Thursday, April 17, 2014

Government of the People Is Gone- Here's Proof

by Brian T. Lynch

Martin Gilens of Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University , conducted a multivariate analysis of 1,779 policy issues in the United States, the results of which confirmed that the United States is no longer a Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.

 In other words, we have lost majority rule. The United States has become an oligarchy. Business interests and the interests of the wealthy elite have overwhelming dominance in influencing United States policy and laws. You can read their conclusions below and read this newly published study in full at this URL:

http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf

According to the authors, "Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism."

 Of course, anyone paying attention to government policies versus the popular will of the electorate would already have drawn this conclusion. I recently posted a two part piece on this very subject a few months ago:  http://j.mp/1bz7aO5

The Gilens and Page study opens by asking a critical question, who really rules? Are we, the people, the sovereigns of our nation, or have we become "largely powerless?"  He begins to answer this by summarizing four different theoretical traditions recognized by scholars who study democratic governance.

 The first of these theoretical traditions discussed is the Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, which is best "... encapsulated in Abraham Lincoln's reference to government "of the people, by the people, for the people." This tradition holds that laws and policies should reflect the views of the average voter, and that the positions of politicians seeking election should converge towards the center of the normal range of voter opinion.  It is this view of democracy most often presented by major media outlets when covering our politics. More importantly, this is these are the outcomes most of us expect from our democracy.

The second tradition is the Economic Elite Domination tradition in which US policy making is dominated by those with high levels of wealth or income.  Some scholars also include social status or position as part of this tradition. The economic elites often exercise their influence through foundations, think-tanks and "opinion shaping apparatus," as well as to the lobbyists and politicians they finance.

Majoritarian pluralism is the third theoretical tradition that Gilens and Page discuss. This tradition analyzes politics through the lens of competing interest groups within the population. These groups may include political parties, organized interest groups, business firms or industry sector organizations.  All things being equal, the struggle between diverse factions within the population should also produce policy outcomes that are at least compatible with civil majority opinions.  But all things are not necessarily equal, leading to the fourth, related tradition called Biased Pluralism.

Biased pluralism entails policy outcomes that result from contending, but unrepresentative organized interest groups. These unrepresentative interest groups are generally made up of upper-class citizens with the power and influence to tilt policy towards the wishes of corporations, businesses and professional associations.
So, after statistically comparing almost 2,000 policy outcomes against these four models of political influence in our democracy, what did the researchers find?  In their own words:

"By directly pitting the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other within a single statistical model ...  we have been able to produce some striking findings. One is the nearly total failure of “median voter” and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."

"Nor do organized interest groups substitute for direct citizen influence [snip]... Over-all, net interest group alignments are not significantly related to the preferences of average citizens." The net alignments of the most influential, business oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes."

"Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites...  have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do.

What then has become of our democracy? It has been usurped by billionaires who directly fund candidates for public office, directly influence policy through lobbying and heavily fund public marketing campaigns to influence public opinion for their own advantage.


We have seen this before during the "Gilded Age" at the turn of the last Century.  We found our voice a hundred years ago and we took back our democracy from the wealthy elite. Today they are smarter, richer and have more control over the media and government than they did back then, so the challenges we face to save civil democracy and regain majority rule won't be easy. But history tells us that power is ultimately with the people.  We must start by recognizing our situation and begin organizing ourselves to collectively act in our own best interest. We need to become, once again, a nation of citizens, not a nation of businesses and the rich.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Dark Pools" Caste a Shadow Over Stock Prices

We now know that the universe is filled with dark matter. This strange substance cannot be seen, heard, felt or touched, and doesn't interact in any way with ordinary matter. Even so, its presence can be felt by its gravitational influence. It is the enormous amount of dark matter that causes galaxies to form and to spin as rapidly as they do.
While dark matter may ultimately be beneficial to the cosmos, "dark pools" in the financial markets doesn't seem like a good idea. When large investors buy large blocks of stocks outside of public view, they do so to obtain a tactical advantage. The market effect of dark trading is that the real value of openly traded stocks is less certain. This is another example of how the playing field is tilted away from mom and pop investors and towards the rich and powerful.
http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/11/us-sec-darkmarkets-idUSBREA3A0CP20140411
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. securities regulators are considering testing a proposed reform that could drive business to major...
REUTERS

Saturday, April 12, 2014

NSA vs. Citizens of the World.

by Brian T. Lynch

Before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the clandestine activity of the National Security Agency (NSA) and selectively released documents to the press, no one had any idea what the NSA was up to. This apparently included the President of the United States and the Congressional Select Committee on Intelligence that is charged with agency oversight. 

