Monday, August 10, 2009

Outcompeting the Facts

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the "body of fact" that exists in the minds of the general public. -- from a tobacco industry strategy memo, 1969

In this week's Sift:
  • Pioneers of Corporate Liberation. Someday, when corporations are finally liberated from their human oppressors, they'll look back with gratitude to those freedom-loving pioneers, the tobacco companies. We owe them for so much: the phony research institute and the astroturf campaign most of all. Their vision lives on in the recent townhall meeting protests.
  • Individual Health Insurance: Giving Up the Safety of Numbers. When it's just you and your family against a giant insurance company, who's going to win?
  • Short Notes. Care Bears vs. My Little Pony. When building demolition goes wrong. Autopilot error replaces pilot error. Maybe Blackwater really is getting away with murder. I still can't sympathize with Harvard even after they lose billions. And more.

Pioneers of Corporate Liberation
When I was in high school, the Mobil corporation used to buy advertising space in major newspapers to publish its own editorials. Purists objected that democracy wasn't supposed to work this way, with booming corporate mouthpieces making themselves heard above the voices of ordinary citizens and their representatives in politics and the media. But from today's perspective Mobil's editorials look like relics from an age of innocence. Sure, Mobil's bottomless purse could insure that its agenda (mostly oil-company tax breaks and hobbled environmental regulations) stayed on center stage independent of its merits. But at least we knew we were listening to Mobil. We could consider the source and evaluate the ideas accordingly.

That was a simpler time, and the seeds of a more complicated time were only sprouting.

Someday, when corporations rule the world openly (like the machines in The Matrix), they will undoubtedly write their history as a story of liberation from human oppression, with the tobacco companies as their Paul Reveres and Martin Luther Kings. Because it was the tobacco companies who pioneered the techniques of corporate lib.

It started when Big Tobacco realized that it couldn't put its case across openly. If the makers of Marlboro and Lucky Strike simply published their message in the New York Times, saying "Don't believe all this nonsense about lung cancer" in Mobil-like signed advertisements, any wannabee Marlboro Man would consider the source and understand the truth: Tobacco companies wanted him to volunteer for a nasty death to keep their profits up.

That wouldn't do at all.

So instead, the companies funded the Tobacco Institute -- a "research" institution that funded "scientists" and published "papers" in "journals". The Institute never tried to prove that cigarettes were good for you -- that was a bridge too far -- but instead kept raising the standards of proof to argue that the link between smoking and cancer was still "controversial". That tactic changed the shape of the public conversation. Previously, whenever cigarette executives tried to defend their product in public, they would be grilled about why they were giving people cancer. But now, anti-cigarette activists could be countered by scientists with doctorates from impressive universities. The activists could be grilled about why they were misrepresenting the data and presenting their views as facts when the scientific community was still divided.

As long as the money flowed, new points of controversy could always be found. The televised discussion shifted away from easily understood topics like profits and cancer. Instead, rival eggheads argued about sample bias and standard deviations. Politicians (also funded by the corporations) could call for more research rather than action; they appeared to be doing something when actually they were just keeping the game going. Bored and confused, the public would tune out rather than use the machinery of democracy to defend itself from predators.

The predators liked that.

If this is reminding you of today's debates about global warming or universal health insurance or even creationism, you're starting to get the point. The tobacco companies were ground-breakers and trail-blazers. Like Moses, they may not reach the Promised Land themselves, but they have pointed the way. Other vested interests can follow their path and be liberated from the oppression of an informed public.

A second tobacco industry innovation was the astroturf (i.e. fake grass roots) campaign. Why stand up for corporate profits when you can defend smokers' rights? The poor beleaguered smokers have had it up to here with being nagged and taxed and made to stand outside in the cold. They're mad as hell and they aren't going to take it any more! It's bad enough that the non-smoking majority is fitter and healthier and likely to dance on smokers' graves -- do they have to lord it over them as well? The tobacco companies didn't even have to invent the pissed-off smokers. They just had to fund the infrastructure to organize them and publicize their message.

Everybody does astroturf now. A city doesn't have to be any bigger than my own Nashua, New Hampshire to have a local astroturf campaign. The City of Nashua is trying to take over the local water company (Pennichuck) because many of us are convinced they're poor guardians of our watershed. The takeover proposal started when Pennichuck tried to sell itself to a multi-national water corporation, but has dragged on for years (after we voted overwhelmingly to exercise eminent domain) due to legal challenges. Whenever the takeover becomes an issue in a local election, we are inundated by commercials in which angry local citizens rage against bureaucrats who want to spend their money frivolously on a safe and secure water supply. The angry citizens repeat "facts" conveniently supplied by Pennichuck.

I have never seen a commercial on the anti-Pennichuck side, because where would the money come from? Preserving the watershed doesn't create a pile of cash to pay for air time. It just ... preserves the watershed. (If you'd like to add your voice to the support of our poor oppressed water company, you can easily do so from the corporate web site. No doubt some corporate-supported citizen action group will contact you to see if you would look good on TV.)

