Attacking the Symptoms

The recent debacle in Congress over the Affordable Healthcare Act is all too representative of an ever greater societal problem – the fact that far too much legislation and too many governmental programs are aimed at dealing with symptoms and avoid addressing the real underlying problems.

The issue isn’t really about healthcare insurance. It’s about the cost of healthcare itself. In 1970, the average American spent $380 on healthcare. In 1980, it was $1,180, but by 2013 [the latest data available], that cost had risen to $9,810. In essence, the cost of healthcare has increased at four times the rate of inflation, at a time when middle class earnings, adjusted for inflation, have remained roughly the same.

Then there’s the opioid crisis, which the media splashes everywhere. And yes, it’s a real and painful problem, but the root of the problem lies in the fact that we still don’t have non-addictive painkillers, especially for nerve-rooted pain. Yet the big push is to restrict the use of opiates, when there’s literally no other type of pain-killer available.

What about the high cost of education? Since 1980, the real cost of a college education has increased four and a half times the rate of inflation, and now the average debt of a recent college graduate exceeds $35,000. Students graduating from elite institutions or pursuing graduate degrees can easily end up owing more than $100,000 in student loans. Yet, as I can attest from both statistics and personal experience, that money isn’t going, for the most part, to college professors, not when average professor’s salary has increased by less than half a percent a year over the last thirty years and when the majority of new teachers are underpaid adjuncts. The problem lies in the fact that there’s been a huge increase in the number of students attending college and that state legislatures have refused to fund that increase in students and have passed the costs on to the students and their parents. At the moment, and as I’ve noted earlier, there are now twice as many college graduates each year as there are college-education-required jobs for them. Yet all the solutions proposed seem to be designed to bail out the states and to produce more college graduates for jobs that don’t exist, while neglecting non-college training for well-paying jobs that do exist and have shortages.

Another problem requiring a solution is the current U.S. air control system. There are more and more passengers, and more and more demands for passenger rights, but, so far, no one seems to be seriously looking at the underlying problem of a technologically outdated air control system.

I’ve just listed four areas, but, if I wanted to do the research, I have no doubt I could find many more examples of policy-makers and well-intended activists vigorously trying to address the symptoms of a problem, rather than the root causes.

Why does this happen? Largely, I suspect, because addressing the root causes upsets all too many apple carts, and is often initially far more expensive, even if cost-effective over time, while addressing the symptoms is far less controversial.

Entertainment Escapism – F&SF

While I’m anything but a television or cinema or gaming addict, I can’t help but notice a growing trend in what I’d classify as the field of “video entertainment” – the enormous growth of fantasy and science fiction video-type entertainment.

While Star Wars was released in 1977, with the next two movies in 1980 and 1983, sixteen years passed until The Phantom Menace premiered in 1999. A similar pattern occurred with Star Trek. The original series began in 1966 and ran for three years. It was ten years before the movie, and almost 20 years before The Next Generation appeared as a series.

Over those years, while there were some other F&SF films, I don’t recall anything close to the deluge of F&SF films, TV shows, and spin-offs of spin-offs that began in the late 1990s, possibly spurred by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy and science fiction have been around for well over a century, but they were primarily available in written form, for the most part, until comparatively recently. And most movies, with the exception of a few, like Portrait of Jennie, and possibly Forbidden Planet, were essentially “B” movies, if that. So what happened?

Some will say that it’s been fueled by the improved technology and the CGI special effects. That certainly enabled the field, but that overlooks the fact that for something to be popular, people have to want to watch it.

One of the main reasons for entertainment is to be diverted from the day-to-day… or, if you’re really desperate, to escape entirely from the “real world” in some way. It’s no coincidence that the years of the Great Depression fueled the rise of feel-good movie musicals and up-beat movies.

A century, or even fifty years ago, people could feel that there were unexplored places in the world, places where “escapist” movies could be set, and there was an innocence, a belief that movie musical magic could happen in “the real world.” For the most part, now most of that innocence is gone, and except for the greatest depths of the ocean, the vast majority of the world has been explored and found not to contain Shangri La or Tarzan’s hidden cities, or islands that contain monsters like King Kong.

So, given all that, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing an enormous rise in fantasy and science fantasy video entertainment today. There aren’t many other places to escape.

The Anger Problem

As I noted earlier, there is growing incivility in the United States, and that includes the rapid resurgence of hate groups. Why are so many people so angry?

One reason often postulated is that the American middle class is being “hollowed out” by rapid changes in technology that drastically reduced the number of well-paid semi-skilled jobs, and by the perception that immigrants who take low-paying jobs keep all wages depressed… and these losses fuel anger.

Next are minorities, women, and others affected by the history and legacy of racial and gender discrimination. They’re tired of endlessly waiting for equality, and with ethnic, racial, and gender discrimination continuing, those feeling that discrimination is continuing are also getting angrier and angrier.

Then there are those people who are angry at social change, at the acceptance of more liberal sexual mores, at the emergence of the LGBT culture, at women demanding equal pay.

In short, a lot of people are angry… and the evidence of just how many lies in the election of Donald Trump and the support for Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t seem to matter to these people that the vast majority of Americans have a higher standard of living than their predecessors did or most people elsewhere on Earth. They feel deprived.

