Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Literacy in the United States

According to this source American adults have a 99% literacy rate. That sounds pretty impressive but it's not a complete picture of adult reading and writing skills in our country.

Looking at literacy in the U.S. in a little more depth we find, according to this article, that 52% of American adults are either "non-literate", or have "below basic" or "basic" reading and writing skills. Those 52% are broken down as follows -

4% of adults are non-literate meaning they can neither read nor write.

14% of adults have "below basic" skills meaning they read and write at a grade 1 to grade 3 level.

34% of adults have "basic" skills meaning they read and write at a grade 4 or grade 5 level.


One way to interpret those numbers is that 52% of adults do not have the prerequisite skills to analyze complex topics. On the other hand, a lack of reading and writing skills does not preclude any individual from being kind, funny, goodhearted, skilled and wise. The skill with which someone reads and writes really has nothing to do with whether you are a good friend, worker, husband, wife, son or daughter. 

Unfortunately for a representative democracy when it comes to interpreting the fog of current events and politics, the ability to read and analyze complex issues is paramount. A majority of people (52%) do not have the reading and writing tools to analyze complex information - to separate fact from fiction. Because of this, we don't form governments and elect politicians by asking individuals to analyze facts and data to reach conclusions individually, but rather by moving and shaping public opinion in the aggregate. 

Given the sometimes lucrative nature of politics, and a human will to power, we have a vast array of people and institutions attempting to shape public opinion.

Where do you get the most bang for your buck in this endeavor to shape public opinion? 

Consider tele-marketers, tele-evangelists, pyramid marketing schemes, snake oil salesman, and made for TV informercial creators. They provide a message in a seemingly sincere manner, using purported experts operating in good faith, and provide messages at a 3rd or 4th grade level. Given the proliferation of these types of schemes it's obviously a profitable endeavor.

An effective way for a politician, political party, corporation or the ultra-wealthy, to sway public opinion - to gain power, is to write and talk in a way a 3rd or 4th grader comprehends. If those who shape public opinion are aligned with the interests of the majority of citizens then we have a representative democracy of sorts - not government by the people but government by the people's opinion. In other words - government by the elites who shape that opinion - not necessarily a bad thing and in some practical sense probably necessary. 

The age-old challenge is that public opinion is shaped to a great extent by those with the most money and power. This was exacerbated when the Supreme Court told us money is speech and corporations are people.


Walter Lippmann wrote about what he felt was the necessity of an elite group to help shape public opinion. This might sound scary and certainly would be in some cases. If however the elites were concerned for the welfare of all people (rather than the .1%) it would essentially be the type of government we think we have. We trust our party or representative to represent our interests. 

Instead we end up with some media, corporations, political parties, think tanks and political action committees attempting to shape public opinion with the goal of holding on to their power and obscene amounts of wealth. 

If you zoom out a bit on this picture you will begin to see why public education, liberal arts education, and higher education are a perennial target for attack and bad faith criticism by "conservatives" or "the right". 

A skeptic would say an educated and literate populace requires more sophisticated and widespread (expensive) forms of propaganda to shape their opinions. A less educated and less literate population is more pliable and can be swayed by less sophisticated and less expensive forms of propaganda. You don't have to buy a top tier outlet like the Washington Post or New York Times to spread your propaganda when you have an audience that is perfectly happy to get their news from bottom tier  propaganda outlets like the Daily Caller, Daily Signal, Breitbart, RT, or Sputnik News. Fox News is in this bottom tier and often aligns with these outlets to build "trending" news - Fox differs only in the amount of capital expended in their propaganda efforts. Rupert Murdoch has lots of capital to pretty-up Fox and make it look like real man, real patriotic - real American fare.

A less skeptical proponent of public education would say that better educated and more literate people serve the interests of democracy. And therein lies the rub - a tiny minority of rich and powerful (and their true-believers) have no interest in a democracy because they are afraid of sharing or losing power. True-believers who have neither money nor power are kept afraid and angry by those who shape public opinion (the .1% if you will) so these true-believers can be manipulated by emotion rather than facts and data.