The Select Committee on Intelligence initially denied the validity of Snowden's claims because they, too, were in the dark about NSA operations. Once the Committee got a hold of Snowdon's documents and investigated, they learned that the NSA concealed a great deal about its operations from Congress and even lied to Congress on occasions to protect its secrets. Since them more has surfaced from release of Snowden's NSA documents. Among the revelations:

  • NSA engaged in mass surveillance of US citizens as well as the citizens of allied nations.
  • NSA collected metadata on all US domestic phone calls and subjected them to powerful meta analysis that can reveal very personal information about citizens not connected in any way with terrorism.
  • NSA collected and analyzed all, or nearly all domestic and foreign emails. 
  • NSA engaged in domestic spy on human rights organizations, also not connected in any way with international. terrorism or criminal activity. 
  • NSA spied on other international human rights organizations. 
  • NSA breached its own protocols many times and targeted innocent civilians for scrutiny.
  • NSA tapped the personal cell phones of world leaders who are our allies.
  • NSA listened in on lawyers negotiating international trade agreements.
  • NSA spied on the UN and on the UN Children's Fund.
  • NSA broke the encryption code that protects financial business transactions worldwide.
  • NSA has (and may still be) provided U.S. law enforcement agencies with secretly and illegally obtained evidence in domestic criminal cases, even non-violent criminal cases, without ever informing the defendant or the courts of the evidence or its source.

AND this is not a comprehensive list of the illegal, unconstitutional or questionable activities in which the NSA has engaged.

Discussion about these issues began to take place for the very first time only after Snowden brought them to light. These discussions are now taking place worldwide, because before Snowden, no one knew these things were even happening.

Here in the U.S., the investigation of Snowden's claims has prompted Congress and the Obama Administration to being reorganizing and reforming the NSA. It's abusive practices are being curtailed. President Obama has personally and publically apologized to world leaders for the conduct of the NSA. Other nations are now exploring the issues raised by Snowden's revelations and considering how NSA technology in the wrong hand might threaten human rights.

These are the fact that are now out in the open. The main stream media has been far to silent and passive in covering this scandal. Most people remain unaware of the scope and significance of the NSA's illegal activities. This agency has significantly violated our constitution and our personal civil rights. With or without the help of the national press, we have a responsibility as citizens to explore these issues and pass judgment on the activities or our government.

Here is the full video link of Edward Snowden's testimony on April 8, 2014, before the Council of Europe hearing on Mass Surveillance and Whistle Blowing. It is compelling testimony with serious implications, and demonstrates once again, that the rest of the civilized world is having an important discussion about the threat posed by mass surveillance which is absent here in the United States. Our main stream media gave little attention to this event. The United States Government was invited to participate in these discussions, but declined.
http://clients.dbee.com/coe/webcast/index.php?id=20140408-1&lang=en

To be clear, no one disputes the fact that Mr. Snowden broke laws when he turned over classified documents to the press. What he did was clearly illegal. But his actions should be weighed against the greater good that may have resulted from these disclosures. Yes, the law is the law, but justice is our goal and mercy is our higher value. We may want to strike a balance in this case between what laws Snowden broke and the harm that would have followed if NSA abuses had not been brought to our attention. Public discussion and ultimately public opinion following civil dialogue should the final judge in this case.

With respect to prosecution, how do we proceed when government wrong doing is at the heart of the case? I believe this is very much a matter for public debate to seek a popular consensus on his fate. We, the people, should be the jury here. We would be abdicating our responsibilities as citizens to close our eyes and let the establishment laws deal with him when we are all plaintiffs and the government itself is the accused.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Civil Service Pensions - A Marker for What We've Lost

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

In New Jersey, as in many other states with conservative Republican Governors, the state civil service pension systems are under attack. A friend of mine, who has followed Governor Chris Christie's rhetoric in the newspapers, commented about how reasonable this sounded since the system seems to be going broke. But the story of the pension system in New Jersey is more complicated that the current political sound bites. Let me tell you a true story about how civil service pensions came to be a target for public ridicule.

