The Threat from Radical Islamic Terrorists

I’m fed up with the propaganda from the White House about the “overwhelming” danger to U.S. citizens from radical Islamic terrorists. Yes, there are radical Islamic terrorists, but here in the United States, radical Islamic terrorists are far less of a threat than home-grown right-wing terrorists. Overseas, that’s another question, which is why so many law-abiding members of the Islamic faith want to get to the U.S. – or did before Donald Trump became President.

While consensus on hard numbers is difficult to come by, and numbers vary by source, whatever the source, those numbers suggest that radical Islamic terrorists are not the major threat to Americans – not even close. Other Americans are.

On terms of terrorist attacks in the United States, the numbers are lopsided, to say the least. According to a study by the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, domestic right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks in the U.S. in the decade after 9/11, accounting for 254 fatalities, while, depending on the study and the definitions, between a total of 20 and 24 terrorist attacks in the U.S. were carried out by Islamic radicals with between and 50 and 123 fatalities.

In the last several years, the vast majority of police deaths have come from domestic extremists. An ADL report states that of the forty-five police officers killed by extremists since 2001, ten were killed by left-wing U.S. extremists, thirty-four by right-wing U.S. extremists, and one by domestic Islamic extremists.

As far as Trump’s proposed travel ban goes, there has not been one single terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the last four decades that has been carried out by citizens of any the seven countries on Trump’s ban list. Out of the 240,000 Americans who have been murdered since the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, exactly 123 of those deaths were linked to Muslim-American extremists. In other words, .05123 percent of the murders in the United States in a sixteen year period were carried out in the name of radical Islam. Even figures from the right-wing National Review only list 88 deaths in the U.S. from radical Islamic terrorists since 2009.

Yet at the same time that Trump is citing the danger from radical Islamic terrorists, reports have surfaced that he plans to shut down Homeland Security’s watch list for domestic extremists. Not only that, but bowing to the NRA, he decided to void an Executive Order by former President Obama that would have put people declared to be mentally incompetent by a court on a do-not-buy list for firearms. The NRA argued that mentally incompetent people should have the same right to firearms as anyone else.

And we’re worrying about Islamic terrorists?

Education and the Business Model

More and more state legislators across the country are demanding that education be run in a more business-like fashion. While greater efficiency is likely necessary in many educational systems, running higher education “like a business” is not only counter-productive, but it’s more likely to create more problems than it purports to solve – and business-like approaches so far haven’t shown much success at the university level.

One of the tools employed by both business and educational systems run by the “business model” is to reduce costs by reducing the number of employees and their compensation in relation to “output.” In the business area, this has given us outsourced manufacturing or high-tech automated manufacturing or, on the other hand, in retailing, lots and lots of underpaid, part-time employees without benefits. In education, a similar change is occurring, particularly in higher education, where university faculties have shifted from those primarily comprised of full-time dedicated professors to faculties where the majority of teaching faculty are part-time adjuncts, many of them far less qualified or experienced than seasoned full-time faculty. At the same time, administrations spouting the “business model” mantra have burgeoned.

At virtually all public universities, administrative overhead and full-time administrative positions have increased two to threefold over the past twenty plus years, while full-time faculty positions have decreased, except in the case of some smaller state universities that have expanded massively so that full-time positions have increased somewhat, even though the percentage of full-time positions has decreased to the same level as at other state universities, if not more.

The chief reason for this emphasis on part-time teaching positions is cost. As I’ve noted before, fifty years ago, on average, state legislatures supplied the bulk of higher education funding. In 1974, states provided 78% of the cost of educating a student. Today, although total funding is actually higher, because almost four times as many students attend college today, the amount of state funding per student averages around 20%, although it varies widely by state, and in some cases it is around 10%.

For example, almost until 1970, California residents could attend the University of California [Berkeley] tuition-free. Today, tuition and fees for in-state students are around $15,000 a year. This trend, if anything, is accelerating. Just since 2008, state funding of higher education has dropped by 20% per student

The response by legislatures, predictably, is to push for more efficiency. Unhappily that has translated into “get lower costs however you can.” The problem with this is that the emphasis, no matter what administrators say, is to turn out the most graduates at the lowest cost. Universities also tend to phase out departments with small numbers or high costs, and expand departments with large numbers and low costs, even if students that major in that area have difficulty getting jobs.

In addition, political pressure, both to “keep” students in school for budgetary reasons and to graduate a higher percentage of students, has inexorably decreased the academic rigor of the majority of publicly funded universities and colleges. This, in turn, has led to more and more businesses and other employers demanding graduate degrees or other additional qualifications, which further increases the tuition and debt burden on students. That’s scarcely “economic” on a societal basis because it pressures students to aim for high income professions or high income specialties in a profession, rather than for what they’re good at doing and what they love. It’s also created an emphasis on paper credentials, rather than the ability to do a job. On top of that, it’s meant more highly qualified individuals are avoiding professions such as teaching, library science, music, art, government civil service, and others; and those professions, especially teaching, are being filled by a greater percentage of less highly qualified individuals.

