Archive for February, 2019

A Little History, Please

And no, I’m not talking about politics this time.  I’m talking about newer F&SF writers who should know better… not about the history, if there even is any, in their books, but about what’s been written before and by whom. 

I’m beginning to get weary of newer writers or F&SF critics or columnists writing articles or giving interviews or blurbing books who talk about the “new” way they or other writers have addressed an issue or a problem or how this or that issue hasn’t really surfaced before…. or how these books open new vistas… or some similar cliché.

Roger Zelazny was writing SF about cloned bodies and mental transplants in Lord of Light fifty years ago, and also about men becoming women and vice versa.  Ursula K. LeGuin explored basic gender issues and preconceptions pretty thoroughly, also fifty years ago, in The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as environmental issues in The Word for World is Forest.  It’s also been overlooked, until recently (although it’s still not that widely known) that her protagonist in the Earthsea books was a person of color.  J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is an earlier take [1962] on global warming and rising seas.

In 1909, E.M. Forster wrote a novelette entitled “The Machine Stops,” a tale of what happens when the mechanical entity that runs all of earth’s civilization fails.  Fred Saberhagen wrote about malevolent AIs [the berserkers] well before the “Terminator” movies.  Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth wrote about the takeover of the world by advertising executives in The Space Merchants back in 1952.

So… please be careful using phasing like “new” or “fresh” or “unexplored.”  I know no one wants to admit that what they’ve done is a different approach to an old theme or a perspective from a slightly different angle, but, for the most part, that’s exactly what most writers who are cited as “new” or “fresh” actually do… and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

For the writers who truly do something different and unique… well… most of them are ignored because most readers are uncomfortable with something truly unique.  A few manage to do the unique in a way that conceals how unique what they do is… and about one in a million turns out to be J.R.R. Tolkien.

A Different Approach to Balancing the Federal Budget?

Recently, various Democratic politicians have been pushing a range of tax options.  From what I can determine, and from what many experts are saying, most of them would cause more harm than good.  I’m not saying that we don’t need more federal revenue.  I’m saying that everyone is looking in the wrong places.

Let’s go back to basics.  First, you can’t tax people who have no income.  Second, despite the political rhetoric, it’s highly unlikely that a “wealth tax” is constitutional.  Third, a wealth tax would destroy a lot of entrepreneurs while only marginally inconveniencing financial types.  That’s because the wealth of the entrepreneurs is usually tied up in stock and having to sell large blocks of it to pay taxes could destroy the company or at least damage it.  The same thing could happen to family held companies without large cash reserves.  Fourth, extremely high marginal tax rates would cause either creative tax evasion or tax flight, both of which would leave the upper middle class shouldering the burden, not the wealthy.

BUT… there is another source of untapped revenue that has several advantages.  First, it targets the financial community, and that’s where most of the money is.  Second, it’s about time that Wall Street starting paying the bill.  And third, it’s not really that onerous a tax when you think about it.  And fourth, some states already use it.

I’m talking about a transfer tax on every share of stock sold on every stock exchange in the U.S.  The tax would be levied on the seller, since the seller gets the money. With computers, keeping track shouldn’t be that hard.

I did some back of the envelope calculations, which astounded me. The other day, which wasn’t extraordinary, the top 100 stocks on the NASDAQ-100 had a daily volume of over 400 million shares traded.  Only one of those stocks sold for less than $6 a share and the rest looked to average a hundred dollars a share.  The yearly sales value of just those 100 stocks look to exceed $10 trillion annually.  A one percent transfer tax on the sales of the shares of just those one hundred companies would yield about $100 billion annually… and there are over 4000 publicly traded companies on U.S.

Now I know that there are also some public start-up companies whose shares are valued in cents, and some sort of sliding scale would be necessary for them, but given how much Wall Street has benefitted, is a one percent a share, or even half of that, too much to ask of the large established firms… and the algorithm-driven trading computers used by market profiteers?

Corruption, Wealth, and Consequences

Everyone’s heard about the “Golden Rule,” but there’s a variation on it that I often heard from the boss of the consulting firm I worked for years ago in Washington, D.C. – “Those who’ve got the gold make the rules.”

Along those same lines, the sixteen century poet Sir John Harrington wrote, “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”  That quote was co-opted and often cited by the far right in the 1960s as the result of a book with a title of  None Dare Call It Treason, but unfortunately the principle still applies today, except in a far different context, as a result of the “second” golden rule, except it might be entitled Law by and for Affluent White Males.

