Jimmy Wales and His Wikipedia Revolution

Some time back, the online tech blog Slashdot hosted a Q&A session letting readers post single questions to Jimmy Wales, founder of the vast online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wales would personally respond.

Below is one such exchange, on the unimpeachable infallibility of encyclopedic references:

Editing of Information
by sylivin

Q: Wikipedia has become so large that students and youth in particular deem it the official truth. As such governments, companies, and individuals will constantly try to spin that to their own advantage.

Do you believe you will ever be able to reconcile with governments in regards to information they deem classified showing up on Wikipedia and private citizens that consider articles about them to be libel? Or, perhaps, is that just a fight you will need to struggle against for all eternity?

A: Wales: Human beings will never stop quarreling. It’s part of the glorious nature of our species. Government will never cease being stupid and overstepping their boundaries. That, too, is part of the human condition.

The real question is: can open systems adapt and respond in mostly effective ways to deal with the worst of it? And the answer to that is clearly YES.

WHAT’S THIS REALLY ABOUT?

The Old Way

300px-Brockhaus_Lexikon

In the previous century, the standard reference works for home, school or library were “encyclopedias,” literally a circle of learning or course of instruction. Most readers remember the reference standard Encyclopedia Britannica. Perhaps appropriately, we’ve linked the topic to the Wikipedia article here.

There used to be many other encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Americana and World Book, which focused on knowledge and learning from a slightly more national, occupational or educational-level perspective, not to mention specialty encyclopedias and dictionaries like Bartlett’s and Webster’s, or indispensable compendiums on professional subjects like medicine, science, and engineering. Encyclopedia Britannica published its last print edition in 2012. A subscription-model online edition still carries on.

Traditional encyclopedias were written by accredited subject matter experts, and edited by boards of other professional editors and academics, often drawn from the ranks of the university and college communities. Every effort was made to ensure article content was as objective and factual as possible, and to present “controversial” topics (such as the American Civil War) as historical recitations of documentable and footnoted fact, along with terse descriptions of the motivations and viewpoints of various opposing sides and viewpoints.

That’s how we came to regard encyclopedias as “gospel,” unimpeachable sources of fact as it were, at least insofar as it’s possible for humans to agree on facts and interpretations. Many a family argument used to be settled by referring to the family encyclopedia.

The problem with the static encyclopedia: the “accuracy” of the encyclopedic “answer” was sometimes dependent on the views and objectivity of the contributors and editors. And you might never know when this was the case, unless you were already an expert on that topic. An article on “Laissez-Faire Capitalism” would definitely read quite differently if prepared under the vigilant eye of the conservative University of Chicago, as opposed to the more liberal eye of the University of California Berkeley.

In defense of the bound volume, it is a static record of the period or era in which it was printed. I have an old Encyclopedia Britannica given to me in the 1970′s, missing two volumes, that’s about twenty years older than that. In preparing my 2002 Astronomy article “Stardust: Where do rocks come from?” I was startled to realize how little mid-century encyclopedias could tell us about supernova explosions, and how these seed the universe with the “heavy” elements that make life possible on Earth.

It’s not often we get a chance to save the Carrier Pigeon. Old bound and printed encyclopedias are a “state of knowledge” frozen in time. We rarely can find that online. Projects like Google Books can preserve those “legacy” volumes. In my opinion, at least, such projects should be supported.

The New Way

The guiding principle of Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia is that, following the Wiki process, anyone can contribute to or update an article. There are controls, and there is oversight, most of it peer oversight. You can find a Wikipedia article on Harold “The End of World is Coming” Camping, but you won’t find an article asserting that there’ll be no need to pick up the kids after school, because the world will end at exactly 2PM.

Wikipedia says it currently hosts almost 4.3 million articles. If printed and bound, that would amount to 1,902 hardcopy volumes. I can’t get my arms around the number of Wikipedia contributors in a reasonable span of time, but it seems to be around a million a month, both first-time and repeat. Wikipedians seem to measure productivity in number of edits, not number of new posts. There’s a list of the top 1,000 individual “heavy hitters,” the highest of those amassing over 1,000,000 edits each.

When peer review hits the law of large numbers, some interesting statistical things begin happen for data reliability. It’s no coincidence Wikipedia, in its many international languages, is widely regarded as such a reliable and authoritative reference source.

