Saturday, October 10, 2015


by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Every instance of drug use is also a transaction between the users and the suppliers, whether the supplier is a dealer, a friend trying to be helpful or a parent that leaves prescription pills in easy reach. On the user side of the transaction the decision to partake always meets some need or desire on the part of the user. How strong the need or desire to take a drug is a variable, and therefore potentially controllable. It is important to understand what needs are being met when a young person decides to partake in drugs or alcohol. The lists below are among some frequent motivators that lead to drug transaction and drug use. Each of these factors can be modulated by family or community interventions. Still, this is just one side of the transaction. On the other side is the availability and cost of the product being consumed and the economic pressures on the supply side of the equation. Just like any transaction, the lower the price or available the product the more likely a transaction will occur. Factors affecting price and availability includes not just law enforcement interdiction but market factors in the legal and illegal drug trade, the strength of a profit motive for individual dealers, the  pain management and prescribing practices of doctors, the economic pressures of small business owners selling cigarettes or alcohol to minors, the amount of peer pressure being applied to sell or give drugs to others, the vigilance of parents in keeping products in the home out of the reach of their children, etc.

Primary prevention is all the things we can do as families and a society to forestall or eliminate an individual's preliminary exposure to addictive substances. It is the efforts undertaken to eliminate the various needs (or demands) that initiate drug transactions in the first place.

The following is a collection of ideas on the topic from a variety of sources with the URL links to some of the material and my own thoughts provided in the bracketed text. My purpose is to initiate or support public dialogue about what can be done to fix our drug problems. Let me begin with some ideas as to why children try drugs in the first place.

Here are some of the reasons young people have given for taking drugs :
To fit in
[The need to belong and feel accepted and valued is a powerful and universal human need that is denied to children who are marginalized, bullied or made to feel incompetent in their social environment. This leads youth to seek acceptance in alternative and sometimes more socially maladaptive peer groups where they are more at risk for substance abuse. Making sure our youth feel connected and engaged with their families and the community is a protective factor that reduces the risk of substance abuse.]

To escape or relax
[The ever growing competitive trends in education and youth sports programs has placed unprecedented pressure on today's youth beginning at an early age. This places youth at ever increasing risk of turning to drugs to relieve their stress. Little league sports programs once focused on the social development that helped children learn how to work together and support each other as a team. Today there are increasing focuses on developing the individual talents of star players and on winning as the major objectives. We may need to rethink our whole approach to both academic achievements and youth sports programs. A protective factor in preventing substance abuse might be to find ways to reduce the stress we place on children in school and in organized sports.]
To relieve boredom
[Students whose parents work and who are not in some after school programs come home to an empty house. Some researchers say that the most at risk time for children to abuse substances is this after school period before parents come home from work. Younger children especially need guidance and leadership in structuring their recreational activity. Children also need appropriate socialization opportunities. Unstructured leisure time leads to increases in time spend on passive entertainment such as watching TV or in playing video games or in engaging in online activities such as chat rooms. These can lead to lethargy and depression as well as boredom. It places kids at greater risk of substance use to relieve boredom and depression. An alternative would be after school efforts to help children identify and develop their interests and skills other than traditional sports activities.  We need a strength based approach to helping children develop skills in dance, acting, music, art, debate,, chess and other such alternative activities]

To seem grown up [There are several aspects to this one. First, parents are primary role models in younger children. What parents do helps define what seems normal for adult behavior. If parents smoke, drink and use drugs this greatly increases the likelihood that their children we try these activities as part of their social development. Then there is the aspect of a child's exposure to the social behavior of older cohorts in the family, schools or the community. To the extent that substance abuse becomes a community wide problem the younger cohorts will see the substance use by older youth as grown up behaviors. Then there is the impact of media depiction of drugs on television and in the movies. Parental monitoring and the exercise of discretion in what shows children watch has an impact on a child's future behavior is an example of a protective strategy to lower the risk of future abuse.]  

To rebel [I believe that most youth rebellion has an origin in family life. Dysfunctional families, overly lacks or severe discipline, weak parent/child bonding, unreasonable expectations, parental hypocrisy, cultural clashes between immigrant parents and children raised in American culture, extreme economic or social stress are among the many factors that can lead to rebellious youth. Children who can't relate appropriately to family or social norms, can't respond positively to adult supervision and guidance or who reject cultural norms are a great risk for substance abuse. Every social policy and community based support system that strengthens parents and families help to protect children from substance abuse as well.]

