some public square and spouting off about their grand vision for an ideal society.  What I am talking about are the Tea Party movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Stewart/Colbert rallies, the 9/12 rallies, and so forth.  Massive mobs of people mill around, hold up posters with cheap one-liners (politics by slogan), dress in foolish costumes, and shout simplistic platitudes.

As Tommy Lee Jones said in Men in Black, “A person is smart.  People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”  Most people are prone to emotionally-based appeals, mob mentality, and group think.  This kind of activism does nothing but encourage all this at the expense of individual thought.  In an extremely propagandistic move, these movements call enforced conformity “purity,” a term with a positive connotation, and promote no-holds-barred smearing of people whose views are not “pure.”  These types of movements coined the terms “DINO” and “RINO” (Democrats/Republicans In Name Only) for those who are insufficiently in lockstep with the ideas of the protest group, and let me assure you, that is nothing compared to what they are capable of.  Left-wing activists accused people who didn’t support Obamacare of wanting to see thousands of people die to score a point (a fact that I find extremely ironic, since numerous left-wing web outlets evilly insinuated that the South got what was coming to it with the tornado outbreak because of Southern voters who don’t believe in climate change).  On the other end, right-wing activists knee-jerk to baselessly defame Mitt Romney as the source of any leak of negative information about their preferred primary candidate.  Needless to say, there is substantial overlap between these activists and the protest organizations associated with their respective points of view.  This kind of gutter-level rhetoric is how they operate, and it is a classic tool for rabble-rousing and stirring up a mob.

When they aren’t slandering and libeling them as outright evil, these loudmouth activists regard moderates (left-leaning, right-leaning, or truly centrist) as “stupid” and “uninformed”… and don’t even get them started on “apathetic voters” (which, more often than not, means anyone who isn’t out on the streets making an idiot out of himself).  These proclamations are what’s causing the polarization of the country.  They are dehumanizing and crass.  It’s very easy for this sort of polarization to happen when you can declare that everyone who doesn’t think just like your group is stupid or evil.

One has to wonder just how these people manage to do what they do.  Who can just drop work or school and mill around in a public square in some distant city, or even a close city, for several days?  Some of them even bring their children along, if they have any, and no doubt they excuse this by saying that they are doing this “for the children’s future” or that it’s a “family protest,” instead of the obvious, which is that this activity is the most important thing in their lives at that moment.  It’s no different from people who bring their kids to the movies, or to any other inappropriate place:  Going to that place is what’s really important, and they are not about to sacrifice what’s so important to them just because there is a child.  It’s not about the future of their kids.  It is all about them.  And that is true across the political spectrum for these flamboyant ideological protests.  Either they personally want something material (such as free four-year maintenance, disguised as “college loan forgiveness,” in the case of the Occupiers, and those who footed any part of their own bills are just out of luck), or they want to push their personal beliefs on society through law (such as Tea Partiers who want to push women into getting married because of the idea that single women are responsible for a myriad of costly social ills, when in reality it is something that requires men too:  promiscuity).

What they call “apathetic voters” are actually responsible people who have things to do in their own lives and aren’t all that inclined to drop these responsibilities to go hang around with a bunch of fanatics to prescribe how other people are supposed to live.  If this is the opposite of apathy in these people’s minds, I’ll gladly be called apathetic.  Perhaps there is some truth in it; I certainly don’t care what a bunch of naive, scruffy layabouts or smarmy suburbanites in Colonial drag think of me.

I am working on an advanced degree in an earth science.  This is far more important to me, and will have far greater value for society (if being useful is what is most important to you), than making a fool out of myself in public with a pack of other fools.  Not to mention that a person who is working on a thesis tends to develop an aversion to simplistic slogans that would fit on a poster.

Moreover, these protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party represent populism, which can be described as “rule by the lowest common denominator.”  Take a good look at “populist” movements in history, especially those who believed that if only the government enforced their personal subjective beliefs as law, everything would be perfect.  Most of them turned out very, very badly.  They actually ended up being history’s villains.  As bad as the current system is, I don’t think it would be any better to be ruled by a bunch of people who have no more responsibility in their lives than to hang out with like-minded others, dressed in costume or tent-camping in city parks, for several days.  People who don’t have anything else to think about tend to fixate on what little they are doing, and, like any obsession, it can develop into extreme dogmatism and evangelism.  The fact that people with different points of view are not welcome in the protest encourages and edifies this insular type of thinking.

