Sunday, April 24, 2011

Jon Kyl Will Never Learn, But We Should

Like most of his Senate colleagues (on both sides of the aisle, but especially on his), Jon Kyl is renowned for neither intellectual acuity nor fundamental honesty. He outdid himself recently, however, with his claim that abortions are “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does.” It is a preposterous claim, even for someone as dim-witted and truth-impaired as Mr. Kyl, but it’s not really the fact that a GOP politician simply made stuff up that interests me: that’s a dog bites man story.

Besides, the left’s response hasn’t been exactly without its faults. PolitiFact, which has been hit-and-miss of late (their analysis of claims that the Ryan budget plan would eliminate Medicare was particularly inept) got this one right… well, almost. In giving Kyl only a “false” rating instead of the more severe and, in this case accurate, “Pants on Fire,” PolitiFact allowed Kyl’s acknowledgment that he’d been busted to soften the blow. (Here’s a good analysis of that part of the story by David Brauer.)

But while PolitiFact may have been a little easy on Kyl, their skepticism of assertions on the left that actually only 3% of what Planned Parenthood “does” is abortions was appropriate. They’re right in pointing out that the only numbers we have are in the form of self-reporting (not that cooking the books ever happens on our side), and that there’s a fundamental difference between “providing an abortion and, say, handing out a pack of condoms or conducting a blood test.” And, of course, the argument that Planned Parenthood uses no federal funds for abortion services is as dubious as similar claims from the US Chamber of Commerce that no foreign corporate money finds its way into campaign ads.

That said, the “contraception” category includes “reversible contraception, emergency contraception, vasectomies and tubal sterilizations.” This would seem to include a fair number of surgical procedures on the scale of an abortion, and, given the fact that there are 12 times as many of them (!) as there are abortions, Kyl’s fantasy number gets obliterated. In other words, if Planned Parenthood were dishonest enough to quadruple the actual number of such procedures and under-report the number of abortions it actually performs by a factor of 10, abortions would still make up far less than Kyl’s 90% figure, just among surgical procedures, not even counting the over 3 million cancer screens, pregnancy tests, etc., that really form the center of the organization’s mission.

So Kyl was either lying or hopelessly deluded. Given the source, it’s hard to tell which: he’s so adept at both. As noted above, a politician of any stripe who says something untrue, even absurdly untrue, isn’t really news. But in the finest tradition of incompetents everywhere, Kyl took things a step further. His minion told CNN that “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions.” Needless to say, this remarkably stupid comment garnered even more criticism than the Senator’s initial idiocy. After all, if Kyl had meant to say that, he presumably would have done so. Stephen Colbert, in particular, had a field day, not only launching his own parodic attack on air, but also engendering the Twitter tag NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement.

Kyl, of course, as cravenly pompous as he is dishonest, responded by claiming he “misspoke” and by throwing the staffer under the bus: “that was not me—that was my press person,” quoth the ethical paragon. Way to stay classy, Jon Boy. By the way, Senator, was your statement intended to be factual? Because if it was, you kind of missed the mark… like aiming for Phoenix and hitting Tierra del Fuego.

Of course, what’s interesting here is that the staffer’s comment was about the only thing anyone in that office has ever said that’s actually true. Senator Kyl’s statement was not intended to be factual. Jon Kyl has the intellectual rigor of a kumquat, but even he knew he wasn’t telling the truth. But—and I say this as a theatre professional trained in the art of the hypokrites—he absolutely intended to make us believe that he was telling the truth (a point made in passing by Colbert). This wasn’t garden variety political hyperbole, saying “millions” to mean “a lot.” It was, quite simply, a lie. And Jon Kyl was too stupid to know he’d get caught.

Needless to say, the press agent fell on his sword, having tried in vain to cover up his boss’s prevarication: “Senator Kyl misspoke when he incorrectly cited a statistic on the Senate floor last week regarding Planned Parenthood…. Rather than simply state that in response to a media inquiry, I responded that his comment was not intended to be a factual statement; a comment that, in retrospect, made no sense. Senator Kyl neither saw nor approved that response.” Best line of this round of the brouhaha goes to Alex Seitz-Wald of “So neither Kyl’s original statement nor his press aide’s refutation of it were intended to be factual statements.”

