Archive for July, 2014

Middle Class Living Standard

Recently, USA Today published an article stating that a “middle class” living standard in the United States would require a couple with two children to come up with $130,000 annually. I’d heard this figure cited, and decided to look into it. USA Today broke the numbers down into three categories: essentials ($58,591), extras ($17,009), taxes and savings ($54,857).

Topping the essential category was housing costs, at $17,000 a year. Obviously, this cost would vary enormously by area, but a thirty year mortgage on a $150,000 home, with 20% down, would run around $700 a month, which is middle class if you live in a low-cost area. In much of the country $250,000 is closer to the mark, and that would raise the annual cost of just mortgage and insurance to close to $18,000. I also thought car expenses, figured for a single mid-sized SUV at $11,000 annually, were actually low, because these days it’s difficult if not impossible for most families to get by with a single wage-earner, and that means transportation for two. We’re a two-car family with one 15 year old car that gets 30 mpg and a five year old moderate SUV that gets 15mph, both paid off, and we’re very low mileage drivers – and our annual car costs are still close to $5,000 a year – with no car payments and low insurance. When I was commuting into Washington, D.C., with a small car that got 35 mpg, the gas costs alone for just that one car were over $3,000 annually, and with current gas prices, they’d would be closer to $6,000. USA Today lists medical expenses at $9,000 annually. For a family of four, insurance costs alone will total that – unless that’s a benefit paid by the employer. And total utility expenses of $2,000 a year? My base sewer, water, and trash services are $700 annually, without including gas and electricity. A clothing allowance of $2,600 for four people for a year, when two are children, especially when they become teenagers? All in all, I found the USA Today figures for “essentials” low for a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

The $17,000 “extras” category included vacations ($4,500), entertainment and eating out ($7,500), communications, such as satellite, cable, cell phones, internet ($3,000), and miscellaneous ($2,000). I do wonder about the entertainment and eating out expenses being far too high, but if one has even the basic version of the communications services listed, I’d like to know how they manage on that little, because we live in one of the lowest cost areas of the country, and the lowest cost variety of each of those services right here total just about $3,000.  Now, obviously, many of these “extras” are just that, but some aren’t, and doing without any of them means you really aren’t living a middle class living standard.

The last category is the one that I have the most trouble with. The total tax bill of $32,000 seemed high initially, but if one assumes an income level of $130,000, for most couples, the combination of Social Security/Medicare taxes, federal and state income taxes, a six percent sales tax, property taxes, etc. comes to between $25,000 and $40,000 for most families, depending on where they live. On the other hand, I don’t see most middle class families saving $23,000 annually. Perhaps they should, but the figures show it isn’t happening.

Overall, after looking at the expenses used to arrive at the USA Today cost figures, I was surprised, because except for entertainment and eating out, most of the costs cited seemed all too in line with actual costs, and sometimes even low, for what one might expect for a middle class life-style. And that’s disturbing, very disturbing, considering the median family income is around $55,000, which, in turn, might explain why more than a few people in the United States are less than pleased with their situation. As a side note, I saw a similar study that made a similar conclusion about Great Britain. What’s happened to those of us divided by a single language?

The Next Casualty?

When I was a Navy helicopter pilot all too many years ago, the only “real” helicopters in the world were U.S.-built, by Bell, Kaman, Boeing, and especially Sikorsky. That’s no longer true, and hasn’t been for a number of years. In the commercial market, the biggest sellers are Airbus Helicopter and Agusta Westland, and what U.S. sales there are happen to be mostly military, based on designs dating back to the 1970s.

UAV development? Israel leads in unmanned aircraft design and sales. Sweden’s MBDA has the most advanced air-to-air missile with its ramjet powered Meteor. At the same time, more and more U.S. military equipment, or key components of that equipment, is based on foreign designs and often foreign supplied parts and sub-assemblies.

In the one area where the U.S. does maintain a lead, if a dwindling one – fighter aircraft – acquisition and operating costs are continuing to skyrocket. Current costs of the F-35 fighter are running $100 million for each aircraft. Proponents claim that once full production runs are reached the cost will drop to a mere $85 million. The operating cost per hour for some types of F-15s runs over $40,000, while the F-18 E/F Super Hornet is the least costly U.S. tactical aircraft to operate, at a “mere” $17,000 per hour.

