Archive for May, 2010

The Fairness Doctrine: A Phantom Issue

May 24, 2010

Pssst. Want to make some easy money?

Here’s a can’t miss tip.

Start a web site to raise money to fight the return of the Fairness Doctrine.

What’s the Fairness Doctrine, you ask? It was a requirement that TV and radio and networks give equal time to both sides in arguments over public policy. During the Reagan era the Fairness Doctrine was repealed to appease broadcasters who claimed that it imposed an onerous burden on them.

And why is raising money to fight its return easy money? Because there is no fight. The President, the leadership of Congress and the chairman of the FCC all have signaled they have no intention of adding the Fairness Doctrine to their already full menu of difficult political battles.

That’s the reality. But over in the black=white world of right wing politics, the wires are burning hot with fears that there’s a secret plan to reimpose (shudder) fairness to broadcasting. It’s become one of the political right’s worst nightmares.

Just type “Fairness Doctrine” into your Google search box and see what comes up. It’s a vast wonderland of misinformation and conspiratorial theories, consistent with the worldview that President Obama and his allies are mortal threats to the American way of life.

Actually, I’m disappointed that the administration isn’t making an issue of the Fairness Doctrine. I wish there were a fight. There’s a certain charm to the word, “fairness.” The doctrine it applied to was aptly named.

The airwaves are, and have been since their development, the property of the public. We, the public, let commercial and public vendors use those airwaves under certain terms and conditions. One of those conditions (for more than half a century) used to be that if one side of a public debate is given time to make its case the other side should be given an equal amount of time.

That condition makes a lot of sense because radio and TV air time is finite. In print you can add more pages. Can’t do that in broadcast because no matter how hard we try there’s still only going to be 7 days and 24 hours. Time is limited. Time when most people watch and listen is even more limited. If one side dominates an argument on broadcast there’s slim chance for the other side to mount an argument equal to it.

And that’s pretty much what’s happened since the Fairness Doctrine went away in 1987. What used to be reasonably balanced call in shows have morphed into multi-hour screeds by Rush Limbaugh and his legion of imitators. And since they are awfully good at their craft, political entertainment, they draw big audiences and lots of advertising. In the process they have warped the national debate on an endless number of vital issues, with scant opportunity for the other side to respond to the same audiences.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon was in Washington, D.C. the other day and blamed repeal of the Fairness Doctrine for creating a climate that enabled passage of Arizona’s new immigration law, the law that makes all Hispanic looking people in the state seem guilty of something unless they can prove their innocence.

Gordon’s comments fell on deaf ears in Washington, but for sure raised a lot of money for those battling the phantom of the Fairness Doctrine. Gordon’s words were seen as an outcropping of the “secret plan” by the administration to return fairness to the airwaves. And we can’t have that.

I should add here that since the administration is doing zilch to restore the Fairness Doctrine, the political right is focusing on what they see as its evil twin, internet neutrality. The net neutrality fight is a real fight, one the administration is on record supporting—–and for the sake of everyone who wants to keep internet news and information channels relatively free—had better win.

Here’s what’s at stake. The big money guys who currently control the flow of most internet traffic want to charge some sites more than others to use the internet. This is akin to, but not exactly like, the way cable operators pick and choose which channels will show up on their systems. If they succeed, some very greedy traffic cops will be inserted at strategic points on the information superhighway. That can’t be good for anyone except those who profit from it.

The anti-net-neutrality campaign is working hard to wrap the Fairness Doctrine argument around itself. And the easy marks on the right are buying in to that argument.

So that’s why I suggest that raising money to fight the Fairness Doctrine is such easy money. There’s a lot of it out there in the hands of gullible people who are willing to contribute to fight both fairness and neutrality.

Pickins’ hardly come any easier than that.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at


If This Is Going to be A Republican Year Why Do Democrats Keep Winning?

May 20, 2010

Here’s some friendly advice for those who can’t resist trying to predict the political future by reading political tea leaves: this year use more than one cup.

If, from the scent of Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, you whiffed a November Republican landslide, check out the cups served the other day in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

The news from Kentucky in most press accounts was the rise of Rand Paul as a Tea Party candidate. Most of those same stories neglected to mention that Paul was only the third highest vote getter in that U.S. Senate race. Both Democrats running for the Senate won more votes than Paul. In fact, 60% of those who voted in the Kentucky primary voted for Democrats.

