I had a conversation the other day about a man who sued a company (for a Macguffin claim unimportant to this narrative). Just as his attorney was about to reach a settlement deal with the company, the man was hospitalized and, suddenly, died. When the company asked the attorney why settlement talks stopped so abruptly, he replied: "my client was hospitalized."
This was not of itself a lie. His client was hospitalized. But it wasn't the whole truth. It was a carefully-worded selection of the truth which the lawyer cherry-picked to conceal the more important fact that client had died. "My client was hospitalized," while accurate, deliberately implies the lie: "but he is still alive." And it's hard to hold someone accountable for lying by implication. Not a huge surprise that this came from a lawyer.
There is another great example of this on the TV show Arrested Development. There is a reoccurring character on the show, a doctor who perpetually emerges from an emergency room to announce the status of the patient to the waiting cast of characters, who becomes infamous for his deceptive statements. After life-or-death surgery on a character who (for reasons I will not get into) has painted himself blue, the doctor announces to the family: "It looks like he's dead." He later clarifies: "it looks like he's dead, he's covered in blue paint or something." Another time he operates on a character who had been attacked by a wild animal and announces: "He's going to be all right." He later clarifies: "he's lost his left hand, so he's going to be all right." A third time he says: "We lost him. He just got away from us. I'm sorry." The family enters the room only to discover the patient has escaped. Each time he uses a small, incomplete truth to (inadvertently) tell a bigger lie.
All of this, along with Mark Twain's line that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics," was fresh in my mind during last night's State of the Union speech, as there were several data points President Obama announced that performed precisely this sort of bait-and-switch. USA Today made a decent list of half-truths in their fact check, but I'm going to pick on the one that leapt out at me during the speech. The President made the following statement:
Taken together, our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet. Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.
We start with the fact stated: "The United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth." This is the "my client was hospitalized," the "we lost him. He just got away from us" statement. It is technically true. But what does it imply? While the lawyer implied that his client was alive and the TV doctor that his patient was dead, the President implied the United States' businesses and government are targeting carbon reduction and getting more drastic results than any other country. But let's look at the bigger picture:
Few other countries even come close to emitting the amount of carbon dioxide that the U.S. does. The U.S. improvement results are different when the reduction amount is measured by the percentage change.
So the Little Truth is that "the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth," the Implied Lie is that the United States' government and businesses are targeting carbon reduction and getting more drastic results than any other country, but the Whole Truth is that not only does the US trail dozens of other countries in its relative emissions reduction, but much of our own reduction is the result of the decrease in activity caused by the recession, and we continues to be one of the largest polluters on Earth by a long shot.
I won't go blow-by-blow through every time the President used this technique in the State of the Union-- not because it isn't worth examining, but because the tactic is endemic to persuasive discussion, whether it's politics or law or anything else. Examine the implications behind statements! I suppose that is my lesson for today.
I have written about the yawning chasm between the rich and the rest many times before (see "Unemployment," "Thirty Years of Disparity," "The New Gilded Age"). But we all know about this by now, right? This is the post-Financial Crisis, post-Occupy Wall Street snapshot in history. The banks got the bailout and the homeowners got foreclosed on by the millions, CEOs make sometimes more than a thousand times what their average worker does, and it would take 10,287,974 hours of laboring at minimum wage to lay hands on everything advertised in Britney Spears' latest transient, money-as-Golden-Calf dance beat "Work B****." This is not new information.
This weekend commemorated the slide of this reality from "outrageous" to "unimaginable." The latest new from Oxfam, ever-determined to lay bare the moral detritus smeared across our collective human soul, is that the wealth of the 85 richest people on the planet is equal to that of the 3,500,000,000 poorest. Holy mother of Mary.
In the New Yorker's absurdly entertaining, 17,000-word exposé on President Obama, journalist David Remnick asks the beleaguered executive "what he felt he must get done before leaving office."
He was silent for a while and then broke into a pained grin. "You mean, now that the Web site is working? . . . It’s hard to anticipate events over the next three years . . . If you had asked F.D.R. what he had to accomplish in 1937, he would have told you, ‘I’ve got to stabilize the economy and reduce the deficit.’ Turned out there were a few more things on his plate . . . I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. So I think it’s unrealistic to suggest that I can narrow my focus the way those two Presidents did. But I can tell you that I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.
To honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I will share a quote from a speech he gave at Western Michigan University on December 18, 1963:
Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.” This word is the ringing cry to modern child psychology. Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. In order to have real adjustment within our personalities, we all want the well‐adjusted life in order to avoid neurosis, schizophrenic personalities.
I would like to start this week's blathering sermon, which will be on the farcical length to which so-called "Cause Marketing" is currently in use, by sharing a speech by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He begins: "charity is no longer just an idiosyncrasy of some good guys here and there, but the basic constituent of our economy."
What does he mean by this?
He means that "the tendency is to bring [consumption and charity] together in one-and-the-same gesture, so that when you buy something, your 'anti-consumerist duty' to do something for others, for the environment and so on, is already included into it."
Walk into any Starbucks coffee and you will see how they explicitly tell you, and I quote their campaign: "it's not just what you are buying, it's what you are buying into.'
This form of marketing has been around for a few decades or so but has recently reached its zenith, and by now is expected for just about every minor purchase we make (for major purchase like TVs, houses, etc., people are already spending a lot of money and are looking for the lowest cost-to-value ratio possible, charity be-damned). It's fully-integrated into a huge variety of consumer lines, whether it's cereal or beer or shoes or salsa. I thought I'd seen it all, dramatic pause: until now.
Meet Collections With Causes, a debt collection agency who will take your unpaid accounts, collect them for you, and donate the proceeds to charity.
Skin-deep it seems a benevolent and clever endeavor. Muscle-deep is looks like an enterprising way for creditors to exploit the charitable-giving tax write-off (which will get them a bigger tax break than merely writing off the debt as a loss) by forcing people who are short on money to give to charity but keeping the tax deduction for themselves.
The ostensibly altruistic aim of Collections With Causes is a laughably bad smokescreen. By extracting money from people who are (judging by their unpaid debts) short on cash, Collections With Causes leaves in its wake people now more likely to need to turn to charity for survival. And then it donates that money to charity. This is Robin Hood giving money to the poor that he stole from a different group of poor people in order to create a tax loophole for a group of money lenders. Nifty.
Just in case there was any doubt of the nefarious purpose hidden beneath Collections With Causes' "charitable" sheep's clothing, here are a few select quotes from its website:
Next to being shot at and missed, nothing is really quite as satisfying as an income tax refund.
...Then as farce.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sued an Edina-based debt collector called Bradstreet & Associates, LLC for charging interest at a rate that I'm pretty sure would get you flensed in the Old Testament. According to the Star Tribune:
State Attorney General Lori Swanson on Wednesday sued Plymouth-based Bradstreet & Associates LLC for illegally collecting on old checking account debts that Wells Fargo & Co. and U.S. Bancorp had sold off. Much of the old debt is bank fees, the AG’s office said.
This is funny, but like inside joke-y funny, and I'll tell you why. I litigated a case against Bradstreet once upon a time for violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act when collecting a past-due overdraft/bank fee debt more or less exactly like this one. The FDCPA, I should point out, only governs "consumer debts." Bradstreet's lawyer argued that, because overdraft fees were not a debt that a consumer is lent but a penalty that they suffer for overdrafting, the debt wasn't a "consumer debt" at all and thus the FDCPA didn't apply. The case settled completely beside this argument. But now would you look at that! The attorney general seems pretty darn convinced Bradstreet was collecting illegally on an unknown number of accounts the whole time. Isn't that the stuff of miracles.
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