In all of my fantasy books, the magic systems are logical, and, if you will, as some readers have put it, “have rules.” And I think it’s fair to say that I was among the first of U.S. fantasy writers to develop and carry out such an approach through an entire series, as well as three different series that followed. But I didn’t do it just because it was a “neat” or nifty idea. I did it because, simply put, anything in nature, science, technology, and civilized human societies that works has rules or, if you will, underlying frameworks.

“Laws of nature” tend to be rather inflexible. If one jumps or falls off a cliff here on earth [excluding those in the ocean depths], the result is always going to be a rapid descent, the results of which will range from painful to fatal. Likewise, all human technological progress has resulted from gaining understanding of how the universe works and actively applying that understanding in an organized fashion. If magic were “real,” as I postulate in my fantasy series, any real advancement in its use would come from disciplined study of magic and application of that study.

The problem with human-made laws, as well as with the commandments reputedly handed down from various deities, is that breaking them often affords the rule-breaker an advantage or momentary gratification of some sort, again often an advantage or gratification that costs others, which is why all societies have penalties for rule-breakers. Problems with societal rules usually happen under several circumstances. The most obvious is when someone with great power does so and gets away with it because of that wealth and power, but those transgressions are usually comparatively infrequent – until you get a society such as U.S. society today, where there are over 400 billionaires. The second problem, common to almost all societies, is when society, government, and/or religion mandates or forbids certain behaviors and practices more because those particular rules are more to maintain power – political, religious, or both – than to enhance law and order. Denying women, minorities, or those of other faiths civil rights extended normally to the majority is far more about control and power than anything else. This problem is compounded when the “rules” don’t make sense to a significant segment of society or conflict with the “rules” of as different set of believers.

The “believer-believer” conflict was one reason why the Founding Fathers wanted to separate church and state. It’s also one of the best reasons for a nation’s laws to be based on those basic principles on which all “believers” and non-believers agree, and not to attempt to use laws to impose religious practices.

There have certainly been working societies with no formal “laws,” but they have tended to be either very tightly socially controlled or the equivalent of absolute rule by the most powerful. And all that brings me back to the point that to presume that an organized society exists without rules and that magic has no structure is a fantasy too unrealistic for me.

Single Factor Fallacy

I happened to glance at a recent issue of Forbes [yes, I read both Forbes and The New York Times, not to mention The Economist, New Scientist, Scientific American, and even occasionally those left wing publications like Sierra and Mother Jones] and ran across a poll that asked fifty billionaires to what factor(s) they most attributed their success. While a number mentioned more than one factor, the leading factor given was “discipline and hard work” (cited by 35), followed by “willingness to take risks” (24); education and intelligence (20), and, oh, yes, “luck” (14).

The funny thing is that I know and have known quite a few people who are intelligent, educated, disciplined, and work hard, and out of several hundred I’ve met well enough to make some personal observations, only two of them are multi-millionaires. And in fact, the idea that all it takes to become a multimillionaire, let alone a billionaire, is intelligence, drive, and persistence is in fact an American myth, and a rather damaging one at that. Now, I don’t deny that the overwhelming majority of multi-millionaires are reasonably intelligent, work hard, and persist in a disciplined fashion. They’d have to have those characteristics to succeed, but what I strenuously doubt is that any single factor, or even one or two, can make someone that successful. It takes a whole constellation of factors, including but not limited to having good ideas, being in the right place at the right time, having or making the right contacts, being able to raise the necessary investment, and a certain amount of luck. And a great number of those factors are environmental, and so obvious that they’re taken for granted, such as a stable home life and decent schools while growing up. A single factor just doesn’t cut it.

The same principle applies to other situations as well. Most industrial accidents, especially major ones, aren’t the result of a single factor going wrong, but a combination of at least two, if not more, problems. The same thing is definitely true in aviation accidents, and even though the NSTB often cites pilot error, it’s almost always a mechanical or weather problem, or something else, combined with pilot error. Most automobile accidents involve two factors, if not more.