To experiment [For kicks! This is no small reason. Researchers have discovered that the human brain is not fully developed until a person is in his or her early to mid-twenties. The last area of the brain to develop is the area responsible for evaluating risky behavior and modulating impulsive behavior. Yes, there is a reason why youth are impetuous. It is part of natures plan that young adults should be risk takers. It is suggested that this help facilitate sexual exploration and the necessary social separation that must take place for people to become fully autonomous adults. Unfortunately it also promotes many other risk-taking behaviors that never existed in our distant past. This now includes experimenting with dangerous substances that can produce physical addictions before people even realize they are addicted. Recognizing this, and providing youth with developmentally appropriate information about the risks associated with substance abuse is a protective factor.]

Here is another, slightly more comprehensive list of reasons:

1. People suffering from anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression or other mental illnesses use drugs and alcohol to ease their suffering.

[Early screening and identification of mental illness or psychological disorders in children is essential to help prevent substance abuse. They need both treatment for their condition, help in developing social coping skills among their peers and the development of more tolerance and understanding of mental illness in the general population to reduce the stigma and added barriers that these children face.]

2. People see family members, friends, role models or entertainers using drugs and rationalize that they can too. [What are your thoughts?]

3. People become bored and think drugs will help.  [What are your thoughts?]

4. People think drugs will help relieve stress. [What are your thoughts?]

5. People figure if a drug is prescribed by a doctor, it must be ok.

[Here is where doctor's and the whole medical profession needs to rethink their approach to pharmaceuticals in general and pain management and mental illness treatment specifically. Pharmacies need to keep better records that are regionally integrated with other pharmacies in order to identify suspicious patters of  certain classes of prescription drug sales. Doctor's and medical staff need better training in identifying not just the symptoms of drug addiction in patients, but in identifying patients who may be at risk before prescribing potentially addictive drugs.]

6. People get physically injured and unintentionally get hooked on prescribed drugs. 

7. People use drugs to cover painful memories in their past. [What are your thoughts?]

8. People think drugs will help them fit in.

9. People chase the high they once experienced.

[Let's not forget that addictive urges from prior use of addictive substances is another major factor here. Researchers have discovered that tobacco is so addictive that smoking just one cigarette for the first time can produce neurochemical changes that trigger an urge for nicotine up to six months later. This points up a curious aspect about addiction that is often overlooked. Urges and desires have very different neurochemical origins in the brain and urges are far more powerful controllers over our behavior. But urges and desires are virtually indistinguishable from each other when we simply choose to fulfill them, as we do in the early stages of addiction. It isn't until we choose to resist the behavior to fulfill what we believe to be a desire that we discover the full power that neurochemical urges have over our behavior.]

The following are selected excerpts from the Office of National Drug Control Policy - Preventing Drug Abuse

Prevention is most promising when it is directed at impressionable youngsters. Adolescents are most susceptible to the allure of illicit drugs. Delaying or preventing the first use of illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco is essential. Evidence from controlled studies, national cross-site evaluations, and CSAP grantee evaluations demonstrates that prevention programs work. Prevention programs are not vaccinations that inoculate children against substance abuse. Sadly, significant numbers of young people who participate in the best programs will go on to use drugs. The "no-use" message must be reinforced consistently by parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, mentors, and other care givers.

While all parents are critical influencers of children, parents of children aged eight to twelve are especially influential. Children in this age group normally condemn drug use. Such attitudes and attendant behavior are easily reinforced by involved parents. Parents who wait to guide their children away from drugs until older ages when youngsters are more readily influenced by peers or may have started using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, decrease their ability to positively influence children.

[This suggests that a comprehensive community drug abuse prevention program should include a parent education and guidance component for parents who have children between the ages of seven and eight years old. The idea would be to provide parents with the knowledge and guidance they need to strengthen their child's ability to refrain from initial use of harmful substances such as tobacco, alcohol, prescription or illegal drugs.]

Children whose parents abuse alcohol or other drugs face heightened risks of developing substance-abuse problems themselves. [Perhaps school based prevention programs should be routinely sending substance abuse educational materials and community treatment resource information home to the parents.]

There is significant evidence that carefully planned mass media campaigns can reduce substance abuse by countering false perceptions that drug use is normative. For all their power to inform and persuade, the media alone are unlikely to bring about large, sustained changes in drug use.

[Identifying specific individuals at risk for substance abuse and engaging them in a specific prevention effort is an effective component in a comprehensive community prevention plan. It requires the training and equipping of parents, teachers, physicians, coaches and others who have regular contact with young people in the community.]

