Archive for June, 2013

Thoughts on Self-Sabotage

Over the years, both my wife and I have encountered quite a number of individuals who had the ability and skills to succeed, and who then proceeded to commit self-sabotage, often when they were on the brink of accomplishing something they said was important to them. Another instance just occurred, and without going into details, the individual in question suddenly stopped going to two required senior level classes, while attending other classes… and getting good grades in those.  Despite promises to do better, that individual ended up flunking both courses… and being unable to graduate for at least another semester.

It’s easier to understand why people fail if their reach exceeds their abilities, or if accidents or family tragedies occur, or if they become addicted to drugs, or suffer PTSD from combat or violent abuse, or if they suffer from depression or bipolarity, but it’s hard to understand why seemingly well-adjusted people literally throw their future, or even a meaningful life, away.  Some of that may be, of course, that they’re not so well-adjusted as their façade indicates, but I have a nagging suspicion that in at least a few instances, there’s another factor in play.

What might that be?  The realization that what they mistakenly thought was the end of something was just the beginning.  For example, far too many college students have the idea that college is an ordeal to be endured before getting a “real” job that has little to do with what was required in college.  In my wife’s field, and in many others, however, what is required in college is indeed only the beginning, and the demands of the profession increase the longer you’re in it… and some students suddenly realize that what is being asked of them is only the beginning… and they’re overwhelmed.

The same can be true of a promotion. The next step up in any organization usually involves more pay, but today, often the pay increase is minimal compared to the increased workload and responsibilities… and, again, some people don’t want to admit, either to themselves or to others, that they don’t want to work that hard or handle that much responsibility.  So the “easy” way out is self-sabotage… and often blaming others for what happens.

This certainly isn’t the only explanation for self-sabotage, but it does fit the pattern of too many cases I’ve observed over the years… and it also seems to me that cases of self-sabotage are increasing, but then, maybe I’ve just become more aware of them…or maybe the “rewards” for advancement, degrees, etc., just aren’t what they used to be… at least in the perception of some people.

American Politics – Power Now?

In past blogs, I’ve discussed the insidious and potentially deadly long-terns effects of the “now” mentality, particularly on American business, and how the emphasis on immediate profits, immediate dividends, or immediate increases in stock prices, if not all three, have had a devastating effect not only on the economy, but all across the society of the United States.  There is another area of American society where the “now” culture has had an even more negative and more immediate effect – and that’s on American politics and government.

Years and years ago, one of my political mentors made the observation that, in running a campaign, you had to give the voters a good reason to vote for a candidate.  Back then, that reason was tacitly assumed to be, except in certain parts of the south, positive.  Today, if one surveys political ads, campaign promises, and the like, that reason is overwhelmingly negative.  Vote for [Your Candidate] because he or she will oppose more federal government, more spending, more gun controls.  Or conversely, vote for [Your Candidate] because he or she will oppose cutting programs necessary for children, the poor, the disadvantaged, the farmer, the environment, etc. 

The synergy between the “now” culture and the ever more predominant tendency of American voters to vote negative preferences is an overlooked and very strong contribution to the deadlock in American politics. People want what they want, and they want it now… and they don’t want to pay for it now, despite the fact that anything that government does has to be paid for in some fashion, either by taxes, deficits, inflation, or decreases in existing programs in order to maintain other existing programs.

 In addition, as a number of U.S. Representatives and Senators have discovered over the past few elections, voters no longer reward members of Congress for positive achievements.  They primarily [pun intended] vote to punish incumbents for anything they dislike.  So a member of Congress, such as former Senator Bob Bennett of Utah, can vote for 95% or more of what the Republicans in Utah want and make two or three votes they don’t like, and be denied renomination. At a time when federal programs are vastly underfunded, the combination of voter desires not to lose any federal benefits/programs, not to pay in taxes what is necessary to support those programs, and to punish any member of Congress who attempts to resolve those problems in a politically feasible way, such as working out a compromise, results in continual deadlock.