At one time, again back when I was flying, there were three U.S commercial aircraft manufacturers, and they essentially controlled the market. Now only Boeing is left, and it tends, for the moment, to split the major commercial markets with Airbus, while Embraer and Bombardier, Brazilian and Canadian respectively, currently lead in production of 100 passenger or less commercial aircraft.

What happened?

Actually, from what I’ve observed, several factors have been in play. First, military aircraft became increasingly sophisticated and phenomenally expensive to design, produce and operate, which has meant far fewer are built every year. So, overall, there’s less business to be had. Second, the procurement process on the military side has become a nightmare. Third, U.S. aerospace companies have focused increasingly on profits at the expense of R&D. Fourth, the Pentagon has focused on the one-size-fits-all for new aircraft, and, frankly, I don’t see how designing an aircraft that meets mission specifications for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force can be anything but more expensive – no matter what all the cost analysts say, and there have been major cost overruns for just that reason all too frequently.

Then, add to that the fact that foreign competitors are building better aircraft than before, some of which are claimed to have advantages that U.S. aircraft don’t, and many of which offer high performance at far lower costs. There have been more than a few recent reports that Airbus has better pilot emergency warning systems than does Boeing, especially in dealing with auto-throttle and stall warning systems. Boeing’s response has been, essentially, “We don’t need to be any better.” And, for, now, with the cash cow that the 737 has become, apparently Boeing feels it doesn’t need even to address those claims.

Behind all this is another ominous aspect. As the U.S. production and technology lead in aerospace has been eroded, so have the number of high-tech, high-paying jobs, not to mention the number of workers. With fewer jobs, the young talent has to go elsewhere, either to other industries or other countries.

There is far more at stake than whose airliner we ride on, or how much profit the remaining aerospace companies make. In fact, U.S. aerospace profits were up last year… even as the rest of the world continues to overtake us… because niche markets, R&D, and competing for sales with a wider range of aircraft and aircraft systems all eat into this year’s profits, and apparently like every other U.S. industry, this year’s profits are all that matter to U.S. aerospace manufacturers.


The other day I got to thinking about political revolutions, especially about the “successful” ones, and a few of those that seemed successful for a while. From those that I know of and those I’ve studied, it occurred to me that the vast majority fall into two categories – those countries where the leader of the revolution became a despot, or something similar, and those where the revolution swallowed the early leaders, and more cases than not, where a dictatorship of sorts ensued. Now, of course, neither of these happened in the United States, which is why we tend, I suspect, not to look at revolutions in the terms I’ve laid out. And I’m not counting events in countries where the form of government changed gradually and relatively peacefully as revolutions.

Armed and violent revolutions tend to occur when large percentages of a county’s population are unhappy, angry, and feel that they have little or nothing to lose… and almost usually are fomented and led by those who belong to what might be called the educated-alienated or the marginalized middle class who have personal and/or economic grievances against the existing power structure.

Revolutions tend to fail when not enough people feel that disenfranchised and/or when the government has an overwhelming monopoly on force – and when the soldiers who constitute that force are loyal to the regime.

Some historians make a distinction between movements that seek to change who rules and those that seek to change the entire way in which a country is ruled, which might suggest that merely replacing a ruler is a coup and changing the governmental structure by force is a revolution.

Is a revolution possible here in the United States, with all the cries for secession, and the increasing acrimony between the two political parties? History has shown that almost all lands with any lasting history suffer either government evolution, revolution, or coups, if not all three. The United States has revolted against British Rule, suffered through a bloody civil war, and seen a gradual but massive change in the structure and power of government… and faith and support of Congress is at an all-time low, combined with a close to all-time low in public confidence in the financial sector. Interestingly enough, faith in the President, while lower than his average ratings, is nowhere near all-time lows for a President.

Is that enough dissatisfaction to spark a rebellion? It’s certainly enough for some people, but I have my doubts if it’s enough, at least so far, to support any massive change in U.S. government, meaning that the deadlocks will have to get worse before anything – constructive or destructive – happens.

The Inconvenience of Your Convenience

One of the largely unacknowledged aspects of the incredible speed at which personal and professional communications technology change is the fact that such changes not only often waste more time than they save, but that they pander to and foster self-centeredness.

I’ve mentioned the time-wasting before, but I continue to be reminded of it again and again.  Almost every month, my editor’s publishing firm changes some aspect of their software, which means that when I ask my editor for certain information, it always takes longer because it seems that just as he’s learned all the bells and whistles from the last upgrade, the company changes something else.  The same thing occurs at my wife’s university, and even with all those upgrades her computer got ransom-virused – and she’s never used it for anything but business [her IPad is much more convenient for the personal stuff, and I have to admit it doesn’t seem half so prone to viruses, even if it does have other glitches].  Because I have to keep current for a number of reasons, I’m now wrestling with some annoying features of Windows 8.1, and I’m still angry about the fact that the latest version of Word occasionally effectively deletes what I’m working on – without activating the automatic back-up/save if I type too fast and accidentally hit a three key combination that has an H in it.  I don’t mind too much activating spell check or creating a new document, but deleting what I’ve just written has me wanting to assassinate the system designer or marketing manager who decided such add-ons were good. All of these rapid and continuing “improvements” waste most people’s time, but because just enough people upgrade, if you don’t, before long you’re getting documents you can’t open.  So what’s convenient for a comparative handful of IT techies and tech geeks becomes anything but convenient for the rest of us, especially for those of us who use technology as a tool to accomplish something else, rather than to create “new” features just in order to make that claim.

The other aspect of our modern communications revolution is that it both isolates individuals and encourages a self-centered attitude.  Take cellphones.  We now have acquaintances, and even some friends, who switched from landlines to cellphones. Most of them don’t even tell anyone, as if everyone should know.  Then, maybe they posted it on Facebook, as if it happens to be everyone else’s duty to find out.  And when you can’t reach them, they’re the ones who are upset, but it’s rather difficult to reach people without their phone number, either for texting or talking, especially now that more and more of them are abandoning email, except for business.

And social media.  What if I don’t want to be on Facebook or LinkedIn or… whatever?  Or tweet on Twitter?  That’s my choice; it’s anyone’s choice, but now, the attitude of all those on Facebook is that they no longer have to make an effort to actually reach out to others; they just have to post on Facebook, and others have to reach out to them to find out how things are going.  It’s not that people are more selective.  They can’t be, not if they’re posting on social media sites.

But then, maybe that’s not because they’re self-centered.  Maybe it’s because they’ve spent so much time wrestling with technology that’s supposed to be easy, and isn’t, that they only have enough time to post on social media and send 128 character tweets.

Technology, Money… and Rights [Part II]

Unfortunately, the problem of “rights” is even larger than just religion, as adjudicated in the Hobby Lobby case, because first amendment to the Constitution also states: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” The Roberts Court has effectively declared in the case of funding political campaigns that restrictions on contributions are a restraint of freedom of speech. The problem with the Court decision is that it doesn’t address the question of what occurs when the combination of massive amounts of money combine with high technology to assure that the predominant publicly disseminated “speech” dealing with elections is that of the wealthiest one tenth of one percent of the population. In effect, the multi-million dollar megaphones of the rich drown out the views of anyone else. Yes, those without that kind of funds can speak, but their words go largely unheard.

In certain respects, this isn’t a new problem. Because of their position and wealth, the founding fathers had greater access to the press, and often used it, at times not in the noblest of ways, to further their own interests and ends, but because of the lack of instant communications, a press that was largely local, and diverse regional interests, none of them had access to the entire society either continuously or in real time, nor did they have the ability to buy ink and exposure in all media outlets in all states. They could not and did not conceive of the media concentration and penetration that exists today. Their interest was to assure that all views had a chance to be heard.

Yet in citing the Constitution to allow unlimited political contributions and “independent” political media expenditures that are effectively unlimited by individuals who can keep the amount of their contributions hidden, as well as their very identity unknown, the Roberts court has effectively undermined the very goals of the founders in crafting and adopting the first amendment, because the combination of money and technology effectively diminishes the freedom of speech of those who lack both money and access to technology, and, not incidentally, diminishing any public “right to know.”

Yet the far right trumpets this as a victory for free speech when it is really a victory for anonymous plutocratic propaganda.

Penalty Kicks and Free Throws… Again

I don’t watch soccer/football much, in fact, seldom, but I did end up watching the World Cup semi-final match between the Netherlands and Argentina… and the result underscored something I’ve said before, except with regard to basketball. Mastery of the simpler aspects of anything is key to continued success.

The Netherlands and Argentina played to a scoreless tie after regulation, and then after another 30 minute additional period the game was still scoreless.  Argentina converted four out of four penalty kicks in the shoot-out, while the Netherlands failed on two out of three attempts. While a penalty kick isn’t nearly as easy as a basketball free-throw, it’s far, far easier than scoring a goal in play, when it’s often difficult to even get near the goal with the ball, let alone get a clear shot.  Argentina made that abundantly clear, by not being able to score a single goal in two hours of play, but by putting four out of four shots in the goal in the shoot-out.  The Netherlands lost by not being able to accomplish the simpler tasks in the game.

This “case study” goes well beyond soccer or basketball.  I’ve seen people lose jobs because they failed to write a simple thank you note, or to recognize a former colleague or superior in a different setting.  I’ve seen more than one beginning writer destroy/abort his or her career by arguing violently with editors who have seen scores of writers come and go.  I’ve seen political careers tanked because no one asked a simple question – How did things get this way? – before going off in a direction that considering the answer would have most likely precluded.  I’ve seen singers lose competitions because, when talents were evenly balanced, the singer with more carefully chosen attire and polite mannerisms topped sloppy dress and flip mannerisms. And in all these cases, and others, the individuals involved were anything but stupid.  They just relied on their innate brilliance or talent and ignored mastery of simple skills.

A successful writer needs more than mere story-telling ability and more than mere skill with words, and, more than sometimes, some of those extras are simple skills, such as tact, thank-you notes [NOT emails,unless you’re in the tech world, where hand-written or print thank-yous have become a symbol of backwardness], and a certain amount of respect for those who control one’s fate.  And, oh yes, just plain showing up on time…or getting manuscripts in on time — and, here George R. R. Martin is the exception who proves the rule.

Finance in Fiction

More than a few times, I’ve commented on how important it is for a fantasy or science fiction writer to understand basic societal economics if that writer wants to portray a workable and realistic fictional society.  In recent years, more and more writers have become clearly aware of this, and their books reflect this.  More recently, however, the comparative absence of finance and banking has struck me, yet some form of banking, whether it be counting houses, money-lenders, or the like, has existed in virtually every human civilization that became sophisticated enough to have iron tools. Any form of wide-spread trade requires at least a rudimentary financial system, and a financial system allows what one might call an oligarchical concentration of power and wealth, which in turn feeds intrigue and scheming.

One of the problem with portraying stock exchanges and banks is that few writers really understand them enough to portray just how much they can multiply either evil or good…or how quickly they can turn what seems to be good into total disaster. And, of course, the usual depiction of the banker/financier ranges from Shakespeare’s Shylock, to Dickens’s “early” Scrooge, to Mr. Potter in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life,   to, more recently, the bankers and brokers in Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. The problem with such one-sided depictions is that they actually understate the impact finances and financiers have on society and government.

The key role a financial system plays in any economy is to provide liquidity, because without liquidity transactions and trades become almost impossibly difficult.

I recently read an incredibly detailed massive fantasy epic, one that depicted almost all aspects of society – traders and their formal and informal associations, rulers and their bureaucracies and sycophants, military types, barbarians, entertainers, crafters, laborers, merchant princes, even authors – but not any financiers or bankers, despite a welter of trade and conflict between adjoining lands.  A great story – but I kept wondering what financial structure was behind it all, and why the bankers, or their equivalent, didn’t put the brakes on some of the idiocy, because successful bankers do tend to be conservative [except in today’s USA], sometimes foolishly so.

So… for better or worse, don’t forget the bankers… or their equivalents.


Religion… and Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, declaring that companies, at least those privately held, are not required to provide birth control benefits under their health insurance plans when providing those benefits is against the religious beliefs of the company’s owners.  Whether the decision sparks other lawsuits or remains a relatively narrow example of an owners’ religious beliefs being able to dictate the scope of health benefits provided to employees remains to be seen.

The underlying issue that the Supreme Court did not address, and which Congress has also steadfastly ignored, is the degree to which Constitutional and statutory “rights” of individuals have been either enhanced or diminished by the exercise of the “right” to apply religious freedom” to others.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the Court verdict essentially states that an employer can effectively limit the access of employees to health care, solely on the basis of religious beliefs.  The employer is not denying birth control services to employees, because employees can theoretically purchase those services on their own.  But there are other aspects to consider, which the Court either did not consider or decided were not important enough to be a factor.  First, when an employee must pay additional funds for health services that the law declares other businesses must provide to their employees, the employee’s access is diminished or costs are increasing, if not both, and they are in a position whereby their total effective compensation is effectively lowered by the employer’s assertion of religious freedom. Additionally, other businesses, which do not have a religious exemption, will likely pay higher costs for employee healthcare insurance.

Thus, in effect, others must pay for Hobby Lobby’s “religious beliefs.”  Obviously, this would not be the case if there were not a law requiring insurance coverage, but there is, and the Court did not strike down the ACA as infringing on religious beliefs. In effect, the Court’s decisions declare that a public policy requiring health care coverage is Constitutional, but that effectively any employers with a clear religious affiliation can refuse to provide coverage for any procedure against their beliefs.  This effectively equates privately held corporations with churches, even though churches are non-profits, and money-making corporations like Hobby Lobby not.  All this brings up an interesting situation, because the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” but there’s nothing in the Constitution to forbid the Court from issuing a legal opinion that effectively states that religious beliefs trump civil law and can be used to deny some citizens benefits that most others are entitled to receive under that civil law.  This strikes me as a rather dangerous precedent, particularly when it is endorsed and supported by so many of those who have railed against the fact that Islamic Sharia law supersedes civil law in the Middle East.  It’s wrong for Muslims to have Islamic law trump civil law, but fine for American corporations to sue, and win, for religious beliefs to trump civil law?

Not that any of the far right will see, or care, about the hypocrisy involved. They got what they wanted, and that’s all that matters to them.


Governments That Work … ?

In Starship Troopers [the book, not the movie], one of Heinlein’s characters makes the point that the society which governs Earth at that time isn’t necessarily the best, but that it has one redeeming feature – it works and operates reasonably well.  There are many aspects to that society with which critics have taken issue over the years, especially in recent years.  Some of that criticism reflects changes in society from the time at which Heinlein wrote the book, such as the fact that there is no longer the underlying feeling among a majority of the U.S. population that patriotic male citizens owed a certain unqualified duty to support their country with military service in times of war. The criticism about the details of Heinlein’s future society tends to overlook the basic point he was making about governments – they have to work well over time if they are to survive and their people are to prosper.

In turn, for popularly-supported governments to work reasonably well, the citizens have to have a common set of core values and socially and legally enforced basic rules that apply to all. Today, I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. government may still work, but there’s a real question as to whether it works reasonably well, and an even greater question as to how long it will work under the current deadlock between the two political parties, whose espoused core values are becoming increasingly divergent, and who keep coming up with more and more exceptions to those core values with which one group or another disagrees.

In the worst of cases when the core beliefs of citizens differ widely, each side perceives the other as an extremist, if not an out-and-out enemy, which is the case in all too many Middle East countries today. In the United States, the situation is structurally different.  Those who are politically active tend to be more extreme in their beliefs.  Whether politics attracts extremists or extremists flock to politics to attempt to impose their beliefs on others, the result is exactly the same. Those active in political parties are more extreme in their views than the vast majority of Americans, and the most extreme views tend to dominate party politics.

This growing extremism among political activists has several impacts.  First, the percentage of Americans who identify with either major political party has declined steadily, to the point where independent voters outnumber either Republicans or Democrats. In 1940, for example, less than 20% of voters identified as independents, while today the number of independents is approaching 50% of those eligible to vote. Second, the ideological gulf between Republicans and Democrats is at the widest point ever measured, and widening, and greater percentages of each party are inclined to portray the “other party” as the enemy.

Current and past history demonstrate clearly that great and unbending ideological differences make workable governing difficult, if not impossible, and yet the extremists in both Democrat and Republican parties, particularly the Republican party at present, are advocating even greater extremism as solution to governmental deadlock.  Neither seems willing to recognize that extremism in pursuit of ideological purity has never resulted in a workable government and has, if unchecked, always led to disaster, and that in the end, the only beneficiaries are the arms merchants and the undertakers.  But then, the extremists always insist that it’s the other party that’s extreme.