[Some evidence] .. suggests that the most promising route to effective strategies for the prevention of adolescent alcohol and other drug problems is through a risk-focused approach. This approach requires the identification of risk factors for drug abuse, identification of methods by which risk factors have been effectively addressed, and application of these methods to appropriate high-risk and general population.

A general consensus in the literature on drug abuse prevention suggests certain school-based prevention programs can achieve at least modest reductions in adolescent drug use.

[School based substance abuse prevention programs can be an effective component of an overall community strategy for the early prevention of substance abuse. Research has identified eleven factors that contribute to successful school based programs. This information is helpful in selecting curriculum and evaluating school based treatment programs.]

Once a drug addiction problem become endemic in the community the pressure to act become overwhelming and the actions that need immediate attention focus on law enforcement interdiction of drugs and treatment for the addicted. These are expensive, complex and time consuming community actions that can quickly overpower and underfunded primary prevention efforts. Yet it is the primary prevention efforts that are the most cost efficient and effective ways to reduce the problem. Arresting drug addicts doesn't reduce the availability or cost of the products, and is ineffective if it doesn't involve treatment on demand. Treatment on demand requires more of a financial and social commitment than most communities can afford. Interdicting drugs and arresting drug dealers can raise the cost and availability of drugs, but it addicts go untreated this raises crime rates as they turn to criminal activity to pay for their habits. Unless there is a holistic, comprehensive and balanced approach to community substance abuse prevention that properly prioritizes primary prevention efforts, the problem of drugs will continue to be a major public.]

Please feel free to comment.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reforming The Political Campaign Ad. Thanks Bernie!

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

The video link below is a nice summary of what Sanders is all about.

Many who see this may disagree completely on the issues and solutions Senator Bernie Sanders presents in this short video, but the content is not the main reason I am posting it here. What I want to point out is the style of the ad itself.  It stands in stark contrast to what we have become use to seeing.

This is like an old fashioned political ad that concentrates 99% on substance and 1% on personality or empty marketing. It is also 100% positive. It lacks the negativity that has so infected political content in the past few decades.

Most presidential candidates today can't run an ad like this either because they haven't thought through their positions so thoroughly, don't agree Sen. Sanders on these popular positions or, most likely, fear they will offend some sugar daddy donor by what they might say. Most candidates are groomed to say what will least offend the greatest number of people, which means they say very little of substance. They speak in generalities. They merely evoke emotional responses in people by touching lightly on their sweet spot issues as identified in slick, Madison Avenue marketing methods.

I am tired of being segmented and targeted for the political gain of big money interests behind most political campaigns. I want to hear clearly and exactly what each candidate intend to do with the power they are asking us to give them. We have to stop voting for candidates based on how we "feel" about them and start voting based on what we "think" about their ideas and priorities. We need to start demanding more from the campaigns of our candidates for public office.

So when you view this Sanders video, contrast what you can learn about his priorities and positions with what you learn about the priorities and positions of other candidates in this silly season of presidential politics.

(Full disclosure, I do support his candidacy and readers of my blog know I would be a hypocrite not to since his positions match so closely with my views published in this blog.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Black Families, Structural Racism and a Decision to Raise Social Problems to a Public Issue - Part 1

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I read a great article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration". (Oct. 2015). I highly recommend it to readers of my blog and I hope to write more about it from my own perspectives in the future. The lengthy nine chapter article begins with a discussion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous report, now 50 years old, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." 

For those of you currently blessed with youth, Moynihan was a scholar, US ambassador, a New York State Senator and a very influential intellectual in the waning decades of the 20th Century. (It still feels odd for me to say it.) At the time he wrote his report, he was ensconced as a young career civil servant in President Johnson's administration on the eve of passage of the civil rights bill. He was one of many invisible administration officials who work behind the scenes in every public administration in government. He would have been a colleague of Bill Moyers and Chris Matthews, all of whom were among the anonymous legions that make governance possible in every administration.

The thrust of Moynihan's report was the premise that structural white racism caused poverty in the black community and destroyed black families through a particularly devastating impact on black males. The intractable joblessness, poverty and social impotence of black males was forcing black families to become matriarchal: a status in conflict with the rest of American society. His critique of the public welfare system centered around the fact that it reinforced this matriarchal shift while marginalizing (some would say demonizing) black fathers. He argued that the federal government was underestimating the damage that this was causing. Moynihan wrote, as quoted in the article:

"The Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in deepest trouble... While many negroes are moving ahead to unprecedented levels of achievement, many more are falling further and further behind."