Wikipedia “works” because constant many-hands peer review tends in the long run to correct inaccuracies and misleading or poorly written entries. If I happen to remember that the early Apple ‘HyperCard’ was a “scripting language” and not a full-fledged “computer program,” to give a hypothetical example, Wikipedia provides a way for me to update the inaccuracy.

If someone were to write an egregiously wrong, incompetent, agenda-biased, prejudiced or sloppy article, chances are it may start a Wikipedia flame war. As in the real world, eventually these anomalies sort themselves out whenever clearer heads finally prevail.

That’s why I think Jimmy Wales dropped the ball, or sold himself short, on explaining why open systems like Wikipedia are so effective.

Yes, again, where the topic can support different points of view and controversial differences of opinion, Wikipedia can be messy, just like the real world.

The difference between Wikipedia and the old printed and bound encyclopedias should by now be pretty obvious. Wikipedia has transparency and accountability.

The old system by its nature allowed for little or no difference of opinion. Once it went to print there was no way of recalling or updating the content. Anyone who ever tried to use the “annual update” volumes, as I once did, is likely to praise them as an effective and helpful research tool. No wonder we took those compendiums as unimpeachable. Any disagreement was swept under the carpet.

There’s a very good reason why printed volumes were called “bound.” Once you bought a set, your knowledge base stopped growing and evolving. Wikipedia is a NON-filterable knowledge base with an almost unlimited supply of subject matter experts. When there are disagreements, these are easily discoverable at a glance.

The person originally questioning Jimmy Wales about information editing obviously had government or corporate censorship and redacting in mind. While I don’t personally believe governments in free western nations have yet made significant inroads toward controlling freedom of online content on Wikipedia or of the press in general,  we can expect occasional interaction on classified information, such as pertains to military or national security. To the extent that might be true, it’s not necessarily likely we’d hear much about it. Corporate redacting must go through the courts and the libel laws.

Having said that, if it hits the national media fan, such as on the recent Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden affairs, or the 2001 Enron scandal, it’s fair game for Wikipedia, blogs such as mine, and other online and offline publications, and I’m not particularly worried about it yet.

The highly visible sporadic messiness of Wikipedia open source authoring is superior to the old system of institutionalized consensus and dogma. The “new” system is a stochastic process; a new entry starts out with bumps and warts, perhaps lacking the Britannica finished eloquence of Oxford verbiage, but with a clearly defined aim of providing useful information about the topic. With the aid of many hands, perhaps thousands over time, the Wikipedia topic quickly becomes a polished authoritative reference, and a superior one, for it is never frozen in a stasis of printed paper. It can always evolve and adapt to new information and discovery.

In effect, it became the first impeachable reference work that’s corrected real-time by the same processes that challenge it.

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Occupy Wall Street: Gone Rogue?

I picked up a free San Mateo Daily Journal yesterday when I joined a friend for lunch. There was a nice story on page 1 about some civic-minded Redwood City high school girls who decided to join a regional Occupy demonstration. They thought, by participating, they could make a difference.

“Students deserve the opportunity to discuss what they care about,” an organizer said. “Once you leave high school, life hits you like a ton of bricks and these students need to know about the troubles with the banking system and why cuts are made to education.”

There was some isolated violence. The real violence was in Oakland, Seattle and elsewhere in the nation. Banks were vandalized, windows were smashed, police cars were burned, police were assaulted, and police and the crowd were at one point bombarded by a roof-top crazy hurling down long sections of heavy steel piping. There was no follow-up story on the high school girls, but I bet most were disappointed.

Occupy Wall Street, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Continue reading

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Church vs. State: Religious Freedom vs. Freedom of Speech

Just when we thought the HHS “Contraceptive Kerfuffle” was resolved! So-called “social conservatives” from the religious right are attempting to hijack the issue from the Catholic Bishops to put a two-pronged political and religious spin on it.

  1. The President ordered a change to the HHS ruling so that health insurers automatically provide the coverage at no additional charge to any insuring employer.
  2. Brooks and Shields agree that the Administration pulled us back from the brink of “religious war.”
  3. The Catholic Church, ACLU, women’s groups and Planned Parenthood all seem mollified.
  4. GOP candidate Romney finally announces “that attacks religious liberty and freedom of speech.”
  5. Brooks shows how the Administration’s original ham-fisted proposal for universal access to birth control, and the recent California court overturn of the ban on gay marriage, have emboldened the religious right.
  6. The religious right will step up its long-standing assault on personal choice it opposes.