What do those tea leaves tell you? That come November Rand and the Tea Party will sweep Kentucky? Sniff again.

Then there were the results from Pennsylvania’s special congressional election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha. Murtha was a Democrat, true enough. But his district was anything but reliably Democratic. In fact, while Barack Obama was winning what amounted to a presidential landslide victory in 2008, Murtha’s district was voting for John McCain.

Encouraged by the district’s Republican leanings, and by their own rhetoric promising a Republican victory march come November, the GOP poured millions into the race to replace Murtha. But the Democratic candidate won, and won with a surprising margin approaching 10%.

Let’s put that Democratic victory in context. During the 2009-2010 cycle there have been 7 special elections to fill vacant congressional seats. The Democrats so far have won them all. That’s right. So far the score is 7-0 in the Democrats’ favor.

So there’s a reasonable chance that the tea leaves that fell into place after Massachusetts, portending a Republican November sweep were merely a mutant variety.

The correct cup may have been the one poured a few weeks earlier in upstate New York, in a district the Democrats had not won for 100 or more years. There, last November, Democrat Bill Owens was elected after Tea Party types took over the Republican party and nominated someone so right wing the local Republican majority couldn’t support him.

It’s not all that apparent from media coverage, but there are a lot of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who don’t think the U.S. should abolish the U.S. Department of Education, or withdraw from the UN Treaty on the Rights of the Child, or should go back to the “Austrian School of Economics” which counsels that the free market is more or less a perfect regulator and doesn’t need much, if any, government regulation.

All of the above, and a lot more, is now the Republican party platform in Maine, a document written after Tea Party delegates hijacked the Maine GOP at the party’s convention a few weeks ago. Maine’s Republican candidates will run this year either buying into this extreme platform, or straddling support or outright rejecting it. Any of these options are certain to lose them support either from moderates or the party’s right wingers.

You see the effects of this right wing pressure in Washington, DC today where Republicans in the Senate and House are flirting dangerously with arm-lock opposition to banking reform, opposition that could well translate into the wrong side of the political argument come the November elections.

You will certainly see right wing pressure keep Republicans in Congress from doing anything reasonable and sensible about immigration—ensuring that the nation’s Hispanic voters will drift even further away from them this year and for years to come.

I’m not dismissing the level of anger voters are expressing in polls, public forums and elections. Voters are angry, and should be.

The cozy relationship between those with economic and political power has given us disastrous and costly policies over the past few decades. The failure to adequately monitor BP, a notorious serial polluter and safety scofflaw and its activities in the Gulf, is just the latest calamity.

Add that to the incomprehensible behavior of those who have run and regulated banking, financing, housing policy, mortgage companies and their accounting and legal enablers over the past decade. Stir in our hugely expensive misadventure in Iraq. And let’s not overlook international trade policy that has cost the U.S. millions of high paying jobs and communities their tax revenue while those who shipped themselves off to China or elsewhere prospered and skipped paying U.S. taxes on that prosperity.

Angry? Why shouldn’t we be angry? This is an anger that crosses party lines and crosses the demographic spectrum.

In a democratic society it’s the obligation of the people—the voters—to do something about it. To let their representatives know they are not happy with the state of affairs and demand change. And I expect that come November, and before in many state primaries, voters will.

But does that mean voters will opt for new leaders like Rand Paul, who advocates giving those in business and finance who took down capitalism even fewer restraints? It could happen.

But not if the Democrats stiffen their backbones, break old cozy alliances with Wall Street and other narrow interests and fit themselves into a much bolder leadership role on behalf of all those angry people out there.

How will all of this turn out? So far the tea leaves aren’t much help. Like the water in the Gulf of Mexico these days, what we see at the bottom of the cup is, at best, murky.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Sex, Sex, Guns And Money

May 14, 2010

As soon as Elena Kagan was named to the Supreme Court the news media set up the rope lines for what they assumed would be the upcoming confirmation tug of war.

On the “liberal” side are those who favor a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, those who defend gay marriage, those who favor some form of gun control and supporters of programs that require federal spending, such as the new health care law.

On the “conservative” side are those who don’t.

These issues will consume the better part of senatorial statements and questioning about Kagan and will dominate news coverage about her confirmation.

