Archive for March, 2016

Art…and art

Just as people have different tastes in food, they have different tastes in the “art” they enjoy and appreciate, and, for the most part, people tend to rate more highly art and food that they enjoy. I will submit that, while people should be allowed to enjoy what they enjoy in food and art, there are food dishes that are markedly superior to what most people would claim is “the best” and there are books, paintings, performances, and musical compositions that are superior to what is popular.

This past weekend I saw two performances of the opera Little Women [and, yes, there is such an opera] as performed by the local university’s opera theatre, which, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit was produced and directed by my wife the professor. The opera was commissioned roughly twenty years ago by the Houston Opera, and when performed by the Houston Opera in 2000, was recognized as a masterpiece by The New York Times and other critics, and a television production was then done by the Houston Opera for the 2001 PBS Great Performances series. A few hundred people saw the university production, and the audience was very receptive and enthusiastic. The professional musicians who saw it rated it highly.

Three weeks before, some of the same singers participated in a choral extravaganza in the same theatre – and the music was all 1970s rock and roll. More than a 1,000 people filled the theatre, and the audience went wild. The professional musicians thought it was “fun,” but quite a number questioned why a university’s classical music program was putting on a rock and roll concert. The chorus director replied that it was to build support for the music program, and to increase attendance, despite the fact that the music program is designed for two groups of students – those who will teach the basics of music in secondary school and those who will play or sing professionally, either classically or semi-classically.

The vast majority of the people who attended the rock and roll concert did not attend the opera. I have no problems with that. Nor do I have problems with rock and roll concerts.

What I have a problem with is the tacit admission by the Music Department, by putting on both concerts, that rock and roll is on the same level of expertise and excellence as operas, symphonies, oratorios, art song, or chamber music. While I will admit that there are actually a handful of popular rock and roll and country music performers with excellent classical training, the vast majority couldn’t do vocally or instrumentally what most graduating seniors in the good music programs across the country do on a daily basis.

Liking what you like is fine, but popularity is not excellence, and that’s something that is getting lost more and more in a culture that rewards the bottom line far more than excellence.

Too Angry to Think?

As some of my readers might recall, way back last August, I made the observation that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would do far better than people realized, although at that time, I did express doubt that Trump would be able to capture the Republican nomination. While I had a better feel than most for the depth of anger, what I didn’t realize was how many Republicans would become literally too angry to think and how much they wanted to lash out at all politicians, regardless of what it might do to the country. The attitude of these voters is literally that they don’t care, that the country and the rich have screwed them, and that they’ll be damned if they’re going to vote for any “professional” politician.

I spent close to twenty years in politics, largely in Washington, D.C., and I loathe the “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” myth, the idea that all politicians are either up to something illegal or incompetent. In fact, most politicians are very good at voting what their constituents want. What almost no one wants to think about is that such lock-step voting is exactly what’s caused the current gridlock in Washington. Politicians who want to keep their jobs are well aware that voting against their constituency is likely to cost them their job. So they don’t. And no one can afford to compromise. And political views are polarized with enough strength on either side that not much can get done without compromise. The less that gets done, the angrier people are and the more likely they are to punish politicians who show the slightest hint of moderation. Yet with all the anger, a huge number of people react by becoming more extreme, totally failing to recognize that they – not the politicians – are the cause of the problem. In general, the politicians fall into one of two categories, those who are ambitious and unscrupulous in exploiting that extremism, or those who are true-believing extremists who glory in that extremism.

Along with this failure of recognition is that too many of these angry voters also fail to realize Donald Trump is in fact a consummate politician who has read the public mood far better than any of the “professional” Republican politicians and who is exploiting the wide-spread anger by appealing blatantly to those angry people and promising to do things that are either physically or financially impossible, unconstitutional or illegal, or just plain stupid – and the anger of those supporting Trump is so strong that his supporters either just don’t care, are truly ignorant of the impossibility of any of Trump’s promises being enacted, or believe that what Trump says is merely rhetoric to get him elected.

But then, being angry and venting makes so many of us feel better. The difficulty is that all that venting doesn’t solve the underlying problems, and, in this case, will only make them worse.

Legislating Absolutism?