When I first went into civil service it was a calling to serve, not a career choice for the prospect of making lots of money. I was following the inspired words of John F. Kennedy and asking what I could do for my country. I was, and am still, an idealist. Money didn't matter as much to me. I wanted to help people. I still feel that way now, which is why I blog.

Back when I started with the state, everyone in the private sector had better health care and benefits, better defined pension benefits and they made a lot more money per hour or had higher salaries. Even the state cars we drove back then had no radios or air conditioning as that was considered too extravagant for state employees. That is the way it was, so working for the State came with low earnings expectations.

But things were changing in 1979 when I began my civil service career, even though I didn't know it at the time. Big business had begun organizing politically and started spending big bucks on lobbying government for laws and regulations more favorable to business. Industry organizations were created to raise money and coordinate anti-union marketing campaigns. Ronald Reagan came into power in 1980 and set the tone for union bashing by crushing the air traffic controllers union. Private sector wages, which up to that time always rose in to proportion to increases in hourly GDP, were frozen and have remained frozen ever since. A fear campaign and actual business tactics based on globalization made jobs less secure. Private company pension systems were intentionally dismantled by big corporations to quarterly boost profits. Profit sharing arrangements took their place initially so workers had to invest in their company for their hope of retirement income. Then Wall Street saw all this money and wanted some action. They got congress to pass the IRA laws and all that pension money went to them.

Instead of real raises, businesses only offered cost of living adjustments, which keeps up with inflation but doesn't share the extra wealth that the growing hourly GDP created for their employers. That extra wealth went to CEO's and wealthy stockholders, beginning the cycle of great income disparity we have today. At the same time, Reagan cut the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28%, a windfall for the rich and a huge loss of tax revenue that the rest of us had to bear.

So while the raises, salaries and benefits I received were always sub-par compared with the private sector during the first half of my career, declining private sector wages and benefits, rather than civil service raises or improved benefits, is the reason civil service looks so good today. In fact, civil service benefits have been steadily eroding for the last 15 years but this decline is slower than the collapse of private sector benefits. Civil service salaries also have barely budged in years and actually declined when you factor in inflation. But the assault on private sector salaries and benefits makes civil service look great by comparison only.

Know this, if corporate business interests had not conspired to suppress wages in America over the last 40 years the median income for a family of four today would be over $100,000/year. Instead it is shrinking and down to $51,000/year.

My point is that people in this country who work in the private sector have to fight back to regain a fair bite of the wealth they create for their employers. Workers need to re-organize and demand their fair share of our GDP. Rather than tearing away at civil servant pensions, people should be working to recreate what has been taken from them and use civil service as the framework and model to rebuild private sector retirement security.

There are particulars about why the pension system in New Jersey is in so much financial trouble.  It isn't because it is too generous. It is in trouble because when New Jersey was flush with money during Governor Christie Whitman's (R) term she stopped making payments. She said she did this because the stock market was booming at that time. She said the pension system was way over-funded and didn't need more cash. By the time she finished bankrupting the state with massive tax cuts and increased credit spending, Governor James Florio (D) didn't have the revenue to pay into the state pension system during his entire term in office. This default model became a habit with subsequent Governors. Nothing, or only fractional amounts, were paid into the retirement system for the last 20 years. Governor Chris Christie (R) refused to put money into the system a few year back, when he had the money to pay, saying he didn't want to put money into a broken system. This is crazy talk since it was the Executive branch that broke the system in the first place by doing exactly what he was doing.

The New Jersey State Pension system is, to a lesser extent, also in trouble because it has been abused for years by politicians bumping up the salaries of their political cronies just before retirement so they get huge pensions that they didn't deserve or contribute towards. Politician's take advantage of the way pensions are calculated to reward their buddies.

In New Jersey, civil service pensions are based on the average salary for the last three years. Recently the Star Ledger newspaper criticized the Governor for bumping up the salary of a political friend such that his retirement income was around $120,000 per year when his base salary had been closer to $30,000 for most of his career. Politician's have treated the state's pension system like it was there private cookie jar.

So when the state's pension system, or any states fixed pension system becomes a target for political destruction, let it be a reminder instead of just how much ground private sector workers have lost. Let state pension systems be the model on which the rest of the work force rebuilds what they once had.

