Archive for September, 2008

Why the Bailout Failed and What to Do About It

Long years ago, when I was first involved in politics, my mentor was a courtly political operative named, believe it or not, Robert Lee. Bob Lee had an impressive record of masterminding unlikely political success stories, but he understood the basics of practical politics better than anyone I ever knew. He provided two basic insights about politics, among others, that have stuck with me and seem particularly apropos to the current situation. The first was, “Don’t mistake money for results.” By that he meant that too many politicians and political operatives concentrated on fund-raising when the goal wasn’t to raise money, but to get more people to vote for your candidate. In the end, what counted was not how much money you raised, but how many votes you got. The second point was that to win any political race, “you have to give people something to vote for.”

The current bailout effort in Washington, D.C., failed Bob Lee’s tests on both counts. The question isn’t how much money you pour into the bailout effort, but how you get the people and their representatives to support it and vote for it, because without support, all the money isn’t going anywhere. The second point is even more important. The way the issue was formulated, it didn’t give anyone much to vote for, but it gave them a considerable number of things to vote against. The administration failed to make the point that our entire credit/banking system is at risk and why it is. Because it did not, those who opposed the bailout weren’t voting against a solution. They were voting against excessive executive compensation and Wall Street extravagance, against using tax dollars to bail out Wall Street at a time when Wall Street’s mistakes have pulled down the entire economy, against a finance system that requires poor or middle-class borrowers to pay escalating mortgage costs while rewarding financiers, against a system that is perceived as destroying American jobs while granting multimillion dollar bonuses to those behind that destruction, and against a system that rewards crooked financiers while underpaying teachers, police officers, firefighters, and hundreds of other vital and underpaid occupations.

If the current Congress and Administration really want to stop the crisis, they need to give people something to vote for, and a reason to support their “reform package.”

Here are a few suggestions. First, cap total executive compensation for any company being bailed out at a mere 100 times the pay of an average worker in the company[as opposed to the thousand plus multiple in some cases], and also make any compensation paid above that amount in any other company in the USA non-deductible for tax purposes. Second, not only continue the existing prohibition on naked short-selling [the principal contributing factor to a number of corporate failures], but require any brokerage firm which does so to be closed for violating the law and [in case future administrations decide to turn a blind eye, as has the present administration] make any violation a cause for civil recompense and quintuple damages. This will get the attorneys working for the public good instead of against it. Third, limit the amount of mortgage payment escalations in adjustable rate mortgages to something approximately realistic [perhaps no more than a 10% increase in payments annually] and eliminate excessive prepayment penalties. Fourth, eliminate the securitization/bundling of sub-prime mortgages with other classes of mortgages. If the bankers and lenders want to bundle mortgages, let them do so, but make them bundle like with like. That way the risks are out in the open. Fifth, enact specific reserve requirements for all classes of debt, including CDOs and other collateralized obligations. Sixth, make violations of these provisions criminal offenses.

I’m sure other thinking individuals could come up with proposals that both make sense and which would garner public support, but these are a few that should be considered. There are other approaches, including a government-backed restructuring of debt markets with more private investment that might work as well… but whatever solution is next proposed must explain the positive benefits.

As for the argument that the financial community won’t like these… well, aren’t you the ones asking for rescue? Shouldn’t the taxpayers who are underwriting the rescue be the ones setting a few terms, particularly since the financial community hasn’t shown much fiscal or moral responsibility lately?

Thoughts on Writing and Technology

When I was writing an earlier blog, I ran it through the spell and grammar checker, and the grammar checker came up with three errors that weren’t, and suggested three very ungrammatical fixes. At first, I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that I’d used a complex sentence structure with parallel subordinate clauses. Now, I obviously have nothing against technology per se, but this incident got me to thinking about the implications… and to a writer like me, those implications are between annoying and frightening.

It’s clear that the software doesn’t work nearly so well with complex phrases. Is that because it’s not worth while to design it to that level of complexity? Or that it can’t be? Either way, the end result isn’t good, because it’s applying simple rules to complex phrases, and that’s one of the biggest problems with most technology, especially when the user understands neither the entire field in question nor the limits of the technology. But, as in the case of word-processing software, technology often allows the marginally competent to look like the competent — until something really goes wrong.

These days, more and more young writers are relying on software to clean up their work, and every time I read manuscripts for a contest [which I do upon occasion] I’m reminded of this… and the fact that very few of them truly understand their native language.