You, Gentle Reader, would think that even a dull knife like Jon Kyl would have figured out that the best thing to do next would be to shut up and let the storm blow over. In such a surmise, however, you would be seriously under-estimating the good Senator’s unparalleled capacity for shooting himself in the foot (should this ever become an Olympic event—it would certainly be more interesting than race-walking or rhythmic gymnastics—we’d be assured of a medalist). No, Mr. Kyl decided instead to do his best Wile E. Coyote impression, and… wait for it… have his inanity stricken from the Congressional Record.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when such a ploy would have made a certain amount of sense: not ethically, of course, but at least politically. But that was before C-Span, before YouTube, and before bloggers. I suspect that Charles Wagner’s comment on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page is accurate: “Congresscritters of both parties regularly expunge their gaffes from the Congressional Record. This is not new.” Certainly I’m not arguing otherwise. But it takes a remarkably tone-deaf politician not to know that someone is going to check the official record to see if it’s really an accurate transcript of what transpired on the Senate floor. Nor will anyone suddenly forget the existence of video recordings of the debate.

No, what Senator Kyl has done creates a three-fold calamity: 1). it reminds us all, once again, of the mendacious initial claim, and of the gargantuan quality of that lie, 2). it suggests rather clearly that Senator Kyl, at least, and probably a goodly number of his colleagues, have no idea what media are available to those of even modest technological savvy (why bother, if it’s not going to work?), and 3). most problematically, it calls into question the trust we place in the Congressional Record, making it clear that accuracy (truth, if you will) is always to be sacrificed to an individual Congressperson’s desire to avoid embarrassment.

Come to think of it, though, that last manifestation isn’t so bad: it increases an already rife cynicism, but such a stance would seem to be appropriate. Better to know that we’re being manipulated than to have it happening without our knowledge. So… uh… thanks for being an incompetent charlatan, Senator. We appreciate the lesson you’ve taught us.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fracking Frackers.

As a well-informed citizen, Gentle Reader, you are no doubt aware of the state of Texas’s budgetary crisis that’s going to cost, among other things, somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 jobs in the public education sector so we can maintain a “favorable business climate,” or whatever new euphemism Governor Perry is using for “screw everybody but my fat-cat campaign contributors.”

The newest revelation about the true nature of the deficit suggests, unsurprisingly, that Big Energy is not only making obscene profits with little if any regard for trivial inconveniences like groundwater contamination bad enough to set tap water on fire, but they’re apparently gaming the system to avoid literally billions of dollars in taxes. Indeed, a report commissioned by the Texas Legislative Budget Board but oh-so-conveniently not published—the decision to publish or not is made by the “leadership” (Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House), not the staff—shows that there has been some pretty shady stuff going on. The result is that a tax of 7.5% of market value has, because of “deductions, exemptions, and rate reductions,” actually generated a yield of only between 1.1 and 1.9%, or somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter of what would otherwise have been owed.

The most significant part of this discrepancy was in a tax benefit accruing to “high-cost operations.” The original rationale for this incentive makes perfect sense: encouraging companies to drill in places they otherwise might not, thereby creating a win-win: the company hires more people, makes more money and can keep more of it; the state collects a lot of tax revenue, even at a reduced rate, when there may not have been a well at all otherwise.

Problem is (quoting from the report):

• High-cost natural gas well certifications are based on 30-year-old production definitions that rely on the type of gas produced and manner of production rather than the actual cost to drill. In fiscal year 2009 this resulted in the certification of a $24,000 gas well as a high-cost operation when the median drilling cost was $2.3 million….

• Since fiscal year 2004, the value of high-cost gas tax rate reductions has totaled $7.4 billion.

• During fiscal year 2010, the State Auditor’s Office documented multiple instances in which tax audit processes did not prevent taxpayers from claiming rate reductions in excess of statutory limits. The Comptroller of Public Accounts later reported 357 natural gas wells had exceeded maximum rate reduction caps.

• [High-cost gas tax rate reductions are projected to account for] state revenue losses of $7.9 billion through 2019, from just the wells drilled in 2009.

The exact ratio of how much of the lost revenue is the result of actual criminality as opposed to simple corruption of the political process is unclear. What is evident is that the natural gas industry, with the active collusion of the state government, is getting enough in tax breaks at the expense of the rest of us to make a serious dent in the deficit. Ultimately, it matters little how Halliburton (to pick one such corporation at something short of random) harvests its taxpayer rip-off: by breaking laws it knows won’t be enforced, or by buying politicians who will do its bidding and legalize that which should be criminal.

To say that I am not a geologist or a tax accountant is rather like saying that water is wet… or that fracking isn’t worth the risk, at least at current technology levels. But it doesn’t take a lot of discipline-specific expertise to figure out what to do: 1). review the current policy, making appropriate accommodation for actual entrepreneurship, but ensuring that multi-billion dollar corporations aren’t screwing the rest of us (again), 2). actually enforce whatever the revised law does decree (collecting what's already owed wouldn't be a bad idea, either), 3). remove the TLBB from partisan control so they can and will release reports like this one, which they claim is an “internal working document,” not even subject to the Open Records Act.

