Archive for the ‘General’ Category

“Enemy of the People”

Now that Trump has called at least some members of the media “the enemy of the people,” it’s apparently time for another refresher course in history, especially since far too many Americans have a tendency to ignore history. That tendency, unhappily, is not new either. The great Henry Ford has been quoted as saying, “History is bunk.”

History may not repeat itself exactly. It may not, at times, even rhyme, as Mark Twain put it, but history does offer lessons, and one of those lessons is that any attempt to muzzle the press, or the media, is the mark of an incipient tyrant. Such efforts are not new even in the history of the United States. When John Adams was president, the Alien and Sedition Acts were employed to punish writers and presses that criticized the Adams Administration. One Congressman wrote and published an article decrying the “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” of the administration, and was punished by a hefty fine and four months in jail. And he was far from the only one prosecuted for criticizing the government.

In the end, of course, Adams’s use of the acts was one of the factors that led to his defeat in the next election by Thomas Jefferson and the repeal of most of the acts.

Regardless of how aggressive or even scurrilous the media attacks on the President may be, history shows that political leaders who try to curb the media critical of them all too often do so as the first step toward aggrandizing themselves or even as the first step toward using government to destroy the ability of their opponents to speak so that such political leaders can obtain greater and continuing power.

Trump has every right to complain about how the press treats him, whether such treatment is accurate and fair or whether it is not. But under the First Amendment, even the President does not have the right to censor his critics, nor should he be equating criticism against him to being an enemy of the people.

Besides which, there is the very real question of “the enemy of which people?”

Trump is essentially claiming that anyone who doesn’t agree with him is an enemy of the people. Not only is that a highly polarizing view, but those of us who don’t agree with many, if not most, of his policies, are not enemies. We’re citizens as well, and citizenship brings with it the right to criticize.

Let Trump defend his policies on their merits, but not by personal attacks on those who oppose him. That’s just using the power of the presidency to bully others, and it also directs attention away from the policies themselves.

But, that too, is a well-known historical tactic of dictators and demagogues, a tactic forgotten or ignored, because too many people think history doesn’t teach anything… or don’t believe it, which may be why 43% of all Republicans believe that the President should have the authority to shut down “misbehaving” media outlets.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when nearly half of a major political party believes in censorship by the President, to me, that’s frightening.

Science in S.F.

For some time, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that some readers who proclaim their love of science fiction don’t really love science or SF that actually relies on science. What they love are the gadgets, the faster-than-light travel, the blasters or lasers, the AIs that think like people and not like artificial intelligences. And many of these people seem to get upset if science gets more than a passing mention.

Now… I know. I’m the one who has, for years, railed about writers who don’t write about people, or whose characters are cardboard propped up by in-depth and very realistic science that goes on for too many pages. And I’ve called that segment of the genre technoporn.

But there should be a middle ground [yes… I’m once more advocating for middle ground and moderation in a society that is ever more polarized] where science is a real and tangible part of the fiction, but enables or restricts the acts of the characters in the fashion that it does in “real life.”

When I wrote Solar Express, I knew that there would be a segment of readers who didn’t like the fact that the two main characters communicate through what is essentially a future form of email. And some readers did object, not as many as I feared, but I wasn’t restricting my characters artificially, or because I was being old-fashioned, but because even speed of light communications don’t work in real time much beyond the orbit of the moon because of the time delay. The Earth is roughly eight light-minutes from the sun, and that means a 16 minute delay between sending a message and getting a reply. I also limited the technology to what we know is theoretically possible… and potentially affordable.

But I’m seeing a growing number of readers who aren’t interested in the slightest in science, and who object if even a hint of real science lasts more than a sentence.
Some readers will likely say that’s fine if the book is set in a future where the plot doesn’t rely on science, but unless we’re talking post-apocalyptic societies with lower technologies, the science should at least be semi-realistic. And, if the writer is dealing with a plot relying heavily on science and technology, some of that needs to leak out in passing, enough so that the “science” isn’t just another form of “hand-wavium.”

Science has great possibilities for speculative fiction, but real science also has considerable limitations… and high-tech science is incredibly expensive. The Navy attempted to come up with a truly futuristic warship in the U.S.S. Zumwalt, but the advanced guns required ammunition that cost almost a million dollars for each projectile. Just 2,000 rounds would have cost almost $2 billion.

So… death stars are really nifty, but no realistic empire could ever afford to build them, and most of the weapons wouldn’t work, and certainly not the way they’re depicted. All of which just may be why there are fewer and fewer authors who even attempt realistic SF, and why so much of what passes as hard SF is really science fantasy, but which very few readers or writers want to admit.

Awards, Panels, and Diversity

For those who are fortunate enough to have missed the latest kerfuffle involving the World Science Fiction Convention, this year, when a preliminary program was posted, there was an uproar.

Why?

Because, from what I can gather: (1) a number of authors who had been nominated for World Science Fiction Awards (the Hugos) were not even on the program; (2) at least one individual whose gender remains a mystery to me and who had been listed on the program was greatly offended because some convention volunteer had changed that individual’s gender to masculine; (3) too many white straight males and a few too many straight white females were on the program and apparently too few people of various colors and genders were not [I’m writing this on what was reported, because the first program was taken down before I ever saw it.].

Several years ago, there was a movement at WorldCon by the “Sad Puppies” to try to outvote “the regulars” because the Sad Puppies felt that the regular attendees were pandering far too much to diversity in nominating writers for awards and that “diversity criteria” outweighed story content and quality. This year, it appears, that the diversity crowd was outraged because they felt marginalized.