Another problem that plagues me is the autoformatting feature of Word, especially when I have to go back three lines and put in a hard return so that I don’t end up with an after-the-fact indented paragraph. I mean, after all, I didn’t indent that paragraph when I typed it out. The software all of a sudden undid — or redid — what I did because I didn’t conform to its programming. This is a recurring problem with all computer-based systems. They do what you tell them to do, not what you intended to do, and, sometimes, they even do something that you had no idea they could do, and that you certainly didn’t plan on. The problems begin when there are features you don’t know are incorporated in the system. You think you’ve told the system to do one thing, but your instructions are reformulated by the system. This is an annoyance in word-processing, but it can be a disaster, as in the case of the Mars probe that crashed because there were conflicting measurement systems programmed into the navigation systems, systems of which some of the scientists programming the deceleration were unaware.

And, of course, just about the time I’ve finally worked through and understand most of the glitches in a system, some hot-shot programmers and profit-motivated executives re-design the software… and before all that long I’ll be forced to learn another new and improved system with unknown quirks or glitches, whether I want to or not, because sooner or later, things like the latest printers don’t have printer-drivers for the old software, and because I tend to burn through printers, that limits my choices. And that irritates me, especially since “new” is often not better. I can count on it to be more complex, but not necessarily better, and certainly not simpler… and that’s unfortunately true of most technology.

Unanswered Questions

Why does Tor always put “The New Novel in The Saga of Recluce” on the front of each new Recluce book that comes out in hardcover? I understand the idea of getting this across to the readers, but it must look rather silly to someone who has many Recluce books in hardcover to line them up with ten or so volumes, each proclaiming that it is the “new” one.

Why is good practical judgment called “common sense” when it’s anything but common, especially among politicians?

Why is it that the United States, which is one of the oldest continuous forms of government and which prides itself on equality and opportunity, is only one of two major western powers that has never had a female head of state?

In the United States, according to various polls, over 90% of the people believe in God, and the majority of those believers are Christians. Although one of the tenets of Christianity is theoretically charity and another is judging people by their acts, 60% of those good souls would refuse to vote for an atheist. Why? It’s not as though good religious folk haven’t been the ones who’ve done most of the evils in societies over history.

Why is it that liberals — usually Democrats — are so ready to spend tax dollars to make sure that those who are less advantaged can attain the “American dream” and so ready to condemn and tax those who have actually achieved it?

Why is it that so many conservatives — usually Republicans — are so fond of the Bill of Rights when it comes to the first amendment [freedom of religion] and the second amendment [owning guns] and want to ignore it so much when it comes to matters such as the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments [freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, warrants, trial by jury, due process], especially when they apply to the poor and less advantaged, who are the ones who need those rights most?

Why is it that some political candidates declare that the answer to the pay-gender gap is that women should get more education when women have been getting more collegiate degrees than men for at least a decade? Or is what they mean that women have to have more education to get the same — or less — pay than men?

When government gives money to individuals who can’t make ends meet, it’s called welfare, but when it gives money to corporations, it’s called an incentive or a credit [or an absolutely necessary financial system reform]. Why the difference?

Why is it that when a man with small children runs for public office, he’s hailed as a good family man while a female candidate for the same office is asked how she can handle the job and her family? Is this because we expect the job to be so taxing that the office-holder must neglect family and because no man is expected to take on family responsibilities? Isn’t that just chauvinism one step removed?

And why is it that, when one asks questions like these, they’re either ignored or addressed with platitudes or simplistic answers… or result in attacks?

What Happened to Right and Wrong?

As many Americans have been, I’ve been following the current housing credit/financial meltdown, and, as someone who was once a practicing economist, I have more of a professional interest than many. But in reading all the business and financial journals I receive, I’ve noticed something startling: almost no one talks about the moral dimensions of the mess. It’s as though the “business model” has subsumed all sense of ethics and morality.

Now… let’s put this in a simplified perspective. Builders were building too many houses for those who could qualify for housing under the “more traditional” standards. So more “innovative” ways of mortgage financing were developed, many of which required no money down and minimal, if any, detailed credit checking. In turn, these marginal and sub-prime loans were bundled into larger mortgage tranches, if you will, which were then securitized and sold to various institutions. In many cases, the “leverage” was close to 65 to 1. In plain English, that meant for every $65 loaned, only one dollar of reserves, or cash on hand backing the loan, was available. Now, leverage works both ways, and when the housing market slowed, and when home-owners began to default on loans, each dollar of default theoretically required the institution holding the securities to come up with an additional $65. That meant that less than a five percent default rate could wipe out the value of the other 95% of the mortgage package. Most financial institutions could not come up with anywhere close to the additional reserves required… and… the rest, as they say, is history, if aided, by another illegal but tolerated practice of the brokerage business — naked short-selling, which the SEC just belatedly announced would no longer be accepted.