In his view, the marginalization and emasculation of black males, even within the black community, is the root cause, and not the symptom, of the problems that we still read about today in local news accounts. Juvenile delinquency, higher high school dropout rates, gangs, higher black on black crime rates, etc., and all symptoms of structural racism, he would argue. Moynihan went on to write:

"In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children have to run the gauntlet all over again."

Moynihan's report was a prescient analysis of critical social problems that foreshadowed the accumulating impacts of structural racism, including mass incarceration and the ongoing destruction of black families today. His report made enough of an impact on Lyndon Johnson's thinking that it was the subject of a subsequent speech that Johnson gave on the breakdown of black families in June of 1965. The speech was written, in part, by Moynihan himself. Johnson understood Moynihan's point that white structural racism was responsible for the ongoing destruction of black families.

Johnson's message in that speech, however, was quickly turned upside down in a social atmosphere that was in no mood to accept any blame for the plight poor black communities. The unreceptive public, and the media interpretation assigned to the Johnson's speech, was that the root of poverty and social ills in the black community was a result of a weak black family structure, and of black males in particular.

Moynihan's report was only an internal administration document at that time. Coates writes that Moynihan printed one-hundred copies of the report, submitted just one copy and kept the other ninety-nine copies in a safe. Moynihan had also removed from the report a whole section he had written on government policy recommendations for solving these problems. His rationale for this omission was that squabbling over proposed solutions would distract from sounding the alarm bells and raising a discussion on the plight of black families.

While the Moynihan report was not a public document at the time, internal discussions of the report spilled into the public domain and became a matter for public speculation. The false narrative that black families are responsible for their own social ills was ascribed to him and Moynihan was ridiculed by social activists for the black community. A moment had passed, the damage was done and the inverted perversion of Moynihan's report seeped into the public consciousness despite efforts to dispel it.

Much more can be said at this point about the subsequent history of government policies and the negative impacts it has had on black families. This is covered quite well in the subsequent eight chapters on Coates' article, and again I recommend you read it. My own experience working with public welfare families over the past three decades affirms Moynihan's views and his criticism of the matriarchal federal public welfare system.

I hope to say more about this in the future also, but in part II of this article I want to shift gears and focus attention on that tactical decision the young Daniel Patrick Moynihan faced when he pull his policy recommendations from the original report. In doing this an important lesson may be learned about elevating a social problem to the level of a public issue within the context of the times. Where there alternatives might have been more effective? Would having raised a social problem to a public issue failed to happen if he left his proposed solutions in the original report? And what is it about the compressed and rarified air where civil servants work behind the scenes of public administrations that would cause him to lock up ninety-nine copies of his original report?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Debunking the Myth That It's Your Fault You're Poor

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

The first time I saw a version of the graph below, depicting how worker compensation suddenly diverged from national wealth, I was horrified. My statistical training caused me to see right away that something took place in the mid-1970's to stifle the rise of worker compensation. And the gap between wages and wealth keeps growing every years. I have written several articles about it since, but the implications have still not penetrated our public awareness.

The most recent appearance of this graph was from a report by the Economic Policy Institute confirming some earlier findings of the huge disconnect between worker productivity and worker compensation. I wrote an article summarizing their findings and received a lengthy comment that read, in part:

"Although I agree that the average wage is trending lower than productivity growth, I do not attribute it all to the greed at the top... The question I have is that how much of the deviation from the past are due to changes in society, where the average person has less room to negotiate a better price?"

The commentator went on to suggest the following reasons to explain the growing wage-to-wealth gap:

1. The trend of the two paycheck family led to a weakness in the labor force's ability or need to demand higher compensation. 

2. Expanded social service programs and income eligibility caps for aid to the working poor created incentives for workers to keep their compensation low so they qualify for government assistance.

3. Employer fixed benefit packages reduced competition for the affordable healthcare, driving up insurance costs since individuals were not "shopping around" for competitive bargains.

Let's begin with the last point; fixed healthcare benefits. If these were anti-competitive purchases by employers, the rise in employer costs for these programs would correspondingly raise, not lower, hourly worker benefits. The more an employer pays for employee health insurance, the higher the wage compensation is per worker.

Healthcare costs have risen faster than inflation. The reasons for this are many, but the topic is too broad to address here except to say that higher insurance costs led many employers to drop healthcare coverage for their employees. This is a factor contributing to the lower growth in wage compensation. Note, however, that the flood of individuals entering the private health insurance market corresponds with the period of high rising premiums, not lower rates. The collective bargaining leverage of large corporations for competitive health insurance bids was a constraining factor on policy costs.

