Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Danger of Porcupine Quill Intellectualism

By Bob Ferris

I got into a Facebook debate yesterday.  I am sure that this is not a big surprise to those who know
Porcupine quills have barbs that allow forward movement but
seriously impair backward movement.  This is great in a quill
but not so good in person or population.
me.  This “discussion” was political and after a while my opponent reminded me of a porcupine quill which goes in very easily but comes out so hard causing much damage along the way.

The debate was related to the current situation with Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. Reuters did a piece that looked at the financial reporting of the Clinton Foundation and called their accounting into question because of some Canadian contributions that were not mentioned in the proper boxes.  This is all part of the maelstrom associated with the release of  Peter Schweizer's book “Clinton Cash” which at this point seems to be more about guilt by association than any hard evidence.  The author’s assertions need to be addressed, but we are not dealing with conclusions here but rather questions.

My particular debate revolved not around the Reuters coverage or the Fox News piece, but about an article in the Examiner with a headline that went like this:Clinton Foundation only gives 15 percent of donations to charities, IRS concern.  This piece was posted by a Libertarian friend of mine and I decided to take a peek at the article.  Although the Reuters’ piece seemed to be the catalyst for this essay it really ended up being a bubbling stew of accusations and innuendos many of them preying on the fears and resentments of the Tea Party crowd or those of similar ilk.
“Disturbing details of the finances of the Clintons Foundation were reported upon by Rush Limbaugh, the controversial talk radio show host, on Thursday. He asserts that much of the 85 percent of the millions of dollars that do not end up in the hands of charities have undefined destinations. In fact, 60 percent of the money donated to the Clintons is categorized as “other.” Knowing this, consider that that the Clinton Foundation’s IRS filings show that it raised more than $500 million between 2009 and 2012. The Federalist publication has published that only 15 percent – or only $75 million – was spent on charity. In excess of $25 million was spent on travel expenses and approximately $110 million went toward employee salaries and benefits, according to Free Republic.” Scott Paulson, Examiner, April 23, 2015
The kangaroo in an animal that can only hop forward.
The above paragraph from the article is illustrative.  Now I will admit that one of my particular bugaboos is throwing out figures in the absence of context, because I think it is dishonest particularly when one purports to be a journalist.  So the question arises from this: Are these numbers out of line compared to industry standards?

In my mind the most logical place to start answering this question is to look at the George W. Bush Foundation (see FY 2013 990s here) and compare that entity with the Clinton Foundation (see FY 2013 990s here). This makes sense as both of these organizations operate presidential libraries and both entities raised about $500 million from 2008 to 2012 so they are similar in size.

At the offset I will say that Mr. Limbaugh’s claims about percentages going to charities and emphasizing the “other” category are both disingenuous.  The Clinton Foundation is an IRS 501(c) 3 charity so the true measure that needs to be considered here is how much money is going to administrative costs and how much to programs (i.e., the charitable purpose of the foundation).  When you look at the 990s for these two foundations you find that the Clinton Foundation spent a little more on administration at 19% in FY-2013 than the Bush Foundation at 17%, but not a significant amount.  And this difference makes sense as the Clinton Foundation raised $148 million in 2013 while the Bush organization raised only $36 million in that year.  It costs money to raise money.

As to the argument about the foul sounding “other” category found on page 9 of the IRS form 990s, the Clinton Foundation placed 77% of their revenue in this category in FY 2013 which interestingly is exactly the same percentage that the Bush Foundation placed in this category for that same year. So there is really nothing to see here particularly when you look at the other classifications in the section of the form.  Moreover, if the Clinton Foundation makes the changes discussed in the Reuters piece this percentage will go down.

Mr. Limbaugh’s use of the word “other” is evocative even though it is not meaningful.  It brings to mind something alien and not right which strikes a chord in those fearful of change or the unknown.  But it is simply like P.T. Barnum’s use of the word “egress” to drive people to exit: It is meant to fool the unaware.

Salaries are mentioned too.  Here the most important salaries to examine are those of the leadership. The Clinton Foundation had 9 senior employees who made $2.6 million in FY 2013 and the Bush Foundation had 9 senior employees who made $2.2 million in that same year.  Yes the Clinton Foundation paid marginally more to their top employees.  That said those employees managed a larger budget and raised considerably more money than their counter-parts at the Bush Foundation. My sense is that Mr. Limbaugh would not publicly make the argument that paying people who have more responsibilities more or paying employees who perform at a higher level more is out of line.