Well, Catholics having been somewhat mollified, we should have been able to predict this would only prompt the religious right “social conservatives” to step in where Bishops care not to tread. Brooks explained the religious right would be opposed to any aspect of the HHS bill anyway, since the original proposal concretized their claim that the whole “Obamacare” program is an unwarranted government intrusion upon their religious freedom, not to mention the untouchable private sector.

As we’d expect from any religion-driven political movement, this is partly political and partly because in the view of the religious right, reproductive preventative services of any kind are a violation of the word of the Creator who blessed only their interpretation of our founding state papers. We only need a Supreme Court to rubber-stamp doctrinaire edicts from the great pulpit on high. The constitutional separation of church and state is being broken down, piece by piece.

In other words, in the “social conservative” view, religious freedom must trump personal freedom of choice every time. In that view, religious freedom requires an imperative to impose upon others sharia, i.e. religious law, by force of political legislation. Never mind that this is unconstitutional in the United States.

Do you want fries with that? Did you know that the very organization which aggressively defames gays and lesbians has its own anti-defamation league? The irony is that we find freedom of speech and religion being used here as a tool to silence personal liberty. See:

1. DefendChristians.org
2. Right Wing Watch
3. Christian Anti-Defamation Commission

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Contraception: Controversial Health Care Mandate

The U.S. Health and Human Services department (HHS) recently announced a controversial ruling that would compel most religious organizations to offer contraceptive services as part of their basic health care package. Churches themselves would be granted the “religious exemption.”

Sometimes it may seem hard to defend organizations which in many cases push intrusive meddling upon the rights and private lives of American citizens. Here we have a case where the exact same wrong is being perpetrated upon some of those religious groups. The danger in each case is that the wrongs are perpetrated through the offices of the United States government.

What was HHS thinking? Who would be beneficiaries of this new ruling? PBS reports that while churches themselves are exempt from the new rules, Catholic hospitals and universities must comply. Continue reading

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Taking a Second Look at Social Security

Recently Cousin Ron Lamont re-posted a Facebook “Like” quote by someone alleging that as early as 1967, liberal economists were calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” This irritated me enough that I removed it with the “hide this post” tool. I’m still considering whether Facebook, a family-friendly safe space, is even the proper forum for hard-core political commentary and opinion.

So to be honest, It’s fair to say I started it all when I re-posted my personal website article “Social Security Not a Ponzi Scheme” on Facebook. Even though PolitiFact [1] rates Perry’s 2011 “Ponzi” statement as “False,” I’d have to rate the 1967 “Ponzi” allegation, far from being a “Pants On Fire” item, as “Half True.”

My cousin’s post was a fair turnaround. Now then, what’s the story about Social Security?

In 1967 Newsweek reportedly ran a column by noted liberal economist Paul Samuelson (of college Economics textbook fame). Samuelson in fact did compare Social Security to a Ponzi scheme [2]. This source cites numerous other early references to the same opinion, including the Wall Street Journal. The source notes that Samuelson was “actually drawing on the Ponzi analogy to defend Social Security”, a back-handed way for an academic to illustrate a point if ever I heard one. There’s a long history of groups that tried to pin Social Security to the mat before. You should read the PolitiFact assessment [1] of the whole issue.

In my first article I showed that Social Security is NOT a Ponzi scheme by definition, but an account that is actually but not physically held in each contributor’s name. Despite all the rhetoric about what Congress is doing or has done with those funds, the account is still due and payable according to the terms of the social contract. The obvious cause for concern is: how long will the Social Security trust fund remain solvent and be able to pay out on its obligations?

Over the years a major defense of Social Security has been that it is deemed “actuarially sound,” meaning that a statistical analysis of FICA and Employer Contributions, charting pay-in and pay-out amounts against actuarial table life expectancies shows that Social Security is paying its own way, or is at least solvent. Well, it probably would be solvent if its funds were securely invested at going interest rates like any other form of pension fund.