In short, it seems that in nominating writers for awards, and granting recognition in terms of being on the program, some group is always outraged. I’d be among the first to say that no individual or group should be excluded or marginalized because of color, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation or lack thereof, or choice of topic. By the same token, no one should be included just because of those characteristics. The focus should be on what is written, not who wrote it… or who didn’t.

Years ago, Betty Ballantine, the co-founder of Ballantine Books, was reputed to have said that there was more than one kind of award, and that one award that was so often overlooked was how many people actually read a book. Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, has offered similar words.

The Hugos are represented as acclaiming the best F&SF published the previous year. They don’t exactly do that. They represent the judgement of those WorldCon attendees who choose to vote as to what is the “best.” Nominations require that the nominator be a member of either the current WorldCon or the previous WorldCon, but only those who have purchased a membership for the current year can vote to choose which of the top nominees will win.

The number of WorldCon memberships can vary greatly from year to year, from as low as perhaps 3,500 to the 10,000 range [which is rare], and the winners rack up only a few thousand votes.

Now… consider the size of the F&SF readership market. Last year, in the U.S. alone, over twelve million F&SF books were sold, and major publishers and well-established independent presses issued roughly 2,000 different titles. There’s no truly accurate way to establish how many self-published titles were issued, but I think it’s unlikely that, at most, more than a few thousand titles sold more than a thousand copies, but that’s still at least another million or more books sold. The website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has more than 43,000 followers, and I know literally at least a score of writers I strongly suspect have sold more than 100,000 copies of one or more novels. All of the Harry Potter books sold at least in the tens of millions. Since it’s unlikely that most of the buyers bought more than one copy, this suggests to me that there’s a very active U.S. F&SF readership that well exceeds 100,000 and by quite possibly quite a bit more.

All of that means that, while getting a Hugo gets an author certain bragging rights, it doesn’t mean that other books may not be better. It just means that a majority of the few thousand attendees thought the Hugo winner was better than the other nominees. Even professional editors in the field and critical literary magazines disagree over what’s “best.” I know of quite a few F&SF books cited by Kirkus Reviews as “best books” of the year that didn’t even make the Hugo nominees listing.

So… who gets chosen for Hugo awards and representation on panels is still a very subjective matter, depending on where the convention is held and, frankly, to some degree, what writers, topics, and treatments are the “flavor of the year” and what are not… all of which tends to get overlooked in the on-going hullabaloo.

In the end, time will sort out what books endure as good or great, and which are not… at least mostly, because, upon occasion, even time is unfair… and that’s something all of us, writers and readers, should remember.

More of the Same

From what I can see politically, the hard-core Republicans who largely control the Republican Party are more and more worried about the increasingly liberal Democratic Party, and, as a result, are nominating more and more ultra-conservatives, looking for ultra-conservative judges, and doing their best to disenfranchise voters whose districts or ethnicities suggest they might be more liberal. These trends are the result of fears that the “white” and business-oriented culture will be marginalized, and even “socialized” if the Democrats gain power.

In turn, among the Democratic Party, there is a growing liberal groundswell, fueled by a growing hatred of ultra-conservative and discriminatory Republican policies and attitudes, and by a long and barely suppressed anger at Republican tactics they see as oppressive and discriminatory toward minorities and the poor, and benefitting only a tiny percentage of the American people, the richest one tenth of one percent. As a result, more moderate Democrat politicians are being defeated in primaries or being pushed out.

The result of these trends continuing can only be increasing polarization of the U.S. political system. For the first time in a century, and possibly much longer, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Democrats and Republicans claiming to have a “very unfavorable” view of the other party have now reached nearly 60%, and 45 percent of Republicans say that Democratic policies threaten the nation, while 41 percent of Democrats think the same of Republican policies.

A Rasmussen poll claims that nearly half the population thinks that a civil war is likely in the years ahead.

Why?

I’d submit that the answer lies in the very human tendency to double-down on cherished beliefs when one is fearful or feels threatened. And right now, lots of Americans feel threatened because, due to rapid changes in technology and economics, we live in a very uncertain time. Less educated white males have seen their economic status and future possibilities dwindle. Minorities and ethnic groups chafe under what they perceive as continued economic and political discrimination, and that feeling is reinforced by Republican efforts to make it even harder for them to vote. The Me Too Movement has pointed out gross gender discrimination, especially by white males, as well as continued underpayment of women in the same positions as men. Industrial automation has cost the nation millions of higher-paid semi-skilled jobs, replacing them with high tech equipment operated by far fewer higher-skilled employees. More education is needed for almost every decent paying job, but the cost of that education has skyrocketed while middle and working class incomes have stagnated. Even the weather is getting more uncertain.

These are just the leading causes of uncertainty, and far from a comprehensive listing, but the political result is that people cling more desperately to core beliefs, even when doing so is only going to make matters worse. Higher technology and climate change aren’t going away. Neither is a global economy. Nor are the concerns of people who’ve been discriminated on account of race, color, creed, or gender. And doubling down on either “business is the only answer” or “more government is the only answer” or “less government is the only answer” or any number of simplistic slogans is only going to make matters worse.

But for all that, simplistic slogans and beliefs continue to prevail, trumpeted by no less than the President.

Free Press… or Fake News?

After CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins persisted in asking President Trump questions he didn’t want to answer, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications chief Bill Shine told Collins she could not attend the Rose Garden event with the European Commission president which was open to all other members of the credentialed media, because Collins’ previous questions were “inappropriate.”

Presidents often don’t like the questions posed by reporters, and they can certainly chose not to answer, but for Trump or his staff to single out one reporter because the President didn’t like the questions is a rather chilling precedent.