What these loudmouth protest movements call “apathy” is actually a responsible way of life.  It entails taking care of yourself and your loved ones.  It entails minding your own business and not demanding outrageous sacrifices or unfair favoritism.  It entails being responsible with your money and your employment or academic work.  It entails keeping yourself away from a shouting, poster-carrying mob, a mob which by definition puts pressure on every individual member to have conformity of thought and behavior.  And it entails setting time aside to do real activist work on a local scale that actually makes a difference.

“Apathy” is nothing of the sort.

July 2, 2011

ForProfit.edu: Wherein I Probably Offend Everyone, But No Matter

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 1:15 pm

It seems that there is a battle brewing over the new Department of Education guidelines on issuing student loans to people who intend to enroll at for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix.  The whole business is, in my opinion, a perfect example of the cynical dishonesty that both sides of politics in the U.S. exude, and I am going to say—and provide evidence for the assertion—that the side that is opposed to these regulations is determinedly missing a significant point in this.  All I can figure is that, unless it is poor idealistic blindness to what’s going on with these schools and many of the people that enroll, this is one of the most cynical positions I have ever seen taken in politics.  I am perfectly aware that what I am about to say may come off as angry, cold-blooded, and heartless.  Maybe that is indeed the case.  I’ve considered it before.  However, there is not a false word in this account.  Sometimes the truth is ugly and people are not what you want to believe they are.  I assure you, when I first started witnessing what I am about to describe, it was a total shell-shock to my then-rather liberal sensibilities. But as a scientist, I do not ignore valid data.

For background, as soon as the Department of Education issued guidelines requiring that a certain percentage of students graduate and find gainful employment for a school to be eligible for federal loans (which come from taxpayers’ money), the Republican Party and the conservative pundit establishment started to cry foul. There have been a variety of attacks used against these regulations. One of them is the expected attack that it is an anti-business move, since for-profit schools were singled out. I’m not going to address this; it is nothing but speculation and is irrelevant to my forthcoming point. Another, which in my opinion is extraordinarily cynical, is the attack that it is a way to keep low-income people from learning useful skills that can help them to find good jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, thereby keeping them on the dole (and the implication is that people on the dole are more likely to vote for politicians that continue or expand the dole).

Okay, that is relevant, as we shall see. However, the federal dole is not relevant in the way that conservatives who have taken on this issue seem to want to think it is.

For over a year, I worked in a computer lab where I frequently found myself assisting people in filling out FAFSA forms and enrollment applications. Now, there are, locally, two community colleges within 40 miles. There are two public four-year universities within 40 miles. There are even more traditional options within an expanded distance. These schools all have online classes, non-degree programs, and the community colleges offer technical degrees (career degrees that don’t transfer to a four-year Bachelor’s program) and job training. The cost of attending one of these schools is significantly less than attending an online for-profit college.

Well, consider this: If you are already living full-time on the dole, you aren’t thinking long-term, you perhaps have a history of ignoring financial obligations, and word gets around that you can get an order of magnitude more “student loan” money by pretending to be a student in a for-profit online school than you would by enrolling in a local college, what do you do?

That’s not speculation. I saw this happen. Each term, it would be a different for-profit online college that was selected as the vehicle for, essentially, stealing taxpayer money. Each term, the same group of locals would come into this facility, fill out their paperwork for enrolling in the exact same online school, fill out their FAFSA for obtaining student loans, including the personal expense stipend, and then fill out the school’s form for releasing as much of that money as possible to their own pocketbooks. They would make the pretense of enrolling in classes, often the same set of classes, and then… they would not do any homework. They would ignore their assignments. If the school had a policy that actually allowed the instructors to fail students (and not all of these places do), then no matter, because the “students” would have another for-profit college selected for the following term.  As long as they maintain constant enrollment, you see, the loans don’t fall due, and they can keep the cash flow coming.  With that, the process would begin again.   (That said, some of them must default at some point, because I strongly believe that this is part of why there is a high default rate on loans for for-profits.  However, people with the mentality I have described probably don’t care all that much about bad credit.  The only people who really pay a price are taxpayers who subsidize this.)