Then, add to that the fact that politicians want to be re-elected, that over 90% of all Congressional districts are essentially dominated by one political party, and that thirty-one of the states have both Senators from the same political party, and that means that the overwhelming majority of members of Congress cannot vote against the dictates of their local party activists on almost any major issue without risking not being renominated or re-elected. 

Yet everyone decries Congress, when Congress is in fact more representative of American culture than ever before.  We, as a society, want, right now, more than we’re willing to pay for.  Likewise, our representatives don’t want to pay for trying to fix things because they want to keep their jobs, right now, regardless of the future consequences.  But it’s so much easier to blame that guy or gal in Washington than the face in the mirror.

The Week’s Market “Crash”

Taken together, the drop in the various market indices on Wednesday and Thursday appear to be the largest two-day decline in almost a year and a half.  And what supposedly triggered the sell-off and decline?  The fact that the Federal Reserve indicated that it just might stop buying something like $85 billion in bonds every month.  Duh!

Believing that the continuing purchase of such bonds, otherwise known by the euphemism of “quantitative easing” (or QE), would or could go on forever makes the belief in the tooth fairy, the Wizard of Oz, and moderation by the Taliban look sensible by comparison. The financial “wizards” of  Wall Street, including high-paid hedge fund managers, program traders, and various other supposed financial icons had to know that such a program had to end or be throttled back.  So why, if they knew this, did they go into a panic?

Because they were using the stimulus of QE to run up stocks in the short run to bolster their own bottom lines – and bonuses – and didn’t believe that Chairman Bernanke would signal an end to the artificial bull market so quickly.  Ah yes, and these are the geniuses who are among the most high-paid executives/professionals in the United States.  They’re also the ones who created the mess of the Great Recession… and they’re at it again.

Despite Dodd-Frank, there still is little oversight of these self-proclaimed experts, and no real significant reform of either banking or investment banking. And Congress continues to tie itself in knots over anything requiring real oversight or reform, as witness the scuttling of the legislation that made a very modest attempt at reforming farm subsidies… or the continued hassles over fixing a broken and essential non-functional immigration system… and we won’t mention, except in passing, the fact that despite overwhelming public support for requiring background checks of firearms’ purchasers, that, too, never happened.

Just how bad will things have to get before Americans start electing politicians who are more interested in solving problems than getting elected?  I don’t know… but I’m definitely not holding my breath.

On Your Own Terms

There’s a scene in the movie Citizen Kane where Jedediah Leland tells Charles Foster Kane that Kane only wants “love on your own terms.”  It’s a great scene, and true as well as prophetic in a far larger context

There’s no doubt that, throughout history, human beings have always wanted love, and pretty much everything else, on our own terms.  In most of human history, however, almost everyone couldn’t get much of anything on their own terms, and this is still true in many parts of the world. If it didn’t rain, people were lucky to get anything to eat, let alone a Big Mac or Chateaubriand with béarnaise.  Even in the reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France, the most powerful ruler in Europe, there were times when beverages froze on the table at Versailles.

But, with the rise of more advanced technology we’ve become more and more able to get things previously unobtainable, from fresh fruits and vegetables out of season where we live to instant communications pretty much anywhere on earth.  Particularly in the United States, as a society we want everything on our own terms.  We want cheap and abundant electricity.  We want inexpensive clothing.  We want easily affordable personal transportation at our beck and call.  We want the best health care possible, and we’re getting angry that its cost is rising.  The list of what we want and can get on our own terms – or close to them – is large and growing… for the moment.

The problem with all this is that, over time, we don’t dictate the terms:  the physical condition of the world and the underlying laws of the universe do.