During the Obama Administration, conservatives were upset, rightly so, because that administration investigated reporter James Rosen for apparently reporting on leaked material from the State Department. But Rosen wasn’t banned from covering the White House.

The fact that the Trump White House clearly went too far in banning Collins from the Rose Garden was illustrated by the fact that not only were “liberal” media outlets outraged, but so were conservative outlets such as Fox News

The President spends an immense amount of time and Twitter complaining about “fake news,” yet he not only refuses to answer questions on current news, but he bans the reporter who asks them? This is behavior more like third-world dictatorships or Putin’s Russia.

So… is Trump going to ban every reporter for pushing “fake news” if they ask him embarrassing questions that bear on ongoing investigations? Or other matters we should know about?

Just Google It…

How many times have you heard that phrase or something similar… or used your mouse, thumbs, or fingers – or Siri – to look up something you likely should have known… just to make sure… or because it was easier.

That’s fine for simple facts, or even simple numbers, but in most occupations there are methods, systems,techniques… and facts… that a professional in that field needs to know cold – absolutely cold, without having to look them up.

A number of years ago, my wife almost died while emergency room physicians were looking for causes of her incredibly painful symptoms and trying to figure out what was wrong. She was extraordinarily fortunate. The senior surgeon on call arrived and took less than a minute to diagnose that she had a ruptured colon and that she was in septic shock. Even so, it took three major operations and eleven months before she fully recovered. If we’d had to rely on people looking up things, I’d be a widower today.

I was once a Navy pilot. You have to know instinctively a wide range of emergency procedures when something goes wrong. You don’t have time to look them up.

Now, in other professions, it’s not necessarily a matter of life and death, but a matter of time…. Or perhaps keeping your job. Professional singers, especially musical theatre and opera singles, who do live concerts have to learn the music. You can’t carry a score around and sing from it.

One of the things I learned early on as an industrial economist is that there are numbers… and what those numbers mean, really mean. Later on, when I was doing environmental consulting, and looking at epidemiology exposure studies, in one case where I was hired, most of the studies only used either arithmetic or geometric means to represent the exposures. No one seemed to look at the frequency distribution of exposure levels – and they showed a very different picture, essentially that exposures above a certain level had very adverse health effects, and that below that level the effects weren’t discernable, but because the numbers of workers in the plant who were exposed to high levels were very small, and the numbers with low or minimal exposure were far larger, using any kind of mean effectively showed that the health risk was acceptably low. Yet there was no mention of this in any of the data. Everyone was arguing over setting the level of “mean exposure.”

The danger I see today with students is that a great many of them have an attitude of “why do I have to learn that when I can just look it up.”

The problem with that attitude is that, in any professional field, there is information that professionals need to know on an on-going and instant basis to do their job and before they can learn more in order to do their job better.

And “Googling it” just doesn’t cut it.

Entertainment Bias

The other day I came across a magazine ad with the heading of “Attraction Is Only Natural,” a picture below, and the following language:

“The [XXXX] instantly draws you in. And with the instant access to information and entertainment via the intuitive Touch Pro Duo dual touchscreen infotainment system and state- of-the-art sound provided by audio experts Meridian, every journey becomes an immersive, first-class travel experience. You’ll find your preference for the new [XXXXX] is only natural.”

I’m not cherry-picking the text. This was the only text accompanying the graphics, except for the product name, which was Range Rover. The Range Rover may be a luxury SUV, but it’s still a vehicle whose ostensible purpose is transportation, not entertainment.

By the same token, the ostensible purpose of cell-phones is communication, but virtually every new bell and whistle on them seems to focus on entertainment.

Likewise, media news programs focus on entertainment and outrage [which is another form of entertainment]. These days, teachers, especially college professors, are urged to “keep student interest,” which is effectively code for “keep them entertained, no matter if it requires dumbing the curriculum down.”

And this focus on entertainment has a far higher cost that most people really want to acknowledge. For example, over the last decade, texting and walking has caused over 11,000 injuries and deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA figures also show that, every day, nine people are killed and 1,000 are injured by distracted drivers, most of whom are texting or using in-car entertainment devices.

Another lesser cost, but one that is still considerable, is the use of business computers to play games or to access Facebook and other social media. That just might be another reason why businesses are trying to automate more jobs.

And certainly, the news media’s emphasis on entertainment value may have helped their bottom line, but it’s definitely not helped our political situation or public understanding.

Entertainment has its place, but not in everything. Not if we want to survive as an educated, productive, and self-governing nation.

Distrusting The Media

Trump has now declared that “Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people…” In short, any media story or outlet that criticizes him or the actions of his administration is an “enemy of the people.”

Trump is far from the first sitting president to be savaged by the media. Thomas Jefferson loathed newspapers, and he observed that the mass of people “have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.” At the same time he fervently believed in a free press, stating that: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Benjamin Franklin stated, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech.”

On the other side of the coin, in 1914 the German author Reinhold Anton coined the term “Lugenpresse” [lying press] to refer to enemy propaganda. Twenty years later Adolph Hitler resurrected the term in his attacks on the press. Hitler also stated, “It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”

Trump has taken, whether inadvertently or deliberately, the propaganda strategy adopted by Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. As Goebbels stated, “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Goebbels also said, “…the rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious.” In addition, he pointed out, “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

In something like two years Trump has raised the public distrust of the press to a level where, depending on the poll, between forty and seventy percent of Americans distrust the news media.

Last month, a poll from Axios found that seventy-two percent of Americans believe “traditional major news sources report news they know to be fake, false, or purposely misleading.”