From the perspective of the news media, sex, guns and spending are always the default positions defining liberals and conservatives. And it’s so misleading.

Years ago France Telecom introduced a device much like a computer which it distributed to all of its customers. Among other things the device could print out France Telecom’s monthly bill. This was pretty hot stuff at the time and a French friend of mine demonstrated it for me. I quickly noticed that the bill came merely as a total, without the detailed information we’re used to in the U.S.

My French friend didn’t find this surprising. “What French man would like to see a bill listing strange phone numbers on it?” he asked. Translation: Most Frenchmen had mistresses whose phone numbers on the bill would raise uncomfortable issues.

I heard a segment on NPR the other day where a Nigerian woman discussed a “sex strike” many Nigerian women staged recently to prod males into breaking an impasse in the nation’s government. It worked, she said, because Nigerians are so sex obsessed. “If sex was an Olympic sport,” she said, “Nigeria would always win the gold.”

I doubt it. Sex, like the air we breathe, is everywhere. Some talk about it more than others, but that doesn’t mean the sex meter isn’t running even in “quiet” parts of the world. In fact, most of the world was amazed that President Clinton nearly lost office over a sex act with someone other than his wife. In most other national cultures this hardly made any sense at all.

But in the U.S. we are clearly living in parallel universes. I doubt you will find any fewer white southern Republicans interested in sex, or straying from the marriage to have sex, or having sex with members of their own gender than the population at large. In their own sex lives many have a most “liberal” attitude, even if some things are left in the shadows. So why is sex one of the liberal-conservative political markers?

I’ve never known a woman who I considered “pro-abortion.” Aborting a fetus is a wrenching act. That’s why the number of abortions performed in the U.S. each year is such a small fraction of the number of pregnancies.

Many of those abortions are medically necessary to remove unformed fetuses and to save the lives of mothers. Others are the outcome of rape or incest. Some are elected by older parents who can’t financially, emotionally or physically handle the raising of a newborn. These are all deeply personal acts and decisions. Yet those who respect the right of individuals to choose abortions wear the label “liberal,” and those who want government to play an intrusive (anti libertarian) role in personal lives are called “conservatives.”

Even more baffling, these labels reverse when it comes to guns. Where on abortion questions those who want the government to keep out of the decision are “liberals,” when it comes to guns those who want the government to keep out of the decision to buy and own are “conservatives.”

Those who believe in the right of local jurisdictions to decide important local issues without federal interference are “conservatives” except when it comes to guns. People in the District of Columbia, deeply concerned about urban crime, who have voted overwhelmingly for a relatively mild form of gun registration, are “liberals.”

The money thing is more subtle. If you want the government to spend federal tax dollars to treat health care as a right, like education, you’re a liberal. But if you have no objection spending those dollars and a lot more with insurance companies for a skinnier form of insurance protection you’re a conservative.

“Conservative” is the label applied to those who have problems with raising tax money for new roads and bridges and other public improvements. But “conservative” also defines governors like Indiana’s Mitch Daniels who’s led the charge to sell or lease public roads to private companies which will then levy their own “taxes” called “tolls.”

Getting back to where I began, Elena Kagan will be grilled on gay rights, abortion, guns, and presidential policy affecting program spending. And all of this discussion will come with “liberal” and “conservative” boxes—few of which make sense or seem accurately placed.

If you I and hundreds of millions of other U.S. citizens were asking Kagan questions at her confirmation hearings the conversation likely would evolve much differently.

Maybe we should all weigh in to have just that kind of a confirmation hearing—-one where the public gets a seat at the confirmation table along with the senators…through emails, YouTube, Twitter and the like. I’d expect the conversation would be much more interesting, useful and informative.

And in asking them we wouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as liberals or conservatives, labels which when you come right down to it are meaningless.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Education and the Global Contest for Brains

May 11, 2010

Education and The Global Contest for Brains

May 10, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Cisco, the digital networking company, is currently running a TV ad that shows elementary school kids in the U.S. and those in China sharing an educational moment via widescreen telecasting.

That’s so last century.

There’s so much more happening in education these days than dedicated private TV networks.

Anyone who read the April 28 edition of the New York Times received a whole news section under the heading “Free and easy Downloadable Education.” And it wasn’t about no-name educational interlopers. No, the section pointed us toward uncounted thousands of Internet courses from MIT, the University of California, Yale, and others.

