Collective Insanity

Perhaps somebody needs to remind Bengt Braun that Finland just topped the Reader’s Digest list of greenest countries in the world. And while they’re at it, they might suggest he put in a word to the management of that Helsinki TV station they own.

Girl in shower

Finland’s MTV3 (their current home page includes a link to the Evangelical Christian network Worldvision, a showering young woman on the Big Brother cam and a bloated Brittany Spears staggering through a dance routine) understands the Finnish TV audience (even with a lower tolerance for commercial interruptions than their American counterparts) can survive on a “low-fact” diet of reality shows with voyeuristic and prurient emphases, spiced with the occasional blockbuster film, popular American series, and some “fair and balanced” current events programming. Having shown the Gore movie a few weeks earlier, it was hardly surprising that MTV3 chose to air Martin Durkin’s  The Great Global Warming Swindle on an otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon. The possible justifications for showing this particular film as a counterpoint to An Inconvenient Truth could be that 1) publishing titan Bonnier is moving to a more abrasive advertising strategy (unlikely), 2) those doing the programming at MTV3 didn’t realize it was a hit piece (hmmm…), 3) those doing the programming believe the program to be factual (trusting the Channel 4 brand, not unreasonable), and 4) those doing the programming know the film is a hit piece and that showing it constitutes harmless fun à la Reefer Madness (possible, Finns are subtle in this respect). Whatever the reason, the documentary was produced for Britain’s Channel 4, which decades ago was founded by luminaries that include Colin Young, a genius who trained two generations of serious documentary filmmakers.

Whatever you may think, Durkin’s film is now in circulation and a good reflection of our age, where ideas must be think-tank-certified to qualify for public discussion.

When Firesign Theater released it’s spoof “Everthing You Know is Wrong” in 1974, the conspiracy fringe was seen as a target for ridicule. Nowadays, people who sell the same line do it in all seriousness. If we buy Durkin’s line, global warming was cooked up by scholars who want grant money and spoiled Greens want to deny third-worlders their right to coal-burning electrical power plants. Oh yeah, and if you buy into fears that global warming could have large impacts on the 6 billion-plus inhabitants of our planet, Mr. Durkin invites you to go fuck yourself. Sweet come-back, Dude.

We’ve seen large discombobulation on a global scale in the past, and even within the memory of some of us. Last century the world was hit between wars by an economic tsunami , the Great Depression. It took most countries decades to recover. Yet when the problems of speculative borrowing emerged in the Roaring 20s, the decision by the Federal Reserve and other central banks to raise interest rates seemed prudent. By 1933, when a quarter to half of the working population was unemployed in most industrial countries and similar amounts of industrial capacity were idle, central banks were hoping for a do-over. They had screwed the pooch — rich and poor alike were caught up in a vicious deflationary circle characterized by delayed consumption, bankrupcy and bank runs.  It was the time Hitler came to power. The world was nuts.

Could another period of collective insanity be lurking just around the corner? Naomi Klein suggests in The Shock Doctrine that social crises, manmade and natural, have many people are already on the ragged edge ready to jump. While she assumes that ultimately a frightened population will remain docile while those manipulating the shock effects to strip them of their civil liberties, I submit that, unfortunately, there could be a further point beyond where things get so confused that nobody operates in their best interests, not even the manipulators. This is the distinction economists make about major economic shocks; usually governments can do things to correct or mitigate shock effects, but once a society is overwhelmed the ability to rationally deal with problems is absent until things calm down. In the case of shifts in weather patterns and global heating and cooling patterns, the limits on the amount of push-back that can be served up by the Hudson Institute or Greenpeace is decisively constrained. At some point the natural shock of lost habitat, environmental degradation and new systemic equilibia points will arrive. Do I need somebody to interpret this for me? After all, I already know that the Sierra glaciers I climbed on in my teens have all but evaporated, that there’s all those blue patches I saw flying over Greenland this summer weren’t there two decades ago, that the wind patterns that I measured as an apprentice meteologist in college have changed, that the Golden Trout I fished as a child are no longer plentiful, that the Baltic has been trashed, and that the yellow Gobi desert dust that floats over the Mojave every spring signals that this change is wide-ranging.