A Gallup poll released this week found that 44% of the national sample polled found the news inaccurate and 62% stated that it was biased. Interestingly enough, the poll also found that just 48% of Republicans say they use fact-checking websites when they encounter information they suspect is false, compared with 72% of both independents and Democrats.

So… is this just a phase, or does Trump intend to destroy faith in the news media or his own ends? And do most Americans really care?

The Misuse of Labels

Americans, and perhaps all societies, have a tendency to label whatever they believe in and support in positive terms and apply negatives to their opponents and opposing views.

This shows up especially in political terms, where catchy and short phrases are necessary to make an impact. So that part of the woman’s movement in favor of a woman’s right to obtain an abortion refers to itself as “Pro-Choice” and their opponents as “Anti-Choice,” while those opposing the right to an abortion label themselves as “Pro-Life” and their opponents as murdering unborn children.

Those opposing immigration characterize illegal immigrants a criminals, rapists, and other unfavorable terms, while those in favor of more open immigration tend to characterize such immigrants as refugees and victims of oppression and violence.

Conservatives who oppose federal land policies champion themselves as being in favor of states’ rights, as did slave-holding states before the Civil War, and characterize the federal government as being dictatorial and overbearing, and when they violate environmental laws and regulations by tearing up federal lands, not paying grazing fees, and using firearms to stand off BLM agents, they characterize their actions as freedom-fighting. Those in favor of more environmental and land controls characterize their opponents as criminals and terrorists.

Those in favor of massive tax cuts for the rich and for large corporations claim they’re fighting for economic growth, economic freedom, and against excessive government that rewards the undeserving, while those opposing such tax cuts claim they’re fighting for economic and social justice and against special privileges for the rich.

There are similar arguments for and against more military spending, minority rights and the role of police, the issues of free trade and tariffs, and a host of other issues, but all of these issues are far more complex than the sound-bites and rhetoric make them out to be. The even larger problem and the result of such definitional oversimplification is not only a mischaracterization on both sides, but also a hardening of views and positions that makes working out a mutually acceptable [not ideal, but mutually acceptable] solution more and more difficult.

And the result is that each side, more and more, doesn’t want a compromise, but moral self-justification… which makes the partisans on each side even more self-justifying and less likely to reach a solution.

Changing Times

Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has risen almost 28%, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a rate almost 50% higher than the global average rate. The increase in the rate centers largely on middle-aged white Americans over 50 and among male teenagers 15-19. Although overall teenage suicide rates are still below the national average, they’ve doubled over the past ten years.

What both of these groups have in common is a growing mismatch between personal expectations and an increasingly bleak reality for Americans who do not have the skills to compete for jobs, as well as those who do not have the resources to obtain those skills. Suicide rates for middle aged Americans who do not have a college degree are now more than twice as high as for those who do.

Yet there persists in the United States the myth of the American dream, that anyone can work hard and pull themselves out of poverty. Current statistics show that today only three percent of individuals born in the bottom 20% of the population in income terms will rise to the top 20%. Studies by the Urban Institute and the US Treasury have both found that about half of the families who start in either the top or the bottom quintile of the income distribution are still there after a decade, and that only 3 to 6% rise from bottom to top or fall from top to bottom. The U.S. now has the lowest intergenerational income mobility of any developed country.

How did this happen? It happened because the myth of the American Dream worked, at least in a way, while the U.S. was still a nation with a frontier. Now that the frontier doesn’t exist, it’s much harder to get out of poverty without skills, and skills cost money. Other developed countries offer their poorest citizens more economic, social, healthcare, and educational support.

Because comparatively few poor Americans have access to those resources, and discover that things are not going to get better, more of them have a harder and harder time making ends meet, and, in the end more of them kill themselves.

Yet too many people in the U.S. cling to the myth that anyone can “make it” if they just work hard enough. It’s not true. What is true is that most people with a college education or high level technical skills can make it if they work really hard. The problem is that too many Americans don’t have access to that level of education and training, and, these days, many who do can only get such education by incurring incredible levels of debt.

The United States is no longer a frontier nation. We’re a developed nation, and we need to realize that in our social, business, and educational structures. If the unrest among minorities and the growing feminist stridency don’t get your attention, then perhaps the suicide numbers alone should tell us that.

A Trade War Backfire?

Recently, I’ve heard and seen a lot of negative commentary about how Trump’s stance on tariffs is going to backfire, both economically and politically, but most of that commentary isn’t looking at why Trump is doing what he’s doing.

In the most recent issue of New Scientist [odd, I know], a French economist makes a point that most commentators are overlooking — that most of the economic damage will impact geographic areas in the U.S. that are Democratic strongholds, while strengthening Trump’s political position among his supporters.

In addition, there’s the simple point that Trump knows that most of his supporters don’t know or don’t care about the complexities of economics and trade. One automobile analyst made the point that for every U.S. steel job saved, 16 “downstream” auto jobs could be lost. While those figures are likely worst-case, there isn’t much doubt that increased tariffs will cost the U.S. more jobs than they save, as well as push up the price of U.S. goods. The thought of Mexican tariffs on U.S. agricultural products has already panicked the farm sectors, and Chinese tariffs on soybeans have already impacted U.S. soybean producers negatively. According to U.S. aluminum fabricators, 97% of aluminum jobs in the U.S. depend on imported aluminum, and tariffs will cost U.S. fabricating jobs without offsetting gains in aluminum smelting. There’s already a long list of economic negatives to Trump’s tariffs, with more to come.