It’s all there for the taking. The classes that come with $25,000 and up tuition price tags if you attend them on campus can be downloaded free. That’s F-R-E-E.

But isn’t everyone too busy twittering to bother with all of this stuffy stuff? Apparently not. The Times describes a University of California class (Biology 131) that’s been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on YouTube. In December, ITunes U surpassed the 100 million download mark with courses it hosts.

Here’s another surprising piece of information from the Times article: 69% of those downloading Yale courses are independent learners, not associated with any school or program—-just people interested in learning the subject matter. This seems to be the pattern for all school programs. Only a small percentage of users are other professors, trying to check out the competition or pick up new ideas.

(check below for a few free courseware sites)

You seldom see or hear about it in the news, but we’re in the midst of a worldwide educational revolution. And it undoubtedly will have more impact on the decades just ahead than any of the other “revolutions” we’re experiencing today.

Try this for a frame of reference.

Estimates are that in the 1800s hardly 1% of the world’s population could read. That was the century in which the U.S. led the world toward a system of compulsory education for children.

Today the UN estimates that only one out of five adults worldwide is illiterate. Stated another way, fewer adults are illiterate today than there were when UN tracking began back in 1957—even though world population has doubled since then. Think of it. During the past 50 years more than 3 billion people have become literate. And the trend is accelerating.

China, which had little that could pass for a modern educational system 50 years ago, will graduate 600,000 engineers this year from its own universities. The University of Hawaii’s East West Center is training 10,000 Chinese to become school principals. And Chinese education has become so attractive that for the first time this year more foreign students are studying in China than the Chinese are sending abroad.

China recognizes what’s at stake in a knowledge-rich world. It’s making huge investments in building what it hopes will be world-class universities. A lot of other countries are also aspiring to be in the big leagues of education. Here’s the vision statement of Singapore’s National University:

“NUS will be a globally-oriented university, in the distinguished league of the world’s leading universities. A key node in global knowledge networks, NUS will have distinctive expertise and insights relating to Asia.”

Ben Wildavsky, a journalist and scholar at Brookings, has compiled some serious research about all this and published it in a new book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World.

Nations we’ve never considered to be fountainheads of learning are running hard to catch up. And in doing it, they’re following the model of the multi-national corporations, importing brains, talent and know-how from those who have it. There’s hardly a major U.S. or British university that doesn’t have something going, somewhere on a foreign campus.

One example: Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon both have branches at Qatar’s shiny new university, which also happens to the region’s first co-educational university. Another example: Saudi Arabia’s new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s campus is being shared by Cornell, Stanford, Texas A&M and Oxford.

U.S. universities lead everyone’s rankings as the best in the world and house 70% of the Nobel Prize winners for advanced research. U.S. schools continue to be magnets for top students from all continents. But it’s clear from Wildavsky’s study that the competition is getting more aggressive.

You can look at this positively, for how it should raise aspirations and living standards around the world and contribute to the pool of human knowledge. And you also can look at this with concern. As Wildavsky points out, in the late 19th century Americans flocked to Germany which had he first modern research universities. Now, little more than 100 years later, the quality of Germany’s universities has plummeted – and its schools are copying the U.S. model.

The X factor is how technology is changing knowledge and education, making it accessible even to those who attend no university. When today’s grade schoolers reach university age, will bricks and mortar institutions be as important as they are today? Will the new kids on the block even been training for jobs we can barely envision? Who would have thought 15 years ago that a person could make a living in an area such as search technology?

In all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. If the U.S. is going to keep up in the knowledge race it has to continue supporting the system that took us to the top. Not just so we can keep chanting, “we’re number one!” but so that we can continue to thrive in this world economic environment and the ones a few years down the road that no one can foresee.

**A few web sites where you can download educational courses: , connexions , Opencourseware Consorium , ITunes U and

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

A Few Thoughts About Aliens From Space, Aliens on Earth, and A Cookbook About Eating People

May 3, 2010

The late Carl Sagan, with his academic work, his popular books and his TV series, was an influential force in astrophysics promoting the hunt for extraterrestrial life. A friend of mine, also a noted scientist, once chided Sagan about this. “Carl,” he warned in a letter, “don’t you realize that when beings from a superior culture encounter those of an inferior one they often eat them?”