And travel costs too were raised as a red flag issue.  Yes indeed the travel costs for the Clinton Foundation are more than the Bush Foundation.  But should it really be a huge surprise that an organization operating internationally should rightfully have higher travel cost than one that mainly operates domestically?  This red flag seem more like a red herring when considered fully.

This brings us back to the porcupine quill, because when I provided this information and documentation to my “learned” opponent his response was to cling doggedly to the information provided mainly in the above paragraph from Mr. Paulson’s opus.  He was steadfast in his headline-driven stance that the Clinton Foundation “wasted” 85% of its donations in the absolute absence of any supporting information and piles of information that contradicted his belief.

I cannot say whether or not Hillary Clinton has done anything seriously wrong in her dealings vis a vis this foundation, but I can say definitively that our country is harmed by this growing inability of some of its citizenry to adjust strongly held beliefs in the presence of contradictory facts.  Moreover, this tendency to devalue the idea of learning and to embrace those who have repeatedly and openly mislead them and betrayed their interests is exceedingly troubling.  I and others (see here) chalk much of this up to the our purposeful dismantling of our education system which I would equate to an overt act of social and democratic suicide.

Our country was founded by learned people and made great by our ability to out think and be more innovative than our often more powerful opponents.  This cannot be our continued future if the “common sense” that we all share—either personally or through our elected officials—is a combination of ignorance, fear, intolerance and inflexibility.  The current Kansas school crisis (1,2,3) should be a cautionary tale in all of this and we need to take it to heart before similar forces choke the very life out of the educational systems that once made us exceptional and less like the thoughtless quills found on a prickly rodent.  Hopefully, corrective action will be taken by all at the next election.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Carving in Three Part Harmony

By Bob Ferris

The Bag and Bottle Dryer
Nearly a decade ago I went through a workshop at the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont.  I gained much from my rainy week there, but the thing that has stuck with me most is the spoon carving and the understanding that working with my hands with very sharp knives requires an attention that both calms and centers me.

I am not an accomplished carver.  I am learning but not aspiring because the process is really more important than the product.  I carve (and occasionally bleed) because I am in need of grounding not because magic springs from my knives, gouges or draw shave.

Lately I have worked on two little projects that
Bag and Bottle Dryer detail
by caprice but certainly not design have been made of three pieces of wood from different species of trees taken from different places.  The first is a plastic bag and bottle dryer that was assembled from some driftwood found on a Washington beach near an old whale carcass, a salvaged holly branch from a neighbor’s yard and a multi-pronged bit of juniper from ours.  Nothing special.

Bag and Bottle Tree at work.
The second is a spoon carved out of an ice-killed maple branch married to a tailing of dogwood held together with an oblong ball of holly.  More fun than functional, but who knows.

Maple and dogwood spoon held together
by holly. 
Why the three part harmonies in wood?  I have no idea.  Is it important and meaningful?  Obviously not but maybe yes.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Will Coggin: Another Oily Cog in Dr. Evils Big Greasy Land Stealing Machine of Deception

By Bob Ferris

Above are side-by-side pictures of Will Coggin—one with a beard and one without.  None but the most unobservant would think that these are two different people, but Richard Berman (AKA Dr. Evil) hopes that folks will fall for a similar deception as he rolls Mr. Coggin out in his various “disguises” to fool the public into believing that people—rather than the corporate interests his PR and lobbying firm represents—want our federal lands to be sold, our waters to be more polluted, our food to be less protected, and our air less breathable as well as more likely to speed climate change and ocean acidification.

This deception of the American public is painful to observe because our media are often complicit in the trickery through failing to properly steward their opinion or letters pages (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) through adequately disclosing the qualifications and affiliations of the authors of op-eds and LTEs.  It is painfully material, for instance, when Mr. Coggin argues that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (1,2,), Trout Unlimited (1,2,3,4) or Backcountry Hunters and Anglers are groups supported by “outside” interests that the Western reader understands that he is doing so fueled by a salary derived from corporate interests at a keyboard near Washington, DC.   Irony dipped in hypocrisy should always leave us angry.