There was not a solitary thing any of us employees could do about it, because we could not possibly prove the intention to defraud.  And I am sorry, but this is fraud under any definition of the word, even if it is impossible to prosecute as such. I don’t know how widespread it is on a national scale, but there is a very distinct possibility that the poor statistics for for-profit colleges are not entirely due to subpar teaching, but to “students” who are taking advantage of their very loose admission criteria to steal from taxpayers and have no intention of acquiring an education. Unfortunately for everyone, the dole is set up so that one pretty much can live off it indefinitely (deservedly or not), as long as the right boxes are checked on the application forms and every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. There have been whistleblowers before who have called attention to the fact that people are, in some places, actually taught how to fill out government forms to maximize the amount they get.  It should come as no surprise that a scheme like I have described would spring up.

None of this should be construed to mean that this deceitful activity is all that I ever saw at this job. There were many students who enrolled in online programs, both at the local public colleges and even some at for-profit colleges, who actually were sincere in their intention to learn something. They came back to this public computer lab to do their homework online and were concerned with their grades. And it’s been long enough now since I had that job that I would not trust myself to identify anyone in particular by sight as either an honest student or a fraudster. I can say with certainty that the dishonest ones made up at least a third of the whole adult “student” group that used these computers for any purpose. However, this isn’t about accusing anyone by name; it is about blowing a whistle on a practice that I have not seen anyone in the political sphere touch on when they talk about this issue. There may indeed be villainy on the part of some people involved with these for-profit schools in recruiting honest students with dishonest marketing. However, there is definitely villainy on the part of some purported “students” who merely want to dishonestly get their hands on federal cash.

It is incredibly disingenuous of these conservatives to act as though the regulations are a diabolical plot on the part of the Obama Administration to keep impoverished people from learning anything so they’ll stay on welfare and vote Democratic. Excuse me, but that is far too idealistic a view of the motives of some of the “students”—unless it is, in fact, just a cynical political ploy to paint the opposition as villains even if it means going against one’s principles.  If it really is ignorant idealism about the “students” and the cynicism is about the administration, then I’m afraid I must burst their bubble, but I have facts on my side from personal observation: At least some percentage of these “students” have no intention of getting off the dole and regard student loans for for-profit colleges as yet another form of it! They select these places because they get the largest amount of money for it and don’t have any difficulty in getting admitted.  Tuition at some of them apparently compares to that of an Ivy League university. All that federal cash without the rejections in the application process. And I honestly wouldn’t put it past some of the online schools to be perfectly aware of this and to not really object to it, since they get a cut of the federal money too. Why else would they admit “students” who provide transcripts from six different online schools that contain nothing but Fs (because the “students” have not done anything)?

Since you cannot order schools to adjust their admission standards and definitely cannot police the motives and future intentions of people who apply for student loan money, the only real options to keep taxpayers from being defrauded are either to completely abolish the federal student loan program (which would make college unaffordable for huge numbers of students or throw them to the tender mercies of private loan companies) or to set standards for the schools if they want to receive federal money.  If the poor performance of for-profit schools is in significant part due to fraudulent activity on the part of “students,” then that is a motivation (not a mandate, mind) to these schools to stop admitting people that have highly suspicious records.  If this were all private, of course, it would be a moot point for the government, but the taxpayer has a stake in this.  If dishonest fake students are prevented from enrolling and making off like bandits with student loan money, because they cannot get admitted with their past history, then everyone wins—the schools, the honest students, and the taxpayers.

Lastly, in case anyone gets the idea that I’ve only penned this to defend a policy of a Democratic administration, I’d like to note two things.  One, I have had serious complaints with them.  Take a gander at some of my past blog posts about “Obamacare.”  My opinion on that has not changed, and I think the individual mandate is so bad that if that monstrosity is upheld by the Supreme Court, I would very likely vote for someone who promised to sign a repeal.  And two, this despicable student loan practice I have described so infuriated me as a taxpayer, an honest graduate student, and a person subsisting on a working-class income that it arguably killed off any vestige of… well, I can’t even think of any term for it other than “welfare-state liberalism.”  Whatever of that I once had is gone, and the rude awakening I had with this is why that happened. The fact that I’m using such an expression should tell just how much I have disowned that part of the philosophy.  I’m writing this piece because my conscience compels me to, not because of some partisan or ideological reason.

 

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