By that, I mean that whether something is a crime or not, legally speaking, depends on what the law says, and the laws in the United States have been drafted, almost entirely, by affluent white men, except, to some degree as one reader pointed out, recently in California.  Now, it’s definitely a crime if someone takes a gun and steals your wallet.  Likewise, it’s a crime if someone physically assaults you for no reason, or if someone hacks your bank account and drains it.

But what about laws and a legal system that affect poorer people more than richer ones?  Or ones that use laws to transfer money from poorer people to richer ones?

It’s a crime for two parties to collude to force people to pay more for a product, unless one of those parties is a pharmaceutical company and the other is the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid Administration, because the government, thanks to a special law passed some fifteen years ago, is expressly forbidden from negotiating lower drug prices.  In effect, it’s a form of price-fixing, and it’s taking money from the pockets of every health care consumer and putting it in the bank accounts of all the pharmaceutical companies… and adding to executive and CEO bonuses.  Those higher costs pose a far higher burden on the poor and elderly than on the rich and famous. Right now, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of diabetics are having trouble paying for insulin because the pharmaceutical industry keeps jiggering the formulations so that a basic medication more than fifty years old can cost diabetics almost $6,000 a year, up from $2,800 seven years ago. The cost of one Advair asthma inhaler has gone from $316 in 2013 to $541 this month.

Robbery and embezzlement are both forms of theft.  Most robberies are committed by poorer members of society, and most embezzlement by those better off.  According to Federal sentencing reports in 2016, the average sentence time for embezzlement was eight months, but half of those convicted were sentenced to no time in jail; the average sentence for robbery was six years. By comparison, another study showed that the average sentence for fraud of less than $5,000 was five months, while the average sentence for greater amounts averaged twenty-two months, but burglary/breaking and entering, which also doesn’t involve violence to others, has an average sentence of 4.6 years.

So, the poor and disadvantaged criminals steal less money and spend more time in jail.  Part of that is, of course, that more affluent clients can also afford better attorneys.  Now, if that embezzlement actually hits the rich and famous, as in the case of Bernie Madoff, then the gloves come off.  That’s why Madoff is facing 150 years in prison. 

But my former boss’s “Golden Rule” also affects how new laws are made as well.

For example, recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell didn’t break corruption laws when he pulled political favors for a big donor in return for lavish gifts and personal loans. That kind of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” behavior was not barred by current corruption laws, the Court decided, despite the tens of thousands of dollars McDonnell and his wife received in gifts, cash, and loans.  This decision was the result of small changes in the laws over the years that now allow corporations and the rich to literally buy politicians legally, as also reflected in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

And conservatives wonder why minorities are often skeptical of the laws and the legal system?

States’ Rights?

I’ve often said that I live in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, and in the last month or so, the state legislature has decided to prove that.  As background, voters in the state voted two initiatives into law.  One legalized various uses of marijuana for medical purposes; the other expanded Medicaid coverage as allowed under federal law.

The medical marijuana initiative was largely supported because, for the last two sessions of the legislature, the legislature voted against all measures to do so, and many felt that was because of the views of the LDS Church.

Why might people suppose that?  It just might be because the Republicans have a super-majority in both the state house and senate, and, interesting enough, 81 of the 82 Republicans are members of the LDS faith, even though only about 63% of the state population is LDS.  The Democrats, all 22 of them, are, as best I can determine, roughly 60% LDS and 40% other faiths, which is, also interestingly enough, close to the belief structure of the state. 

Once the marijuana initiative passed, immediately after the election, the Republicans called a special session, declaring that, as law, the initiative was unsuitable, and immediately went to work to pass legislation to water it down and eliminate certain provisions.  They were successful in doing so, not surprisingly when you consider their faith and majority status.

The second initiative was to expand Medicaid coverage to the additional level allowed, but not required, by federal law. Now that the legislature has convened, the state Senate has passed and sent to the state House legislation to significantly cut back that coverage on the grounds that, some five years from now, it will cost the state some $10 million dollars a year to maintain that coverage.  But the point of the initiative was to cover all of those eligible but not covered, not part of them, and the cost not already in the state budget to the average taxpayer would have been less than $10 per year.

The House speaker has indicated that the measure will pass, and the governor will sign it, and all the Republicans claim that it’s necessary for budgetary prudence, even though the state is running a budgetary surplus, and the legislature is mulling tax cuts… and, oh, yes, the state spends less per student on public education than any state in the union, by a wide margin.

But then, perhaps all this might, just might, have something to do with the fact that the LDS Church insists on a 10% tithe on gross income, and it doesn’t want its members overtaxed.

But… all this might also provide an example of why I’m just a bit leery when people trumpet “states’ rights.”