1. The trend of the two paycheck family led to a weakness in the labor force's ability or need to demand higher compensation. 

To the main point, the impact of two paycheck families on wage compensation: Is there evidence that the gradual transition to two paycheck families contributed to lower hourly wage compensation? I believe the graph above provides the answer.

First, the wage/wealth graph above represents actual, verifiable economic data collected over a span of seven decades. It is not a trend graph, but you can easily imagine superimposed trend lines on it. The first would be a linear line rising steadily upward and to the right representing hourly Gross National Product (GDP). This is a measure of our nations' wealth and it has been steadily growing.

The second trend line, representing hourly wage compensation, would rise perfectly in step with GDP from 1947 to 1973 (which is also the period of rapid expansion of the American middle class). Then it bends sharply (if somewhat erratically) over a seven year period before settling back into to a straight, but much shallower trend line.

Superimposing a trend line on worker compensation data reveals that there was a brief transition period from 1973 to 1980 during which the growth rate of worker compensation radically changed. The gap between new wealth and wage compensation has grows wider every year since.

What does this mean? It means the social forces that altered wage compensation began abruptly and remained active over a brief period of seven to eight years. The social forces created a persistent structural change in America's hourly wage compensation that remains in effect today. It means that long term social trends don't account for this structural change because they don't fit the data.

Long-term trends present as long slow arches rather than sudden bends in a trend line. This means that the social actions that permanently altered the wage and productivity balance happened quickly and none of the major social trends happening before or since the transition period have had much impact on wage compensation.

The hypothesis that this change was the result of the rise of two paycheck families doesn't fit this pattern. Woman entering the workforce would have had to started abruptly in 1973 and end by 1981. Of course we know that woman were entering the workforce much earlier and the trend wasn't complete by 1981. It is also difficult to imagine how this phenomenon would actually cause a persistent structural change in worker compensation over the decades.

The relatively brief transition, represented in this graph, also rules out other long term trends that are often cited by economists as reasons for lower wage compensation. For example, it's often said that globalization of our economy accounts for the wage/GDP disparity. It is true that globalization affects employment rates and puts downward pressure on American worker incomes, but the trend itself is also a longer, slower process that doesn't fit the pattern. Even the process of shipping business operations overseas took place over a longer period of time. None of the explanations offered by most economists seem to fit the narrow window in which hourly GDP and hourly wage compensation diverged.

Seven years is a short period of time to bring about such a persistent structural change of this magnitude. Something big must have been happening at the time. What was it?

Consider what was happening in the 1970's. This was a hyperactive period for Nixon era conservatives which gave rise to the new conservative movement, also known as the Neo Con's. They laid the groundwork that swept Ronald Reagan into office in the 1980.

This was a time of rapid formation of organized business associations and industry trade groups. This was unprecedented in our history. It was the business answer to the growing influence of organized labor. These associations and trade groups pooled the considerable resources of big business to create the powerful business lobby we have today. They embarked on a massive anti-union marketing blitz to demonize unions and turn public sentiment against them. In 1973 the organized muscle of the newly formed corporate lobbyists got congress to pass legislation creating political action committees (PACs) which gave big business a means to funnel large sums of money into candidates political campaigns.

At the same time, the coordinated collusion of big business, with a nod from business funded politicians, weakened the effectiveness of collective bargaining. Businesses everywhere were emboldened to end the practice of sharing their profits (wealth) with their employees.

In a span of less than a decade nearly all productivity raises ended for most Americans. All the new wealth (profits) generated since then have gone to top executives and wealthy business investors. The "raises" most employees received since this structural changes were merely cost of living adjustments.

Adjusted for inflation, most American families are making today what their parents family made decades ago, yet the nation's wealth has more than doubled. The median income of a family of four today is around $51,000 per year. It would be over $100,000 per year if wage compensation had continued to rise proportionally with the wealth we produce.

2. Expanded social service programs and income eligibility caps for aid to the working poor created incentives for workers to keep their compensation low so they qualify for government assistance. 

Regarding the second point about (#2), expanded social services and income eligibility caps creating a disincentive to work: I have addressed this topic in previous articles. This disparaging of social supports for the economically disadvantaged echoes a frequent conservative talking point. It goes by many names, such as the "welfare state" or the "nanny state. " It promotes the idea that there is a giant dependency on social welfare programs.