But these facts don’t matter to Trump’s base. For the most part, they firmly believe that foreigners are the cause of many of our problems, from immigration to off-shoring of U.S. jobs. The facts show otherwise, and in fact, more Mexican born immigrants are now returning to Mexico than there are new Mexican immigrants [legal and illegal] coming into the United States, but no one is paying much attention. Nor do they care that past trade policies have resulted in cheaper consumer goods for Americans.

These Trump supporters “know what they know,” and what they care about is that Trump is doing what he promised to do. And when it doesn’t work out, Trump will blame the Democrats, especially if they retake the House of Representatives, and Trump’s supporters will assuredly agree with him.

And, unfortunately, most Democrats and opponents of Trump don’t seem to have even considered the grass-roots political impact.

Another Double Standard?

Donald Trump can get away with cheating on his wife with a porn star, talking about “grabbing pussy,” and continually misrepresenting facts and changing his mind, and lying about it, and that’s just for starters… and his ratings among his Republican supporters are increasing. On the other hand, a single, and comparatively mild instance of a forced kiss and grope by Democrat Senator Al Franken forced his resignation and the end of his political career. These are the most glaring examples, but there are many more than a few others.

For the most part, although there are exceptions, at this point in history, Democrats seem to be less forgiving of sexual and ethical lapses by Democratic politicians than Republicans are of Republican politicians.

Is there a double standard?

That’s the wrong question to ask. The more accurate question is why Republicans tolerate, even ignore, behavior that has current Democrats cringing and defenestrating their own politicians after such behavior when their own politicians engage in it and furious when Republicans ignore such behavior by Republican officials.

It’s not a double standard. We’re talking about two different standards.

The values of Trump’s Republican base are anchored firmly in the 1950s, if not earlier, where men expect to be the single bread-winner, where women are subservient to men, where the rest of the world bows to U.S. wishes, where minorities know their place, where every man should have any gun he wants to possess, and where the business of government is business, with minimal government regulation and where untrammeled economic growth trumps the environment and civil rights, with the single later value is that deficit spending should only be used to reduce taxes, subsidize business, and increase U.S. military power.

The majority of Democrats don’t see it quite that way. They tend to believe that women should have control of their own bodies and that women and minorities should be paid equally with white men, that protecting the environment requires greater regulation on business, that the second amendment does allow certain regulations on the use of firearms, that national parks and federal lands shouldn’t be wide open for low-cost mining and extraction, that taxes are a price paid for a civilized society and that the most affluent should pay more of them in return for their affluence.

As a result of these differences, Republicans tend to minimize male misbehavior as “men being men” and to believe that women, minorities, and the poor only have to act like men to improve themselves, even while failing to recognize all the existing barriers to doing that, or the fact that minorities who act that way are considered rude and uppity, and assertive women are bitches. Study after study shows that identical resumes, articles, and work are more highly praised when a “white male” name is attached, and downgraded when a feminine or minority name is attached.

But no amount of logic is going to change values… or an outdated standard of belief that’s also at variance with the rest of the industrialized world. And unlike the 1950s, this time what the rest of the world believes will make a difference… and that difference will be costly to the U.S. in more ways than one, beginning with the oncoming trade war.

The USPS Mail Scam Game

A week ago, early in the morning, I mailed from the local Cedar City post office, not at an out of the way collection box, some routine paperwork to the accounting office at Macmillan, using first class mail. Yesterday, I got an email from the recipient saying that it had just arrived – six days from Cedar City to New York. It cost fifty cents. If I’d sent it by UPS next day it likely would have cost me close to forty dollars; two-day UPS would have been $26.

But historically, should a simple letter cost fifty cents? In 1958, sixty years ago, first class postage was three cents. If postage had increased only as much as the inflation rate, then first class mail should only cost twenty-six cents, roughly half what it does now.

We don’t get that much first class mail, and most of that consists of bills. What we do get is lots and lots of letters from non-profits asking for money, a number of periodicals to which we’ve subscribed, and over the course of a year, close to a ton of catalogues [and this is no exaggeration because weekly, I cart them to the local recycling bin], most of which comes from companies from which we’ve never ordered anything and never will.

From reading the Postal Service rate schedule and from researching direct mail costs, it appears that each of those one pound [or less] catalogues has a mailing cost of between eighty cents and a dollar fifty.

Theoretically, the Postal Services is supposed to allocate costs of providing services according to the base cost of each class of service under a “common charge” system. Except, in practice, it’s not done that way, and it hasn’t been done that way for at least forty years. How do I know? Because some forty-five years ago, I was a Congressional staffer working for a Congressman on the Appropriations Committee, and even back then the “common charges” were undertariffed and the postal rates for bulk mail, commercial mail [such as catalogues] were essentially based on the marginal costs… and Post Office officials testified that such pricing worked, and I could never get an answer that wasn’t trumped-up gobbledy-gook.

The same thing is happening today. The Postal Service recently entered into a contract with Amazon where the charges for delivering each package roughly average two dollars, half of what other large retailers pay. The lower charges to Amazon were based at least in part on the idea that serving Amazon costs less because Amazon’s shipping was so organized that the effort by the USPS was less.

The problem with this argument is that is doesn’t take into account the heavier load on the USPS infrastructure. It’s marginal cost pricing again, without enough revenue added to support the infrastructure. Charging Amazon on the basis of an accurate proportional common charge basis would add $1.50 on average to delivery changes, which would still be $.50 less per package than for other large retail shippers.