I suppose that some would argue that I should cut the publications some slack but information sources are by definition supposed to be informed and Mr. Berman is anything but subtle in his actions.  Granted he and Mr. Coggin try to bury their deception through a legion of front groups, aliases, projects and the like, but it really does not take much to unravel this awkward non-profit construct (see Source Watch).  And it has been publicly exposed repeatedly from a 60 Minutes piece (above) to a cautionary note on Charity Navigator. It is all on the extreme side of hinky.

Mr. Coggin characterized on Heartland Institute site.
Normally someone or something so bad, notorious and amateurish would not be a credible threat but this threat is acting synergistically with a highly compromised Congress, a nearly lethargic regulatory environment and a crisis of monumental proportions unfolding across the nation and around the world.  And like climate change it is a lot of little things that lead up to a huge impact.   It is this move to sell or divest federal public lands.  It is the push to get rid of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).  And it is the tax-break and associated anonymity recently granted by the House to mega-donors bent on making our politic system more like a game of Monopoly rather than the democracy free of corporate influence envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

From Mr. Coggin's LinkedIn profile.
So what can you do?  You have three choices.  The first is that you can buy into the deception, don a hat festooned with tea bags and watch your public lands become wastelands and your country go back to being a resource colony.  You could also understand all of the above and do nothing.  Or you can get active by supporting the groups under attack above, calling out these newspapers for facilitating this deception and do as much as you can to get candidates elected that think that people and the quality of our lives—including clean air and water as well as access to healthy public lands—matter.

Money passing to Mr. Berman's firm from non-profit organization where he is the president (see 990).  

(Note: Mr. Coggin's conservatism-at-all-costs and regardless of the consequences runs deep as evidenced from two episodes during his college days at William and Mary: one involving opposition to affirmative action (1,2) and the other involving the public release of information about a young woman who claimed to have been raped.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Becoming the "Big Stick" We All Need

By Bob Ferris

I am thinking this morning about movies where crooks throw meat to guard dogs so they can loot a supposedly secure facility.  This scenario reminds me of what we are seeing with US voters (i.e., the guard dogs) and the well-oiled and deceptive collection of political and public relations machines (i.e., the crooks) that are tossing out visceral fears (i.e., the meat) so that many will not see what the people behind these campaigns really want (e.g., money, resources, power, etc.) nor sense the negative consequences of the consumption of the steak (e.g., climate change, collapsed infrastructure, ruined economy, polluted water, compromised education systems, etc.).  In the above clip from Myth Busters the scenario seems humorous and inconsequential, but in real life not so much.

I have written much about the main players in this expending millions to confuse and distract the public (1,2,3,4) while they themselves are walking away with billions or getting the meat-distracted public to accept poisoned waters, air and children as necessary costs of progress.  I cannot help but think that they thank their lucky stars each day that the American public is so easily distracted by gay rights, gun control, and religious freedom and so bereft of leadership in the Theodore Roosevelt mold (see below video) that understand the dynamic balances between economic activity, environmental resiliency and social welfare as well as the value of a US run by people rather than corporate puppeteers.


Unfortunately for all of us there are no "Roosevelts" on the horizon nor does the current political landscape—wholly manufactured by the forces needing correction and curbing—allow elbow room for the swinging of a “big stick.”  So it is left to us to dance around this silly collection of artificial political parties and movements peopled by clowns (1,2), court jesters, and actors.  We have to become the “big stick.”  And my sense is that we do that by becoming our own media.

Now I know that many of you will say that you are already doing that each and every day.  And while I know that to be true I would ask that you take that effort to the next level.  If you normally “like” something on Facebook then “share” it and also comment on the post to drive it into the information main stream.

If you are already sharing something then take that to the next level by also positing it on Digg, StumbleUpon and Reddit.  Share it too on Twitter and also hashtag the crap out of your posts.  Seem like too much work?  If you think that then we risk further losing our democracy to folks with multiple identities on thumb drives walking away with what we all should value most.

Please be part of the effort to take back our country and regain control of our governing bodies. Get into the habit of blasting two or three posts around the web each day.  Do it while you are waiting for the coffee to brew or while you are waiting for the bathroom.  It terms of good places to start, here are some posts that deserve to be shared around and around as well as again and again.