Monday, June 14, 2010

Making Change

There is some magic in wealth, which can thus make persons pay their court to it, when it does not even benefit themselves. 
-- Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1764
In this week's Sift:
  • Saving BP. In BP's hour of crisis, its highly placed defenders reveal that it is not just a corporation. It is England.
  • College Conference Realignment. This only looks like a sports story. Really it's really a business story. And it is best explained by that great philosopher, Cyndi Lauper.
  • Follow-up on the Gaza Blockade. My view gets some unexpected support from Senator Schumer.
  • Short Notes. A cross-cultural look at the difference between liberal and conservative minds. Cheney's favorite memo is full of holes. Defenses of don't-ask-don't-tell get crazier and stupider. Off-set your infidelity. And more.

Saving BP
The proverb tells us that money can't buy happiness, and the Beatles reported that "Money can't buy me love." But apparently corporate money can buy sympathy from the powerful.

Immediately after the oil spill, the usual energy-industry-supported politicians spoke up on BP's behalf. Texas Governor Rick Perry, for example, used the phrase "act of God" and said that BP "historically had a very good safety record from my perspective." After a reporter reminded Perry of the Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers -- think about that: a foreign corporation's negligence killed Perry's constituents -- he spun that positively as well, pointing out that BP would have been extra careful this time knowing that it had "a bullseye on its back" because of its past sins.

I could give many examples, but you get the point: A lot of PR flacks work for BP directly, and a lot of them work for BP while ostensibly representing the American people. When the crisis hit, both kinds leapt into action.

After it became clear that you couldn't wish this spill away or pretend it wasn't a big deal, a lot of those voices shut up for a while. (Even Fox News' Brit Hume stopped asking "Where's the oil?" as if environmentalists had made the story up.) Then the second line of defense emerged: BP is an upright organization that will do the right thing if we just leave it alone. So Rand Paul (while still insisting that "accidents happen") characterized President Obama's criticism of BP as "un-American" and said: "I’ve heard nothing from BP about not paying for the spill."

If BP engenders that kind of loyalty in American politicians, imagine how the Brits feel. (With our help, they've been overthrowing governments for BP for more than half a century.) London Mayor Boris Johnson denounced Obama's "anti-British" rhetoric -- apparently BP is indistinguishable from fair Albion itself. And the Evening Standard opined:
One in every six pounds that UK institutions earn in dividends is derived from BP: a reduction will have a direct, adverse effect, not just on fat cats, but on British pensioners. This is bad for all of us. We can understand American anger at this environmental and human catastrophe but the punitive approach to BP will help no one.
That concern is being echoed at higher levels. UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said:
It's in our joint interest to make sure that BP is able to go on functioning as an effective oil company
And Prime Minister David Cameron spoke with President Obama Saturday to "soothe transatlantic tensions" and stress "BP's economic importance to Britain, the U.S. and other countries." 

A few observations:
  1. We're going to have to watch the Obama administration carefully, or this poor-poor-BP view will seep into its responses to the situation.
  2. The conflict here isn't US vs. UK. Like Exxon-Mobil or Shell or Chevron, BP is sovereign unto itself. (PM Cameron should see what happens if he asks BP to do something unprofitable for the sake of the realm.) The fundamental conflict of our era is between corporations and humans. Voters in all countries need to look at their representatives and ask which side they're on.
  3. Corporations always try to win sympathy by pretending to represent people: workers, customers, stockholders and so on. They don't. In a crisis, management always hides behind these human shields. But it will gladly sacrifice any of them when it becomes convenient.
  4. If a BP bankruptcy threatens British pensioners, the British government would do better to aid those pensioners directly than to protect or prop up BP. That's the lesson of our Wall Street bail-outs: Remember how the hundreds of billions we gave the banks was supposed to re-start lending to small businesses? Imagine if the government had just lent a fraction of that money directly to small businesses.