The same system also applies to catalogues. Now, the mail order retailers claim that any significant increase in their bulk advertising rate mail would be prohibitively expensive. I don’t buy it. It wasn’t true forty-five years ago, and it isn’t true now. When companies can afford to design, print, and send us literally tons of unread, unused catalogues year after year, with only minimal increases in their rates [in most years, it’s been 1-2 percent a year; this year was a “whopping” 5.9%], that claim rings rather hollow, but obviously the lobbying campaigns by retailers, manufacturers, and non-profit organizations outweigh any practicality.

Much as I think that there are worthwhile non-profits and charities out there, we’re also inundated by the tireless appeals of both the worthy and the not-so-worthy, sent at roughly a quarter of the cost of a first class letter, and most of those we’ve also never contributed to.

Is it any wonder that the Postal Service continues to lose money?

Logic?

Generally, the use of logical reasoning is a good thing. Every once in a while, intuition bests logic. Likewise, consistency is usually better than inconsistency. And, of course, continuing leaps of intuition coupled with total inconsistency is a formula for disaster… unless, heaven forbid, you’re a criminal trying not to get caught.

So why do so many people have difficulty recognizing that President Trump’s lack of logic and consistent inconsistency can only lead to more and more trouble, both nationally and internationally? He’s had so many different policies and statements on immigration, trade and tariffs, and civil rights, among others, that I’ve long since lost track.

And while support for his tax cuts is still strong, that’s only because most people have yet to figure out the consequences. Much of the federal tax cut will result in higher state income taxes, and professionals, well-off but not wealthy, in high-tax states, will see their taxes increase. Most of those who actually get a tax cut will find it modest at best, except for the very rich, who will get significant tax relief. Of course, very few people are considering that between the Federal Reserve and the tax cut, interest rates will continue to rise, and that means the new homeowners and those with adjustable rate mortgages will likely see their tax cut vanish into mortgage payments, if that tax cut hasn’t already been swallowed by higher state taxes or lower itemized deductions.

None of this seems to matter to most people, especially to Trump supporters, at least, according to recent polls, since a narrow majority of Americans now like the economic situation, but then most people liked the economic situation in early 1929, or 2007.

Nor does it seem to matter that recent actions by EPA and the Interior Department will worsen air quality in areas already suffering highly polluted air, and that such pollution will cause more deaths from respiratory failure.

What matters to most people is that they think they have a little more money, that the President “sees” their problems, that he’s going to reduce illegal immigration, and he’s going to use tariffs to put in their place those foreign nations that have used unfair trade terms to steal our jobs.

Logic says some of this isn’t even accurate, and that none of this will work out in the long run, and possibly not even in the comparatively near future – but logic has nothing to do with politics, which just might be why our politics are so screwed up.

Significance… Or Insignificance?

Significance? What is it? The leading dictionary definition is “importance” or “of meaning or consequence,” but the problem beyond that is how we as individuals, cultures, and societies define what is important, meaningful or consequential.

What is actually more important to the individual [and human society and culture] is the concept of insignificance, the realization that one may have no import, no meaning, and no consequence to others, to society, to the world or the universe. Study after study has shown that human beings are motivated far more by loss aversion than by hope of or desire for gain. We don’t like losing things, anything, especially a sense of self-worth.

That is why human beings will go to almost any lengths at times to avoid being insignificant or allowing themselves to consider that they are insignificant… and why individuals who believe themselves to be insignificant have a far higher rate of suicide and attempted suicide. It’s also likely why suicide rates are higher in societies with greater levels of income inequality, since people on the bottom not only perceive that their significance is less, but also see that their chances of increasing their significance are low.

Virtually every human society has a creation story or myth involving the creation of human beings by a greater power. Such myths convey a greater significance to the human race and to individuals, as does the concept of a personal god, than the actual possibility that we are merely a product of evolutionary development, and the sometimes violent reaction against the concept of evolution may well lie in the need for significance on both a personal and societal level.

In general, there are two ways to achieve comparatively greater personal significance, first by positive deeds, including accumulation of wealth, power, or knowledge or, second, by reducing the significance of others. Those who cannot achieve greater significance, or as much significance as they believe they deserve, in a positive way often attack anyone who they perceive is not granting them adequate respect – or significance.

Cultural signs of the fear of insignificance – and of the fear that others will attack one’s significance – are also everywhere. One current sign is the anger among certain minorities when someone disrespects, or “disses,” another. Authors get upset by bad reviews , especially those that minimize their work or talent. Negative tweets often generate violent reactions.

Politicians worried about their professional and personal significant take umbrage at negative news coverage, often attacking the media, or claiming that what is reported that is critical of them is “fake news” – especially when such reports are true, or largely so.

There’s an old saying about actions speaking louder than words, and it might not be a bad idea to consider how significant we – and those who lead us – might be by actions, or lack of action, rather than by all the words trumpeting greatness and impugning those who don’t agree.

Lessons from History?

Once upon a time, I was the staff director of a Congressman’s office. He was a Republican. At that time, the Democrats held an overwhelming majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. They also used that power in pushing through legislation to which the Republicans objected violently. Even when the Reagan Administration came to town, Republicans could do little to oppose the Democrats.

So the Republicans began to organize. They created initially small power bases, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee. Over time, other organizations soon followed, as did intensive grass-roots organizing in conservative areas nation-wide. Eventually, the Republicans gained and held a majority in the House and Senate, and just as the Democrats had once done, they began to abuse their power and to push through legislation violently opposed by the Democrats or to block legislation they opposed, even when polls showed that the majority of Americans supported such legislation.

Obviously, this is a pattern in American politics, but what concerns me is how, with each swing of the pendulum, the infighting and the partisanship become nastier and more violent; the attacks more personal; and the intransigence more entrenched.