The current “we can have it all” of so-called responsible environmentalists is natural gas, because it emits roughly half the greenhouse gases of coal as well as far fewer other pollutants.  There are more than a few problems with this “solution,” the first of which is that the numbers backing the “replacement” of coal with natural gas don’t take into account the additional and far higher than publicized environmental costs. A number of recent studies show that from 3% to 15% of existing natural gas wells are leaking methane gas.  A NOAA study of one gas field in eastern Utah found that leaks amounted to 9% of the amount of gas produced.  Another study by Cornell University also found leakage rates at nine percent on a national basis. Studies of gas drilling have shown leakage rates of up to 17% in some basins.  One Canadian study indicated that the more typical horizontal gas fracking wells had leakage after of several years in more than half the wells.   While high pressure fracking wells are still in the minority in numbers, they have high initial production rates, and even a small percentage volume of leakage can result in a significant quantity of methane emissions. Given that there are some 500,000 natural gas wells in the United States alone, if even 3% are leaking that’s 15,000 wells oozing or spewing methane into the atmosphere, and, given that methane is a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent than CO2, when initially released and 25 times more potent even measured over a hundred years, after that’s a serious problem. And that doesn’t include the tens of thousands of Canadian wells. Even EPA studies show that leakage rates above eight percent negate any benefits from converting from coal and in fact may even accelerate global warming.  Natural gas just doesn’t leak from wells, either.  Testimony before the Massachusetts state legislature this year cited 20,000 known natural gas leaks in the state, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that more than 8 billion cubic meters of natural gas are lost each year in leakage.

I’m not against natural gas.  In fact, I’d much rather have natural gas generating my power and heating my home than any of the conventional alternatives.  BUT… unless the drilling companies and the gas power industry are willing to spend a lot more money and other resources in cleaning up production and transmission systems, there’s not going to be any environmental improvement.  In fact, present practices could make matters worse.  Of course, coal is still cheaper – unless coal-burning power plants are cleaned up to the standards of natural gas plants, in which case, the electricity won’t be any cheaper, but more expensive.  And if we don’t clean up our energy production and usage pollution, we’ll end up frying the planet that much sooner. In short, we can’t keep having cheap energy on our terms.

I could have cited different examples in different areas, but the facts and the conclusions would be similar. Over time, the universe is going to limit what we can have on our own terms… and for how long.

That’s not even a question.  The question is how long it will take us as a society to understand that point.


Over the past few years the issue of stereotyping has become and remains a hot-button topic with many people, particularly those in groups subjected to the practice. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word “stereotype” is: “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”  Unfortunately, while most enlightened individuals deplore stereotyping, the fact is that even those who deplore it still engage in it, whether they realize it or not.  For example, while it is considered prejudicial to believe any young black male in a hoodie is a gang member, or up to no good, it’s perfectly all right to call every SUV or large pick-up truck a “gas-guzzler,” even if the owner has occupational or other needs no other vehicle can meet. But both are sterotypes.

At the same time, it is useful to consider that stereotypes exist essentially for one of two reasons: (1) a significant number or percentage of people (or vehicles, or anything else) is a group do in fact fit within the stereotype… OR (2) large numbers of people believe that they do.

It’s fairly obvious that stereotyping people based on misconceptions is prejudicial, but what if there’s a basis in fact?  For example, for centuries, there was, and still is, especially in western European-derived cultures, a stereotype of Jewish men as greedy, stingy moneylenders. 

While ancient Jewish law forbid excessive charging of interest, and charging interest was deplored in some texts, money-lending with interest charges was allowed by the Judaic faith, but by the fifth  century the Roman Catholic Church had prohibited the taking of interest, and in 1311, Pope Clement V made the ban on usury absolute.  In effect, all Christians were banned from money-lending; Jews were not. Since there were more than a few bans on what Jews could do in Europe, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that the banking business was initially predominantly Jewish and Jewish bankers remained active and prominent well into the 20th century. Thus, in point of fact, the stereotype of money-lenders as Jewish was accurate… but it’s highly doubtful that most Jewish money-lenders were anything like the stereotypes portrayed by playwrights and writers [such as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice], simply because acting that way would have been largely counterproductive at a time when Jews were facing continual persecution, not that reality has ever made much impact on prejudice.  Only a concerted effort toward change has been effective.