I recently read a cynical charge somewhere that when FDR and the New Deal Congress inaugurated Social Security in 1935, the actuarial life expectancy of the current generation of retirees was about three years. I couldn’t verify that. Social Security Online [3] presents a quite different accounting: “men attaining 65 in 1990 can expect to live for 15.3 years compared to 12.7 years for men attaining 65 back in 1940.” 1940 was the first year Americans could collect Social Security.

One study I can and did do is an analysis of my own SSI account. I started drawing on it at age 65 in 2009. Raw data includes all of my contributions from 1960 to 2009 (49 years), matching Employer contributions in like amounts, and even a withholding rate adjustment recalculation for a five-year period where I was mostly self-employed. Given the taxable income data posted to everyone’s annual SSA statements, and the withholding rate for each year [4], it is a simple matter to calculate annual withholding amounts without trying to locate 49 years of W2′s or Form 1040′s. My 49-year figures came within $186 of the government-reported withholdings. And I know exactly what my SSI income is.

I assumed those funds must be adjusted or amortized for the value of interest they should earn in any interest-bearing account, making no assumption about what the Congress and Treasury may actually be doing with our money. I chose a 5% APR. Some may object that the government doesn’t credit interest accruals to our account. I am calculating the value of the account, not just the portion allocated to us.

But what is the difference between the principal and principle plus accruals? My own contribution’s cash flow plus assumed accrual worked out to 148.47% of principal. (That’s so low because the early years contributed the least). I calculated what the future value [6] of each year’s total adjusted contribution would be by year 2009. Adding the sum of those payments plus interest equaled just under 12% of my lifetime earnings.

Obviously I won’t be publishing personal financial data out of privacy concerns, but you could run the same calculations on your own account using the source links I’ve provided in “References” below. If you do not yet have a retirement year and estimated SSI monthly income, use your SSA annual statements to make some assumptions. You need to know the effect of different retirement ages on SSI income anyway.

My own work experience may not be entirely representative. I probably worked somewhat longer than the average of all wage-earners. On the one hand, my wages include three years in the military, part-time income in college, and five years of exquisitely marginal self-employment income. On the other, I finally “capped out” on SSI contributions in my last years in the workforce. The difference is what those early years might have contributed to personal savings growth had my income curve been more even. That makes a big difference to my old age, but doesn’t materially affect the amount of my monthly social security payment.

We noted how low my wages were in those early years (even if adjusted for inflation, which we should not do here). My experience would be different from someone who went straight from college into a lifelong professional career. Those earners would “cap out” early, and the Social Security Administration fund would probably never “go into the red” for individuals least likely to depend on it. Conversely, my contributions would be proportionally greater than those of someone who, for example, left the workplace to raise a family, or on account of illness or disability. All I can conclude is that it sounds reasonable that a substantial proportion of the workforce probably survives to receive social security payments well in excess of that ever put into the fund. Perhaps people who complain that is not fair forget that’s the security benefit of a social security insurance plan. Private insurance plans of all types depend on the very same mathematical certainty of pooling of risk.

The reason we can’t add an inflation factor to our calculations is off-topic but worth examining. Savings and other interest-bearing accounts don’t take inflation into account either. There, a dollar is only a dollar whether deposited in 1960 or 2009. I ran the “Inflation Calculator” [5] on my yearly payments anyway, even though I could not fairly use them for my bottom-line calculations. It’s instructive to note that the same $36.13 worth of groceries in 1962 (my FICA contribution for that year) would cost $256.66 in 2009 dollars. Younger readers would not remember the late 1970′s, when so many of us consumed with plastic credit cards bearing an 18.99% APR, since we could more cheaply repay later with devalued dollars. It isn’t just the stodgy classic University of Chicago economic conservatives who call inflation the “hidden tax.” It is. Today we call it “Quantitative Easement.”

In my early years I argued that I would probably live to regret paying into the Social Security fund (as if I had a choice). My spreadsheet proves me wrong. Actuarially speaking, in my case, I should expect to get out of it almost exactly the value of what I put into it. The spreadsheet calculations revealed that my own account will hit “break-even” when I turn age 80.25, and my statistical life expectancy right now in 2011 is age 82.77 years.

Unfortunately, even considering my low-earning early years, the purchasing power of my Social Security “nest egg” would have been worth 91% more (almost double the real purchasing power) if we did not live in an inflation-addicted economy. Our “hidden tax” benefits the government in the short run, because it repays debt with cheaper dollars just like we did with the plastic 1970 credit cards. As you can see, in the long run inflation hurts all of us, including our government.