The last time that political intensity in Congress may have been this intense occurred on May 22, 1856, over the issue of slavery when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate Chamber and physically attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts from behind with a metal-topped cane. Sumner was so badly injured that it took him years to recover. Certainly, the verbal intensity at present is higher, cruder, and more distorted than it has been in some time, and, combined with the political polarization of the two major parties, it doesn’t appear that there’s any sign of moderation on the horizon.

I’m old enough to have seen the swing of politics from one abusive majority to another abusive majority of a different party, but most Americans either haven’t lived long enough to see it, don’t care so long as “their” party prevails, or have no idea what I’m talking about.

History would suggest that this kind of situation, unless defused, will only get worse. The only question may be whether we’re looking at a repeat of 1968 or 1861.

Number Crunching…

More and more, business, government, and education rely on numbers, but from what I’m seeing, fewer and fewer decision-makers understand what lies behind the numbers or how the numbers are being used in ways that border lies, and all too often those in business or government who do understand the numbers are those with essentially few ethical restraints. This isn’t new. Mark Twain noted that, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Right now, there are two disparate trends in number crunching. The first is to use numbers to make everything more “efficient” and profitable, but this emphasis has two distinct problems. First, for the most part, efficiency and profitability are calculated on an ever-shorter time scale, and if something’s not profitable in terms of this year’s or next year’s budget, it tends to get slighted or eliminated, even if total profits/efficiency over time would be greater. Coupled with this tendency is the attitude on the part of decision-makers that can be expressed as: “How can you prove we’ll be better off in the future; today’s hard numbers show we’ll be better off now. Anything farther out is just speculation and guessing.”

In addition, there’s an ever-increasing tendency to use numbers to quantify the unquantifiable or to use data that’s seemingly relevant, but isn’t. More than a few studies have shown that frequent so-called performance reviews that require numerical quantification, to put it bluntly, don’t work. In higher education, the use of student evaluations has a negative correlation to evaluating the best professors, because the best professors require more of students, and, most student down-rate demanding professors. In addition, the wide-spread use of student evaluations has also led to grade inflation. Grade inflation has led to students who are unsuited to higher education staying in the system longer and usually incurring more student loan debt without being able to pay it off. And those are just a few of the problems with numerical quantification of human performance.

Paradoxically, the second discouraging trend in number crunching is the growing disregard for any numerical analysis that requires more spending now to preclude greater future outlays. The most obvious case is that of Social Security and Medicare. Congress and the last few presidents, including the present incumbent, all talk about the coming shortfall, but no one wants to do anything, yet the earlier steps are taken, the less the cost in any one year on any taxpayer. There’s a similar problem with federal deficit spending.

And, of course, there’s the global warming problem, which for all the rhetoric, isn’t going away, and won’t. And each year that meaningful remedial measures aren’t taken means greater future costs. No… in the next few hundred years, we won’t destroy the planet’s environment, but at the current rate of ice-cap melting, which is increasing faster every year than most scientists calculated, in some thirty years, the U.S. alone will have to replace, repair, and relocate millions of structures, highways, port facilities, and utility infrastructures, as well as build seawalls, and redesign and rebuilt harbors and ports — all just to keep places like New York City functional. Just one storm in New York already flooded the subways and cost hundreds of millions to repair. And that doesn’t include all the naval facilities in Norfolk, a good chunk of Florida, Sacramento and the interior bay area, and a great deal of other valuable real estate, not to mention millions of houses and businesses. What no one seems to want to recognize is that we’re facing a monumental construction, relocation, and remediation problem that will cost trillions of dollars just in the U.S.

Yet, at the moment, the U.S. is running a huge current account deficit; the interest on the national debt will soon exceed the defense budget; billions of dollars in student loans will be defaulted; our existing infrastructure is crumbling; and those are just for starters for U.S.-based problems.

Then add to that military problems and massive social unrest caused by tens of millions of refugees fleeing drought-and-flood-caused famines around the globe because of climate change – a fact that the notoriously conservative U.S. military has already raised as a growing problem.

Yet all the politicians are worried about keeping taxes low this year and for the foreseeable future, claiming that economic growth will take care of the deficit and all the other economic problems. Even the most optimistic economists don’t see any reductions in the deficits, and that’s with budgets that don’t address any of the major increasing costs. That means that we’re pushing off addressing all sorts of future problems, in large part because no one really wants to look at the numbers impartially… and especially not if it means taking on fiscal responsibility.

But don’t worry; the worst won’t occur, if we’re fortunate, until most of us are dead.

Don’t Tell Me…

One of the unspoken rules of the current Administration seems to be “Don’t tell me what I don’t want to know.” That’s especially true where science or impartial technical expertise is involved.

For the first time since 1941, there is no White House Presidential science advisor. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, gutted the EPA Science Advisory Board, and replaced the scientists with industry shills. Ryan Zinke, the Interior Secretary, has transferred and otherwise marginalized or replaced scientists. Agency after agency has changed guidance and policy to minimize the use of scientific data and studies.

Why? While there’s been a muted denial of these events and statements along the lines of “redressing the balance” and “ensuring that the views of industry are heard,” the bottom line is simple. Quite a few industry practices are damaging to the environment and to public health, and the science is unequivocal on these points. There is no science that says more ozone from auto emissions isn’t unhealthy, or that fine particulates don’t cause lung damage, or that current coal mining practices aren’t contributing to black lung disease, or that coal mining tailings ponds aren’t endangering community water supplies – just to name a few issues out of many more.