Who says conservatives lack a sense of humor? Responding to a Twitter-post about the possibility of using illegal aliens to clean up the oil spill, Cato Institute scholar Michael Cannon tweeted that "they're very absorbent".  Yes, dehumanizing large groups of people is incredibly funny. I wonder if Cannon has heard the one about the number of blacks it takes to shingle a roof.
Ken Ringle, writing for the Watchdog website of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, thinks the oil spill may not turn out as bad as most environmentalists think. He covered a 1979 spill near Trinidad for the Washington Post, and was amazed that the effects dissipated so quickly. Crude oil, he says, breaks down faster and is less toxic than refined products like diesel fuel. Some of the bi-products evaporate while others are eaten by bacteria in sea water. (We'll see if this applies to the oil/dispersant mixture we have now.)

A lot depends on the quality of the oil. His 1979 spill was light Arabian, the highest quality crude oil and probably the easiest for the ocean to break down. The Alaskan crude on the Exxon Valdez was harder to break down, and it spilled into a much less vigorous ecosystem.

Color me skeptical, but Ringle doesn't appear to be an oil-industry PR guy. He seems to be making an honest point based on actual experience.

Republican House leader John Boehner seemed to suggest that the government should assist BP in paying for the oil spill. Well, more than seemedhe said this:
I think the people responsible in the oil spill--BP and the federal government--should take full responsibility for what's happening there
But then he noticed how bad the headlines about a "BP Bailout" looked, so he backed out of that position, claiming to have misheard the question. Someone in Boehner's office emailed Greg Sargent:
No taxpayer money for cleanup or damages -- period. BP pays. If the current law doesn't guarantee that, we are happy to work in a bipartisan way on reasonable new legislation.

Jon Stewart on BP's information-control tactics:
Apparently BP's greatest clean-up efforts are aimed at preventing fact-balls from washing up on the beach.

College Conference Realignment
Even though I'm a sports fan myself, I don't assume that Sift readers are. So I don't usually say much about sports, even when my alma mater goes to the Final Four two years running. But the apparent disintegration of the Big 12 conference seems bigger than your typical who-should-win-the-Heisman story, and you might want to pay attention even if you're not into college football.

In case you just said: "Colleges play football?" here's some background. Rather than hash out a brand-new schedule each year, colleges organize themselves into conferences: 8-to-16 teams that play each other. A conference is usually made up of schools that are in the same general region of the country, are roughly the same size, and have sports programs of reasonably equal strength. Most conferences include at least one titanic rivalry, like Ohio State and Michigan in the Big 10, or Oklahoma/Nebraska in the Big 12.

Fans get emotional about their conference identities and rivalries, but Cyndi Lauper was right, money does change everything.

So think like a business: College sports events draw a uniquely appealing audience for advertisers. Big schools like Texas or Florida have hundreds of thousands of alumni. So conferences like the Big 12 or SEC have millions of alumni, mostly with higher-than-average disposable incomes (being college graduates and all). And they don't all stay in Austin or Gainesville; you can find MSU Spartans or USC Trojans all over the country.

Back in 2007, the Big 10 tapped that potential by launching its own cable network. It seemed risky at the time, but now it's a gold mine. Because of the network, Big 10 teams get $15-20 million each in conference revenue-sharing, while Pac 10 teams get only around $10 million and the Big 12 a little less. So naturally, all the other conferences are looking into their cable possibilities, and they want to put together as salable a collection of schools as possible.

Two more economic factors: The top-drawer big-money bowl games like the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl (I refuse to include their corporate-sponsor names -- nobody paid me extra) are now part of the BCS system, which gives automatic berths to the winners of the major conferences. If you're not in a major conference -- I'm looking at you, Boise State -- it's almost impossible to make it into the national championship game, even if you go undefeated.

Plus, the national body that (sort of) governs the conferences, the NCAA, has ruled that you have to have at least 12 teams to split into two divisions and have a conference championship game, as the SEC, Big 12, ACC, and Big East do. That's another national-TV big-money event, so it pressures conferences like the Big 10 and Pac 10 to grow.

But college conferences aren't like the professional sports leagues: The Pac 10 may want to expand into the Denver market, but it can't just start up a new school in Boulder. It has to find an existing University of Colorado that it can lure away from its current conference, the Big 12.

That happened Thursday

One school switching conferences is not unusual, at least not in recent years. Penn State (formerly conferenceless) joined the Big 10 in 1990. (Giving it, oddly, 11 teams; find the hidden 11 in the Big 10 logo.) In 2005 the ACC poached Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East, which in turn swallowed Cincinnati, Louisville, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida.