I understand that without context whatever I'm trying to say may be confusing, conspiratorial or just wrong. When I criticize the rich and powerful it's because I feel like I'm part of a team - the team of U.S. citizens - and I want my team to excel. When I read this United Nations report on extreme poverty and human rights in the USA and see how we lag every other economically developed nation in the world I think whatever we've been doing isn't working for a majority of Americans.

Rather than discussing the issues in that U.N. report the .1% who control much of media and government, attack - the U.N., welfare queens, lazy people, socialists, democrats, elites, coastal elites, college students, libs, pro-choicers, immigrants, people of color, people who want to take your guns, people who want to take away your religion and anyone else they can to obfuscate the facts of the matter and promote a friend/enemy sense of tribal belonging that transcends rational thought.

We have pressing issues to address in our country - housing, medical care, drug prices, child care,  wage stagnation, wealth inequality, public education, health, addiction, suicide, gun violence, climate change and the environment. If the .1% and their media empires allowed for a good faith dialogue on these topics we'd be on a start to finding solutions. 


Monday, October 14, 2019

Goal of the Day

My goal of the day is something I heard the late philosopher Rick Roderick say,

"To have strongly held beliefs but to recognize that my beliefs may be wrong."

I can articulate a fairly coherent explanation for how the United States came to be in it's current state. In essence those with power used that power to consolidate and increase their power.

As a believer in a mixed-economy, sometimes called embedded liberalism, I would propose that consolidation of political power in the hands of a wealthy few is detrimental to the average citizen and a precursor to a totalitarian, possibly fascistic, state. I may very well be wrong either about particulars or in my general thesis.

If you are a subscriber to voodoo economics, trickle down theory or the Laffer curve - consolidating money and power in the hands of a few is a good thing. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher promoted an ideology that led the United States (and parts of Western Europe) to where we find ourselves today.

If you are curious, and have a few hours, these three videos on NeoLiberalism and one on Facism are a good history lesson for what lead us to where we are in 2019. From what I can tell it took the young person who made those videos two years to complete them so he's done us quite favor.

By all means exercise your God-given right to think for yourself. Consult as many sources as you can - make up your own mind on what to believe. I think you will find that the world is incredibly complex and a non-thinking faith in a party or ideology will create more problems than it will solve.

Harold Bloom had a humorous take on being skeptical when he wrote,
"I am your true Marxist critic, following Groucho rather than Karl, and take as my motto Groucho’s grand admonition, ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it.’"

I've been thinking about where our "faith" in dysfunctional government policies and parties originates.  I think it may trace back a couple of thousand years to the origins of Buddhism and Christianity - or what I'd call a general Eastern vs. Western way of thinking.

The Dalai Lhama says Buddhism is a pragmatic religion that utilizes logic and the scientific method. If some precept of Buddhism doesn't work for you or for society there is no reason to follow that precept.

Christianity in it's myriad forms has one central claim - the one and only truth. Even though the various Christian sects hold what are sometimes antithetical beliefs they each have faith that theirs is the one and only truth. If those truths happen to be detrimental to you as an individual or society as a whole - that's the way God intended it. A similar argument could be made for other patriarchal religions.

Our Judeo-Christian country incorporated that religious need to believe, to have faith, even when all evidence points to the contrary - into our politics. As mainstream religions lose adherents we see people who take all the energy that used to go into religious fervor and apply it to the political realm. We end up with "strict constructionists" who tell us the constitution - prevents us from addressing the gun death epidemic or the takeover of government by the ultra-wealthy via dark money. We end up with "conservatives" who tell us the bible makes it a requirement that women give up control of their own bodies and subjugate themselves to men; that we allow the state to kill and that humans with different sexual orientation are sinners (who we may profess to love but who will suffer eternal damnation for their sin).

Predictions are hard especially when it comes to the future. It seems to me that we have a battle between searching for truth, or having blind faith in a party, person or ideology. Searching for truth is hard as are all worthwhile things. Having blind faith in a party, person or ideology is easy but ultimately devastating to the individual. People willing to give up their individuality make up some of the most damaging mass movements in history. Generally there is some sort of precipitating factor that energizes the movement to action.


