Why the arts and humanities need MORE promotion, not less.

Cutting the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is aiming at low-hanging fruit. I know that a lot of people don’t appreciate what these groups do, and that a lot of Americans find that the grants they award support causes and projects with which they disagree. But, here is a brief list of why I take issue with this thinking:
1. Take a look at the budgets for these programs. Cutting them doesn’t come close to solving deficits. This is especially true when public schools aim their first cuts at these same areas at the local level. Yes, I am a teacher, but I have always taught in private schools that are unaffected by public budget cuts. I don’t want to see a two-tiered society in which young people have to attend schools like mine just to get a fully-rounded education.
2. The United States already ranks at the very bottom when it comes to per capita spending on arts and humanities among industrial nations, and the gap between the US and the second-lowest country is greater than that between the #2 country and the #40 country*. Is this really the sort of American Exceptionalism” that we want to be known for?
3. Promoting the arts and humanities advances our culture and, by supporting ideas that contradict the status quo, make us all aware that there are other possibilities in our thinking. If we are presented with only one line of thinking, how do we develop strategies to change? Given the shift in attitudes that mad the election of Donald Trump possible, I would think that these are areas that he should want to protect.
4. I know that there are a lot of people who complain that PBS is some sort of left-wing conspiracy designed to undermine the majority will of the people, and that these same people would lump in the NEH and the NEA. How many of these people have taken the time to watch the programs that are broadcast, especially the news? Do they conclude that PBS is biased simply because it doesn’t push their point of view on its viewers? I find PBS to be national treasure, in part, because its news shows present information that is ignored or covered up by both the left- and the right-wing media, and they do so with respect for all of the opinions that are raised.
Let us not forget that a major step towards either left-wing or right wing totalitarianism is to silence voices of dissent. In a world in which the oversimplified data we find on social media have become the norm, and are used by all sides to further political agendas, the NEA, NEH, and PBS are more important than ever.
*UPDATE: According to the Arts Council of England, Policy Research

and Planning Department, Research Report, the gap between the U.S. and that of the #2 country (Ireland) is no longer greater than the gap between Ireland and Germany (#40).
 Nevertheless, even with the economic crises in Ireland, far more severe than we have faced in the United States, Ireland still outspends the U.S. by over 250%. In my humble opinion, we should also keep in mind that support for the arts and humanities is considered a patriotic duty in the Republic of Ireland (the only country to feature a musical instrument on its coins) so the demand for taxpayer support is less pressing.

Some random brain droppings…

1 The topic for our Philosophy Club meeting this Friday is, “To what extent should the personal character of a person determine his or her fitness to be President of the United States?”

Now, a lot of people would react by thinking that this is a direct shot being taken at our current president-elect. Perhaps, but the topic itself is much older than that. In fact, I used it first when teaching AP Government in the 1990’s, and the target then was Bill Clinton.

Our awareness of personal character in a president has grown significantly with each passing year. Had we known about the sexual behavior and the friends of Warren Harding, would he ever have been elected, much less retained? Over the years, the vast majority of my students hold that Jimmy Carter was the finest human being to hold the top executive office; he is rarely regarded as a successful president.

The final question is this: if you believe, even before he has taken office, that president-elect Trump should not be our president, based on what you know about his moral character, did you apply the same standard to President Carter. Is it a fair comparison?

2. A few posts ago, I posed the dilemma of why a college game that seemingly should have attracted a large audience instead had only 60% of the viewership of a less-significant professional game. Since then, someone has offered another hypothesis that may have future ramifications.

The hypothesis that, regardless of how anyone felt about relative strengths and weaknesses of the professional teams. They got where they are strictly on the basis of their W-L records. On the other hand, the competitors of college’s national championship were picked by a committee. The Daily Onion parodied this when it declared that Alabama was the National Champion, because the committee decided that it had a superior group of players to Clemson!

This year, the best example happened in deciding which Big Ten team should go to the Final Four (by the way, for those of you who have forgotten, the Big Ten is that league with 14 teams in it.) Ohio State was the team selected, despite the fact that Penn State had won the conference championship. This is not to single out Ohio State for scorn (goodness knows that I have many more personal connections to Ohio State than to Penn State), but it does show what every culture I know of feels: a team earns its way to its awards based on how it plays, period. It is very likely that there is a growing sense of cynicism in the U.S. and it has trickled down to the football audience. Sports journalists love it, because it gives them a built-in lead story to write about in the part of December during which there are fewer items to attract attention. Should the desires of the media outweigh the nearly-20 million viewer gap between the interest in college and professional football?

3. Computers keep becoming more and more sophisticated motivated, in theory, by the desire to make workers more productive. That is a good goal.