Photo Credit: http://ivn.us/2012/07/11/california-ignores-growing-public-pension-crisis/

Thursday, March 20, 2014

New Employment and Health Care Stats Refutes Obamacare Opponents

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

The latest labor statistics and health care statistics refute the false claims being made against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by Obamacare opponents. The claims and facts below are summarized from an excellent op/ed in Forbes magazine by Rick Ungar, which can be found here: 

http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2014/03/10/the-real-numbers-on-the-obamacare-effect-are-in-now-let-the-crow-eating-begin/

CLAIM: Obamacare will lead to a decline in full-time employment as employers reduce hours to below 30 per week to avoid providing health benefits.

FACT: Numbers just released by the  Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), shows that part-time workers in the U.S. fell by 300,000 since the Affordable Care Act became law.  This past year, the first full year of Obamacare health coverage, full-time employment grew by over 2 million.  Part-time employment leaders who oppose Obamacare.  Fewer cops, fewer teachers, fewer folks providing essential social services in the public sector  all to make political point.

CLAIM: Millions of Americans are losing their individual health insurance policy due to Obamacare.
FACT:   A new study  by Lisa Clemans-Cope and Nathaniel Anderson of the Urban Institute found that prior to the Affordable Care Act the number of people kept their individual policy was very low with just 17 percent retaining coverage for more than two years.”  The Urban Institute conducted a survey last December that asked 522 people between the ages of 18 and 64,  “Did you receive a notice in the past few months from a health insurance company saying that your policy is cancelled or will no longer be offered at the end of 2013?” Only 18.6% said their plan was cancelled because it didn't meet ACA coverage requirements, while the expected cancellation rate was 17% in the years prior to Obamacare. You can find the following bar graph and read more  in Health Affairs.
The 18.6 percent who lost individual health insurance coverage due to the ACA requirements amounts to about 2.6 million people. According to the Urban Institute researchers over half of these folks will  be eligible for coverage assistance. Still, roughly one million people will have to replace their cancelled policy with something that may cost them more. This isn't good but it is less dramatic than what has been reported and most of these individuals would have been in the same boat prior to the ACA.  
Facts matter - The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index was also just released. It reveals that 15.9 percent of American adults are now uninsured, down from 17.1 percent for the last three months of 2013.  That translates roughly to 3 million to 4 million people getting coverage who did not have it before.  The the number of Americans who still do not have health insurance coverage is on track to reach the lowest quarterly number since 2008.

Here is a link to a website where you can check out state-by-state enrollments using an inter-active map: https://www.statereforum.org/tracking-health-coverage-enrollment-by-state?gclid=COCG7ffPob0CFYt9OgodPTQALQ

And this link is to an inter-active map showing the state-by-state status on Medicaid expansion: https://www.statereforum.org/Medicaid-Expansion-Decisions-Map?gclid=CJ_i4L3Rob0CFYuXOgod2RMA4g

There are currently 5 to 8 million people who can't access Medicaid because their political leaders oppose Obamacare. That means the number of people being denied access to Medicaid expansion for political reasons is greater than the number who have signed up for Obamacare so far.  The Rand Corporation recently analyzed 14 of the states with governors who oppose the Medicaid expansion and found their actions will deprive 3.6 million people of health coverage under Obamacare. These states will forgo $8.4 billion in federal funding. Moreover, their political opposition to Obamacare will cost these states $1 billion for programs that partially compensate medical providers who care for the indigent. (see Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/03/medicaid-expansion_n_3367301.html). 

Below is an excerpt and table of the uninsured by state that is taken from the Health Affairs Blog, which you can goto at: http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2014/01/30/opting-out-of-medicaid-expansion-the-health-and-financial-impacts/

Clearly, if the extreme efforts underway to by politicians to derail the Affordable Care Act was instead focused towards making it work, Obamacare would be wildly successful.

Examining the numbers. The number of uninsured people in states opting in and opting out of Medicaid expansion is displayed in Exhibit 1. Nationwide, 47,950,687 people were uninsured in 2012; the number of uninsured is expected to decrease by about 16 million after implementation of the ACA, leaving 32,202,633 uninsured.  Nearly 8 million of these remaining uninsured would have gotten coverage had their state opted in.  States opting in to Medicaid expansion will experience a decrease of 48.9 percent in their uninsured population versus an 18.1 percent decrease in opt-out states.