There are legitimate concerns, expressed for example by commenter “L Streets Resident” on the excellent blog post by Jim Schutze on the Dallas Observer site, that a too-precipitous change of policy might turn out not to be cost-effective, costing more in jobs than it would generate in revenue. Perhaps. And Schutze no doubt exaggerates the situation: $8 billion over several years is different from $8 billion right now. But the energy industry’s defenders can’t seem to wrap their head around the idea that, say, cutting a third of the state’s teaching jobs might also have some significant negative repercussions extending well past the immediate families of the laid-off educators themselves.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Peacemaker Who Wasn't

I read recently of the assassination (I presume that is the correct term) of Juliano Mer Khamis, described by the AP’s Mohammed Ballas as an “Israeli-Arab actor” who “ran a drama school and a community theater” in the West Bank.

To hear Ballas tell it, Mr. Mer Khamis was quite a guy. The article makes a big deal out of his Israeli Jewish mother and Arab father, and describes his vision of his company, the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, as “a way of restoring normalcy to the town's youth and opening their minds to the world beyond the harshness of their immediate surroundings.” He also must have been courageous, as “[The] theater drew criticism and vandalism from some Palestinians who were suspicious of Mer Khamis, an Israeli citizen, and saw the theater as a threat to their traditions.” Did we mention his Mom was Jewish? And Israeli?

Trouble is, I remembered the name, and I remembered, too, what my investigation of another puff piece on Mer Khamis and the Freedom Theatre revealed a few years ago. The article in question was on on Aljazeera’s website. I link here to a blog piece I wrote on the subject nearly five years ago (N.B., the internal links from that post no longer work). Turns out that the Freedom Theatre was pretty damned proud of having turned out alumni who engaged in armed insurrection, and at least one of whom, a suicide bomber, richly merited description as a terrorist.

Importantly, what I’m talking about here isn’t what the company’s detractors said, or what the theatre admitted sometimes happens. It’s what they included—and still include—on their own website and in their publicity campaigns. The Freedom Theatre, says Mer Khamis on a slickly produced video promotion from last fall, “is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation.” We see a young boy declare that “freedom to me is the occupation ending and the army leaving.” Shortly thereafter, Mer Khamis quotes a former student, a leader of the Al Aksa Brigade, as not wanting to fight any more in the absence of “real, honest leadership: liberation leadership. We have to build up this leadership from scratch. And to do this, the best way is to start an artistic venue.”

The Freedom Theatre, in other words, is a propaganda outlet, nothing more and nothing less. Their cause may be good—I’ve certainly been critical of some of the Israeli government’s activities with respect to the Palestinians—but Juliano Mer Khamis and his mother alike were political activists first and theatre artists second.

Of course, some of the most significant plays ever produced—from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the works of Václav Havel and Athol Fugard—were important as much for their political message as for their artistic merit per se. But if the balance tips too far towards efficacy over aesthetics, we find ourselves at socialist realism or the Cultural Revolution. Remember, too, that the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia which ultimately brought Havel himself to the presidency earned that sobriquet in part because of its non-violence. That, to be polite, does not seem to be the goal of the Freedom Theatre. There is a difference between speaking truth to power and throwing bombs at it.

Juliano Mer Khamis should be mourned. He will be missed by many, apparently, including a pregnant wife and two children. But if his murder was politically motivated, as seems to be the current thinking, he was neither an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire nor a pacifist ultimately overwhelmed by the maelstrom of violence swirling around him. He was a combatant as surely as if he were manning a submachine gun himself. Those who agree with his politics and his tactics should be honest about the source of their admiration. He was what he was, and it wasn’t a peace-maker.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Outrage Is There... But Where Is the Outlet?

In Theatre History class, I discuss the economic conditions of the 19th century which, I argue, structurally parallel the rise of the director in the theatre. I talk a lot about the anonymity of the new economy. Whereas there was a time when a customer who had a problem with Joe’s Widgets demanded to see Joe (and Joe made things right), the increasingly complex economies of the last century and a half have brought in the age of Amalgamated Widgetcorp, and a customer service problem gets routed to a phone bank in India.