Economists who pointed out that the “tax cuts” would create far greater long-term economic and only a one-time short term economic boost have been ignored, as have those who’ve pointed out that increasing tariffs would lead to trade wars, higher costs of living, and more international tensions.

Mr. Trump’s continual attacks on the Mueller investigation are another aspect of the “don’t tell me” attitude that pervades the administration. When Mueller’s legal team is obtaining not only indictment after indictment, but also guilty plea after guilty plea, it’s pretty clear that it’s not a witch hunt with no substance. There’s also evidence to indicate that a number of people warned Trump about problems with Michael Flynn, and Trump ignored them because it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

Add to that the fact that he didn’t want to hear the irrefutable facts and pictures showing that his inauguration crowd was far less than he claimed or his continual denial of the facts showing that voting fraud by Americans is minuscule, especially compared to the significant evidence that the Russians attempted to influence the Presidential election. From all these examples, and quite a few others, it’s more than clear that this administration is ignoring anything and everything that doesn’t agree with its beliefs, and to a far greater extent than any previous administration, given how pervasive this willful ignorance has already become.

The real question is how long Trump and his supporters will be able to deny economic, scientific, legal, and other technical aspects of reality… and how much it will cost the rest of us to pick up the pieces and repair the damage… and how many people and organizations will be permanently injured by this cavalier mindset of denial.

Income Inequality?

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a great deal of talk about income inequality and also, to a lesser degree, about intergenerational mobility, that is, the changes in a family’s economic status between successive generations. What’s been surprising to some, and what many better-off Americans have trouble believing, is that the United States is no longer the leader in inter-generational family wealth/income upward mobility. A variety of studies over the last decade has shown that the United States had about one third the mobility of Denmark and less than half that of Canada, Finland and Norway. France, Germany, and Sweden also had higher mobility, with only the United Kingdom of this group being less mobile than the U.S. Less than four percent of Americans born to a family with income in the bottom fifth end up in top fifth.

Forty-two percent of U.S. children born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain in the bottom, while 39 percent born to parents in the top fifth remain at the top.

Studies of wealth and income inequality all find that education and parental income play a significant role in determining the income mobility of their children, but there’s one factor that’s all too often downplayed, and that’s the role of family. First of all, the relative stagnation of middle and lower class wages, the rising costs of living, and, frankly, rising expectations – have all made it more and more difficult for families, especially families with children, to live on a single income. Today, men’s earnings still constitute the majority of total family income, but their share has dropped from 75 percent of average family earnings to 61 percent. In other words, for most families, even holding the same income position as one’s parents, let alone obtaining upward family income mobility, requires a couple’s combined earnings. Two-partner families increase, on average and over time, their assets by 16% more a year than single parent families.

But those figures ignore another aspect of family – and that’s the support, financial and otherwise, that doesn’t show up on balance sheets or in statistics. When parents help a couple over a hard financial period, or a medical catastrophe, or even lend a car when one breaks down, these acts of support often prevent the total disintegration of a family’s well-being. Obviously, such support is easier to give and obtain in families with higher incomes, yet this kind of support is even more comparatively valuable for lower middle class and working class families

Unfortunately, as a result of a number of factors, including the fact that financial problems are the largest single cause or marriage break-ups, marriage rates have plummeted in the lower-income socio-economic groups, resulting in a comparatively larger number of single-parent families. While such families have always had a harder time economically and especially in providing the additional education for children that is necessary for their economic success, this change makes it even harder for families in such groups to improve the financial situation.

This is rapidly becoming a vicious circle, because economic inequality reduces marriage rates and educational opportunities for the poorest members of society, which in turn makes it ever harder for them to escape poverty, while improving the opportunities for wealthier families to remain prosperous, even when the efforts and abilities of their offspring may well be less than those of others lower on the economic totem pole.

And, unless we find a way to break this cycle, income inequality and the concomitant anger and resentment of the less-fortunate will continue to increase, and, with it, social unrest and violence.

Hatred and Arrogance

Humans are beings who can both think more deeply than other creatures [at least from what we now know] and feel, often intensely. While these dual capabilities provide certain advantages, they also create problems which we tend to ignore, and this willful ignorance, at which we’re also very good, often makes the problems of overthinking and overfeeling worse.

As I’ve mentioned before, all too many overthinkers believe that correct logic leads to good solutions, but that’s not necessarily true, especially if the premises or assumptions or “facts” are incomplete or incorrect, or if the logic is designed to change people’s feelings, because emotions aren’t easily swayed by logic.

On the other side, strong feelings, especially hatred, can easily turn otherwise intelligent people into stupid idiots. And when hatred is linked to a need to belong to a group, or extreme frustration, and especially to both, the results range from horrible to catastrophic. Riots are almost always the result of emotions overriding intelligence, and the results of riots benefit no one and simply reduce the resources available, and usually that means fewer resources are available to those who had too few to begin with.

This allows those with resources to point out how “stupid” the rioters were, because most riots have the greatest destruction in the areas serving the rioters and the most loss of life among the rioters, at least until the frustration and hated among the under-privileged results in a national revolution, which has happened more than a few times.

Those with resources, more often than not, are not blinded so much by hatred, but by arrogance, or by supreme self-confidence in their own righteousness and abilities, which allows them to rationalize the idea they’ve earned, all by themselves, everything that they have, and that those with less have less solely because they have less ability and less determination.

Each “side” feels the other to be unreasonable and spoiled, and those feelings exacerbate hatred.

And, unhappily, this growth of hatred and arrogance is what has led to where we now stand, which is on a course toward severe social upheaval, if not worse.