The most famous single example of astroturfing was the Brooks Brothers Riot during recount of the Bush/Gore race in Florida. What originally appeared to be a spontaneous demonstration by Floridians fearing vote fraud turned out to be an operation planned and carried out by Republican political operatives.

And that brings us to the demonstrators disrupting the town hall meetings in which Democratic congresspeople have been trying to discuss health care with their constituents. By most accounts, the protesters are not of the Brooks-Brothers variety. (Though a few of them are.) ABC News (among others) says there were "no lobbyist-funded buses" outside one such meeting. So the astroturfing here is more of the Pennichuck or smokers-rights variety: real people, really pissed off -- but stoked and organized by corporate money. Typical organizing groups include Conservatives for Patients Rights (led by former hospital-corporation CEO Rick Scott, under whose leadership HCA did things that led to them paying a $1.7 billion settlement for fraud) and FreedomWorks (led by former Republican House leader Dick Armey, whose lobbying interests closely match FreedomWorks projects).

But as I watch the videos, I'm convinced that the people on the ground are genuine. They're real people, really pissed. And why wouldn't they be pissed? They're being ruled by a secret Muslim who isn't really president because he wasn't born in this country. He's going to take away their guns and leave them to die when they get old. He's planning to surrender to the terrorists, raise taxes and undermine religion. He pretends to be a Christian, but he might even be the anti-Christ. Did I mention that he hates white people?

Sane folks have been scratching their heads for months, wondering what all this nuttiness could possible be about. Well, this is what it's all about: The point is to create free-floating anger among working-class whites who feel dispossessed. Once the mob exists, corporate shills can turn it against anything that threatens their clients' profits.

As you watch the news unfold, you should never forget that the health insurance industry makes billions of dollars a year, and they're not going to give that up without a fight. They've fought this battle before and won. In the 90s they formed the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices front group to defeat the Clinton health plan with those folksy Harry and Louise ads. What a nice couple Harry and Louise were! They wouldn't steer you wrong, would they?

Now that Democrats are making an issue of it, the mob tactics of the townhall protesters (spelled out in this memo by a FreedomWorks volunteer) are clearly embarrassing honest conservatives. (See the update at the bottom of this Tigerhawk post, for example.) But they're trying to claim the Left does the same thing. The SEIU points out the difference.

The NYT's Sheryl Gay Stohlberg asks some good questions about how politicians can distinguish real public concerns from drummed-up ones.
“When a politician can’t tell what’s grassroots and what’s Astro, that’s dangerous,” Mr. Zelizer said. “In the long term, that could undermine the potential of grassroots mobilizers to change things. At a certain point, it’s crying wolf. No one is going to believe it’s real.”
And maybe, in the long term, that's the point. If the machinery of democracy gets wrecked or hopelessly corrupted, the predators never have to worry about it again.

But SourceWatch's characterization of astroturf is a good place to start:
Unlike genuine grassroots activism which tends to be money-poor but people-rich, astroturf campaigns are typically people-poor but cash-rich. Funded heavily by corporate largesse, they use sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks and hired organizers to rope less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client's cause.

Another sign that corporate America has only your best interests at heart:
Newly unveiled court documents show that ghostwriters paid by a pharmaceutical company played a major role in producing 26 scientific papers backing the use of hormone replacement therapy in women, suggesting that the level of hidden industry influence on medical literature is broader than previously known.
Later research (sponsored by the federal government, not drug manufacturers) concluded that the therapy increased post-menopausal women's "risk of invasive breast cancer, heart disease and stroke."

Now, there's nothing wrong with a drug company doing research and telling doctors about it. The problem here is the misrepresentation. If your GP read those articles, she thought she was getting an impartial assessment -- not a sales pitch from the manufacturer.

An invaluable resource to keep track of astroturfing is the SourceWatch web site. Another is the recent book Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels. (I'll have more to say about the book after I finish it.)

Watch for this bit of media bias: Displays of anger are OK if you're a conservative. Any anti-Iraq-War or anti-globalization protest that wasn't perfectly peaceful quickly evoked the word thugs. But if a conservative yells or gets violent about healthcare he's just channeling legitimate popular rage at an out-of-touch government.

Individual Health Insurance: Giving Up the Safety of Numbers
Double-X's Sarah Wildman tells her health-insurance story: She and her husband looked for a family health insurance policy with maternity coverage and spent an extra $126 a month for it. The big print listed all the stuff it covered, but deep in the fine print of an addendum, the policy capped benefits at $3000 per pregnancy. After 36 hours of labor led to a caesarian, Wildman unexpectedly wound up on the hook for $22,000 -- which the insurance company waived only after it found out she was a journalist writing an article about her experience.

Individual (not group or employer-based) health insurance is where the greatest abuse is. The insurance companies know they're much bigger than you are, so they hide things in the small print, deny coverage at will, and more-or-less just dare you to sue them.