This downside of a modern economy is never more evident than in the public’s inability to know how to protest against a company that has no retail presence when they do something remarkably obscene, like, say, when Transocean gives millions of dollars in bonuses to its executives in celebration of their safety record. You remember Transocean, right? The good folks who were right in there with BP in creating the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the one that killed eleven people and caused perhaps irrevocable harm to an entire ecosystem? The ones who effectively kidnapped survivors of the explosion, not allowing them to even call their loved ones to assure them of their continued existence, lest they might say something that would… uh… let the rest of us know the truth of what happened? The clever fellows who invoked an obscure 19th-century law to try to wriggle out of their responsibilities to those people, present and future, harmed by their malfeasance? The ones who, although really a US company, moved their incorporation first to the Cayman Islands and then to Switzerland to avoid taxes? Yeah, those guys.

Well, these paragons of virtue are now rewarding their upper management for their amorality, their callousness, indeed their criminality. Of course, it is true that the safety record for 2010 wasn’t really much worse than in previous years. There had, after all, been fatalities at Transocean facilities in 2002, 2003, and 2007. The Wall Street Journal reports that “[n]early three of every four incidents that triggered federal investigations into safety and other problems on deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico since 2008 have been on rigs operated by Transocean, according to an analysis of federal data.” This “despite during that time owning fewer than half the Gulf of Mexico rigs operating in more than 3,000 feet of water.”

In surveys conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Energy Point Research, says the WSJ, Transocean was rated last in job quality and second to last in overall satisfaction. Respondents to the survey are clients of the various drillrig corporations. 77 people were evacuated from the Deepwater Horizon rig itself in 2008.

At least in 2009 and 2010 Transocean had the sense not to reward (at least explicitly) the executives who, through incompetence, amorality, or simple charlatanism, were responsible for condoning if not abetting the company’s frankly rather dismal safety record. (One of the greatest ironies of recent times was the celebration of safety on the Deepwater Horizon on the very day of the Gulf disaster.)

But now, Transocean has, less than a year after the horrific events of last April 20, decided to create the Orwellian specter of rewarding safety performance that doesn’t exist. We have, after all, always been at war with Eurasia. (Is the linguistic similarity between Oceania and Transocean a coincidence? Enquiring minds want to know.) Perhaps, of course, by the corporation’s calculus, they did have “an exemplary statistical safety record as measured by our total recordable incident rate and total potential severity rate.” (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?)

But here’s the point: even if the overall safety record of Transocean for the past year really has been exemplary by industry standards, it is still a remarkably arrogant and bone-headed move to remind the rest of us of what surely must rank as one of the biggest PR calamities in corporate history. And it doesn’t even matter if Transocean wasn’t really principally to blame for the events in the Gulf last spring: they’re linked to them in the public consciousness, so the bonuses to perceived perpetrators are a slap in the face to anyone who thinks that even multi-billion dollar corporations ought to be held responsible for their actions.

These bonuses, in other words, are as bad for the corporation’s reputation as they are hubristic and greedy. But, of course, a company like Transocean just doesn’t care. When Target, which made part of its reputation on being allied to more progressive causes than its chief competitor, Wal-Mart, contributed to the campaigns of virulently anti-gay candidates, it spawned a boycott. Now, the effect of the boycott was no doubt negligible in direct terms: the few hundred dollars in gross sales that this or that consumer spent elsewhere isn’t likely to bring a corporation the size of Target to its knees. But the boycott was well-publicized and ongoing. Corporations don’t like bad publicity. Target changed its practices.

Transocean, on the other hand, can’t be boycotted by an incensed public. Do I shift my business from the Chevron gas I usually get at the convenience store closest to my house to the Exxon gas at the convenience store closest to my office to avoid a product that has been pumped through a Transocean rig? Or are both OK? Or neither? No, the only people who can boycott Transocean are folks like the decision-makers at BP and Shell, not exactly exemplars of corporate ethics, themselves. And, of course, the outrage seen here and elsewhere won’t matter a whit to those who, like Transocean CEO Steven L. Newman, see no reason even to pretend to inhabit the moral and ethical universe of the rest of us.

It’s only a matter of time before this sorry excuse for a human being shows up as an expert commentator on Fox, CNN, or CNBC. If I might switch dystopian novels on you, dear reader, welcome to the Brave New World.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Disaster Drill Disaster

One of the more intriguing stories of recent days is from the Des Moines Register, the much-respected flagship newspaper of my former state of Iowa. It seems that an anti-terror drill in the metropolis of Treynor (population 950… or 919) had to be called off because of threats to school buildings and employees. As the article explains,
Members of so-called patriot groups opposed to illegal immigration had strongly objected to the plans for the exercise, which would have been held at the Treynor High School. Their complaints focused on a fictional scenario for the drill based on young white supremacists shooting dozens of people amid rising tensions involving racial minorities and illegal immigrants who moved into the area.