But Colorado's move was just the beginning. Friday, Nebraska joined the Big 10 and Boise State left the Western Athletic Conference for the Mountain West. For the moment, the Big 10 has 12 teams and the Big 12 has 10.

But it's not going to stop there. Five other Big 12 teams are on the Pac 10 shopping list: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M. (Texas is the big one. It's supposed to decide what it's doing tomorrow, and if it leaves the dam breaks.) The Big 10 may expand further: maybe just by adding independent Notre Dame, but possibly the Big 12's Missouri as well. What would the Big 12 have left? Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor. Who's going to buy that cable package?

In other words, in spite of fielding teams as good as anybody's for a long time now, the Big 12 could be about to close up shop. And Nebraska and Oklahoma -- arguably college football's greatest rivals, who played some of the greatest games in NCAA history -- are going to be in different conferences for the first time since the 1920s. 

Sing it again, Cyndi, maybe this time with a country twang for the Big 12 fans in the Great Plains:
I said, "I'm sorry baby I'm leaving you tonight. 
I found someone new he's waitin' in the car outside." 
"Honey how could you do it?
We swore each other everlasting love." 
I said, "Well yeah, I know, but when we did 
there was one thing we weren't thinking of
-- and that's money. 
Money changes everything."

Follow-up on the Gaza Blockade
Last week I told you that the Gaza Blockade is targeted at the civilians of Gaza, and not just at Hamas. This week a strong Israel supporter said the same thing. Senator Chuck Schumer, speaking to the Orthodox Union:
The boycott of Gaza to me has another purpose. Obviously the first purpose is to prevent Hamas from getting weapons by which it will use to hurt Israel. But the second is actually to show the Palestinians that when there’s some moderation and cooperation, they can have an economic advancement. When there’s total war against Israel, which Hamas wages, they’re going to get nowhere.

And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go makes sense. So I think the boycott is important for bringing about peace in the Middle East. To show the Palestinians that ... [interrupted by applause] ... to show the Palestinians that a path of living with Israel and the Jews is a better way to go than a path of total and obdurate confrontation.

And so I think that Israel has to continue the blockade. And so far, that's what's going to happen and let's hope it continues. And it's our job to support it.
Schumer uses boycott and blockade as if they're synonyms, but there's an important distinction. If Israel doesn't want to trade with Hamas-controlled Gaza, fine. That's a boycott, and it's Israel's legitimate privilege to make that decision, just as people who sympathize with the Gazans don't have to buy Israeli products or perform in Israel or screen Israeli films or invest in companies that do business with Israel.

But to keep goods out by force, to prevent those who want to aid or trade with or invest in Gaza from doing so, is another matter. That's a blockade, an act of war. And to wage war against civilians -- not to injure them accidentally while attacking military targets, but to target them intentionally -- is both against international law and morally reprehensible.

The obvious response is: "Hamas wages war against civilians too." That's true, and is also illegal and reprehensible. (As I said last week, I have no objection to a blockade that purely targets Hamas' offensive weapons rather than the civilian population of Gaza.) 

But from an American point of view, there is also this difference: No major American politician announces that shooting missiles into Israeli neighborhoods "makes sense" or "let's hope it continues" or that "It's our job to support it." And I doubt that many American audiences would applaud if one did.
Israel has appointed its own commission to investigate the flotilla incident after rejecting an international inquiry.
Add the International Committee of the Red Cross to the list of organizations who are analyzing the blockade the same way I am.
The whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law.

Short Notes
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt gives a fascinating talk about the five innate moral values, and how the appreciation of them differs between social liberals and social conservatives in a wide range of countries.

Dick Cheney has been pushing for the release of a CIA memo that he says will prove the effectiveness of "enhanced interrogation" a.k.a. torture. Well, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility has looked at the memo and found that it contains inaccuracies that undermine its conclusions. For example, it claims that waterboarding Abu Zubaydah led to the arrest of alleged dirty bomber Jose Padilla, and supports this claim by misstating the date of Padilla's arrest: The memo claims 2003, but Padilla was actually arrested in 2002, before Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded.