Exhibit 1: Uninsured Population by State, Pre- and Post-ACA 

Dickman-Exhibit 1

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Coal Ash Disaster Turns Capitalists into Socialists (Again)

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Commentary:

Coal ash is what's left after coal is burned. It's a toxic stew containing heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury.  For many years Duke Energy has mixed coal ash with water and pumped this cocktail from coal fired power plants into huge open pits. In February, one of the sludge pits located in North Carolina began releasing millions of gallons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River, a source of public drinking water for thousands of people.

Photo and article: http://www.salon.com/2014/02/26/north_carolina_might_finally_crack_down_on_duke_energy_after_disastrous_coal_ash_spill/

Duke Energy spent millions over the years to keep government from properly regulating their waste products.  For all those decades the stockholders and upper management of Duke energy have profited from this arrangement. Now that the inevitable has occurred, clean up effort will take years and cost a billion dollars. Millions more will have to be spent to correct the improper disposal problems that Duke Energy has practiced for decades.

Safely storing coal ash should have been a cost of doing business for Duke Energy all along, but they have deferred that cost to boost their profits. Now Duke Energy's president and CEO, Lynn Good, thinks taxpayers should bear the cleanup costs. She said, "Ash pond closure has been a plan for very long time. And because that ash was created over decades for the generation of electricity, we do believe that ash pond disposal costs are ultimately a part of our cost structure." She believes the burden of this clean up should be shared by everyone equally.  (Corporate socialism? Again?)


Corporation are legally obligated to maximize profits for their shareholders. This would be fine if they were also legally obligated to paid the full cost of doing business without cutting corners. Cleaning up toxic spills is far more expensive than preventing themand regulations to enforce safe disposal are less expensive in the long run. But asking the victims of their environmental crimes to pay for cleaning up their mess and fixing their problem should not be an option. 

(See also: http://www.politicususa.com/2014/03/14/republican-hypocrites-force-nc-taxpayers-pay-duke-energys-toxic-coal-ash-dumping.html )

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Understanding Intelligence - Essential for a Rational World

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

What I really want to write about are the practical implications of a new theory of human intelligences, but this will have to wait. The problem is that emerging knowledge about the workings of our cerebral cortex has not yet been widely shared. It hasn't caught the attention of the popular press. Whenever I start to make some connection between an experience and how it relates to how our brain functions, I have to backtrack and offer an explanation of the new theory. Whatever point I was trying to make gets lost and my friends grow impatient.

What's needed are brief summaries explaining aspects of how intelligence works. The summaries need to be clear enough to spark interest and promote more understanding. I know I am hungry for this kind of knowledge. Understanding the brain is truly the last frontier of science. Our mind, with its trillions of neural connections, is the deepest mystery in the universe. Everything we know of the world outside ourselves is contained in this single organ. The research that I will try to summarize here relates only to human intelligence and not to other functions of the brain. It doesn't specifically relate to the mysteries of self-awareness or personality. And yet, understanding the workings of this thin, convoluted layer of cerebral cortex covering our more primitive brain is essential to solving the bigger mysteries of who we are.

Our Intelligent Brain

So, how does our intelligent brain work? There are some good and important books on the subject. The one I rely on here is called "On Intelligence", by Jeff Hawking's and Sandra Blakeslee. It is lay account of a theory on intelligence, but beware, some of its chapters are a bit technical.


Here is just one aspect of how the cerebral cortex works that I found interesting. Our intelligent brain is constantly detecting and anticipating patterns. The cortex is a pattern maker. It organizes sensory and worldly experience into patterns at every level of detail from the smallest sensory inputs to the biggest concepts of how the world works. It integrates these patterns into ever larger concepts or images until, at the highest levels, our brain creates an enduring image of the world around us. This image of the world, while enduring, is also malleable and responsive to new insights and information. Importantly, our intelligent brain is constantly predicting what to expect next from our sensory field.

Our brain anticipates everything that we see, feel, hear, taste or smell. It expects that similar circumstances will produce the same or similar sensory experiences. The strength of these expectations grows stronger the more they are reinforced by past experiences. Our brains also have a higher expectation of seeing certain patterns when these patterns are well integrated into the bigger picture of the world created in our brains. So strong are these patterns that even when we only see portions of them our brain recognizes the whole. For example, if we only see the eye and nose of a friend in a picture we recognize that person as our friend. If we see three dots on a page we might recognize that they form a triangle without seeing any lines between the dots. Seeing part of an image is enough for our brains to know what the whole pattern or image looks like.