Where does morality come in? At all levels.

First, it’s been estimated that something like 30% of the subprime loans were written with terms that effectively made refinancing impossible if the price of the house did not increase dramatically. Not only was this financially unwise, but locking a gullible buyer into such a situation is unethical, to say the least. Then, the higher level junior executives who sold these mortgages to the institutions that securitized them dramatically understated the risks, also not exactly the most ethical of behaviors. The institutions that bought the securitized loans didn’t exactly perform the greatest due diligence, and there are stories, if currently unverified, that some analysts who tried to raise the question were quashed… because, after all, this quarter’s yield is far more important than what will happen a year or two from now. The CEOs of the institutions involved certainly didn’t look beyond the immediate balance sheet, and they were paid and took enormous salaries and other compensation while insisting that their firms were solvent and would remain so, which is a form of either naivete [and one shouldn’t be a CEO with that level of naivete] or misrepresentation, which is a form of fraud. And it doesn’t appear that all the brokers who decided to profit from the market decline by short-selling the stock of companies like AIG, Lehman, and Merrill Lynch, without having the stock to cover the short-sales, were even behaving legally, let alone ethically. Now, because of the intertwined nature of the world financial markets, in some form or another, U.S. and other taxpayers will have to come up with the cash reserves to keep the whole system from crashing, and that cash requirement is nothing more than an enormous theft from the public — an elaborate variation on the Ponzi or pyramid schemes of the past, which have resulted, if only in the past, with their perpetrators going to prison. Here, the executives at all levels of these public companies raked in enormous salaries and bonuses as a result of these unethical and sometimes even illegal practices, and I sincerely doubt that any of them will face criminal charges.

Didn’t anyone of importance say, “These kinds of mortgages are wrong.”? “These appraisals are inflated.”? Didn’t any executive observe that the leverage requirements were so far out of line with banking and securities reserve requirements that they were in effect dangerous and fraudulent? Didn’t any brokerage firm or executive crack down on naked short-selling?

So far as I can tell, none, or very few, did. Instead, they followed the “business model” of “the highest level of short-term profit possible by any means allowable under the law.”

The problem that no one seems willing to face here is that brilliant men can always find a way around the law. Always! Our saving grace as a society in the past has been that there has been a preponderance of men and women who also asked, “Is it honest? Is it right?… instead of asking, “Is it legal and how much can we make?”

And it’s also sad that, so far, very few, if any, of our vaunted media, self-anointed guardians of liberty and discoverers of wrong-doing, have asked the questions posed here.

All the new rules and regulations will mean nothing until we, as a society, stop insisting on “more” at any cost and start asking, “Is it right?”

We Have Met the Enemy

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” That’s an old line from the comic strip Pogo, but it’s even truer today than it was when first printed.

I’ve been observing the current presidential campaign and trying not to succumb to terminal nausea as I see the media of the left and the right, and the far left and the far right, all working their damnedest… to do what? To create fights where there are none, and to intensify conflicts and differing opinions into class wars.

Why is this happening? Because conflict is “news,” and the greater the conflict, the greater the news “value,” the higher the ratings, the greater the advertising revenue, and the more exorbitant the profits. And we as a people not only accept this, but we encourage it by insisting that greater profit equates to greater good. I’m certainly not against profit, but when Americans come to believe that a company has somehow “failed” if its profit margins don’t increase year after year, there’s something very wrong.

There are two very conspicuous current disasters showing the absolute folly of insisting on ever-increasing profits. The first is the mortgage/housing/securitization meltdown, whose impact continues to spread and worsen and which I’ve discussed earlier, and which resulted from essentially defrauding financial markets in an effort to pad profits even more… with the strong likelihood that we’ll end up in a deep recession, if not worse, as a result. The second is the vicious and polarizing “Let’s you and him fight” attitude that permeates the media. This attitude is most obvious in the incredible growth of violence in television dramas, in the proliferation of “reality TV” shows, and in the almost-instant media focus on any short-coming of any public figure of any political party.