Frankly, though, I think most of us would like to see more creative energy devoted to ensuring that the computers we have work. A few years ago, there was a hysterically funny satire that compared our expectations for automobiles to those we have for computers. The conclusion, of course, was that consumers would never tolerate what they have to go through with computers and their peripherals if the same failure rates applied to their cars.

I work in a place in which our IT department is unexcelled. The men who work in it pull off one miracle after another to keep our faculty and staff productive. But why should these geniuses have to visit my room just because (on average) every other week, I cannot log in or I cannot get my projector to display the images on my computer? How would you feel if, every other week, your mechanic had to visit your house to start your car?

Black, blue…ALL lives matter.

I’m getting old enough that there are fewer and fewer things that truly infuriate me. One of them, though, is the argument that supporting Black Lives Matter means that a person is anti-police, or that supporting Blue Lives Matter means that a person is racist.

This thinking is the classic example of the false dilemma fallacy. It is presenting two choices and arguing that they are the only two choices. For instance: “Either you think that Elvis Presley is the greatest musician in history or you are an idiot.” I would hope that Elvis fans know how stupid this would be to argue.

We have heard about tragedies involving the shootings or beatings of African-Americans that were umprovoked. We have also heard about tragedies of police officers being ambushed. There are both horrible. Anyone who believes that supporting one group makes a person an enemy of the other group is a fool, and anyone who suggests that there is a comparative value that makes one tragedy worse than the other is also a fool.

Shifts in American Football

Last night, ESPN radio broadcast a statistic that stunned its reporter. In comparing viewership of Monday’s National Collegiate Championship Game with that for the Wild Card playoff game between Green Bay and the New York Giants, he found that 25 million people watched the national championship game while nearly 40 million watched the NFL Wild Card game. He granted that, yes, New York is the country’s largest media market, but the Sunday game was not especially close or well-played, while the Monday game saw all of the networks showing reruns and other programming, since they suspected that most viewers would be glued to the most important college game of the year and one that turned out to be extraordinarily exciting. His question, then, was what happened?

It is a good question and one that I can’t pretend to know how to answer, but it points to a number of issues, some of them non-football related, that may be possibilities.

The College Championship game featured Alabama and Clemson. With no disrespect intended toward either university, we have to wonder whether Alabama’s sheer dominance in recent years has turned off potential viewers. We also have to wonder if, by having two schools from the same geographic area, viewers from other parts of the country simply decided they didn’t care much who won the game.

Perhaps…but the NFL had its largest market share during the years in which the Dallas Cowboys were dominant, and similar market share distributions have been the norm in other sports. Sociologists have hypothesized that having a “dynasty” team increased viewership because the public decides either to love or hate the team that wins all the time. Under that theory, viewership for Alabama versus Clemson should have reached an all-time high.

As for geographical bias, while it may be a more likely explanation, it still seems to fall short. It is difficult to determine with any certainty whether geography influences college sports viewership because the NCAA constantly changes its parameters for championship participation in its big-money sports on a regular basis. The best comparisons I can find have been when two teams from the same conference competed for the national championship in men’s basketball. In each case, there was no appreciable rise or decline in comparing those games to their counterparts in the years before and after.

One final hypothesis I have heard is that the United States has turned away from football, in general, because of drug allegations, other criminal accusations and, most critically, concerns about post-concussion syndrome. All of these issues appear in headlines far more often than in the past.

However, an examination of sports pages over the past three months shows that concerns over these issues, concerns that one might expect to drive away viewers, are  perceived as a much greater problem for professional football than for college football. If this hypothesis were true, we would expect that the college game would outdraw the NFL game by 60%, not the other way around.

So what is it? Less time to generate enthusiasm for a college team whose star players will likely leave after only three years? Too much attention paid to college coaches? I simply don’t know.

The Change in Media Effect (part one)

It is no secret that there is a lot of hostility directed at the news media. Immediately following the disclosures of Watergate in the 1970’s, there were few careers that seemed more heroic than being an investigative journalist. How times have changed…but why?

There seem to be four primary elements that have led to this shift. In chronological order, they are:

  1. The elimination of the wall between news and entertainment.
  2. The suspension of the Fairness Doctrine.
  3. The increased concentration of media ownership among fewer and fewer people.
  4. Allowing the disadvantages of high technology to prevail over the advantages.

Let’s look at the first two.

According to Harvard’s Nieman Institute, the late 1970’s saw a global shift in the expectations held for news organizations. Hardly noticed by the general public, the late 1970’s marked the first time that news organizations, usually connected to or co-owned by entertainment organizations, were expected to be profitable ventures. Prior to that time, networks saw news coverage as the responsibility of being a citizen of the community, In fact, news stations are still required to allow the public access to write commentaries about a network’s success or failure as a prerequisite to renewing a broadcast license. Unfortunately, few citizens realize that they have the opportunity to comment, opening the door for “infomercials” and other pseudo-news shows that draw high ratings.