This is the part of the market that John McCain wanted to expand. I can't find the text of McCain's plan on the web any more, but the gist of it is:
American families know quality when they see it, so their dollars should be in their hands. When families are informed about medical choices, they are more capable of making their own decisions, less likely to choose the most expensive and often unnecessary options, and are more satisfied with their choices.
McCain was all about giving American families the power to choose which health insurance company would rip them off. Echoing this position, Charles Krauthammer thinks our healthcare system only needs two tweaks: (1) Curb malpractice payments and (2)
Tax employer-provided health-care benefits and return the money to the employee with a government check to buy his own medical insurance, just as he buys his own car or home insurance.
Lindsey Graham chimed in during a recent interview with Ezra Klein:
If I gave you and your family x amount of dollars to purchase health care, you'd be able to go shop around and make a choice and if the incentives were such that you could actually benefit from those choices, you'd make those choices.
When Graham (like Krauthammer) used a car-buying analogy, Klein came back with exactly the right response:
The car example is interesting. When I go to get a car I can walk out of the dealership if I don't like the prices. But if I have a pulmonary embolism and am on a gurney, it's hard to comparison shop, or to have anyone do it for me.
Graham rephrased the point and then dodged it completely, as Republicans always do.

McCain also wanted to create a "national market" for individual health policies, which would allow insurance companies in one state to write policies in another. Think about what that means: All the insurance companies could move their operations to whichever state would offer the least consumer protections. (Ever wonder why you mail your credit card payments to South Dakota? Same idea.) Republicans in Congress still like that proposal.

Kevin Drum wonders why we're talking about private health insurance as if it were some treasured part of American life:
Healthcare itself is provided by doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, hospices, and device makers. Insurance companies do none of this. They don't do research, they don't perform surgeries, they don't change bedpans, and they don't make diagnoses. They're just middlemen. All they do is pay the bills after marking them up 30%. They don't do anything at all to make healthcare better or more efficient. But for some reason we're supposed to care about whether they continue to exist or not. Why?
He quotes an LA Times column debunking those studies about how satisfied Americans are with their coverage:
Most people are satisfied with their current insurance because most people never have a complex encounter with the health insurance bureaucracy. ... If your typical encounter is an annual checkup or treatment of the kids' sniffles, or even a serious but routine condition such as a heart attack, your experience is probably satisfactory. But ... [a]nyone whose condition is even slightly out of the ordinary knows the sinking feeling of entering health insurance hell -- pre-authorizations, denials, appeals, and days, weeks, even months wasted waiting for resolution.
Repeating a point I made last week: Routine care is not why you need insurance. If you're not poor, you could pay for our own check-ups and children's sniffles -- probably for less money than your health insurance costs. But you need insurance for scenarios that would bankrupt you. The current system doesn't handle those situations well, and the free market can't fix the problem for a very simple reason: You don't know whether your coverage is good or not until you get sick, and after you get sick the insurance company no longer wants your business. So they have no motivation to provide good service to sick people.

WaPo's Steve Pearlstein can't maintain his balance any more. After listening to the Republican attacks on Obama's healthcare plan, he concludes that
they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

Case in point: Sarah Palin pictures her Down-syndrome baby Trig standing "in front of Obama’s 'death panel'," which presumably would deny his right-to-life for some eugenic reason. This fantasy is based on nothing more than a speech by right-wing crazy-lady Rep. Michelle Bachman of Minnesota. In turn, that speech is based on nothing beyond a New York Post column by Betsy McCaughey, who turns out to be the ultimate source for all kinds of misinformation.

In response, Joan Walsh and Harold Pollack just kind of lost it. I can't blame them.

Another case in point. We should be talking about costs and benefits and who's going to pay for what. Instead we're talking about whether Obama will kill your grandmother.

This music video explains what hot babes are really looking for in a guy: coverage.

Short Notes
Transformers and G.I. Joe made profitable action movies, but maybe Care Bears vs. My Little Pony is going too far.

I'm not sure what this graphic is good for, exactly, but it is kind of fun: How different kinds of people spend their days.

Paul Krugman doesn't exactly say the recession is ending,
But we appear to have averted the worst: utter catastrophe no longer seems likely. And Big Government, run by people who understand its virtues, is the reason why.
If government had done what the Republicans in Congress wanted and (in the words of John Boehner) "tightened their belt" rather than accept a deficit to stimulate the economy, Krugman thinks we might be in another Great Depression now.

German magazine Der Spiegel wonders (in English) if cockpit automation is just replacing pilot error with autopilot error.

By now you've probably already seen this video (where a building demolition in Turkey goes horribly wrong and the building rolls rather than implodes). But it's just too good to leave out.

Don't feel bad if you didn't see the recession coming: Neither did Harvard. Vanity Fair outlines what happened when the world's richest university assumed that it could only get richer.

I always suspected that Blackwater's Erik Prince was getting away with murder. But I thought I was being metaphoric.

AP's Kathy Gannon refuses to be fooled by the artificial line dividing Afghanistan from Pakistan. It's called Durand Line for a reason: It was drawn by Mortimer Durand, a Brit. The Pashtuns who live on either side of it are not impressed.

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