As for young black men in hoodies… that’s a problem, because, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, one in three black men will serve time in jail and 40% of young African-American males will spend time in some sort of confinement.  Part of that [possibly a very large part of that] is the result of a criminal justice system that prosecutes a higher percentage of minority youths than white youths and that, for the same offense, sentences black youths to longer sentences than those received by white youths, but… for whatever reason, unhappily, the stereotype applies to a significant percentage of black males… and that means, unhappily, that one needs to be at the least wary of young black men in hoodies on dark city streets.

In the end, there is not one problem with stereotyping, but two.  The first is obvious. Viewing every individual in a particular group as a stereotype of that group is both prejudicial and discriminatory.  The second problem is not as obvious, but just as real.  When any group has a large enough percentage of individuals who fit a negative stereotype, that group, and society as a whole, has a problem that needs to be addressed, and it’s almost certain that not all of that problem is purely prejudice. This problem is not just one for minorities.  Bankers, professional cyclists, the NRA, tea-partiers, American tourists abroad [“ugly Americans”], young male Muslims, college professors[ivory tower liberals], and Republicans, among others, all also need to face their stereotypes.

Irrational Economic Values

Ever since Adam Smith, and probably before, economists and philosophers have attempted to reduce the essence of economics to simple principles, coming up with various explanations for various aspects of economics, ranging from “the invisible hand” to “surplus value of labor” all the way to the Laffer Curve, which postulates that there is an optimum rate of taxation, above which actual tax revenues will drop.  This, of course, was the rationale for the Reagan tax cuts.  But for all these theories and studies, economics has been spectacularly flawed in its application to law and public policy, and we now face an economically critical period in history.

Today, throughout the industrialized world, and particularly in the United States, political and economic leaders are faced with a series of economic problems.  First, there is a continuing, and often growing, disparity between the incomes of average individuals and the highest-earning individuals.  Second, growing productivity and profitability is resulting in greater returns to high earners and is not resulting in significantly increased employment, and not enough to keep up with population growth. Third, an increasing number of governments lack the resources to maintain fiscal and financial stability. Fourth, governments and businesses are increasingly reluctant to spend on societal infrastructure, even as more and more of business and society are dependent on such infrastructure.  The combination of the first three situations is leading, in many cases (and those instances will likely increase), to political and social unrest, and the fourth situation, unless remedied, is likely to undermine attempts to resolve the first three problems.

The problem with almost all past economic theory and most political solutions proposed to date lies in more than a few questionable assumptions underlying various theories. The two that seem most prevalent and erroneous to me are:  (1) Individuals and organizations behave rationally. (2) Value is determined objectively.

Recent economic studies have shown that true objective rationality, particularly on the part of individual consumers and business owners, is seldom the case.  Part of that lack of rationality lies in part in the fact that all of us have core sets of beliefs at variance to some degree with the world as it is, and part lies in the fact that we never know enough to consider all the factors. This lack of rationality compounds the problem of determining economic “value.”  From the beginning of economic studies, economists and philosophers have groped to find an answer to the basic economic question of what is “value” is and how it is determined in a working society.

The so-called Classical Theory of economics effectively states that the price/value of goods is determined predominantly by the cost of the labor producing it, and in this regard, Marxism is only a variation on classical theory, since, in Das Kapital, Karl Marx asserts that the difference between skilled and unskilled labor does not factor effectively into the creation of worth.  It’s also clear that salaries and wages are determined by what the employer is able and willing to pay, and that is determined in part (and only in part) by what consumers of goods and/or services are willing to pay.

But consider the following questions.  Why are the employees of Target, Costco, and WalMart paid on very different wage scales?  All three companies provide similar goods to large numbers of consumers, and many of those goods are identical. Why do universities pay professors of similar rank and experience widely differing salaries, sometimes dependent on discipline, and sometimes not?  Why do investment banks and hedge funds continue to pay their CEOs and top executives and traders tens of millions of dollars for services that are essentially irrelevant to roughly ninety percent of the population?  And why has no government ever seriously attempted to recoup any significant proportion of the immense financial losses inflicted on national economies… or taxed them more heavily to help pay for the unemployment benefits for those whose jobs they destroyed?