Oh, but there are two ways to in crease profits! In addition to increasing revenues, agencies started cutting costs. Typically, a U.S.-based news agency covers the entirety of Africa, a continent with a land mass and a population nearly four times the size of the United States, with just two reporters, usually based in Egypt and South Africa. Whether one is a Republican or a Democrat, does anyone really believe that the Benghazi incident would have happened if there had been prior journalistic scrutiny? Or, going back in time, what about blood diamonds? Rwanda genocide?

When those of us old enough to remember journalism at its peak recall the stories, we remember them both for being truly newsworthy and unbiased. Unfortunately, the biggest blockade to violence has been eliminated: the Fairness Doctrine. Created in 1949 by the FCC, it was eviscerated in 1987 when Congress refused to continue to fund its enforcement.

The Fairness Doctrine required a number of criteria to be met for a radio or television source could broadcast a story. The most significant were that a story had to present all major ideological perspectives, if called for, that editorials be clearly designated as such when broadcast, and that call-in shows could not screen out callers based on their political views. While some challenged the Fairness Doctrine or any attempt to restore it as a First Amendment violation, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, since broadcast stations occupied a portion of the finite amount of electromagnetic bandwidth, the government was within its rights to place stipulations upon its use.

By 1987, political pressure and changes in broadcast technology gave opponents of the Fairness Doctrine the ammunition that they needed to render it useless. The proliferation of cable broadcasting, followed later by digitization, meant that there was so much bandwidth available that the argument that one station’s broadcast would keep another off the air was no longer valid. With media becoming more and more corporate, there was little incentive to enforce a policy that would allow anti-corporate interests to be represented. The emergence of commentators such as Rush Limbaugh reinforced this, since their anger and other style elements attracted new listeners, usually disaffected workers, like flies to honey. Cracks about the “mainstream liberal media,” “femiNazis,” and comparing teenager Chelsea Clinton to a dog may have been unfair and terribly shallow, but there was nothing to stand in the way of his remarks. Finally, to this day, staff members are taught routinely to block anyone who has a point of view that contradicts the star of the show.

Since 2007, there have been efforts to restore the Fairness Doctrine but, besides the fact that one side of the debate has tremendous incentive to block it, two other obstacles remain. One is that the United States has become rabidly anti-taxation in recent years,  making it hard to sell any regulatory legislation. The other is the Internet; due to its nature, all Internet news falls into a gray area that is neither broadcast nor print. Could it be regulated?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking partisanship out of economics

Before continuing, let me say that in some ways I regret that this post is grouped in the category, “Politics and Economics,” because the central thesis is that we need to remove political labels from legitimate economic tools.

There are three major tools that the U.S. government uses to help the economy, either to stimulate it when more jobs are needed or to slow it down when inflation is too high. One of those tools, monetary policy, is a constant that is controlled by the Federal Reserve Board, which acts autonomously. While it has its critics, its autonomy places it beyond the reach of partisan politics and, therefore, is not subject to analysis in this post.

The first tool, historically, is called Fiscal Policy, first applied by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. In a nutshell, it means having the government create programs that directly or indirectly put people back to work by spending money. We often hear people proclaim that, “government would work better if it were run more like a business;” however, this attitude contradicts fiscal policy. In times when more jobs are needed, it is unfair to place a burden on businesses to hire more workers and, since the government is not profit-driven, it can create jobs when conditions discourage businesses.

The most recent of the tools is called Supply-Side, first applied by Ronald Reagan. It works by cutting taxes imposed on corporations and the most wealthy. We often hear people proclaim that, “it is unfair to give tax cuts to the people who are already well off;” however, this ignores the basic reality of income. When wealthier people get tax cuts, they don’t need the money to survive, so they can afford to put the money into savings. When lending institutions have more money in savings, they have more money to lend to investors who can create new jobs in the private sector.

Unfortunately, both of these tools are weakened by politics. Democrats, for the most part, are fiercely loyal to fiscal policy, remembering that it was used by the Democratic President Roosevelt to take us out of the Great Depression. But this loyalty makes the economy more and more dependent upon the government to keep it running, at the expense of private companies.

Republicans are correspondingly loyal to supply-side policy, remembering the job creation under Republican President Reagan that came without heavy government involvement. But this loyalty leads to a strong distrust of government regulation, which means that many of the jobs that are created are created outside the United States, plus there is no guarantee that the taxes saved won’t be spent on luxury goods that create few new jobs.

In summary, then, both of the major parties need to stop looking at these economic policies in partisan terms. There are politicians who argue that, if corporations are given tax cuts, they should be forced to invest the money in creating American jobs. There are also politicians who have formulated ways to gradually convert government-created jobs into private sector jobs. The time has come for all politicians to cross partisan lines, follow the aforementioned trend-setters, and do what is best for the country.

What should I drink at Thanksgiving?

Ah, yes. You have that fifteen year-old bottle of Barolo, or a First Growth Bordeaux, or an Oregon Pinot Noir that got a perfect score from Robert Parker, and you are thing that a festive occasion like Thanksgiving is the perfect time to open it. DON’T!

The problem is that Thanksgiving, with its emphasis on family togetherness and a mixture of foods, plus the fact that most of the people at your table will not be wine aficionados, means that Thanksgiving is perhaps the worst possible time to open a bottle that you want to show off.

Setting aside the guests, let’s look at the menu. Turkey, by itself, is going to go with about anything you serve, although it is unlikely to create a pairing with wine that will be memorable. The real problem comes from the side dishes. One, if your guests are bringing dishes, you have no idea of what will match up with the hodge-podge of food. Two, most Thanksgiving dinners contain dishes that are sweet, and sweetness is the enemy of any good dry wine.

Now, let’s look at your guests. Unless you have a group of people who are all serious wine aficionados, you are going to make most of the people at your table feel uncomfortable if you serve an expensive bottle and they don’t like it. Besides, the center of attention at Thanksgiving should be the love you share with one another.

Does that mean that you are doomed to drink something that you don’t like? Of course not. Here are some of the reliable standards that I have served over the years that solve for the mixture of foods and that avoid the appearance of wine snobbery, starting with whites and rose’s:

Spanish Sparkling Wine, aka Cava (I have a soft spot in my heart for Serra, but that’s only because I used to sell it.) Just be sure not to get Brut, which is too dry for your meal. An Extra Dry (I know, it sounds wrong, but Extra Dry is actually fruitier than Brut) or a Rose’ should go well and will be festive.

Riesling. I lean toward Oregon or Washington Rieslings. Of course, if you live on the Atlantic Coast, there are some great Rieslings, especially the ones from Long Island. If you are feeling like splurging, a German Spätlese would be great.

Gewürztraminer. Half the fun of this wine is saying the name, but it’s my personal favorite for Thanksgiving. “Gewürz” means “spicy’ in German, and it smells like nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, and other wonderful stuff, but it tastes similar to Riesling as you drink it. Besides saying the name, it matches well for things like sage-flavored dressing or peppery vegetable dishes.

Rose’. You need to be a little careful here, because there is some really bad rose’ out there. When America went through the White Zinfandel craze years back, the market was flooded with stuff that tasted like bubble gum. In fact, my wife was convinced that she hated rose’, period. Well, we survived that craze, and there are a lot of good rose’s out there. In some ways, this is an ideal wine to serve because it doesn’t make a statement, but it still tastes good. What you are looking for is something that has both fruit and acid in a nice balance. Wines from Washington, Oregon, and the cooler regions of California fit the bill, as well as Tavel, d’Anjou, or Provence from France. Now, here are my favorite Thanksgiving reds:

Beaujolais. The domestic equivalent to Beaujolais is Gamay; remember, good winemakers in the U.S. never steal the names of regions to describe their wines, but use the name of the grape instead. Unfortunately, Beaujolais is sometimes difficult to find, due largely to a scandal that hit the region last decade. But the wines today are wonderful, nice and fruity, perfect for people who think they don’t like red wine.  I used to be a big fan of Beaujolais Nouveau which, due to way it is made, is meant to be consumed as quickly as possible after the harvest. I still love it but, unfortunately, it has become a fad wine that is now grossly overpriced.

Barbera. This is sometimes called, “the Italian Beaujolais.” Not a terrible description, but it is a little bit more full-bodied than Beaujolais so it might not be as popular with people who don’t like red wines. Since Barbera is the name of the grape, you can find both Italian and domestic Barberas, and they tend to be good values.

Zinfandel. This can be wonderful with Thanksgiving dinner, but be careful! There are some hefty Zinfandels out there that will overpower the food. If the wine label states that it is an Old Vine Zinfandel and/or it contains more than 14.5% alcohol, save it for a wine tasting. But if the wine is around 12.5% alcohol, what you will get is a wine that smells like blackberries and even tastes like a variety of berries. Back in the bad old days, people would ask me, “is there such thing as a red Zinfandel?” Yes, there is, and that’s what you should be drinking instead of the plonk that was popular twenty years ago.