The end result of the combination of stingy state legislatures and the “business model” is less rigorous academic standards and watered down curricula at the majority of public colleges and universities, skyrocketing student debt, a smaller and smaller percentage of highly qualified, excellent, and dedicated full-time professors, and a plethora of overpaid administrators, the majority of whom heap even more administrative requirements on full-time teaching faculty.

No efficient business actually operates this way, and why higher education gets away with calling what it’s doing “the business model” has baffled me for more than two decades.

Economics, Politics, Business, and Regulation

To begin with, economics and business are not the same, although they share much of the same terminology, because the economics of business center on business, while the study of economics, at least in theory, encompasses all of society, and just not business, even though some business types have trouble comprehending that a nation’s economy consists of more than business, or more than government and business.

And no matter what they claim, most business people really don’t understand economics, or choose not to. Likewise, very few economists really understand business. Politicians, for the most part, understand neither, and most Americans understand even less than the politicians. This is, I submit, one of the fundamental problems facing the U.S. today.

Let’s just look at why in terms of fundamentals. Supposedly, the basis of economics and business rests on the interaction of supply and demand. In general terms, “supply” means the amount of a good sellers are willing to provide at a given price. Demand is what buyers will purchase at a given price. In a relatively free market [there are no totally free markets, and never can be, a point too many business types fail to acknowledge publicly], the going price of a good or service is set when supply and demand meet. If there is greater demand or a lesser supply, usually prices rise. If demand falls, or supply increases significantly, prices usually fall, again in a relatively free economy.

Of course, no economy is completely free because to have a working economy requires a working society, and human beings have yet to create a working society without government, and government, for various reasons, always imposes restrictions on the market. Some of those restrictions, given human nature, are necessary. Why? Because of the intersection of the way business operates and human nature.

As some have pointed out, the price of a good or service is not necessarily its cost plus remuneration to the supplier, but over time, price has to consist, at the least, of the amount necessary to cover costs of production plus enough above that to keep the supplier or business going. But the devil is in the details, and one of those details is how one defines “costs of production.”

There are all sorts of costs – fixed costs, marginal costs, operating costs, external diseconomies [otherwise known as negative externalities], etc. The cost that matters most to a business is whatever costs the business is required to pay by both the demands of the marketplace (i.e., supply and demand) and the government. If a business has to pay taxes, that’s a cost imposed by government. So are wage, benefit, safety, and environmental standards.

So… by what right, in a supposedly free market economy, is government imposing those costs on business?

The reason for government action is because: (1) the marketplace doesn’t include all the costs of production and (2) a totally “free” marketplace creates wage levels and working conditions virtually all western governments have declared unacceptable, and, therefore, governments have set minimum standards for wages, safety, and worker health conditions.

In addition, some of those government taxes provide for the highways and airways on which business goods are transported, for the national defense which protects business and everyone else from enemies from coming in and seizing businesses and properties and which allows U.S. businesses to conduct operations elsewhere in the world, for regulation and continuance of a stable banking system, for public safety, and so forth, all of which make the operation of businesses possible.

One of the reasons that, years ago, the Cuyahoga River next to the Republic steel mill in Cleveland caught fire was because the marketplace cost, and thus the price of a good, didn’t include costs passed on to others in society in the form of polluted air or water, and thus, any manufacturer who did restrict the emissions of pollutants incurred higher costs compared to producers who didn’t. Consequently, marketplace “discipline” effectively encouraged pollution, or at the very least, certainly didn’t discourage it. Costs inflicted on others are usually termed negative externalities [the older term is external diseconomies], but such terms tend to gloss over the fact that pollution and other degradation of the environment caused by manufacturing is not reflected in the cost of production unless government requires it.

So, when a manufacturer claims that environmental or worker safety regulations are stifling the economy, what that manufacturer really is saying is that he or she can’t compete with manufacturers in other countries that have fewer environmental regulations, and thus, often lower costs of production… and when that manufacturer demands less regulation, it is a demand to allow more pollution so that the manufacturer can make more money – or even stay in business.

Balancing economic output and worker and environmental health and safety is a trade-off. Although some regulations have been ill-thought-out, in general, stricter regulations result in a better environment for both workers and society, but if the rest of the world has lower levels, those U.S. industries competing in a global market will suffer higher costs, unless they have other cost advantages, such as better technology or far more productive workers. Because environmental control technology is expensive, most industries tend to oppose regulations requiring more technology.