The Intelligent Sub-Conscious
What's remarkable about brain pattern recognition is that most of it happens at the subconscious level. Here is a little experiment to demonstrate what I mean. Place your hand on a wooden door near you and then grabbed the doorknob. Nothing about this experience surprises you, right? It's just an everyday experience. And until I mention that the metal doorknob feels cooler than the door, you may not have noticed. That's because your brain expected that pattern. Your brain knows metal feels cooler than wood every time you touch them in a room. You might even know the scientific reason for this is that wood and metal have different rates of conduction. Your brain expected these to items to feel different, so there was no need to alert your conscious brain. If the doorknob had felt warmer or soft your brain would have alerted your conscious mind immediately.

During every waking moment our senses are continuously bombarded with stimuli. What we see, or hear is constantly changing and billions of impulses reach our brain every instant. If our intelligent brain had to analyze every electro-chemical pulse it would be overwhelmed with data. Instead, our brain only has to recognize challenges to the familiar patterns stored within our cortex. Computers, on the other hand, have to process every byte of informational every time it is presented or else it freeze.

How Our Cortex is Structured

At every scale of human experience, our brain expects certain patterns to emerge from our sensory field. To accomplish this our cortex is made up of seven distinct layers on a horizontal axis and billions of distinct, hierarchical columns on the vertical axis. Additionally, each vertical column is connected to other vertical columns by a neural network, and information super highway system. The seven levels of each neural column is also connected to each other by neural pathways. This makes our cortex massively interconnected. 

The first, or bottom layer of cortex only recognizes the electro-chemical patterns that come directly from the sense organs. The complexity of recognizable patterns grows with each ascending layer of cortex. For example, on the lowest level of the visual cortex area only specific geometric patterns will be recognized by particular columns. Combining this low level information from many nearby columns might cause the next level of cortex to recognize that these lower level patterns represent a human nose. At a subsequently higher layer of cortex the patterns represented by that nose and maybe an eye or other facial features recognized by still other columns might confirm that these patterns belong to the face of a friend. And so it goes until at the highest cortical levels our brain creates an enduring mental representation of the person we are visiting with, the room in which we are standing and all of the surroundings around us.

Another feature of our cerebral cortex is that it has more neural feedback connections then uptake, or feedforward connections. That means there are more neural connections from higher layers of the cortex to the lower layers of the cortex. This structure enables the higher levels of the cortex to tell lower levels what patterns they should expect to emerge from the sensory field. When columns in the lower cortex see an anticipated patterns, they signal back that they are satisfied. But when the lower levels of the cortex see something unexpected, they pass this additional information up the line to the next higher level. If that level of the cortex can't resolve the pattern conflict, it passes these signals on to the next higher level, and so on, until some higher level of the cortex can make sense of the information. Most of these pattern conflicts are resolved subconsciously, but occasionally they pop into our highest executive level, which is our conscious mind. Our attention will suddenly focus on this unexpected thing that has disrupted our stream of conscious thoughts.

Intelligence and Consciousmess

As we move through the day our brain alerts our conscious self to only those things which need our attention. For example, we might slip on an old pair of shoes and walk around without thinking much about how they feel, but if a pebble suddenly gets caught in our shoe we become aware of the new sensation. ("Excuse me, self, but a pebble may have entered your shoe.") If we put on a new pair of shoes we notice how differently they feel until we get use to them. If they don't fit correctly we are annoyingly aware of them until we take them off. But for the most part we are not conscious of the millions of patterns, large or small, that our intelligent brain processes every day. Most of our intelligence activity is at work in our subconscious mind.

This ability to expect and process normal pattern activity without having to attend to everything we see or hear allows our brain to focus attention on the rapidly changing information that is most important to our survival. It allows us to listen and process what someone is saying while ignoring a passing car. It allows us to assess traffic movements at an intersection without being distracted by the radio. This is important because our capacity for consciousness is a limited resource. Our intelligent brain must conserve this executive function and use it for only the most salient and important aspects of our sensory field.

Introspection and Intentionality
But we are also able to focus attention on patterns of thought or behavior that are not otherwise calling for our conscious attention. We can introspectively direct our focus to examine the patterns and associations stored in our cortex. We are not a passive audience to our senses. We have a conscious mind with which we can look inwardly to examine our intelligent brain. We can learn things about how the real world is structured from the patterns created in our cortex. We can also rearrange or re-associate these patterns when we find errors in the way they have formed (cognitive therapy being one dramatic example). We can perceive gaps in our knowledge of things and direct our own behavior to gather more information.