Patriot group leaders complained the exercise was intended to portray people who legally possess guns and who fight illegal immigration as extremists.
Pottawattamie County officials explained that the terror scenario was necessary to comply with Homeland Security requirements to qualify for federal funding.

Wow. Talk about a story with no good guys! First off, in a time when there really is a budget crisis, we’re spending federal money to run disaster drills in some little burg with fewer than 1000 people in it, a town where the local superintendent of schools “isn’t aware of any racial tensions or white supremacists in the community.” Forgive me, good people of southwestern Iowa, but I don’t think you’re the likely targets of a terrorist attack, and spending any federal money on your local preparedness drills is, by definition, a waste. If you want to use local money for that purpose, that is entirely your decision. Preparedness is a good thing. But this exercise exists purely because the federal funding exists. I’ve been ranting about this for some time (here’s an example from my old blog, nearly six years ago), but, alas, little has changed.

But the people who arranged to strut around looking important on somebody else’s dime are merely opportunistic. The folks squawking about the scenario are downright imbecilic. If we accept that, finances excluded, such training sessions are a valuable tool both to assess and indeed to create disaster readiness—and what rational person doesn’t?—then what matters is the response of all those 42 agencies mentioned in the article: how quickly and accurately do they assess the situation, how well do they talk to each other, how well does the chain of command work?

As it happens, a fair number of my students and at least one of my colleagues participated in a disaster drill only yesterday. They were actors and makeup artists for an exercise run by our university’s School of Nursing. In other words, some of them played victims of a disaster and the rest made them look like it. I don’t know the details of the scenario—a bus accident, or whatever—but here’s the point: it’s fine with me if the entire day’s events were built around what to do when the local theatre historian goes berserk in Wal-Mart because they no longer carry his favorite brand of deodorant and he shoots up the joint. Because… wait for it… it’s not about the scenario. It’s about the response. The scenario exists, as the Pottawattamie County officials stated, merely for added realism.

It is indeed unlikely that white supremacists would engage in a mass killing spree in southwestern Iowa, but it’s a helluva lot more likely than that Islamic radicals would detonate a bomb in beautiful downtown Treynor. How do I know? Well, for one thing, those very white supremacists—or someone impersonating them, at the very least—threatened to do precisely that. OK, can we take as given that there is no proof—and probably there will never be—of who called in the threats, but that the likelihood in this case is that the callers were more probably idiots on the right proving their stupidity than idiots on the left trying to make the idiots on the right look bad?

In other words, someone affiliated with one of those “patriot groups” that protested against being viewed as criminals responded by doing something criminal. (I confess I can put little credence in the conspiracy theory that there really weren’t threats at all. The walk-back is too embarrassing to the event organizers to think they’d go through this for some petty political cause.)

I will grant the sincerity of the likes of Craig Halverson of the Minutemen Patriots that he doesn’t want threat-makers in his organization. But I confess myself amused that Iowa Minutemen director Robert Ussery argues that “It would be very, very stupid to make threats like that.” Yes, Mr. Ussery, it would. But the fact is that a goodly percentage of your membership is, well, stupid. If national surveys are to be believed, folks like the membership of the Minutemen blame the bank bailout on Barack Obama, think “death panels” were averted only by the heroic actions of Sarah Palin, and cannot bring themselves to accept the incontrovertible evidence that President Obama was born in Hawaii. As the great modern philosopher Forrest Gump reminds us, stupid is as stupid does. The idea that not a single member of an organization built on idiocy would in fact be an idiot is a lot more unlikely than that a member of an anti-immigration group (even one purporting to care only about illegal immigrants, border security, etc.) might be a white supremacist, or that such a person might go on a violent rampage.

The irony, of course, is that it is the protest, not the scenario itself, that casts the Minutemen and their ilk in a negative light. It’s the denial—too paranoid and too emphatic—that raises eyebrows. If the gunmen in the scenario were left-handed, or Catholic, or fans of the Chicago Bears, would other people who share those attributes go into immediate denial that anyone like them in any way could be such a monster? Would anyone but a moron think that all Bears fans, or even all left-handed Catholic Bears fans, are mass murderers because a fictional one turns out to be?

The inability to accept fiction as only fiction, the over-sensitive defensiveness, the insistence on prioritizing the irrelevant at the expense of the significant (thereby to catalyze one’s paranoia): all these suggest that the shoe pretty much fits. The criminal action in the real world (phoning in threats) as a means of protesting a non-existent charge of criminality in a fictive world just adds the ironic fancy bow to some pretty snug-fitting footwear.