All of them have reasons. Some reasons are good; some are understandable; and some are neither.

Those who lost jobs to off-shoring and automation want those jobs back, or something similar. They’re not getting them back, because times have changed. This isn’t new. It happened in England in the early 1800s, when the automation of textiles and weaving was introduced, and comparatively well-paid weavers were replaced by factories. The “Luddites” revolted, and a number of them were executed or exiled to Australia… and nothing changed. In a sense, both the Luddites and those who lost semi-skilled jobs in the last few decades were angry because they felt entitled to those jobs.

For better or worse, however, a capitalistic culture doesn’t recognize entitlement, whether of factory workers or others. And it’s not just happening to factory workers. Jobs for lawyers are drying up, with 55,000 fewer jobs for attorneys this year than 10 years ago, while the number of attorneys has increased by almost 200,000, and a good part of the decreased demand for lawyers results from improved technology in a number of areas.

Technology is continuing to improve, and that means that other semi-skilled and even some skilled jobs will be replaced by technology, most likely creating more displaced and angry people. While technology does create jobs, so far the number of well-paid jobs created doesn’t match those replaced by technology. Unless trends change drastically, and they don’t seem to be, despite predictions of more skilled and paid-paid jobs, more and more the most available jobs will be those requiring personal lower-level skills, while those paying more will be a smaller and smaller fraction of those available.

And that’s not going to help the anger problems… or American politics.

Missing Prices in Fantasy?

The other day I was trying to work out price equivalences for certain goods and services in a forthcoming Imager Portfolio book when I suddenly – and clearly, very belatedly – realized how seldom prices – for anything – appear in most fantasy novels, or at least, so it seemed to me.

What makes this surprising to me is that every society in Earth’s history, once beyond the Stone Age level, has been governed by some form of market economy, where the necessities of life have a cost and daily items must be paid for. Yet prices and costs, especially exact prices and costs, appear to be missing from many fantasy novels. I’d almost [but not quite] be willing to say that they’re missing from the majority of fantasy novels, especially in those scenes depicting daily life, except for a token mention.

A search of A Game of Thrones came up with only scattered references to coins, occasionally gold, but virtually no actual numbers. For Words of Radiance, the second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, there were some thirty references to money, but no specifics. Nor could I find specifics for coinage in Tolkien. I tried some urban fantasy, including newer works such as the Suzanne Johnson’s Sentinels of New Orleans and Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen, but found nothing there. There were one or two specifics per book in Patty Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books, and while Simon Green’s Nightside books do mention money, I could only find one specific – a cheque for fifty thousand pounds. Paul Cornell’s urban police fantasies occasionally mention specifics, but only big numbers, like payoffs of ten thousand pounds, but nothing about daily expenses, not that I could find.

Patrick Rothfuss, on the other hand, uses “talents,” and gives specifics, as does Scott Lynch in his Gentleman Bastards series, but of the books and series I searched, I couldn’t find any other authors besides the three of us who give consistent specifics and prices. Given the number of authors writing fantasy, I’m sure that there are quite a few others, but, even so, if my sampling is any indication, authors who do are definitely in the minority.

Although I’ve read several thousand F&SF books [I lost count years ago], there have been more than 40,000 F&SF books published over the last twenty years alone, so I have no idea how representative my reading is about the use and frequency of specific costs and prices in fantasy books.

What are your experiences… and good and not-so-good examples?

Congressional Selfishness

Just last week, the House of Representatives was dealing with the massive Defense appropriations bill. The Pentagon had proposed an actual common sense measure that would have required Congress to look at military base closures and submit a report on recommended closures by 2021. The Republican majority barred any base closures and voted down an amendment that would have allowed the Pentagon to proceed.

We’re not even talking about closing bases, but about a report to determine which bases might be closed, and a report that wouldn’t even be finished for four years. What such Congressional action signifies isn’t a desire for a strong and effective national defense, or even more support for wounded and disabled veterans, but merely the political requirement for local pork-barrel defense make-work jobs.

There’s one thing I’m very certain about, and that’s if the incredibly conservative Pentagon says it doesn’t need a base… it really doesn’t need that base. And I’ll admit readily that the generals may not always be right. That was one reason why the proposal was for a commission to study the recommended closures. The fact that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives wouldn’t even look at the closure issue is a good indication of how present-day politicians have no desire to even look at anything that might cost them votes, even if it is in the national interest.

In fact, I’m not certain that more than a handful of national politicians give a damn about the national interest. Certainly, for all their rhetoric, none of those recently elected from my state do. I’d go even further. It’s gotten to the point where almost any politician who goes against his or her party line or popular opinion is likely to be viewed as a traitor.

Admittedly, there’s a need for consensus for any group to get anything done, but when challenging that group consensus is treason, we, as a society, have gone from a fractious representative democracy to a nation riven and paralyzed by cliquish group-think, represented by men and women either afraid, unwilling, or unable to follow Burke’s statement to the electors of Bristol that, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

And that’s not only sad, but if it continues, will likely be terminal for the experiment begun by the Founding Fathers.