Yet Durkin insists it’s all a swindle. Silly me for trusting my senses and memory. So what ultimately was MTV3’s motivation for broadcasting such a fact-bending piece? We may never know. I think what I’m supposed to do is forget about it and get back to worrying about who’s dancing with which star, the F1 driver pouring champagne on his pit crew and those jumping bikini ladies, that woman in the shower, Brittany’s child-rearing skills,and a guy who tells me he’s the Lord’s TV spokesman.

Fall is a beautiful time in the sub-arctic. Eggrole visited me over the weekend and we went mushroom hunting.

We did find enough fungi to make the wives happy. There were some Horn of Plenty and we saw a few Fly Agarics, which we didn’t pick — never mind the deadly Destroying Angel.


A batch of Horn of Plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides). They are

really tasty.


The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is a poisonous mushroom

but not as deadly as the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) below.


The Destroying Angel. This mushroom if consumed will kill you.

Farting in the sauna

Human methane release and the accompanying sonic vibrations normally invoke embarassment, joviality and good-natured finger-pointing. However, every culture also has certain places or circumstances where cutting the cheese violates strict social norms. In Finland, that place would be the sauna when others are present.

The equivalent behavior in the print media world would be discussing publicly the mechanisms and conditions under which a publisher grants discounts to buyers of ad space.

The GOP attack on MoveOn.org’s ad knocking four-star Army General David Petraeus inadvertantly (at least at first) wanders into what is normally a safe space in publishing. After all, there is no problem, First Amendment or otherwise, with asking whether the ad constitutes a malicious attack that defames a public figure. What is inappropriate is that the KooKoo People have made MoveOn.org’s receipt of a discount for placing the ad an issue. If we start public attacks on sacred business secrets we could we see a deconstructionist fad that exposes the core trade practices of everybody from tax lawyers to defense contractors.

 Every magazine and newspaper, including the NY Times, publishes a rate card. These are the magazine’s official retail rates for space (and they are rarely cheap).  A 15% part of that rate is typically shared with larger ad agencies, who may in turn keep that part of the ad buy or refund a part of the provision to the customer if there is an agreement. Customers that pay the full retail price typically get treated very well and usually are automatically given other perks. Otherwise, the rate card simply sets the ground rules in the battle to buy and sell media space. Smaller buyers often turn to media buyers who consolidate large blocks of advertising to get a special rate. The big buyer may get, say, a 50% discount, then turn around and share 20% with their clients. That is exercise of the same volume buying power Wal-Mart uses on its suppliers. There is also opportunistic buying. Here, and for some reason this business is often conducted by under-30 females, the seller and buyer first nonverbally communicate by providing evidence of ownership or control of certain commodity and production capital fetishes, then the buyer conditions the offer with a question like “Can I get that for less?” Then the horse-trade is on to see who blinks first on ad placement and price on campaigns that may span TV, radio and print in multiple markets. Finally, there are companies that are so big they have an in-house ad department that negotiates ads directly with each magazine. As they are the lifeblood of the publisher, they will simply hammer on price and placement until they get what they want. My sense is that MoveOn.org has become a large enough media buyer to be able to negotiate an ad buy with the NY Times without outside help.

Despite the fantasy that NY Times advertising sales department is in cahoots with MoveOn.org to get Petraeus, the reality is that the content of the ad likely never entered into the negotiation. Unfortunately, the NY Times editorial staff cannot really respond honestly to the sheer silliness of the attack as it they’d have to reveal how the sausage is made. Instead, NY Times editor Clark Hoyt gives the rather feeble response that:

The Times bends over backward to accommodate advocacy ads, including ads from groups with which the newspaper disagrees editorially. 