Unsurprisingly, conservatives and upper-income wage earners will argue that Social Security is inefficient and of limited value. Liberals, seniors and lower-income workers will argue that the vast majority of Americans need a safety net. Despite all the rhetoric on both sides, I’d like to know what is going to be done to save a program that has worked for generations of American retirees so far.

If Congress can’t or won’t fix the program we have now, it would be foolhardy to put our faith and trust in a poor substitute that takes the “insurance” out of Social Security insurance, or, even worse, in some scheme that’ll be shunted off to the same private sector that brought us toxic assets, job offshoring and an imperiled middle class. That’s just my opinion, but whether the polls prove that to be in the 51% majority or 49% minority, it can’t and won’t be ignored.

©Alex Forbes 2011

References

[1] PolitiFact, “Shacking up: Social Security & Ponzi schemes
[2] Liberally Conservative, “Perry Wasn’t the First
[3] Life Expectancy for Social Security, SSA
[4] Social Security Administration Trust Fund Data
[5] Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator
[6] Future Value: I couldn’t get the built-in Excel function to work properly in my spreadsheet. Just use the formula FV = PV ( 1 + i )^ t (see NetMBA Future Value) which, in the Excel cell, would look like this: =D5*1.05^G5 if cell D5 contains the principal and G5 contains the number of periods. 1.05 is the assumed interest factor compounded annually.

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Social Security Not a Ponzi Scheme

Many Americans were surprised to hear any frontrunner candidate for President, even Texas Gov. Rick Perry, say recently in the GOP candidate debates that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. As quoted by the Washington Post on August 29, [1] Perry claimed:

It is a Ponzi scheme for these young people. The idea that they’re working and paying into Social Security today, that the current program is going to be there for them, is a lie,” Perry said. “It is a monstrous lie on this generation, and we can’t do that to them.”

It’s a lie only if and when Congress reneges on a solemn US government promise and obligation. Seniors who have paid into the Social Security fund all their working lives should be outraged. The young and those who are only beginning working careers might well find cause for alarm in those words. I believe we can set the record straight here while still bypassing 95% of the partisan rhetoric. The status of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” begins and ends with the intent of Congress.

Merriam-Webster defines ‘Ponzi scheme’ as:

an investment swindle in which some early investors are paid off with money put up by later ones in order to encourage more and bigger risks.

For more information on Ponzi scheme, see Wikipedia [2]. It is true that the money you’re depositing into your SSI account goes into the Social Security Trust Fund. It’s true that the money credited to “your account” goes not into the purchasing of equities to build a nest egg for your own eventual retirement, but to pay off obligations to the current generation of retirees. Just like most private pension funds, Social Security obligations pose a long and growing debt “tail” of outgo which is micro-managed by Congress in periodic fits of oversight.

According to OMB, the Office of Management and Budget as quoted in Wikipedia [3]:

These [Trust Fund] balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other Trust Fund expenditures – but only in a bookkeeping sense…. They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, have any impact on the Government’s ability to pay benefits. (from FY 2000 Budget, Analytical Perspectives, p. 337)

The Wiki article quoted Dr. Alan Greenspan as saying: “The crucial question: Are they ultimate claims on real resources? And the answer is yes.”

The devil’s in the details. All the worrisome arguments about how those dollar bill notes paid to you out of the fund come from the current cycle of depositors, and are not “your” dollar bills, could equally well be applied to any checking or savings bank account you own. This out-of-context argument makes no sense. The thing to remember is that it’s YOUR account, and the source of the physical greenbacks is an irrelevant distraction. The obligation to make good on your account is indeed YOUR asset, and morally it should certainly not be subject to the discretion of Congress, any more than your bank can legally decide whether your savings withdrawals coincide with the bank’s current priorities.

It’s a well know fact that the Baby Boomers are putting a heavy strain on the Social Security system. We’ve known that was coming for half a century. As we face a looming cash flow problem with Social Security, I think Congress and not individual Americans deserve full blame and responsibility for that.