 But this attack on working families distracts from the fact that a growing number of people require government aid to the working poor to maintain basic stability. Their plight is a direct result of lower worker compensation caused by premeditated structural changes in the 1970's. It hides the fact that subsidized assistance to working families allows corporations to have lower labor costs and higher profits. (A government supported labor force is a hidden corporate subsidy.) It dismisses the power of higher wages as a motivation for people to work hard and inspire hope for a better life. It obscures the fact that many companies have found ways to exploit the poor to profit off taxpayer subsidies. Most disturbingly, it blames this suppressed wage compensation on its economic victims.

For a fuller explanation of lower wages on social services, please read "Making the Case for a Living Wage."

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Why We Need A Raise - How Wall Street and Main Street Have Diverged

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I've been saying it for years. Bernie Sanders, who is running for President, has apparently been saying it for decades now... American Workers Needs a Raise! 

The graphic above speaks louder than words. When I first posted a similar version of this over two years ago a leader in the Occupy Movement said of it... "This is why we occupy!"  

The growing gap between the economy on Main Street and Wall Street, a declining standard of living, the shrinking middle class, the rise in the need for government subsidized supplemental income and social services for so many, the sense that our children won't be better off than we are today, all of this has a common origin. They are all connected! They are all the result of wage stagnation (or suppression as I see it.)  

In the period of just a few short years, beginning in 1973, employers stopped giving workers productivity raises. Since then, almost all the raises workers have received were merely inflation adjustments, not rewards for their growing productivity. All those rewards suddenly went to those at the top. The effects of this on the economy are compounded over time. Forty years of this nonsense has brought us most of the economic ills we experience today. 

The fact that "growing the economy" no longer results in rising worker compensation has been lost on politicians in both political parties. In fact, almost every policy initiative to "grow the economy" has made matters worse. It has often meant slashing taxes for the wealthy (trickle down theory), granting tax breaks for big businesses, and creating tax loopholes for the "job creators" so they can do their thing. Well, their thing is to get substantially wealthier. Almost all new wealth has gone to the top while the wealthy hide more and more of their assets in tax havens.  State and local governments can hardly manage to patch up the potholes on our streets because of the combination of tax breaks for businesses and subsidies for the expanding numbers of working poor families.  

The Economic Policy Institute has released yet another report on why most of us are not feeling the love from the Wall Street economy. I have take liberties with their findings to condense them a bit so their impact is clearer. For the full report, go to:

Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker’s PayWhy It Matters and Why It’s Real

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Covering Politics For Profit Has Warped Our Democracy

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

The corporate mainstream media loves those pithy and outlandish sound bites from politicians. They like candidates' comments that slime other candidates running for office. They like covering candidates that say crazy things or react dramatically. And they especially like to cover politics from an insider perspective, reporting mostly on campaign strategies, internal intrigues and the scramble for resources. In short, they approach political coverage as if it were a spectator sport.

In truth, the more an electoral contest can be framed as a battle between rival personalities, the better it is for the corporate bottom line. It is also true that most TV viewers would rather be entertained than enlightened, and people who still buy newspapers often skip to the sports or lifestyle page if there is no hook in the headlines to catch their attention. Media companies blame the public for not caring about substance in political debate.

When pressed, media owners will admit their company is, after all, an advertizing business. The greater their viewership or readership, the more they can charge their business clients for advertizing. The business model is simple. Give the masses more of what they like to read or watch and you get a bigger audience for your business clients who will pay more to advertize on your network or in your publication.

Despite what they say to defend the integrity of their news organizations, corporate owned news outlets are deeply impacted by the drive to be more profitable. So they report more of what sells and less of what matters (not to mention what they might conceal on behalf of their sponsors).

There are reasons why Donald Trump's entertaining campaign seems be working. Politics has become a gladiatorial blood sport. An election is just another cultural event where entertainers like Trump can appear as a serious contender for President. Mass media's profit motive has turned elections into sophomoric popularity contests while our civic consciousness is systematically anesthetized by the shock and awe by which sports and culture are marketed to us every day. The corporate media both satisfies our need to be entertained while stoking our need to be entertained at the same time. It's almost an addiction. Meanwhile trivialities have replaced real journalism in the name of profit. 

In contrast, so far at least, the Bernie Sanders campaign seems to be different. He refuses to comment on Hillary's hair style or entertain any questions that aren't about issues of consequence to voters. He has been cast as a radical, cantankerous old socialist with far left ideas. 