In certain industries, workers, such as coal miners, often oppose environmental rules because those rules raise costs, and higher costs may result in the loss of their jobs. The question in such cases is whether continuing such jobs is worth the environmental and health damage, both to workers and to others. The Trump administration is working to remove an Obama administration rule that put stricter limits on how close to watercourses coal mining and chemical wastes could be placed, claiming that the rule will cost jobs, which it likely would to some degree. But the rule would also cut the number of coal and chemical industrial storage and waste disposal sites near rivers and streams in an effort to eliminate slurry and waste accidents such as the one along the Elk River in West Virginia in 2014 that fouled miles of streams and rivers, poisoned hundreds of people who drank the water unknowingly, and left more than 300,000 people without drinkable water for months.

History has shown, convincingly, for all who are willing to look at the facts, actual deaths, poisonings, and worse, that, without government regulations, a significant proportion, sometimes all, manufacturers in an industry will commit unspeakable wrongs in the search to maximize profit. Remember when the Ford Motor Company tried to cover up the faulty design of the gas tank in the Ford Pinto, deciding that it was cheaper to pay legal costs for deaths [which Ford estimated at $49 million] rather than produce a more expensive gas tank, which would have cost $113 million. Ford decided against the fix on a cost-benefit basis, then ended up paying out much more in legal settlements, in addition to a costly recall.

This kind of business cost-benefit analysis continues today, and that’s why the “business model” can’t be allowed without oversight and regulation. The question is not whether to regulate or not to regulate, but how much regulation is appropriate in what circumstances. Or put another way, is your business more important than my health? Except that business owners would say, an increase in regulations will kill my business and probably won’t measurably improve your health. Both are likely exaggerating, and that’s why verifiable science and facts – scientific, financial, and economic – are critical, and why political slogans and political pressure brought by outside interests have no place in determining whether a regulation is necessary, and if so, the degree of regulation required.

Bookstore Idiocy

Last weekend, I attended a fantasy and science fiction literary symposium in northern Utah, called LTUE (or, after a noteworthy writer, Life, The Universe, and Everything). As more of a literary symposium than a standard convention, LTUE attracts a great number of writers and editors, and an even greater number of would-be or beginning F&SF writers. Over the years, the guests of honor have included best-selling authors, F&SF publishers, and noted editors in the field (and, yes, I’ve been a GOH twice).

One of the highlight events of LTUE is a “mass signing” of all attending authors on Friday night, and this is facilitated by a book-selling site in the same enormous room as the mass signing, which means that those who are attending can run over and buy a book for an author to sign if they attended panels or discussions and realized that they really wanted to try an author’s work.

For over twenty years, the Barnes & Noble in Orem operated this on-site temporary book-selling venue, and, from what I’ve observed in the years I’ve attended, they seemed to do very well indeed. I know that my books have always sold moderately well at LTUE, and often the works of bigger name authors sold in the hundreds of copies over three days.

This year, however, the B&N store was unable to continue this activity, not because it didn’t sell books and make money, but because B&N recently adopted a chain-wide policy that banned “satellite events.”

To me, such a blanket policy makes no sense. I could understand a policy that declared that satellite events must cover their costs or come close, but a blanket ban? This reeks of accounting bean-counting. The business of a bookstore is, at least ostensibly, to sell books. If LTUE gets readers to try reading authors new to them, at least a proportion of those readers will buy more books by those authors. This increases sales, and since B&N is the only large set of bookstores in Utah, at least some of those sales will come from B&N. What’s not to like about making a bit of money at the symposium and increasing overall sales?

Tom Doherty, the publisher of Tor, came up through the sales ranks, and he’s told me more than a few times about the role the small mall stores – Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, now both defunct – played in developing readers, because they were convenient places for people to pick up books, not destination stores like the current B&N megastores, or the vanished Borders stores. Now, most of those convenient places are gone, whether it’s the vanished rack in the drugstore, the small mall bookstore, or the like, and those bookselling venues that are left are stocked by computer on based on national sales that often have little to do with the community where the sales outlet is located. Along that line, the ability of B&N store managers to customize their inventory has been reduced, if not eliminated.

I know B&N is having financial problems, but focusing on almost mindless cost-cutting when the effect of cost-cutting is to reduce sales is counter-productive. Success is measured by increasing sales in a cost-effective manner, not by cutting costs and doing less. You don’t turn around a financial down-turn just by cutting costs; you also have to increase sales, and doing things like a blanket ban on satellite events cuts down on sales. It also leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the symposium regulars and organizers, as far as B&N is concerned – and those people are all heavy readers. Does this really make sense, economically or in PR terms?