Sam Seder reports on "escalating border violence" in this week's edition of "That's Bullshit!"

Arizona continues to put forward its credentials as America's Bigotry Center: Yuma's mayor used his Memorial Day remarks not just to denounce the effort to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, but to promote the larger stereotypes behind DADT. Mayor Krieger lauded the typical soldier who fought in World War I and on Omaha Beach as "a man's man" and said:
I cannot believe that a bunch of lacy-drawered, limp-wristed people could do what those men have done in the past.
Eric Alva, a gay Marine veteran who walks on an artificial leg after stepping on a mine in Iraq, responded:
Because of my injuries, my wrist might not be as strong as it once was, but my fidelity to this country and its founding ideals has never once wavered. Gay and lesbian service members have always fought to defend this country — soon, we will be able to do so as equals. On the next Memorial Day, I ask Al Krieger to remember our sacrifices, too.

Not to be outdone, top Catholic military chaplain Archbishop Timothy Broglio cut loose with his own barrage of mental static about DADT. After repeating what the catechism says about homosexuality (i.e., it's wrong), Broglio presents the following points as if they were relevant:
  • "unions between individuals of the same gender resembling marriage will not be accepted or blessed by Catholic chaplains" Did someone think they would?
  • "First Amendment rights regarding the free exercise of religion must be respected." I'd love to hear the Archbishop explain how a soldier saying "I'm gay" violates somebody else's free exercise of religion.
  • "Does the proposed change authorize [homosexuals in the military] to engage in activities considered immoral not only by the Catholic Church, but also by many other religious groups?" Authorize? The Pentagon doesn't throw heterosexuals out of the military now. Does that mean it authorizes heterosexual acts? All of them?
  • "For years, those struggling with alcoholism have benefitted from Alcoholics Anonymous. Like homosexuality, there is rarely a cure. There is a control through a process, which is guarded by absolute secrecy. It is an equivalent to 'Don’t ask don’t tell'." Ummm, Timmy ... are you sure you thought this one through? The whole point of DADT is that a soldier can't say, "My name is Bob and I'm gay."
That's the weakness of hierarchical systems. (You can't get much more hierarchical than a military archbishop.) The leaders aren't used to being argued with, so they say stupid things. Gene Robinson, the first gay Anglican bishop, patiently responds

The Sift is overdue in examining recent developments (or non-developments) in Afghanistan. I'll try to fix that in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here's Bob Herbert's take:
If we don’t have the courage as a people to fight and share in the sacrifices when our nation is at war, if we’re unwilling to seriously think about the war and hold our leaders accountable for the way it is conducted, if we’re not even willing to pay for it, then we should at least have the courage to pull our valiant forces out of it.

A great parody of carbon offsets: The Cheat Neutral web site allows you to offset your infidelities.
I got sick of listening to other people's commencement speeches, so I wrote my own.


Your Israeli Reader said...

What do you think about this:

and this:

and this:

In your opinion, is peace possible? How? Should Jews not believe Hamas now, like many who at first didn't believe Nazi rhetoric, and try to talk with them? What can Israel do? Just interested in your opinion. I want peace, but unfortunately don't see a way we'll have it during mine or even my generation's children's lifetime.

Doug Muder said...

I can't see how any of those three articles affects the point I made: targeting civilians with a blockade is illegal and immoral. A blockade that simply kept out weapons, rather than aiming to "strangle" the civilian economy, would be acceptable.

Israeli Reader said...

You wrote that people send you links they find interesting, so I decided to do thus too. I've just read the article (not Israel-centered this time):

If global jihad isn’t the enemy, what is?
The Obama administration refuses to acknowledge the need to contend with an extremist interpretation of Islam.

Have you written about the global situation somewhere? Do you believe there is a clash of civilizations nowadays? If numbers of Muslims in Europe are really rising and some of them espouse jihad, how will it influence the future? I read about terrorist groups targeting Muslims in Europe (& Israeli Arabs). What can be done? Would love to read your analysis.

Doug Muder said...

I'll take a look at it. The topic may not come up in the next edition, but maybe soon.

Alicia Lekas said...

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Doug Muder said...

No one indeed! I know I didn't.