Implications for Conscous Thoughts
Our brain forms patterns from sensory input whether we are aware of it or not. This leads me to one of the major implications that I would like to discuss further in a future post. Our intelligent brain is forming patterns and associations based on what we may be seeing or hearing even when we aren't paying conscious attention. We know that repetition strengthens patterns and associations. 


Advertisers and marketers know this as well. They choose words and images to invoke associations most favorable to their purposes and use repetition to reinforce and strengthen those associations within our cerebral cortex. The marketing of ideas and products is effective even when we aren't paying conscious attention to the ads. Think about that the next time you are wandering around a supermarket. Think about it in connection with our political campaigns and the public dialogue we watch on TV or listen to on the radio.

When we commonly think about intelligence we usually limit our discussion to our conscious problem solving ability. We usually don't consider that most of our brains intelligent activity happens at the subconscious level. We are not aware of the extent to which false patterns of information can subconsciously form to subsequently influence our conscious choices and opinions. In a future posting I hope to expand on this topic. I believe we can inoculate ourselves against propaganda and false advertising, but only if we have a better understanding of how our intelligent brain operates.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Propaganda Works - We Are Vulnerable and Here's Why

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

How do you feel about yellow?  

How do you think of when you see the letter C, or the number 69? 

Ask these questions of most people and they take a split second to assess their slightly altered mental state and then report an answer. That's because nearly all sensory stimuli are evocative. They trigger networks of association and related emotions that we can then describe.

 While the description of our changed mental state requires consciously rational thought, the mental state being described does not. Our communication process may be rational but the impressions we feel or interpret are evoked. To confuse matters a bit, we refer to our impressions as thoughts and our interpretation and verbal description of these impressions as thinking.

Our associated impressions include what we have seen or heard and all the feelings, impulses, physical states and cognitions related to that experience. Impressions are formed by an automatic brain process that doesn't require conscious thought. Because of this, impressions often bypass our cognitive, conscious brain filters.

Once formed, our impressions become powerfully influences over our behavior, with or without our awareness. Most social chatter revolves around sharing impressions of people and events. We seldom consider how these impressions formed. Most daily behavior is driven by subconscious impressions and the associated feeling.  When asked about a choices we made, we can describe our chain of "thoughts" (cascading impressions) that lead to the decision,  but this level of conscious scrutiny seldom precedes our behavioral choice. Impressions are not subject to the same rational filtering when we are problem solving or critically evaluating something someone has said or wrote (as you are doing now).

So here is the point, we must all become more aware of the extent to which our impressions are subject to manipulation.  Advertizing, marketing, branding, messaging, talking points, optics, framing, imaging, push polling, astro-turfing, these all refer to techniques that bypass our rational brain to manipulate our  ever forming impressions.
The science of propaganda has advanced farther and faster than most of us know. The word "propaganda" itself was once synonymous with persuasion but these two words parted ways. Each now defines entirely different processes. Persuasion is associated with the art of presenting rational and fact based arguments to sway opinion. Propaganda refers to the art of altering opinions by manipulating the formation of an individual's impressions.  We all like to think that we are too intelligent and rational to be manipulated by marketing or advertizing, but if that were true there would be no reason why companies and political organizations spend billions of dollars a year on marketing. The truth is it works so well we don't even know we are affected.

How do we inoculate ourselves against being manipulated by others through propaganda?  To begin with, we need to recognize marketing efforts when exposed to them. We need to be aware of the word choices, the catchy phrases used, the coupling of provocative images to create intentional emotional associations. We need to be aware of whether what is being said is based on assumption or verifiable assertions. If we hear a message that alters our mood, we need to pay attention to it to see how it is constructed. In short, we need to train ourselves to turn on our rational filters and engage in critical thinking when an experience or a forming impression is be under the planned influence of others. 

We engage in this sort of critical thinking in educational settings because we are encouraged to do so. We don't do it when we are relaxing by listening to music on the radio or watching TV. When our rational filters are down we are more vulnerable to propaganda and advertizing.  Not paying attention to ads doesn't help. We are still forming impressions designed by others for their own ends. What we need to do is either limit our exposure to marketing messages (not helpful when you need to be informed about current events) or engage in critical thinking whenever anyone is advertizing or marketing to you. 

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