By the way, a small book vendor did step up at the last moment and set up an on-site book store, and she certainly sold a number of my books, as well as those of quite a few other authors.

Political Appeal and Innumeracy

U.S. federal spending in 2016 was roughly $4 trillion, and revenues were slightly over $3.4 trillion, leaving a deficit of around $600 billion. Out of total spending, $2.6 trillion was mandatory spending on programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Spending on these programs cannot be cut without major changes in federal law, and since 77% of all Americans oppose such cuts, it’s highly unlikely that major cuts will occur any time soon. Then add to that some $260 billion in mandatory payments on the federal debt, and essentially 72% of federal spending cannot be effectively cut, at least at present. That leaves $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending, that is, spending that can be increased or decreased by Congress.

Unhappily, the vast majority of Americans have no real understanding of even these basic numbers, especially Fox News viewers, 49% of whom declared in a recent poll that cutting “waste and fraud” would eliminate “the national debt” [which now stands at $14.4 trillion]. A number of polls over the year have shown that most Americans believe that 25% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid [it’s less than one percent], and that five percent of all federal spending goes to PBS and NPR [in fact, roughly a tenth of one percent does].

The real numbers are more daunting. The largest component of discretionary spending is defense, and while the DOD “official” budget is slightly under $600 billion, various contingency funds and defense activities funded in other forms and by other agencies [for example, the Coast Guard is funded by the Treasury Department], brought the total annual cost of U.S. defense much higher, as high as $900 billion, according to some sources, but even assuming $600 billion for defense, that leaves $500 billion for everything else, including agriculture, energy, education, transportation, federal lands management, national parks, environmental protection, veterans benefits, welfare payments, and a whole lot more.

Trump’s proposed tax cut would reduce federal revenues by $500 billion, according to the Tax Foundation, on top of that $600 billion deficit, so even if he could persuade Congress to cut non-defense discretionary spending by 50% — in essence gutting most federal agencies, the deficit would increase to nearly $900 billion, and that doesn’t count the additional spending he’s proposed for infrastructure spending – which initial estimates suggest range from $500 billion to over a trillion dollars, over ten years, or $50 billion to $100 billion a year.

Proponents of the Trump plans claim that all the new investment and jobs will increase tax revenues, and some probably will, but not anywhere close to enough to deal with the federal deficit that increases the national debt – and the interest that must be paid on it – each year.

Based on a 2014 study by Standard & Poor’s, if Congress were to pass a $50 billion a year infrastructure bill, that legislation would create an additional 1.1 million jobs. Construction workers make an average of around $35,000 a year, and, under the best estimate of the Trump tax plan, those million workers would pay around $4,000 in federal income taxes each, thus adding up to an additional $4.5 billion. Economists like to point to the multiplier effect, i.e., how many additional jobs are created by one new job. According to the IMF, under present conditions, the multiplier effect is hovering around one, one additional job created somewhere in the economy for each new job created by investment. So… fifty billion dollars of infrastructure investment might create somewhere over two million jobs and possibly add $10 billion in tax revenues while costing $50 billion. Even if the multiplier effect is five times as much as the IMF says, the infrastructure proposal is at best a break-even proposition, and, as such, might be a good idea. BUT… it won’t do much for reducing the current deficit, let alone the increase in the deficit that will be occurring as a result of more federal spending on defense, and the likely coming increase in interest rates.

The other bottleneck in increasing jobs is the mismatch between available workers and the available jobs. According to research from human resources consultancy Randstad Sourceright, a survey of more than 400 U.S. executives found a skills gap impacting their businesses. Four-fifths of those executives said that a shortage of sufficiently skilled workers will affect their companies in the next 12 months. Complaints of hard-to-fill factory jobs are backed up by Bureau of Labor Statistics data: 324,000 manufacturing spots were open in November, up from 238,000 a year earlier.

Another problem that the Trump approach doesn’t address is that jobs creation isn’t equal. Right now, employees of high-tech companies receive almost 12% of all employee compensation, but there are only seven million of them and the average salary is close to $105,000, more than double the salary of the average industrial or manufacturing employee, or triple that of a construction worker. In addition, the tech industries are only adding about 200,000 employees a year. That doesn’t do much for the nearly 15 million unemployed or underemployed Americans, or the roughly three million college graduates each year. The largest numbers of jobs are in the lower paid service industries, and all the investment money putatively freed up by the tax cuts will be going to tech-heavy companies, and those jobs comprise less than 5% of total U.S. employment.

Massive tax cuts, more defense spending, a major infrastructure initiative… all to be paid for by new jobs and cuts in such federal programs as PBS, NPR, the Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, foreign aid, and the like? The numbers don’t add up, even if the political appeal does, perhaps because most Americans don’t seem to understand the numbers, or care to.