Despite the absence of mainstream media attention and its efforts to marginalize him, Senator Sanders managed to attracted a lot of attention from the voting public thorough the power of his ideas. It turns out that the core issues he focuses on are far more mainstream than the corporate media presence

Many of the issues Sanders holds, such as the need to break up big banks and tax billionaires to pay for free college tuition, hurt the financial interests of the mainstream medias' biggest corporate clients. This creates a conflict of interest for the corporate owned media. Covering the Sanders campaign on his terms forces them to report on issues that don't serve the financial interests of their advertisers.

The Sanders campaign also poses another challenge to the corporate medias' business model. Much of the organizational work by his campaign is organized from the bottom up. It makes extensive and creative use of free or low cost social media platforms. This means the Sanders campaign is spending less money on media buys than any other candidate except for Donald Trump, who is getting his media attention for free. 

The Donald's antics make for good television and generates revenue for the media. It would cost a fortune for the other Republican candidates to get as much the media attention as Trump gets for nothing. That's why they are flailing about with outrageous stunts and crazy sound bites. It's as if the corporate media is shaking them down for money and making them dance for their supper.

Senator Sanders, on the other hand, attracts even more actual voter attention than Trump without the help of the mainstream media. Major news outlets are just starting to cover the Sanders campaign as news events in order to preserve their legitimacy as news organizations. 

Aside from Hillary Clinton's negative attention for her email investigations, Sanders has become the only other candidate cutting into Donald Trump's beneficial free advertizing. Trump is a gladiator created and sponsored by the corporate media. Sanders is a clear and powerful voice crying from the wilderness where real people live their lives with little attention paid to the daily challenges they face.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Village We Left Behind

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I recently returned from a trip to my father's birthplace in County Meath, Ireland, where I took a walk around the village of Athboy. This is the town nearest Kildalkey where he grew up. Like so many villages in rural Ireland it is still owned and run by local inhabitants. There is a quaint little supermarket first opened by Ollie Byrd, my father boyhood friend. It's now run by his son since Ollie passed away a few years ago.

Just up the sidewalk is Faulkner's men's shop owned and operated by Brian Faulkner, a cousin to my cousin, Sean. Three doors up the street is Faulkner's Fashion House for woman, owned and run by his sister, Ger Faulkner. Across the street is the historic Darney Hotel where you can get a proper meal and a spot of tea in homey, low chic. surroundings . On certain evenings you can go there to enjoy traditional Irish music in the hotel's pub.

There are a handful of other pubs in town named after their proprietors. There is a family owned hardware store, a bakery, a post office that also serves as a general convenience store and a little gift shop run by a mother and daughter where you can buy small gifts for your friends and family on those special occasions.

The village is alive with shoppers. The streets are abuzz with cars, lorries, public buses and farm tractors towing wagons of silage or farm equipment down the main street on their way from one field to the next. It is a place where people still know their neighbors and customers are greeted by their first name more often than not. Relationships are the real treasure you will find here.

It was a striking contrast to the sterile and impersonal world of cookie cutter malls and brand name store fronts in America today. It reminded me that we once had local commerce centered in small towns all across America. We had more civic pride back then, and a deep sense of connection with the people in the community where we shared our time and place. This is a way of living that is quickly disappearing. It is under siege in Ireland as it is everywhere around the globe wherever corporate profits can be extracted from local economies and brand recognition can replace familiar faces. In the process we have lost our connections between farmers and food, craftsmen and products, business owners and commerce.

I was told that all meat sold in Ireland had the name of the farmer and the farm where the livestock was raised. People in Ireland want to know exactly from where their food comes. So I wandered into Brogan's Butcher Shop across from the post office to look for farm names on the products in the meat case. I was disappointed to find none. Had I been misinformed?

I asked the butcher behind the counter about this. He proudly pointed to the wall where a certificate of origin hung on a nail as he explained that all this meat came from his own family's farm. "If you want to see a farmer's name on a piece of meat you'll have to head back to Ollie Byrd's," he said.

Contrast this with the US House of Representatives who on June 11th of this year passed a bill that would eliminate a law requiring country of origin labeling on all U.S. meats. "It sounds like you are heading backwards," he said to me when I told him this. Indeed it does.

I read that over 90% of all American's want to know from where their meat comes, and most people I know would love to know more about where all their food is grown. We can't have real competition in the food industry as long as information like this is hidden from us. So what is behind the passage of this bill to block COOL (country of origin labeling)?