Thomas Jefferson had slaves and affairs with them. Lincoln’s wife was clinically depressed and possibly worse. Franklin Roosevelt had affairs throughout his life and even during his presidency. So did Kennedy and Johnson. Grover Cleveland had an illegitimate child. Even honest Ike had an affair when he was an Army general. In those days, such matters were seldom brought up by the press, and even when they did, most Americans paid little attention. Did such “dirt” bear upon the conduct, policies, and actions in office of such officials? Apparently not, or very little.

So what’s more important — candidates’ personal and family foibles or their legislative and public record and their stand on the issues? Exactly how does the choice of a pastor or a daughter’s romantic exploits bear on the great economic and military challenges facing the next administration? Why is the number of houses a candidate’s wife owns more important than that candidate’s stance on Constitutional rights? Is whether we’d like to have a drink with a candidate more important than how he or she would lead the country?

For that matter, why do so many Americans let the media use these diversions to determine public discussion on the future of our country? The media isn’t employing such diversions for our good, but to boost their bottom line… and that’s something else to consider in the course of the campaign.

The Downsides of Rigid Copyright

Earlier this year, I was working on a science fiction novel, and I wanted to have a character quote a well-known semi-contemporary poet — except, since this is SF, the poet would have been a historical figure in the future I was writing. I wasn’t going to steal the lines, or pass them off as my own. The whole point was to acknowledge that the poet in question wrote the lines, and to show something about the protagonist by quoting the poet.

When the book comes out, however, you won’t find those lines. Why not? Because, under current copyright law and in the current litigious climate, I would have had to pay a not insignificant sum for each line I quoted, even with full attribution to the poet. I wasn’t passing his work off as mine. I wasn’t trying to make money off using a few lines of another writer’s work. I wanted to show something about the protagonist and perhaps even encourage a few readers to look up other work by that poet.

It won’t happen, partly because of the permission fees required, and partly because I don’t feel that publishing a line or two of poetry in the middle of a novel, verse fully attributed to the author, should be considered a violation of copyright law.

At the same time, if I were back teaching college English, I could have legally copied the entire poem and passed a copy out to the entire class without breaking the law. In both cases, the motives would be similar, to expose readers to something new, and, additionally, in the case of the novel, to show the impact of that verse upon a character.

In another case I came across several years ago, a contemporary composer wanted to set the poem of a relatively recently deceased poet to music to create an art song. The lyrics would have been credited to the poet, and half of any royalties or residuals would have gone to the estate or the heirs. The composer — a classical composer, by the way — requested permission and was denied. Such denial was certainly within the rights of the heirs who owned the copyright, but it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me… or to society. The art song that would have been created would certainly have exposed more listeners to the poet, and it definitely wouldn’t have hurt the heirs financially. In the meantime, none of the poet’s work has been set to music, and the poet, once well-known, is slowly fading into obscurity. In a century or so, of course, the work will revert to the public domain, but will there be a composer knowledgeable enough to even find the work by then? Or who will have the interest?

I once published verse in small magazines, none of which survived, which may say something about both my verse and the magazines, except other better-known poets were also published there. But who will ever search out the work that appeared there? Could anyone even find it? Yet songs often perpetuate verse far longer than the written word alone.

The whole idea of copyright is to protect the intellectual property of the creator, but often, as in the cases I’ve cited, the application works the other way. For poetry in particular, the intellectual property of the creator is hardly preserved, and often in effect destroyed, if no one knows that it exists, which is the case if the work is relegated to a dusty anthology or small volume printed once or a few times and then forgotten. Even once-famous poets are sliding into obscurity, in part, I believe, because they are taught less and less and because they do not appear in other forms or venues. My work certainly doesn’t sell like Harry Potter, but I can guarantee that any line of verse that appears in one of my books — or those of many other F&SF genre writers — will reach far more readers than would be the case except for all but the most famous of poets.

I certainly would have been more than pleased if, say, a character in The DaVinci Code happened to quote a line from one of my books and named me as the author — and I definitely wouldn’t have demanded payment for a few words.

Political Common Sense that Isn’t

Now that the conventions of both political parties are over, we’re in the campaign season, filled with all sort of high-sounding political rhetoric designed to appeal to partisan prejudices on both sides. And both candidates will have, if past campaigns are any indication, proposals that seem the heart of common sense… and that are, in fact, both meaningless, irrelevant to the problems at hand, or dangerous, if not all three.

Based on my past experience, I’m going to trot out some of the ones used in the past, along with some commentary. As many of the warnings for products posted here and there state, past history is no guarantee of future performance, but I’m certain some of these will come up somewhere.