Absolutist moral pronouncements may be good guidelines for personal behavior, but they make very bad laws. And there’s a very good reason why this is so: absolute moral pronouncements are simple, and neither the universe nor society is. Equally important is the fact that human society has never been able to agree on exactly which moral codes should be enforced and how. Secular laws are by necessity a compromise between conflicting moral codes and beliefs based upon points of agreement [at least, ideally].

One of the basic principles behind the structure set up by the Founding Fathers of the United States was the idea that laws were to be legislated by a civil body, not by religious authority, and that those laws should recognize fundamental civil rights as superior to religious doctrine and rights. The reason for this was basic. They had seen and often lived through a time when people were tortured, killed, or otherwise persecuted for what they believed, and those acts were enabled by laws enacted pursuant to religious authority.

Yet today, we have tens of millions of Americans who are demanding laws to enforce their religious beliefs on others under the guise of religious freedom, effectively repudiating the idea of civil rights through their determination to enact and enforce laws restricting the rights of others based on religious beliefs.

One of the great ironies I see in today’s political debates and often hate-filled rhetoric is that the same people who are so deathly afraid that President Obama or others might impose Islamic Sharia law upon the U.S. are all too often those same ultra-conservative evangelicals who want to impose the “Christian” equivalent of Sharia on the United States – effectively limiting rights for women, legal recognition of religious practices, and the arrogation of religious beliefs over civil rights. Yet those individuals cannot see that what they want is essentially the same structure as ultra-traditional Islamists, but a structure supporting their own ultra-conservative beliefs and enforcing those beliefs on those who do not share them.

I’m very much in favor of civil rights, the right of an individual to do what he or she pleases so long as those acts do not physically harm others – and that includes forms of indirect harm. You should not have the freedom to pollute the air others breathe or the waters others must drink. I have great problems with laws that effectively marginalize others under the guise of religious freedom. I also have problems with those who wish to eliminate laws that protect health and the environment on the grounds that such laws restrict the freedom to do business. Obviously, no law can be perfect, but legislating absolutes is the route to tyranny, not morality.


Almost invariably, the majority of mail that we receive is from charitable organizations, the preponderance of it from so-called charities to which we do not contribute nor most likely never will. There are some, I admit, that once received a contribution in a moment of weakness on our part, but never will again. The unanswered telephone solicitations are even more disturbing, because we have never contributed to anyone or anything based on a telephone solicitation.

It appears, in fact, that everyone and everything has its own charitable organization. While this perception is in fact erroneous, it still feels that way to me, perhaps because there are over a million and a half charitable organizations in the United States alone. And after the scattered revelations of the past few years about the compensation of those running charitable organizations and the fact that, in all too many cases, far too much of donated funds to legally permitted 501(c) (3) organizations goes to anything but the purposes for which they were ostensibly founded. From what I can tell, there are foundations for almost every form of ill-treated or endangered species, particularly mammals, land-based and aquatic, and large avians, not to mention scores of foundations dealing with social ills, justice, discrimination, civil rights, conservation and environmental improvement – the list is truly endless.

The problem, of course, is that a great many of them address very real problems. Far fewer do so efficiently and cost-effectively. Some address problems that don’t seem to be problems to me, such as the “need” to “return” federal lands to either the people or the states [not that either ever held those lands], and some spotlight problems that cannot be solved by greater application of resources.

If people wish to give money to these causes, so be it, but should all these donations be considered tax-deductible? For that matter, should donations to religious organizations be tax-deductible? Such deductions add to the federal deficit and, in essence, require higher taxes on everyone.

Now, I know that many conservatives feel that government attempts to do too much in social programs and believe that private charity is more suited to dealing with many of these problems, but isn’t providing tax deductions for charitable and religious organizations effectively the same as a government subsidy? And all too often, the cost of subsidies is far greater than anyone knows because it’s essentially hidden. The more than one and a half million U.S. charities spend 1.5 trillion dollars every year, an amount equivalent to the 40% of the federal budget. Given the billions poured into charities, if charity were that effective, shouldn’t we be seeing better results?

The Magic World of the Everyday

Arthur C. Clarke once observed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While many – and I’m one of them – would generally agree with his words, I’d take it a step further. We live in a magic world, indeed, a magic universe. Einstein theorized that this was true in his equation E = mc2, which essentially equated matter and energy. In practical terms, the development of technology since then has proved that the only difference between “matter” and energy is form, in that all matter is composed of structured energy.

While what we perceive and experience as matter is not “solid” in the sense we emotionally believe and physically experience, since on the sub-atomic level matter is largely empty space, but what could be called, in an over-simplistic sense, the interplay of energy fields. Part of the effect of those fields is to create what we experience as matter, essentially barriers, or at least limitations, to the inter-penetration of other “matter-energy-fields” – a universe, if you will, of energy whose flows and fields we interpret variously as energy and/or matter within a space-time framework.

Theoretically, anything can be transformed into anything else, given enough energy and a sufficiently advanced technology to restructure the energy flows and structure. Whether we as a species will ever master such restructuring doesn’t take away from the fact that it is at least theoretically possible.

That understanding of the universe colors my view of “virtual reality,” because “virtual” or, more accurately “cyber-enhanced-partial representation of physically modulated perception,” seems to me to be a denial of the very wonder of the physical universe, or at least a wish-fulfillment escape from it. Now, I’ve seen enough of death, misery, and oppression to understand all too well why many are embracing virtual reality. It’s a very real attraction, one whose dangers and pitfalls James Gunn outlined more than half a century ago in The Joy Makers [and even earlier in “The Hedonist”], but as Gunn pointed out, it’s so much easier to escape into one’s personal virtual reality than to remake a failing and imperfect society.

And that would be a tragedy in a universe already so magical… but the choice is ours.

The Fallacy of Corporate Leadership

The other day I had a discussion with a friend about what I perceive as the excessive level of pay and bonuses received by the CEOs of large corporations and financial institutions. I even mentioned the study that showed no relationship whatsoever between the profitability and success of the corporation and the salary levels of the CEO, as well as one of its conclusions that comparatively lower-paid CEOs often headed up better-performing businesses.

He was anything but convinced. His argument was essentially that, if companies were willing to pay that amount, the executives were worth that much, and that there was nothing wrong with the fact that, in some companies, the CEOs made thousands as much as the salary of the average employee. I’m not against CEOs getting much higher pay than everyone else, but it seems to me that what’s overlooked is that large businesses aren’t successful just because of one executive at the top. The fact that they survive and even prosper while turning over CEOs on the average of every five years suggests to me that CEOs are high-level interchangeable parts, and that means that they’re merely more highly skilled workers, meriting great multiples of the average worker’s compensation, but not to the degree of thousands of times the average salary, and in a few cases up to ten thousand times the salary of the average employee. In fact, until about thirty years ago, they were paid only a hundred times or so the salary of the average employee.

Seemingly lost in the current self-reinforcing beliefs of higher executives are some of the old and truthful adages, such as a chain being only as strong as its weakest link, or the fact that no person is indispensable. Instead, the grandees of industry pose and parade, taking full and often sole credit for the work of thousands of individuals, while giving little but lip-service to those below them and while extolling the benefit of cost-cutting and cost-effectiveness. Yet isn’t it strange how there’s no measurable cost-cutting and cost-effectiveness in the executive suites and boardrooms?

Part of that is because, in a multi-billion dollar corporation, wasteful overpayment to a single individual, i.e., a CEO, is almost noise and doesn’t directly affect the bottom line that much. Indirectly, I’d submit, the effect is much greater, particularly among middle and upper management, because those grandiose salaries inspire brutal and often highly unethical internal power struggles in pursuit of what is often literally a golden fleece. Both the power struggles and the outsized upper level compensation also tend to demoralize lower management and create higher stress levels there. Study after study has shown that stress levels actually are lower in upper management and higher in those who work for them and that the highest stress levels are created at lower levels of management when the expectations of upper management conflict with the lack of adequate resources for achieving those expectations and when the compensation differential between those tasked with a job and those supervising them is highest.

These findings also tend to get buried and never find their way to the executive boardrooms, most likely because corporate emperors are as adverse as other emperors to learning that their imperial garments are illusory and their beliefs self-serving. At least as I’ve observed, the great majority of CEOs are in fact at best marginally more talented than their subordinates, yet the great fallacy of corporate leadership remains — the CEO-perpetuated idea that extra-special individuals preside as CEOs, when in fact a great body of evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, strongly suggests otherwise.


The other day I was reading a book review of A.O. Scott’s Better Living through Criticism, which was interesting in itself, since a magazine book critic was critiquing a movie critic’s book, when I realized something basic about almost all reviews, either by professionals, semi-pros, or even readers. Such reviews report what the general story line is and what the obvious strengths and weaknesses of a book are, at least from the reviewer’s perspective, and while that is valuable to many readers, that is as far as most reviews go.

What most reviews don’t mention is what is not obvious in a book or movie. And from what I can tell from the review of Better Living through Criticism and from what little I’ve quickly read of the book, Scott apparently thinks that critics should go beyond the obvious. I honestly don’t know if he does in his own reviews, because I seldom read movie reviews, but whether he does or not, it’s a valid point, and one I’d recommend to all reviewers.

I’ve had lots of books reviewed over the years by professionals or semi-pros, and most of those reviews, at least the ones I’ve read, fall in the category of finding what I write either acceptable or moderately good, which is certainly better than many possible alternatives. A few reviews have castigated a given book, and a few more have offered fulsome praise. Several times, I’ve had both a castigating review and one of high praise about the same book.

Seldom, however, do reviewers actually mention what is truly different, or even unique, about a book. Now, from an author’s point of view, uniqueness is very much a double-edged blade, as the reviews (and comparative sales) of my more unique books – such as Archform:Beauty, Empress of Eternity, Haze, The One-Eyed Man, Solar Express, or the “Ghost” trilogy – seem to indicate. Yet the majority of reviews of those books never mention the unique aspects of the books, let alone note why they’re different. Instead, most concentrate on the strengths and especially the perceived weaknesses of the conventional aspects of the books. That’s understandable, and in itself, should be expected, but the failure to dwell upon what else lies within the pages and the story shortchanges the reader of the review.

Now… having said that, I could be far better off that the reviewers didn’t mention the different or unique aspects of any of those books, because a great many readers are looking for comfortable escapism and predictable entertainment.

Perhaps, just perhaps, I’m better off that readers don’t know in advance, because some readers will find that difference entrancing (as various emails and letters have told me) when they might not have even picked the book up had they read a review that highlighted the differences.

Which reinforces the thought that more insightful reviews are indeed a double-edged blade.

The Greatest Good

All too many years ago, in my very first day in my very first college political science class, I got into trouble with the professor, after he had stated that the goal of political science was to determine policies which identified “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I objected to his stating that as the goal of all political scientists, claiming in return that it was the goal of liberal political scientists, not all political scientists. Needless to say, I got off to a rocky start, and my standing with that professor never recovered.

While that episode remains relatively fresh in my memory, in time I realized that while I was right to question, I hadn’t picked the right basis for my objection. The principal problem with his assertion was even simpler. What is “good” in the political universe, and how do we determine it?

Another consideration is how does one choose among the competing “goods” and prioritize what comes first? A third problem is that of perspective – good for whom?

These are far from esoteric or ivory-tower questions. They get to the basis of the polarization and conflict within our political system and to our continuing problems in foreign policy. And that’s even before one gets to the question of how one might implement such “goods.”

One person might suggest that the greatest good is a healthy and well-educated population, all of whom, with the exception of law-breakers, have the rights outlined in the Constitution. Someone else might suggest that the greatest good is a society where hard work, intelligence, and perseverance are rewarded, rather than in having a society where those who are unable or unwilling to work are still guaranteed health care and material sustenance. A third person might declare that a “society under God” is the greatest good, which contains the assumption of belief in and adherence to the strictures of a particular deity. Someone else might find the greatest good to lie in the least government possible, or no government at all.

All of which requires that someone choose exactly which vision of the greatest good is pursued. In deciding “the greatest good” in the U.S. political system, the simplistic answer is that those who vote determine that. Except they don’t. They vote for officials who will make those determinations, either through executive or legislative actions.

And we now have a political system where the majority of elected officials slavishly pursue the extremes of the “greatest good” advocated by the majority of their constituents, regardless of the language crafted by the Founding Fathers, and the infeasibility of forcing those extremes on those who do not share those beliefs. Which was why they made political change so difficult in order that the two most likely outcomes would be either compromise or gridlock, believing that reasonable individuals would work out compromises.

Unhappily, fewer and fewer Americans appear to meet the Founders’ definition of reasonable, and they punish politicians who attempt to work out compromises, which results in fewer and fewer politicians being reasonable, in turn making political gridlock on contentious points inexorably inevitable. That results in already unreasonable individuals becoming more so, and blaming the problems all on those who do not share their views.

One Person’s Waste [Part II]

There’s always been a hue and cry from regulated industries that the regulations under which they “labor” are burdensome and “wasteful,” but often that “waste” is only from the point of view of the industry involved. While an electric utility may claim that a regulation that restricts its emissions is expensive and “wasteful,” that regulation is designed to improve the health and environment, which reduces healthcare and environmental remediation costs for large numbers of people, far larger than the number of utility employees and shareholders.

Unhappily, however, there are also the regulations that create costs and burdens without commensurate societal benefits, such as the 2015 regulation by the Department of Energy mandated that dishwashers must use no more than 3.1 gallons of water per load. The problem? So far manufacturers can’t figure out how to get the dishes clean with so little water, but they still have to produce machines that use no more than the sacred 3.1 gallons.

Then there’s another kind of waste – the government rules or regulations that proclaim benefits, but effectively add problems or costs for consumers and/or small businesses, while benefiting only a comparative handful of companies or individuals.

One of the most expensive and with one of the most wide-spread effects is the current regulatory regime at the FDA that allows pharmaceutical firms to make minor changes to drugs whose patent protection is expiring and thus gain more years to gouge the public and also imposes great barriers to those companies who could produce and sell generic drugs less expensively. For example, when chlorofluorocarbons were required to be removed as propellants for asthma inhalers and a new propellant was added, the manufacturers gained more years of selling inhalers at higher prices to the point that a rescue inhaler – one that can literally save an asthma sufferer from dying – doubled in price. Then, when that protection lapsed, interestingly enough, since the U.S. has no maximum price regulations, just this year, the price of the most-widely used asthma medication, albuterol sulfate, jumped from $11 to $434 per inhaler, a 4,000 percent price increase, because getting FDA approval, even for a generic, is so burdensome that most firms won’t try, at least in the U.S., while that very same inhaler, as well as a range of generics, costs less than $30 in Great Britain or Canada.

Buried in the 3,000 plus pages of the Affordable Care Act is a provision that requires, as of December 2016, that all brewers must include a detailed calorie count on every type of beer they produce. Failure to comply with the new regulations means craft brewers will not be able to sell their beer in any restaurant chain with over 20 locations. Because this is a major market for selling beer, it hamstrings smaller craft brewers if they do not comply. The Cato Institute estimates the calorie labeling requirements will cost a business as much as $77,000 to implement. For larger beer companies, this is a drop in the bucket, but for small, local craft brewers it represents a substantial cost that they must pay. As a result, it creates a significant disadvantage compared to larger beer companies who can better absorb the regulatory cost… as if serious beer connoisseurs don’t know the specifications anyway.

Among the regulations that cost U.S. consumers a great deal, for the benefit of a few, are those dealing with sugar, the price of which in the U.S. price is effectively set by a combination of federal requirements that limit domestic production of cane and beet sugar, restrict foreign imports, place a floor under growers’ prices and require the government to buy crop surpluses.

Sugar beet and sugarcane farms account for about one-fifth of 1 percent of U.S. farms. Out of 2.2 million farms in the United States, there are only 3,913 sugar beet farms and 666 sugarcane farms, but these growers account for 33% of crop industries’ total campaign donations, and 40 percent of crop industries’ total lobbying expenditures. Since 2000, Americans have paid an average of 79 percent more for raw sugar and 87 percent more for refined sugar compared to the average world price, a total of more than a billion extra dollars annually for sugar in order to subsidize less than five thousand U.S. sugar growers.

Then there are the successful waste reduction programs that Congress junks, such as the Recovery Audit Contractor Act, first implemented in 2005, which collected more than $3.5 billion in 2013 alone by collecting overpayments to healthcare providers. Interestingly enough, the program was suspended by Congress in 2013 at the insistence of hospitals, with the result that since October 2013, about $1 billion per quarter in erroneous overpayments is not being recovered and collected.

And while no one likes the IRS, Congress has made it impossible for the agency to collect unpaid taxes and to audit high income individuals by continuing to cut the agency’s budget, so that audits are at an all-time low, and tax avoidance continues to rise, while at the same time politicians are attacking the IRS for such shortcomings as its inaccurate death records that show millions of Americans as dead who are still alive and 6.5 million people listed as age 112 and older.

So, when people talk about waste, it’s certainly not all about federal government excesses. Sometimes it is, but many times it’s something else.