It turns out that Canadian and Mexican meat industry trade groups have sued the United States in the WTO (World Trade Organization) over COOL, saying it constitutes unfair trade practices under international treaties. Specifically, the WTO ruled that:
"The compliance panel found that the amended COOL measure violates Article 2.1 of the TBT Agreement because it accords to Canadian and Mexican livestock less favourable treatment than that accorded to like US livestock. In particular, the compliance panel concluded that the amended COOL measure increases the original COOL measure's detrimental impact on the competitive opportunities of imported livestock in the US market, because it necessitates increased segregation of meat and livestock according to origin; entails a higher recordkeeping burden; and increases the original COOL measure's incentive to choose domestic over imported livestock."
This is what we are up against. Giant international corporations battling each other beyond the reach of sovereign countries to create a world more suitable for their financial conquests. Congressional supporters of the measure to eliminate COOL are seeking to avoid the $3.6 billion in potential retaliatory tariffs sought by Canada and Mexico. In the mean time, the US livestock census is at near record lows while beef prices keep climbing into record high territory. What people want no longer matters.

And so it seems as if my place in the world shrinks in significance. The local culture we once created together is now created for us by a process call "marketing." I fear that one day I will return to Athboy only to find it a hollowed out shell just down the road from a mega-mall that was once the farmer's field. I find myself mourning what will be lost if things don't change. Things can change, I tell myself, if enough of us want it. But right now I find myself wishing I had sampled the meats at Brogan's Butcher Shop.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Understanding Social Power Part 1

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

What is "Social Power"
Social power is the force that directs and coordinates human action. It's that simple, and yet that complex. The non-random acts of others that benefit you in some way is the active form of social power. It is the power to get things done or to stop others from doing things. It is the power to influence the behavior of others to suit your interests.

On a grand scale, social power is the force that makes, grows, sells, protects and transports things. It is the force that gets done all the work it takes for people to live together and thrive. Whenever people collaborate or coordinate, or whenever people act to block the coordination or cooperation of others, these actions are examples of social power at work.

Actions by another can benefit you directly, such as when a volunteer helps you get elected to the school board or when an employee puts in a day's work at your store. On an personal scale, your social power becomes manifest when a friend drops by to help build your deck or students you teach line up in the hall at your command. The tangible benefits of social power can also be indirect, like when the town paves the road in front of your house or your local grade school wins an academic award thereby raising property values in your community.

Just like energy and power in the field of Physics, social power has both the active state described above and a potential state. Social power is fungible and can be accumulated (stored), traded, transferred to others or spent in exchange for human action. In its potential form, and in certain social contexts, it may rightly be referred to as social capital. At each level of social complexity, social capital takes many forms, each with its own set of symbols and rules.

Think for a moment about all the ways you can influence loved ones, or your peers, the people where you work or play, your customers, the people you meet and so forth. On an interpersonal level you have bonds of love and friendship, personal charm and charisma, verbal skills, maybe an attractive appearance, intelligence, collaborative skills and so on. On a larger scale you have natural abilities, acquired skills, knowledge, wisdom, social connections, organizational position or authority, fame, prestige and your personal accumulation of wealth, to name a few examples.

Wealth is an interesting aspect of social power because it can be more easily quantified. This sets it apart from fame, skill or most other sources of social power. It is easy to transfer or spend. Wealth is as much a medium for the exchange of social power as it is a medium for the exchanges of goods and services, yet wealth as a form of social power is often overlooked. It is studied extensively in the field of Micro and Macro Economics but it is not well integrated into the larger social economy. (More on this topic in part 2 at a later date.)

On a still larger scale, there is great social power in our big human organizations and institutions of government and commerce and religion. There is the coercive social power of great armies and law enforcement agencies. There is immense power organized around ideologies and religions that greatly influence the social behavior of millions of people. There is the power in our great institutions of learning and enormously influential multi-national corporations.

Every organization and every individual has some social capital to influence the behavior of others. A fewer number of groups and individuals have vastly more social capital than most of us. We recognize these powerful people when we are in their presence and it alters our own behavior. Powerful people are able to turn everything to their advantage, which is why they are both feared and respected.

The sum of all actions or potential actions on your behalf, if it could be calculated, would be a measure of your own social power. Most of us have more than we think and all of us could use it to better advantage if we understood it better. But no matter how you calculate your social power, it cannot be precisely measured. There is a perceptual dynamic to it that defies attempts to measure it.

These examples illustrate that social power can be accumulate, converted to other forms, transferred to other people or can be used to coordinate the physical actions of others. These operations are essential to an understanding of social power. But the important starting point is understanding that social power is the force that directs and coordinates human actions.

In the next parts of this discussion I will discuss:
- How social power operates at various scales of social complexity
- How it is accrued, converted for other forms, transferred between people and communicated or spent to bring direct coordinated actions.

Please see the Introduction to this series at: