Monday, April 30, 2012

The Facts of the Case

Today one of my liberal Facebook friends linked to a blog post about Rick Santorum's stupidity while he was still running for the Republican presidential nomination. I can't cast the first stone at another blogger for not being timely, and anyway, that's not really what I noticed in the post.

Senator Santorum, you'll recall, claimed in public that only one university in California offered courses in U.S. history. Rachel Maddow, fearless defendrix of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, exposed Santorum's ignorance for all to see. Santorum then explained that what he "should have said was that none of the UC campuses teach a survey course in Western Civilization." This also isn't true, and after enjoying a hearty laugh at Republican Stoopid, the blogger expresses his bafflement about it:
I really don't get this. If you're Rick Santorum and you're issuing an apology like this, you have to know it's going to make it to the air and be fact-checked. Don't you turn to an intern or someone and say, "Hey, before I send this out, call up the University of California and make sure they don't offer courses in Western Civilization so I don't look like an idiot again"? And there were people who wanted this man to have the job where you get to order a nuclear attack.
He has a point.

The friend who linked this post commented "Don't let those silly 'facts' get in the way", and a commenter chimed in: "in the GOP emotions trump facts." I argued that in politics emotions trump facts, and that Democrats are no more interested in facts than Republicans are. My friend chided me for saying that there's no difference between the parties, which of course was not what I said (and which tends to support my position rather than his). And one difference is that if you're a Republican and you say something that isn't true, Rachel Maddow and other Obama fans will be all over your case; if you're President Obama and you say something that isn't true, Ms. Maddow will maintain a discreet silence about it, and the President won't "look like an idiot." After all, there's an election campaign going on, loose lips sink ships, we all have to do our part in the war effort.

For example, last week the President told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that his administration had cracked down on medical-marijuana dispensaries "because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law. I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, 'Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books' . . . ". Glenn Greenwald promptly pointed out that "as Jon Walker conclusively documents, the law vests the Executive Branch with precisely the discretion he falsely claims he does not have to decide how drugs are classified." I can't find that Ms. Maddow has pounced on this absurd falsehood. Neither have the Republicans, though.

But I'll stick with education. Last week during a story on protests over student debt in the US, Democracy Now! ran a clip of a speech by Obama in which he said, "We can’t price the middle class out of a college education, not at a time when most new jobs in America will require more than a high school diploma."

This is one of the President's favorite themes, repeated over several years, but it too is false. Even on its face it's suspect: if there are all those shiny new jobs out that which require college degrees, why are there so many recent college graduates who can't find work, and certainly not the kind of work they went into debt for? Alexander Cockburn did a good piece on the subject of the "Knowledge Economy" in March, pointing out that most jobs in America, including "new" ones (of which there just aren't very many, as each month's job report reminds us), do not require even a bachelor's degree. The late Gerald Bracey criticized Obama repeatedly on this point, in February 2009 for example (emphasis mine):
Obama said, "Right now, three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, and yet just over half of our citizens have that level of education." Scary, huh? Not really. This statistic was a favorite of ex secretary of education of education Margaret Spellings, about whom we can all express a sigh of relief that the operative word is, "ex."
If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on job projections, it is almost true (but not really) that what Obama said is right. But there are two hugely compromising factors that make this statistic much less fearsome that it first appears:
1. The definition of "more than a high school diploma" is a weasel phrase, an incredibly slippery statistic. It does not mean a B. A., an Associates Degree, nor even a year of on-the-job training. The BLS projects that the overwhelming majority of jobs to be created between now and 2016 will require "short term on the job training." That's one week to three months.
2. The "fastest-growing occupations" account for very few jobs. For every systems engineer, we need about 15 sales people on the floor at Wal-Mart (and we have three newly minted scientists and engineers for every new job in those fields). The huge job numbers in this country are accounted for by retail sales, janitors, maids, food workers, waiters, truck drivers, home care assistants (low paid folk who come to take care those of us who are getting up in years), and similar low-trained, low-paid occupations. Note that I did not say these people are "low-skilled." As Barbara Ehrenreich showed after she spent two years working in "low-skilled" jobs, there really is no such thing (see her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).
The sentences I put into boldface are the key: "more than a high school diploma" includes one week to three months of "short-term on-the-job training."

So, either the President is ignorant or he's lying, but what he's saying is misleading, to put it kindly. Bracey says that Obama "accepted the same garbage that the propagandists, fear mongers such as Lou Gerstner, Bill Gates, Roy Romer, Bob Wise, Craig Barrett and many others--God help us, Arne Duncan?--have been spewing for years." Whatever the reason, Obama has no reason to worry about looking like an idiot, no matter how many lies he tells. If a Republican utters a palpable untruth, Rachel Maddow will criticize it publicly; if a Democrat does it, Maddow will find something else to talk about, like Teh Ex-Gey. Even the Republicans don't seem to be interested in exposing falsehoods like this; they're more interested in Obama's birth certificate. Republican media will claim that a Democrat is lying, but of course it's hit-or-miss whether they'll be be right about it.

This goes back to Noam Chomsky's dictum, shared with Martin Luther King Jr., that it takes no courage to attack the crimes and lies of your official enemies; what is harder, and often dangerous (though much less so in the US), is attacking the crimes and lies of your own side and its friends. But as Chomsky also suggests, it is precisely the people who attack official enemies exclusively who will crow about their courage in Speaking Truth to Power, while attacking the troublemakers who criticize the home team as cowards, drug-addled nuts, and traitors.