Personally, I was trained in classical laissez-faire economics, and I’m very conversant with all the theoretical arguments why Social Security was a mistake in the first place. They’re just another political case of “that may work in practice, but it won’t hold up in theory.”  In my twenties I resented Social Security bitterly. After a lifetime paying into the fund, and a lifetime observing corporate practice in the American workplace where I worked for over forty years, I saw I’d be a fool to trust any “privatized” solution. Neither am I amused when I hear my account dismissively called an “entitlement.”

Reasonable people will conclude that Social Security is NOT a Ponzi scheme because, among other things, it is NOT a get-rich investment scheme and, for better or for worse, the “real resources” backing the fund are United States Treasury bonds. One could, if one wished, even argue that Perry was really calling into question the full faith and credit of the United States government. After all, it was his party that shook world confidence in our national will to pay our just debts and obligations in the first place.

© Alex Forbes 2011

Further Reading

[1] Washington Post, “Perry’s Ponzi scheme rhetoric” by Jonathan Bernstein
[2] Wikipedia, Ponzi scheme
[3] Wikipedia, Social Security Trust Fund

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The Tea Party on Hurricane Irene

And finally, the party that has a political take on everything. Where is the Tea Party in the wake of Hurricane Irene?

Well, in the St. Petersburg Times article “Michele Bachmann rally draws over 1,000 in Sarasota, but some prefer Rick Perry” we’re hearing from a couple of their candidates:

“I spoke to Rick Perry Thursday night,” said Wes Maddox, a GOP activist in Tampa who went to Texas A&M with Perry, who is expected to make his first Florida stop Sept. 13 in Tampa Bay. “He said, ‘You tell them (in Florida) help is on the way.’ That’s what the governor’s message is – help is on the way.”

And according to the same source, Michele Bachmann said:

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

How fatuous. Does Bachmann really think God has joined her Tea Party to intervene in partisan politics? If so, doesn’t that make her Tea Party The Party of God? How ironic she’d paint their god as an obsessive-compulsive klepto.

Millions of Americans who have paid into the Social Security fund their entire working lifetimes were angered to hear this new breed of political opportunist call Social Security benefits “entitlements.” That was just a warning shot across our bow.

Where is the consistency in a Tea Party that mocks the working class, our once and former middle class, with taunts of “entitlement?” Millions of unemployed and displaced were ruined by the ongoing global financial hurricane, itself spawned by corporate carpetbaggers masquerading as “free enterprisers.” Newly poor Americans may soon find themselves in the ranks of the chronically unemployable and dispossessed. They will be dependent wards of the welfare state that those carpetbaggers, who helped create the very conditions that fuel the poverty/welfare cycle, detest. Those Americans might be surprised to hear themselves called welfare cheats and social parasites.

Who is next? When do we get to hear Tea Party rants about “entitlements” for the victims of Irene, Katrina, mine disasters, victims of wacko shootings, and other “nanny state parasites?”

Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breath free … if “help is on the way,” as Perry, who as governor of Texas lacks jurisdiction over the Eastern Seaboard, was said to promise: let the Almighty sweep the carpetbaggers out to sea like cockroaches in a storm drain. In the long run, marginalizing our fellow citizens with outsourcing, corporate mismanagement and rampant corruption, toxic assets and Bernie Madoff style investment schemes, all the while painting us as bloodsucking socialist parasites, just won’t cut it. Heed the roar of reality. “Arab Spring” won’t begin to cover the revolt.

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Science Denial and the Texas Board of Education

In another century and simpler time (1999) I wrote my signature article about the Kansas Board of Education (KBOE)  — dissecting our massive modern schism between science and biblical literalism. We didn’t even have the term “science denial” in those comparatively innocent days.

Darwin’s world of science clashes once again with the recidivist views of those who would turn the pages of the world body of knowledge back to the Roman Catholic Inquisition of 1615.  That nearly executed Galileo for  heliocentric blasphemy.

How have we fared since? We deplore all sorts of agenda-driven rhetoric when the source is the Taliban extremism of Mideastern Islamic fatwas.  We somehow condone it as just another opinion if it comes from Christian fundamentalism and Holy Roller biblical literalism.

American regional sectarianism is celebrated with equal parts amusement and proof of our rich cultural tradition of diversity and tolerance, but no one so far has seriously suggested the private religious beliefs of one or more of those regional cults should drive national government policy.

