Thursday, January 19, 2017

“How do we determine the cost of fake news,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 20-26, 2017, p. 25.



The Costs of Fake News

When local news outlets warn against a snow-storm, we pay attention. Some dash to the grocery store, some take a day off because schools might be closed. We trust the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s reports.

I still remember my terror listening to the news during winters. Will my restaurant staff show up to work? Will vendors deliver supplies? And most importantly, will customers stay home?
In the age of “fake news,” it does matter if what you hear is reliable. There are two parallels in our recent history worth recalling.

The first dates to World War II and the Cold War. The role of propaganda was immensely important both for domestic consumption and for demoralizing the enemy. 

By now, three kinds of propaganda are classified in terms of intent, the reliability of the source, and the reliability of the information. “White” propaganda comes from a reliable and identifiable source and the information is accurate, even when the delivery is supposed to influence those listening to it.

“Black” propaganda is deliberately attributed to unidentified or false sources, and it spreads lies about whatever is at issue, where missiles are located or how many troops are being deployed.

“Gray” propaganda is somewhere in between, so that sometimes the sources are correctly identified but the information is misrepresented, or when enough ambiguity of the content of the message makes it impossible to figure who said what to whom and why.

As in courts of law, when we try to get to the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” we always question the intent behind a news report from official sources, especially when sources seem to have an agenda or an axe to grind.

The second parallel dates to the debates over the tobacco industry’s claims that smoking does not cause cancer. In this case, and others such as asbestos, coal, drug abuse, and climate change, scientific testimony in courts of law by the “other side” has been discredited as “junk science.”

Junk science is any scientific study you disagree with. Admittedly, every collection of data is inevitably incomplete and deserves critical assessment. In this sense, every scientific theory can be challenged. But here, too, the question of intent is paramount.

We should check what is at stake when data are presented: can someone, a pharmaceutical spokesperson or political candidate, benefit from spreading this information? Once the answer is clear, we can proceed to examine the data themselves.

It’s obvious that a tobacco company will try and convince smokers that cigarettes don’t kill them. But when this claim is supposedly backed by science, a sinister element becomes apparent: profits trump truth. In most cases, judges and juries have to figure out if and when the evidence is indeed “junk science.”

We have business-related laws against false advertisement and there are penalties for misleading consumers, claiming, for example, that your diesel car is both energy efficient and pollutes less than the competition. In addition to reimbursing American car owners some $15 billion, VW agreed to pay $4.3 billion to settle criminal charges of deliberately violating EPA rules. 

Though our local VW dealer claims that the scandal hasn’t hurt sales, one wonders if it should have. Is it a question of punishment for past transgressions (less sales), or are we immune to all car advertisements (same sales)? Perhaps we don’t care enough to find the truth about what we buy, from cars to food.

But should we? Politicians are notoriously unreliable sources of information about themselves and the policies they will enact when elected. Are businesspeople any better? Should you trust your broker? Can you trust that the food you are served in fact was sourced from a local farm (as advertised)?

Journalistic codes of ethics have traditionally tried to make sure all data are verified so as not to mislead the public, With the expansion of media into the world-wide web, those codes have been stretched and tested more than ever before. Most websites don’t have the layers of editorial policing that established news outlets have, but this alone isn’t the reason to distrust them.

In an environment where so many news outlets vie for attention, when so much is at stake for financial survival and viability, there is no wonder that outrageous and unsubstantiated news are loudly spread. Digital exposure raises new challenges. Can we decipher what is true?

Truth is difficult to fully ascertain, but obvious fakes are easily detectable. If a business deal is too good to be true, it surely is. And if a snow-storm is announced, better be safe than sorry. But looking out the window may be a prudent policy as well.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Thursday, January 5, 2017

“The new year brings a wake-up call,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 6 12, 2017, p. 18.



NEW YEAR WAKE UP CALL

As you travel back and forth to Denver, as you climb the mountains to the ski resorts, a nagging question doesn’t let go: is it true that some want to “keep CS lame”? Given the dominance of military retirees in the city (ranked second in the country by the Military Times), around 100,000 (20% of the population), so is the conservative ideology they embody. If this is true, what are the implications here and now?

There are two strains that characterize conservative ideology, an economic and a social. Economically this means neoliberal market-capitalism with competition as the engine that drives this train, without government constraints. This also means balanced budgets and the integrity of the business world, transparent and accountable, profit-maximizing with efficiencies that eliminate waste. 

Consistency along this conservative conviction would mean that government policies should not interfere with businesses, so locally this would mean no bloated government entities like the city-owned utilities or all the military bases that are government-funded. 

This also means absolute freedom to pursue one’s economic dreams of prosperity, no matter how they might affect the rest of the community. Forget about controlling pollution or regulating hazardous materials in the air or waterways; forget about telling people what to eat and drink, smoke or listen to. Residents are consumers whose tastes and preferences ought to be left alone by public servants.

When it gets to social matters, the conservative line observed in the 2016 election cycle means laws about abortion, the death-penalty, and reversing whatever social services have been available since the New Deal, privatizing Social Security, abolishing Obamacare, and finding Supreme Court justices that will undo liberal initiatives.

Since most of these concerns are federal, we are left with narrow windows of government intervention into our local social choices, from recreationally smoking pot to letting businesses serve their customers on Sundays (some are state laws, some city). 

So, as another year ends and new one is upon us, what direction will city leaders take? And, more importantly, who are our city leaders? Are they the elected officials, from the mayor to city council members, or more widely understood as those with large real-estate holdings and family wealth? Perhaps both groups should think about their roles not to “keep CS lame,” but turn it around into a vibrant metropolis.