So why do we persist as a society in trying to identify the single factor, or the “key” factor, when life is so much more like a jigsaw puzzle, where every piece plays a part? Are we trying to make things too simple? Or is it just intellectual laziness?

This “Horrible” World…?

One of the reasons I don’t write books that have overt and graphic horror in them is that they remind me too much of the state of the world. Admittedly, the world has been filled with horror since the first carnivore arrived, consumed another creature, and then was flattened by a tsunami or fried by lava exploding from a volcano… or something like that.

In dealing with horror, I much prefer the quiet kind, the kind most people don’t see or from which they avert their eyes, pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that it will go away if they don’t dwell on it, but these days, the world seems awash in crude violent horror, perhaps symptomatic of the age of excess which we appear to be living.

The excesses are everywhere. There are those that make the headlines day in and day out, such as the growing income inequality between the richest and the poorest, and contrary to popular American opinion, that inequality is almost everywhere, except paradoxically, Scandinavia [which, interestingly enough, was the font of excess some thousand years or so ago]. Or the excesses in faith/religion, with rampant fundamentalism on one side and the greatest percentage of atheism measured in history on the other. This religious extremism sees Christian fundamentalists insisting violently on “the right to life” and unlimited human birth, while largely ignoring all the poor and starving children created by unlimited birth once they’ve been born. The Islamic fundamentalists are even worse, beheading infidels, insisting on the right to essentially enslave and deny education and rights to women, and justifying the right to execute anyone who “leaves the faith”… or draws cartoons of Muhammad. Then there are the apolitical excesses of various governments that will not hesitate to stoop to anything to maintain their power.

One of the greatest excesses, especially here in the United States, is that continuously perpetrated by the media – trumpeting anything that will make headlines to titillate the jaded American masses (which include all too many theoretically educated Americans who still cannot stop watching the media parade of daily horrors). What makes all this so pathetically and ironically amusing is that American society today is far, far safer than it has ever been. I’m not turning my eyes from the current injustices, or excusing them, but today’s discrimination against blacks, immigrants, and others, or the current gender inequalities, is nothing compared to the true horrors of a century and a half ago. And this media excess creates almost a carnival atmosphere that keeps telling people how horrible things are while, at the same time, fueling the anger and resentment on both sides of every issue… and the ignorance. How can the approval rating of Congress be less than ten percent, when over half the voters in almost every Congressional district think that their representative is doing a good job?

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the HBO series, Game of Thrones, is doing so well. It typifies exactly how the media represents current society, if thinly disguised as a “War of the Roses” fantasy knock-off. What tends to get overlooked, in the nature of quiet horror, is that such a depiction is effectively creating horror that is far less quiet…

… such as a political/governmental system that is becoming almost completely dysfunctional, such as an instant gratification culture that hasn’t the patience to work out problems, such as a culture so obsessed with wealth and celebrity that it rewards and glorifies those who reach the top, regardless of how such wealth and fame are achieved, such as….

But detailing more would delve too deeply into overt horror, and I’ve already exceeded my horror tolerance for the moment.

“No-Inflation” and Recession

One of the ostensible reasons why the Federal Reserve has been pumping money into the economy through its quantitative easing program has been to ward off the possibility of deflation, which, according to most economists and policy-makers, would be far worse for most people than the current on-going recession – and no matter what any economist says, for most people, the economy is still in a recession.

In deflation, the value of all non-monetary assets drop. Effectively, that means the value of your house drops, but not the money owed on your mortgage. The worth, and thus the price, of goods drops, and that means that the people who produce and sell those goods make less… and so it goes.

The problem with the Great Recession has been that it combined some aspects of deflation with some aspects of inflation. In almost all of the country, housing values went down, but mortgage payments didn’t, while family earnings stagnated for those fortunate enough to keep a job, and for those who lost jobs, many of them lost everything. In addition, with the amount of money the Fed pumped into the economy, interest rates on money invested in savings accounts, CDs, bonds, and money market mutual funds dropped through the floor, effectively reducing earnings of anyone invested in those areas, the vast majority of whom were people on limited and fixed incomes. The reaction of many – those who could afford to — was to invest in the stock market, which is more risky. In turn, this pushed the rate of return on dividend-bearing stocks down, again reducing earnings while propelling the stock market indices to record highs… which, at least initially, meant significant gains for those with the funds who were already invested in stocks, or who invested shortly after the Wall Street crash, and far less in gains, if any, for those who delayed.