Nor has anyone yet seriously challenged Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” [Wikipedia]

Libertarians preach that “this kind of [science-oriented] government interference is intolerable”, yet their evangelical supporters have brought interference in education and dumbing-down of our children to a whole new level.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously  quipped “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” He’s currently enjoying a well-deserved revival.

As commentators in science, media and education note with alarm, we find GOP frontrunner candidates Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann on record as questioning both global warming and evolution itself. Evangelical Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry told a school child on national TV that evolution was a theory that has “got some gaps.” So as to avoid conveying the false impression that Texas encourages the same science education that propelled America into the post-Sputnik Age of the 1950′s, he claims schoolchildren there are taught both “theories” as if both have equal credibility. There’s grave danger that science denial will actually storm through the doors of the White House in 2012.

The respected conservative Dr. Charles Krauthammer (a political commentator and Harvard-trained physician presumably well grounded in science) stated yesterday on Inside Washington that Global Warming has to be looked at seriously, but is still a theory. Qualifying that, he explained that man-made CO2 injection into the atmosphere is geologically unprecedented, but Earth has self-healing counter-mechanisms such as carbon sequestration (all true enough) … so we should look at the phenomenon more carefully before investing trillions in greener energy resources.

“I’m perturbed when I hear Republicans talk about Evolution as a theory like Keynesian economics,” Krauthammer says. Scientists say “it’s so” of global warming and Krauthammer says “it probably is,” but he questions the scientific models predicting the scope and intensity of potential disaster.

That may work in practice, but it won’t hold up in theory.

To the anti-science Republican Party that invented the “if it walks like a duck” theory of fact validation, it would seem the “it’s just a theory” dismissal of global warming would be more plausible if the polar cap were icing over, the Northwest Passage refroze, polar bears were thriving on an ice floe paradise, ocean levels were dropping, air quality was as good as Mauna Kea’s globally, and Phoenix was hitting summertime highs of 86.

In a bizarrely dangerous reversal of separation of church and state, science education is now politicized to a degree that wouldn’t have been tolerated a decade ago or two. Covering this epidemic was this morning’s PBS “Need to Know,” which presented a short section on the herculean effort of the Texas Board of Education (SBOE) to rewrite history and science in the Texas classroom.


Episode #168H Duration: 56:46 STEREO
TEXAS TEXTBOOKS – Despite Governor Perry’s statement that Texas schools teach evolution and creationism, Texas recently voted not to add creationism or intelligent design to its science texts. But the actions of the state’s school board continue to be closely watched by the nation. NTK caught up with the Board last May, as it was considering changes to be made in its social studies curriculum – changes that critics said inserted politics and religious beliefs into textbooks. Shot in Austin, Mt Pleasant and Bryan Texas. Interviews include Don McLeroy (SBOE), Thomas Raitliff (SBOE), and Kathy Miller (TX Freedom Network).

For anyone who has followed science denial for the last decade, there is little new in the theory of revisionism here, but the level of micro-management has escalated in the choice of religiously “correct” science and history and even in the choice of English textbook words used to describe those studies.

For example, SBOE members objected to the frequent textbook use of the word “propaganda” to describe U.S. Government efforts to rally public support for the World War I and II war efforts. To them, “propaganda” only connotes the sort of lies the bad guys promoted in wartime Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, or anything President Obama says. The SBOE voted to substitute a neutral word like “public information” in Texas history books.

PROPAGANDA: Official government communications to the public that are designed to influence opinion. The information may be true or false, but it is always carefully selected for its political effect. — Dictionary.com

“Propaganda” is also used to educate about the need for rationing, conservation, job creation and other vital public concerns. It is a legitimate dictionary word with a rich historical backdrop. In point of fact, a government information campaign to “Buy War Bonds” is propaganda whether we approve or not.   As for the negative connotation of the word, maybe it hits too close to home. That is exactly what the SBOE is doing, and it must be stopped.

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Are Corporations ‘People’?

A most interesting question was posed today to panelists on the “Inside Washington” PBS roundtable. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer, that brilliant conservative whom I admire but with whom I disagree so much, didn’t bite. Columnist and editor Colby King of the Washington Post did.