The theoretical answer to all these questions is some variation on paying the “market rate” or “that’s the way business works.”

At the core of this “market” are the so-called laws of supply and demand.  The idea is that when goods and services are plentiful, prices go down, and when they are scarce, prices go up.  This works well, if mercilessly, in terms of commodities, or commoditized services.  After all, one bushel of durum wheat is pretty much like another bushel, but when it comes to people, the idea has more than a few flaws, and the more complex the society, the more the impact of those flaws is magnified.

And “scarcity” doesn’t always translate into higher wages or greater demand. Despite a demand for math and science teachers, there are never enough qualified applicants, although that’s likely because school systems won’t increase wages enough to spur demand… which points out that, for all the talk about following a business model, organizations and institutions often only do so when it suits their fancy.

Take the commoditized job of a checker at WalMart, Costco, or Target.  Theoretically, checkers provide the same service for the same pay.  Having stood in many check-out lines, I can assure you that the ability of all checkers is anything but the same.  And this is a comparatively simple job.  But because it is a “simple” job, there are many people who can handle the basics of the task, and because a really good checker who wants better pay can be replaced by someone who can just manage the basics, wages stay low…  except Costco pays better.  Why? Because they’ve learned they get better people?  But that means that service jobs are not the same…something that tends to get overlooked in economic discussions.

The same problem exists, if on a higher level, in elementary and secondary education, with an added complication.  While there are a great many would-be teachers with the proper credentials and the theoretical skills, even after years of study, the best analysts can only approximate the factors that make a truly skilled teacher. There are effective and skilled teachers with totally different approaches to exactly the same subject, who both can inspire and produce better students who learn more, and while pretty much every prescriptive and descriptive analysis of teaching can describe the basics of what constitutes an effective teacher, once you go beyond that, it’s all speculation, because truly good teaching is an art.  But… pay and value are determined by average competence, and because excellent teaching is an art, so-called “merit pay” systems have largely failed where they’ve been tried — and likely will in the future.  Yet legal codes and the threat of litigation make it effectively impossible either to identify or reward outstanding teachers. All this points out not only the problem with Marx’s assumption that, essentially all labor in a certain position or field has the same value, but the wide-scale application in industrialized societies of the same principle to all jobs with the same description. 

To make matters more complex, “commoditization” of jobs often is applied perversely, or not at all. As I’ve noted before, in my wife’s university, the professors in the performing arts fields work longer hours, provide more services to the university, and are paid far less, even when they have more degrees and experience than do professors in the field of business. That’s because the field of “business” is considered more profitable… but the job of professors is education, not business.  Likewise… why do college coaches make more than university presidents?  Because athletics are more “valuable” than administering an institution educating thousands, if not tens of thousands of students?  Then, too, on a society-wide basis, women are paid less than men with equivalent time and experience, or even less, in the same professional field.

Finally, consider the high earners in society… who are they?  I looked at the top fifty names on the Forbes list of billionaires, and 30% came out of the financial sector and 30% from the entertainment and communications sector, followed by 20% in food and retail enterprises, and 10% in natural resources.  What does that say about “value” and “rationality”?  Or about the results of blindly following a so-called market economy?

Perhaps, just perhaps, that we really don’t want to pay for either value or rationality, just what we want when we want it, and then to complain about what doesn’t get done that we don’t want to pay for.

Keeping Up With the Times

After my encounter with an excessive plethora of unexpected internet viruses, and the comments from readers, my wife the professor made the observation, “The law hasn’t kept up with the internet.”  We both laughed, because it is so obvious as to be totally laughable.  It’s also laughable in a sadder way because it’s become apparent that the law will never be able to keep up with the internet… and quite possibly with other aspects of advanced technology.

For years now, a number of high-tech companies have been trying to protect themselves with not only patents, but with secret and secretive production processes, sometimes, I’ve been told, forgoing patent protection because they believe that a patent is a roadmap for a competitor.  At the same time, we have so-called genetics companies trying to patent genes obtained or derived from people and other organisms, which suggests some fairly frightening future scenarios.

