Saturday, July 09, 2011

Finding hope in difficult times

It's very difficult to live in Western society today without becoming cynical, or at least without seeing a lot of things as a "glass half empty". We have one universal language: Lies, and one universal religion: Money. Corporations, politicians, pundits and commentators lie so much and so often that it leads to deep cynicism--we expect our institutions to lie, and are pleasantly surprised when they tell the truth. Even the press, which we've relied upon for more than a hundred years to tell the truth, is regurgitating stories fed to them by PR flacks, avoiding stories that would alienate advertisers, using sensationalism to deflect attention from stories that are more difficult to tell and more important to understand, and spinning the news to the benefit of political parties or corporate interests.

The worship of money is very closely connected to the proliferation of lies. When there's no money at stake, there's no need to lie, but when the cost is high, it often costs much less to lie than it does to tell the truth and accept the consequences. Here are a few examples: Many energy companies and firms that either output greenhouse gases or make products that create greenhouse gases spend tens of millions of dollars in an effort to stop legislation designed to curb global warming. They hire lobbyists to convince legislators to block laws, underwrite bogus research that questions the impact of human activity on global warming, or even that global warming exists at all, and create "astroturf" groups to further inflame voters already panicked about the state of the economy.

Multiple pharmaceutical companies have been accused of suppressing research that found that their drugs may be unsafe. Health care organizations publicly supported U.S. reform legislation, but privately lobbied legislators against it and created their own "astroturf" organizations to try to defeat the legislation. The tobacco industry spent decades lying about the health effects of their products, and is now focusing on less-developed countries where companies can freely advertise to children and don't have to warn consumers about the risks of cancer and heart disease.

Banks and other financial institutions sold millions of mortgages to consumers who couldn't afford them, and then bundled the mortgages together and sold them (and their risk) off to others without detailing their shoddy quality. Companies pursuing high-profile mergers say and do everything they can to convince government agencies to approve the deals, and then backpedal on their commitments whenever they can once the merger is approved. Some corporations claim publicly that they're cooperating fully in civil and criminal investigations, while privately, they're destroying evidence that could be used against them.

Politicians, political appointees and staff members regularly go to work for lobbying firms hired by the same companies that they formerly monitored and regulated, at many times their governmental salaries. Some politicians are on a "Merry-Go-Round": They get elected, then after several years, move into the private sector as a lobbyist or corporate lawyer. A few years later, they make another run at public office. Their staffers often follow them, from public jobs to private, and back to public.

Journalists sometimes follow the same path, moving from a career reporting on companies to jobs in public relations firms, where they're paid by the companies and organizations they used to cover to pitch stories to other reporters and spin the facts. Of course, a reporter who's diligent in their efforts to learn the truth about individuals and companies that they cover isn't likely to get very many PR job offers, so there's strong pressure to run stories as they're pitched, and to not look under too many rocks.

Even with all these lies, all this gaming of the system, I maintain hope. Almost every day, I see organizations (primarily government-run and university laboratories, as well as start-ups) working on solutions to our energy and global warming problems. Some corporations recognize that global warming represents a bigger business opportunity than maintaining the status quo. As we get more existence proofs showing that we can maintain our standard of living while still decreasing greenhouse gases, the arguments of the companies and their paid advocates who say that it can't be done will be shown to be lies.

Our consumer protection systems continue to work, albeit often slowly and poorly. Some (but, unfortunately, not enough) of the abuses I wrote about above were detected by these regulatory agencies. Despite efforts to water down or eliminate many of these agencies, I believe that their value will ultimately be understood as essential for capitalism to be both effective and fair.

As "old media" companies find themselves in an ever-increasing spiral of sensationalism and irrelevance, new companies, large and small, for-profit and non-profit, are launching to fill the void. The Internet has eliminated the need for transmitters, printing presses and government licenses, and has decreased the cost by several orders of magnitude. Individuals can report as an avocation, and millions of them do, using their mobile phones, camcorders and personal computers. When you don't have to make a profit (or very much of a profit), it's very difficult for an "old media" company to kill you.

Even with all that, there are days when I just want to turn off my television, radio and computer, toss out the magazines and newspapers, and move to a cabin outside the range of modern media. There are just so many lies that I can take.
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