My friend could have been thinking of a 1962 episode of Rod Serling’s TV series The Twilight Zone where aliens land on earth with outward appearances of coming in peace and friendship. They even have a book, written in their own alien language, entitled “To Serve Man.” Humans are thrilled with all of this until they discover that “To Serve Man” actually is a cook book.

I was reminded of these things the other day by two current news items.

Stephen Hawking, like my friend years earlier, is now warning against intensifying the search for life beyond the stars. “If aliens visit us,” he says on a new Discovery Channel documentary, “the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

The other current news story is Arizona’s enactment of a law that makes everyone who looks Hispanic guilty of something until proven innocent.

For most of my life the word “alien” has described creatures much like the cute little guy in “ET,” or the transfigurative beings that live where Star Trek’s “Enterprise” dares to venture. In other words, “alien” has related to the extraterrestrial. But now, with common current usage, “alien” has come to describe some of those who actually walk among us.

This hasn’t always been our history.

When the largely Anglo and western European culture of the U.S. made room for refugees from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia the newcomers were not exactly greeted with open arms, contrary to our misremembered romantic visions of those days. The emigrees were called a lot of names and suffered a lot of indignities because of their differentness for a generation or two. But I don’t recall anyone grouping the Irish or the Italians under the name “aliens.”

The Hispanic migration is different for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that there are potentially so many of them, and they are within walking distance. Many worry that the wholesale transfer of Hispanic culture to the U.S. could markedly alter the very character of the nation.

Stephan Hawking is right when he warns that cultural encounters often work out badly for the natives. Look at all of the examples we already have on our own planet. The American Indians lost their land, their lives, their livelihood, their freedom and their culture. So did the peoples who once ruled Central and South America. Contact with the “old world” wiped out the Incas, the Mayas and other strong and rich cultures that had endured for centuries. You can certainly make the same case for the dozens of tribal cultures of Africa and Central Asia.

Even China, the longest continuous civilization on earth, has needed 200 years to get its mojo back after the more advanced West decided to camp on Chinese territory.

But here’s the difference with the Hispanic “threat” now circling U.S. borders. Those from Mexico, and Central and South America are not arriving as conquerors. For the most part these are hungry people. They hunger for a chance to get ahead in life. They hunger for education, for basic freedoms…for the same type of lives most Americans enjoy.

And this migration isn’t just today’s news. For a century or more wealthy U.S. agriculture interests have been trading on Hispanic hunger to exploit those who would work their farms and orchards for pennies a day. Over the years Hispanic immigrants have become what yesterday’s European immigrants once were: our day laborers, our housekeepers, our non-union factory workers—-our servant class.

Just as other immigrant waves before them evolved into dedicated U.S. patriots, immigrant Hispanics are following the same pattern. They, like their predecessors, appreciate what freedom and opportunity are all about—-more so than those who have never known life without them.

It’s never been easy for immigrants, whatever their background, to integrate into the mainstream U.S. workforce and culture. But the U.S. is one of the only countries on earth that has given them the opportunity to try. And this openness unquestionably has made the U.S. a far richer country. Most of the great business, labor, cultural, philanthropic , military and other leaders the U.S. venerates today trace their roots to immigrant boats that arrived here not so long ago.

But the Hispanics don’t come in boats. That’s one strike against them.

Another is that their time in our history also happens to coincide with a time when we’re engaged in a stupid border drug war, a war that can easily be ended with enactment of sane drug control policies. But our politicians are too gutless to do that, just as they are too gutless to enact reasonable immigration policies. So instead of having a rational system to control immigration we have a bizarre situation where every would-be day laborer and housekeeper is suspected of being a narco killer.

For all kinds of reasons, many of those getting elected to influential government positions these days have gone kind of nuts about governing. This infection will undoubtedly run its course over time, but for now “immigrants” have become “aliens.” And aliens, as we all know from “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” can be dangerous—causing otherwise reasonable people to arm themselves with guns and baseball bats.

These newcomers from across the border will ultimately prevail, of course, despite current highwire emotions. They will prevail by casting ballots in free elections. That prospect doesn’t alarm me as a threat to the U.S. or its history of taking in all those who believe in hard work and freedom.

Hispanic “aliens” don’t worry me. But I will be concerned if I ever encounter anyone with funny ears carrying a book entitled, “To Serve Man.”

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at