First of all, this question is loaded. Krauthammer probably saw that. By ‘people’ do we mean, are corporations best viewed as aggregates of “just-plain folks”, like you and me? Or should corporations count under some kind of “one man one vote” rule, getting entitlement to contribute to political campaigns, and to lobby for tax breaks and special treatment?

Second of all, are we talking about how we define corporations, or are we really talking about a extra-constitutional rationale for expanding their enormous power?

Colby King innocently jumped on the question right away. Corporations, he offered in so many words, are comprised of investors, maybe just like you and me, or like the managers of our decimated 401K accounts. So in that sense yes, King said he could see corporations as ‘people’. The question went nowhere. Panelists quickly jumped to the next topic.

Politically, there is one aspect of corporations that’s much like any other interest group. They are and should be entitled to lobby Washington for fair representation of their interests in the scheme of things. But this kind of advocacy should be vetted for impartial relevance in ways we do not tolerate for private citizens. Washington observers have witnessed a sea change in corporate legal status in recent years. Under the Bush Administration, expanded ‘rights’ were extended to corporations, so that, perhaps, corporations might be allowed to donate anonymously to political campaigns and secret slush funds, or the Koch Brothers might be able to buy an election proposition initiative in California.

The unspoken core principle here was that corporations had heretofore been denied basic individual rights, so statutes and enforcement protocols needed to be relaxed to eliminate discrimination against ‘just plain people’ interest groups that just so happen to be incorporated under the laws of a state.

After all, if you own a corporation, presumably you do go to the polls to vote your personal position on the issues, don’t you? Don’t you think there should be some way your corporation can act as an extension your views, since you own a piece of it or actually control it?

So sorry, but you don’t get your vote counted twice just because you’re incorporated in, say, the State of Delaware. If a private citizen’s vote counts as one, should the “vote” of a Bank of America or Koch Industries count as ten million?

A corporation is not an individual. It does not have individual rights. It doesn’t get to vote. The Articles of Constitution only enumerate individual freedoms for individuals. So corporations are not people, and there is a dangerously destabilizing aspect to this trendy popular doublethink. Look at the 2008 consequences of the SEC and Treasury being asleep at the wheel on “good guys” like Bernie Madoff, Bank of America, AIG and Lehman Brothers. But if they were influenced by the Wall Street “old boys network” (from whom they draw so many into their ranks), nobody can prove it: not above suspicion, not accountable, never free of the taint of conflict of interest.

Individual Americans have many diverging views about religious takes on prayer in schools, abortion, gay rights, divorce or evolution, and we are all free to express our opinions, and to vote on them to the extent not pre-empted by statutory and constitutional limitations. But Congress is not free to count the “votes” of our congregations, synagogues and mosques. Yet the century-old corporate problem remains: Congress remains beholden to very large corporations.

Judicial common sense is of course needed here. Perhaps that’s asking a lot of our current crop of representatives. Your pastor, priest or rabbi should certainly be welcomed as an “expert witness” on a topic of debate, perhaps home schooling, subject of course to their personal experience in the area — but not as a spokesperson for, say, The Vatican. Similarly, shouldn’t a respected and honest businessperson such as Warren Buffett be allowed to address Congress on the economy or a hearing on energy? Certainly — but he should not be invited to make a large contribution to the chairperson of the committee hearing a bill under which Berkshire Hathaway would be a principle or sole beneficiary.

There are honest businesspeople, remember, and Buffett would certainly be one of them. Constraints need to be reimposed upon abuse of power in both private enterprise and Congress.

We need political separation of corporation and state just as we need separation of church and state, and for the very same reasons.

Further Reading

1. The Billionaire Koch Brothers’ War Against Obama : Jane Mayer, The New Yorker
“The Kochs have long depended on the public’s not knowing all the details about them. They have been content to operate what David Koch has called ‘the largest company that you’ve never heard of.’ But with the growing prominence of the Tea Party, and with increased awareness of the Kochs’ ties to the movement, the brothers may find it harder to deflect scrutiny.

2. The Koch brothers: all the influence money can buy : Paul Harris, Guardian
“Not just liberals but conservatives should be deeply worried by a revelatory investigation of the libertarian billionaires’ lobbying”

3. Corporate personhood : Wikipedia
“Others argue that corporations should have the protection of the U.S. Constitution, pointing out that they are organizations of people, and that these people shouldn’t be deprived of their human rights when they join with others to act collectively.”

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