Supposedly, now that unemployment percentages have dropped, the Federal Reserve is planning to reduce the amount of money it’s pumping into the economy, which should mean that interest rates ought to increase very slightly. Personally, I have some doubts about that. I suspect that very little will change soon. Wages and salaries aren’t increasing for most people, and that means no significant increase in overall demand.

Effectively, a goodly portion of Americans are still trapped in their own personal version of deflation, with mortgages greater than the value of their homes, many with significant student debt, and with marginal, if any real increases in earnings.

From a politician’s or policy-maker’s view, the last thing the United States needs is deflation, but at present, because of the labor situation, any significant amount of inflation will paradoxically have deflationary impacts on a considerable number of Americans. And given that government isn’t the best at managing the economy, and the banking and finance sectors haven’t shown much concern or interest in the welfare of the majority of Americans, the next year or so could be very interesting… and that reminds me that the exhortation, “May you live in interesting times,” is a curse, not a blessing.

The No-Inflation Con Game

I don’t know who’s computing the Consumer Price Index that shows the U.S. has low inflation, but their computations don’t square with my real-life experience. The filing cabinets brought it home to me, once again. Somewhere around ten years ago, I bought a legal size, two drawer, black steel filing cabinet. Last week I brought one almost identical to it, from the same big box office supply company from which I’d bought the last one – except for the price, which was almost exactly double what I paid for the one I purchased ten years earlier.

According to the U.S. Consumer Price Index, the inflation rate over the past ten years has been 25.5%, or just a shade less than 2.0% annually. The change in the price of the filing cabinet represents a rate of inflation at 8% annually, or four times the official rate. The majority of that increase is likely due to the fact that the cost of iron has almost quintupled since 2004, but by that logic, anything manufactured out of steel or iron should have increased markedly over the last ten years – far more than the 2% per year official inflation rate. Interestingly enough, over the same period the price of copper has tripled, while lead and tin are 2 ½ times what they were in 2004.

Housing prices are, overall, about the same as they were in 2004, although in some areas they’re still below 2004 levels and in others, such as Denver and Honolulu, they’re more than 20% higher. This year, one of the biggest factors holding down inflation has been the decrease in gasoline prices – except that’s just for the first nine months of this year – and gas prices are still almost double the average of ten years ago.

Then, too, the CPI has the price of men’s shirts as going down. If that’s so, why do my shirts, bought largely at sales or discount houses, but the same modest brands as I’ve worn for at least fifteen years, cost twice as much as they did ten years ago?

As for milk, its price has almost tripled since 2004, but I will admit that the cost of computer printers has definitely gone down – as has their service life – while the cost of ink and toner have gone up, again roughly double what they were ten years ago. A ream of paper now costs more than twice what it did ten years ago. My work boots have increased more modestly; they cost only 53% more than they did ten years ago.

Now, one of the ways economist discount/minimize increased prices is by factoring in “product improvement,” which definitely makes sense in some areas. There’s no doubt that cars are safer than ever before, but that improvement comes at the much higher cost for repairs of dents and dings. Several years ago, my daughter’s thick-skulled canine Woofie [short for Beowoof (intentional name pun)] side-swiped the front quarter-panel of an almost parked Volvo moving at perhaps 2 mph. Woofie got a headache and lived happily on for several more years. The damage he inflicted on the nearly new Volvo was close to $1500. Crumple zones don’t care what hits them. I also seriously doubt that this kind of cost, which certainly drives up the costs of maintaining a vehicle – and the cost of insurance – is accurately factored into inflation calculations.

While I really can’t discern any “improvements” in paper, shirts, boots, and filing cabinets, as a former economist, I can certainly note, while not exactly appreciating, the ingenuity of government economists in measuring inflation rates, in what I personally believe is a statistical con game.