Then there’s the growing reliance on high-speed information technology and information transfer.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, nanoseconds matter in the world of securities trading, and the fact that they do requires almost total reliance on high-speed computers and sophisticated algorithms.  The federal government is pushing for standardized electronic medical records, and pretty much every state government, every major corporation, and every federal department and agency is becoming increasingly reliant on such technologies.

And yet, this increasingly complex and interdependent web of information makes both our economy, as well as its underlying infrastructure, and thus not only our economy, but every industry and service, ever more vulnerable to technological disruptions, the causes of which could range from massive solar flares to inspired hackers, dedicated and sophisticated cyber terrorists, foreign computer operatives, and unexpected algorithm failures or applications.

We don’t have a legal structure that is designed to deal adequately with either massive electronic misfeasance or malfeasance, and even if we did, we don’t have the means to track down even a fraction of the perpetrators, let alone a way to legally and physically punish them.  And it’s highly unlikely that we ever will. This is not a problem unknown in human history.  In fact, in a sense, we deal with it every day, because no government anywhere can monitor all its people all the time and deal with all the possible violence they could commit. Historically, social codes have been far more important than laws… but social codes only work well with populations that share common values, which raises the overwhelming question, so to speak – what happens when neither laws nor social codes are able to restrict wide-scale information hacking, cyber-sabotage, intellectual property piracy, and out-and-out information systems terrorism? 

It’s clear that some organizations can muster the technology and skills to thwart or counter such; it’s also clear that most of us can’t, not on a continuing ongoing basis. Nor, at present, do most nations have adequate back-ups and alternative infrastructure and communications systems ready to take over in the event of information system failures on a national scale.  Yet the push for greater information technology integration continues, again fueled by promises of lower costs and greater efficiencies… or at least greater efficiencies until everything collapses.

Why isn’t anyone looking at this problem seriously?  Because, of course, it’s too expensive to resolve… and I fear that when people suddenly realize that something needs to be done, it will be far too late.


One of My Computers is Down…

…and I’m angry, not quite raging rip-down-walls-mad, but close. Despite two different reputable anti-virus systems, both current, some virus or perhaps more than one, has rendered it useless, so much so that I had to turn it over to computer professionals for rehab.  All the files I need, except one, are backed up, and I can reconstruct that one, if necessary, but the time, money, and inconvenience resulting from this sort of event are more than a little irritating.

And for what?  So that some cyber-psycho can get his or her kicks out of destruction, out of wasting people’s money and time?  Or so that some sociopath can make other people’s hardware and software unwitting tools for some grand nefarious project that will victimize even more people?

I’m fortunate; I have back-ups; and I can afford repairs, but there was a time when this sort of thing would have thrown a huge monkey-wrench into life and family finances… and that’s still true for all too many people.

I’m definitely not a Luddite.  I like technology.  But as I’ve posted before, computer technology opens whole avenues of mischief, crime, and destruction.  It also has destroyed borders in so far as criminal activities are concerned.  Among other misperspectives, the right-wing opponents of immigration reform have totally missed the boat on crime.  Thanks to computers, a lot of the criminals outside our borders don’t even have to enter the U.S. in order to victimize Americans.  Without immigration reform, all we’re doing is making criminals out of those who came here to find work and opportunity and keeping the brightest of the rest of the world from coming here.

Computer viruses, worms, scams, identity theft, and the like are all part and parcel of crimes at a distance, where the perpetrator doesn’t see or have to face the misery he or she has caused, usually is never apprehended, and even if caught is seldom punished in any degree of relation to the harm caused.  It’s just another aspect of the technological desensitization of society, which includes rampant violence in every form of entertainment, sensationalistic news, computer/video games glorifying crime and violence, and the possibility of drone attacks all over the world.

Me, I’d just settle for an active virus-defense system that would immediately wipe the computer of anyone sending me such a virus or worm.