To begin with, decide if CS is the Soviet Union or a modern capitalist city: if it’s the latter, sell the utilities enterprise the way you sold Memorial Hospital. There are experts out there who can run it better and not make us sick from pollution. Besides, with a hefty endowment, you can afford to take care of our infrastructure without raising taxes.

Second, as true conservatives, reduce local regulations, from building codes to recreational pot shops. Let businesses thrive because there is consumer demand, and don’t tell people what they should or should not do. 1984 was a dystopian novel, not a blue-print for CS. Big Brother is still dictating who prospers with the kind of secret “double-speak” Orwell would find amusing.

Third, when old oligarchs of yesteryear still call the shots, when retired military personnel and wealthy enough people run committees and the council, how can young entrepreneurs expect to succeed? Guess what, they move to Denver. Who takes care of training the future leaders of CS? Unfortunately, CS Chamber & Economic Development Corporation is more concerned with the low-hanging fruit of the military-industrial complex than nurturing small businesses.

Fourth, the military-industrial complex has been good to CS, perhaps too good. It’s time to realize that under a new federal conservative regime, military budgets may shrink and waste will be curtailed. What is CS’s contingency plan for decreased military funding? What have we done to cater to those in uniform who live here and are looking for an exciting environment beyond bars? We can’t even fund the Olympic Hall of Fame or a stadium downtown to demonstrate our commitment to athletes, soldiers, and the outdoors.

Finally, if we plan on getting out of the “lame” category with which young people mock our city, perhaps all we need to do is look northward to Denver, a dynamic metropolis with more diverse industries than here, with greater percentage of young people in its population, and with a greater sense of open-mindedness and youthful energy. What’s their secret? 

Two things stand out: first, leadership with a vision (beyond low taxes), and second, recreational pot that has less to do with smoking marijuana than with a mindset that is open and inviting, that lets all citizens, young and old, military and civilian, feel that the city supports their interests. Isn’t this what conservatism stands for?

Raphael Sassower is professor of Philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Thursday, December 1, 2016

“Local lessons taken from national politics,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, November 25-December 1, 2016, p. 25.



What can we learn locally from the national election?

Whatever your personal opinions, facts should have the last word. Donald Trump is the President-Elect because enough people supported him to pass the 270 Electoral College votes even if not the popular vote. What can we expect from a businessman taking over the toughest job in the world?

To begin with, he wouldn’t be the first. Since 1900, there are at least eight bona fide entrepreneurs who became presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and the two Bushes. (Prior, Entrepreneur 2/15/16) 

If we go back further, we can find many others who were farmers and traders, in short, plantation (and slave) owners. Perhaps not a qualifying measure for political success, but the engagement in commerce should not be considered an impediment.

Second, our university system endorses the view that we can train leaders (to organize their companies and communicate well), and that once they climb high enough up the corporate ladder they can serve in political offices. We can think of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, our very own governor John Hickenlooper, and the two Romneys as governors of Michigan and Massachusetts.

Third, if we appreciate our political system as pragmatic rather than ideological, it makes sense to appreciate the skill-set of businesspeople when applied to the affairs of the state (or city). Governance, in short, is about finding out what people want, compromising on the means to accomplished these wants, and then proving one’s mettle with results.

To be sure, for all the greatness that business-leaders can bring to politics, there are many critical assessments over their success. David Davenport (Forbes 6/22/16) explains that context matters, that measuring short-term success is different from long-term policy consequences, and that after all ideology does inspire the popular imagination. 

We’ll have to wait and see whether President Trump will be successful or not. Only time will tell what he can accomplish in an environment where one’s whims don’t translate into law, and where the complexity of the decision-making process is a bit more overwhelming than when running your own casino or hotel.

It’s worth noting that when the economy is doing well, credit can be given to the business community, so in those times business leaders seem attractive as political leaders: if they can do it for their companies, they can do it for the rest of the country.

Likewise, when the economy is not doing well, as we have seen in the aftermath of the Great Recession and its steady but slow recovery, we look for billionaires, from the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet to Mark Cuban to offer solutions to our ailing economy. This mindset surely helped propel Trump to the presidency.

Whether the economy is booming or bust, salvation in the hands of entrepreneurs is believed to be the only way to heaven on earth. Does it work well in small cities, like Colorado Springs?

The first “strong mayor,” Steve Bach, was lauded as a businessman who would approach the city’s dormant economy as a marketing guru, bringing jobs from around the country and revving the economic engines of the city. 

After four years, Bach accomplished little on the economic horizon; he’ll be best remembered for the acrimony he fomented between the Mayor’s office and City Council. With this in mind, the wisdom of the day was to elect John Suthers as an experienced lawyer/politician who will bring harmony, if not economic progress.

Instead of economic stimulus, the current mayor’s personal views about the legalization of marijuana—a Constitutional Amendment that passed, no less—have overshadowed both our cherished democratic principle of majority rule and a pragmatic approach to the economic benefits of legalizing pot (as seen in booming Denver).

Regardless of how you feel about pot, isn’t it awkward that the highest-ranking official of the city travels outside the state (Arizona) to speak against the legalization of pot instead of traveling there and elsewhere to bring businesses to the city? 

Bach the commercial real-estate broker was unqualified to manage a large city operation like ours; Suthers the politician seems too beholden to an ideology to listen to the people and make the city less “lame,” as some millennia call it.

Perhaps what we need is people who are not military retirees who find politics a nice hobby, but entrepreneurs who run large companies and have the experience of solving complex problems. The only two in CS that come to mind are Philip Anschutz and Perry Sanders.

Between the two, Sanders seems to care more about the well-being of the city and should therefore be recruited to become the next mayor of his adopted home; he has a proven track-record!

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com