 The editorial department probably never even knew the ad had been bought until they saw the printed paper. However, the NY Times detractors surely sensed they’d hit a sore point when they mentioned ad rates, demonstrating in the process they have no idea how media works. Everybody is now going to expect a “discount” when they buy as space from the NY Times, which will hurt ad agencies, advertisers and readers alike.  The publisher, unfortunately, will just have to bear this sauna fart.

Update: The House today also took time to condemn the ad. Interestingly, John Armor, a conservative lawyer, argues the ad discount constituted a “gift” to MoveOn, which must have made publishers everywhere wince yet again. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that the paper had a political motive in granting a discount for the ad. The claim is simply another iteration of the conservative sentiment that the paper has a liberal bias. Indeed, the discount was based on a condition that MoveOn to accept that the ad would run on the nearest day to their desired run-day when space came available. Now MoveOn has belatedly paid the full price for the ad — a real gift to the NY Times as it dispells the notion that a discount should be expected for any political ad.

Yet now we have an large majorities in Congress supporting a false linkage; here that political content motivated a discount. Heaven forbid that Congress put their weight behind other false linkages.

The NY Times obviously would have refused the ad if they thought it defamatory and opened them to republisher liability. But we all know nobody will ever file a libel suit against MoveOn for the ad because it is not defamatory. And we also know Congress will never spend a second condemning the much harsher critique of General Petraeus by his boss, US Central Command head Admiral Bill Fallon

Kill your darlings

George Orwell’s advice that writers “kill their darlings” to keep their writing fresh and honest applies doubly to advertising copywriters. This week, the US Senate, which will do just about anything to avoid dealing with serious matters at hand, like say, education, healthcare, or, I dunno, that Iraq thingy, was given nearly an entire day of free-for-all fun with MoveOn.org’s ad in the New York Times “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?, which in the end resulted in a non-binding resolution, introduced by class clown John Cornyn, condemning the ad. Good job, guys. Still, the real bad guy here was the copywriter. In his brief for the ad, he was undoubtedly told to keep hitting the “betrayal of trust” meme. Not surprisingly, two or three neuron bursts later, the headline had written itself. Brilliant! At that point, experience should have told the copywriter it was time to push “delete” and kill that darling. It wasn’t even a cheap pun; that would have simply read “General Betray-Us?” Instead, it was a labored pun.

No mo’ Shillin’ fo’ da Koalishun of da Willin’

Like Gen. William C. Westmoreland , who debased himself to prop up Nixon’s policy 40 years earlier, Petraeus is smart military confused as to where his loyalties belong. He understands he’s being sacrificed on the pyre of political expediency by his masters. Perhaps that is why he was honest enough to admit his masters expect to continue the occupation for at least another decade. (Although, I kid you not, there is a strand of conspiracy talk at the moment that Petraeus is being groomed for a 2012 White House run and this has his handlers are royally pissed he’s catching image flack so early on in the product roll-out. There is also the challenge to political copywriters of finding something that rhymes with “ass-kissing chickenshit”).

A Permanent State of War? Now there’s a headline that resurrects the ghost of Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

Besides, the headline could have been treated differently, say, in the form of a question to the General. If we need to spin the win, is it worth it? Or, what is it that 71% of Americans is not getting about this war?  

Or simply use an Army recruiting slogan. “It’s Army Strong, not Army Wrong.”  or “Army Strong … but not for long. Gen. Petraeus please don’t break our Army.”

Or some Dylan, “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
On the other hand, Americans love the infantile. Perhaps the next MoveOn.org ad will read: “Hey Cornyn, bite me!”

Disenfranchised immigrants

Did you know that one out of 35 people in the world is an immigrant, according to a 2004 United Nations study? In numbers, that translates to 175 million people (2.9% of the world’s population) versus 75 million (2.5%) in 1960.

In the United States, the number of immigrants total over 34 million, accounting for 12.4% of the population. The biggest national group are Hispanics at 17 million. In some states like California, the foreign population accounts for 27.2%.