The great recession of 2008 worked out fine for the banks and financial institutions but around 10 million Americans lost their homes. Combine this with the gentrification of some cities and the crumbling of others and it's not hard to see why there are so many homeless people. Given the stagnation of wages, loss of manufacturing jobs, decline of schools, out of control costs of health care, dying planet and rampart addiction it's not hard to see why there are a significant number of Americans who are afraid, hurt and angry. Only a complete failure of imagination could possibly allow one to not see this.

People who are afraid, hurting and angry are prime targets for a demagogue willing to tell them what they want to hear irrespective of reality. Some would argue that keeping people afraid, hurting and angry is part of the plan by the powerful to retain and grow power. The rhetoric and propaganda pushed by Fox and Friends, Hannity, Limbaugh, Ingraham, Savage etal. makes this clear when viewed from a non-ideological non-true-believer frame of reference.

In order to understand my concern a person needs to understand the  context in which I write this. If you are too busy or not interested in following the radical right shouters on TV or radio then you have no clue what I'm trying to say. Listen to or watch the ones I've mentioned and if your head doesn't explode from the misinformation, disinformation, hatred and "othering" of libs, Dems, Socialists, feminists, coastal elites, women, immigrants, people of color and academics you will begin to realize something quite dangerous is being done to persuade people, to change public opinion, to set up an enemy/friend scenario - all in order to retain and grow power for the powerful. It's hard. but you have to listen or watch for awhile to get the full effect - it's quite disorienting, depressing, and maddening as you start to see what billionaires are paying millionaires to say about your fellow citizens, in order to maintain and grow the wealthy elites power.

One thing I can guarantee you is that if you do listen to the shouters you will never hear them say, "I have strongly held beliefs but I realize my beliefs may be wrong." It's all binary for the shouters - good/bad, enemy/friend, lib/conservative are all groups of perfectly homogeneous people sharing the same all good or all bad set of beliefs. Completely ridiculous but enthralling if you are looking for someone to blame for dissatisfaction with your own life and or failure of our government to serve the people.

Given we have a demagogue in office currently it becomes a guessing game to see what path this particular mass movement will take.

I'm (as always) betting on the good guys (and gals).


Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Dear Diary

Melania Trump has a page on the site called BE BEST that features this quote,
"It remains our generation’s moral imperative to take responsibility and help our children manage the many issues they are facing today, including encouraging positive social, emotional, and physical habits." 
Melania Trump First Lady of the United States
It's hard to know what to make of this quote. Someone has a moral imperative to encourage positive social, emotional and physical habits in our children. Someone should strive to BE BEST.


We try our best to be our best and fail over and over. We try to be kind and end up being cruel. We try to be honest and end up being dishonest. We try to be brave and end up being cowardly. We want to be polite and end up being rude. We want to be smart and end up doing stupid things etc. etc. etc. I know this to be true from personal experience and would propose that anyone with a tiny bit of self awareness also knows this to be true for themselves. We try to be good and do good and end up being bad and doing bad (hurtful, selfish, thoughtless) things.

I fall short. We fall short.

As long as we are aware of our failing and strive to do better there is no shame in imperfection. Human individuals are messy, crazy, wild, mixed-up, cowardly, brave, honest, dishonest, kind, cruel, smart, stupid, wise, foolish - the whole catastrophe. There is no way around this. You can be a better human but you can't be a perfect human.

Anyone who outwardly seems perfect should be viewed with a degree of skepticism. The perfect wife, father, husband, child, - exists only in fairy tales. Even a saint can approach perfection in some role and fail miserably in other roles. No human is beyond redemption. Part of redemption is to admit fault and ask for forgiveness. Humans unable or unwilling to admit their flaws are therefore sadly irredeemable.

Any thing made by man is flawed. Some things approach a greater degree of perfection but no man made thing can be perfect. If you think your religion, country, party are perfect - think some more.

The key to achieving greater perfection is examining your own life and being self-aware enough to realize where one falls short and can improve. Being imperfect we can all improve. If you think you are perfect or can reach perfection - think some more.

We're all sinners and paradoxically, beautifully, in our own messy human way - we are all saints.

That is the crux of the issue - accepting the beautiful imperfections of being human and balancing that acceptance with the desire to be and do better.