Using simple math, it’s clear that the Hispanics are one of the most disfranchised national group in the U.S. The fact that Spanish hasn’t become an official language in states like California shows the minuscule rights Hispanics have.

If a country like the U.S. accepts and depends on immigrants for its economic growth and well-being, its legislation should reflect respect for those cultures and national groups that work in the country. Good examples for the US to follow are countries where more than one language is officially spoken. Some of these are Switzerland (French, Italian, German, Rumantsch), Canada (English and French) and Finland (Finnish and Swedish).

It’s incredible that as we’ve become more interdependent through globalization and can communicate with ease through the Internet, our perceptions of other cultures continue to be in the Pre-Cambrian Era. Even legislation reflects this antiquated stance. The difficulty of immigration reform in the US is a sad example of how some interest groups want the status quo to continue.

There are a myriad of reasons why immigrants continue to be disfranchised. But as long as we continue to teach our children at school that our country, our language and our culture is the best, we’ll never build a world that respects in earnest people from other countries and nationalities.

Perhaps the most remarkable candidness in the US Senate’s all-night Iraq Debate came from Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, who examined the idea that has long burned in the hearts of those who engineered the Iraq occupation — the privatization of 70% of Iraq’s oil resources. The crafters of this plan have spent over a decade coming up with reasons to justify this, even though oil production in most countries is done under the auspices of the state or quasi-statal entities. If Americans are really concerned about ending civil strife in Iraq and giving all its citizens a stake in the success of that country, perhaps it is time to abandon pressuring for a Hydrocarbon Law and the application of production-sharing agreements, or PSAs, and try a different approach. (BTW, if you are convinced PSAs are the way to go, it might be worthwhile to review the recent Russian experience of British Petroleum.)

 Current estimates of Iraq’s oil reserves are all over the map, ranging from 112Gbbl to 400Gbbl on the high end. Nevertheless, the big oil companies seem comfortable with figures north of 300 billion barrels. At an oil price of $50 a barrel that’s a treasure of $15 trillion. $30 trillion at $100 a barrel, or roughly a cool $1 million for every Iraqi citizen. Given the value of the assets at stake, it is also clear why Mr. Bush and co-president Cheney scarcely bat an eye at the mention that official Pentagon spending on the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan now exceed $12 billion a month. That’s chump change.

While the conditions in Iraq are quite different than in Norway, there is obviously an alternative path for Iraq that so far has not received much public discussion, i.e. creation of a national stabilization fund to invest and protect national oil revenues managed with sufficiently little corruption so that covenants with Iraq’s future generations are kept. The added benefit is that, like in Norway, the money can be directed toward diversification of the economy and job creation.

The Senate’s Great Iraq Debate was a flop, but Cantwell may have inadvertantly started a discussion that will help both the people of Iraq and the US in the long term.

Update: C-Span  has the clip up now.

Later update: Suddenly it’s become okay to use the O-word right on the senate floor. Larry Craig did it, too.

Michael Moore’s Sicko is rolling out in US theaters to generally positive reviews. The premise is simple: for any industrialized country, universal health care should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, certain institutions of the US medical-industrial complex (e.g. insurers) and many voters do not accept this notion. For video on a piece by CNN’s resident neurosurgeon/reporter Sanjay Gupta that really got to Moore, see this and this.

What I would like to see is a comparison between the Finnish system and the US system. Having been in both, it’s clear to me that the Finnish system wins hands down in terms of life-cycle costs and quality. On the other hand, the variability of quality of US health care can be good for the lucky and the rich — it focuses resources very well. For example, when former Disney CEO Michael Eisner started to have a heart attack, he drove his car to Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, because he knew that was where the good care was. Such thinking would be odd in the Finnish context. Also, the Finnish system keeps slogging toward a diagnosis until it gets it right (or at least in the ballpark), while doctors in the US may be brilliant diagnosticians or lose interest and never figure out the problem. Second opinion is a big deal. It’s an interesting trade-off the Americans have made: sacrificing reliability and consistency for spectacular successes and a system that badly serves two-thirds of the population.