I’m going to go over the budget line-by-line and get rid of the waste in government. As an economist, I did just that for various legislators for years. The problem is that the amount of true “waste” is rather small. The number of small programs with comparatively expensive benefits for relatively small constituencies, however, is enormous… but don’t tell small local communities that libraries and community centers that serve a few hundred people at best are a waste. Don’t tell a politician trying to get re-elected that a library or building memorializing a local hero is waste. A bridge serving a thousand people who have to wait for ferries in bad weather isn’t a waste to them, even if it costs the rest of us hundreds of millions. And, of course, someone always brings up the thousand dollar aircraft toilets or the hundred dollar special hammers for the military — and almost always those are required because someone didn’t order enough of them in the original procurement and, in order to keep the scores of aircraft flying past their original design life, the replacement equipment required is far more expensive because of the limited numbers and the one-time production costs.

I’m going to reduce taxes on the hard-working middle class and make the really rich people pay their fair share. This sounds really good, but something like 40 million Americans don’t pay any federal income taxes at all, and the lowest fifty percent of taxpayers pay less than five percent, while the top ten percent pay close to seventy percent. I’m certainly not rich, as anyone who knows the trends in the publishing industry could tell, and I’d certainly like my taxes cut, but how, exactly, is increasing the taxes on those who already pay most of them “fair” when the bulk of the services go to those who aren’t paying the taxes? As a society, we’ve already accepted the idea that those who have more need to help support those who are poor and struggling. It’s necessary so that the less fortunate can gain opportunities and do not live in the grinding poverty and misery that they would otherwise face — and which, unfortunately, some still do. But, please, let’s not dignify income redistribution through taxes as “fair.” Also, practically speaking, as I’ve noted before, there’s a limit on how much one can tax “the rich” and how effective government is in addressing the root causes of poverty.

I’m going to push for a modern and efficient military, and one that will support our men and women in uniform so that they are well-equipped to deal with the challenges that face us. Right. First, an effective military is never “efficient” or “cost-effective.” An effective military needs excesses of equipment and munitions, among other things, because once a war happens, it takes years to catch up to the needs of the military. The job of a military in a representative democracy is to use force to keep other people from doing bad things to others or to us or our interests. That means having lots of a equipment in lots of places, doing lots of training with highly expensive equipment, and then when the time comes, going out and doing the mission, and generally losing and/or breaking or destroying some, if not a great deal, of that most expensive equipment, along with incurring casualties. None of that is cheap, and the missions we seem to place on our military suggest that its role will never be terribly limited… so, if any politician pushes for “efficiency,” he or she is essentially limiting capabilities and increasing the likelihood of higher future casualties — which is what has happened in every conflict we’ve been in since WWII. In practice, that means either continued high and theoretically “wasteful” spending or an overstretched and overstressed military or a much lower foreign policy profile.

We’re going to push for environmentally safe energy independence. NO form of energy is environmentally benign. Every form of energy creates pollution, somewhere along the line, whether in the manufacture of the components, the extraction of resources, the power generation process itself, or the waste products produced. The only question is what form of energy creates the least adverse environmental effect in a given situation and location. Add to that the fact that capital and development costs of such an initiative would dwarf the costs of our adventurism in the Middle East. It’s a wonderful goal, but any politician who pushes it is either ignorant of the financial and technical realities or being deliberately deceptive.

I’m going to ensure that all American children can do anything they put their minds to. This one is sneaky. It’s one thing to posit a goal for every child to achieve to the best of his or her potential, but not all of us have the talents to do everything we can conceive of, and everyone has some limits on their potential and ability, but none on their dreams. All the work and dedication in the world would not allow me to become a professional opera singer — not when I can’t tell when I’m singing on key and not when I have no sense of rhythm. People cannot do all they would like, and they never have been able to do so. Saying that they can only breeds resentment… and we have far too much of that in society today.

I’m going to go to Washington and get things done… or some variation thereof. The Founding Fathers designed our government with checks and balances and procedural delays precisely because they feared that, without them, a popular government would act in far too hasty and dangerous fashion. Our entire federal government structure is designed in a fashion to make change difficult and slow, and any politician who thinks otherwise and that he or she can change that understands neither history nor people.

I’m certain that there are other supposedly common-sense proposals for political change that really aren’t that sensible under examination, but these should do for starters.

Politics and the Income Gap

In the course of the presidential primary debates, both Barrack Obama and John Edwards made continued references to the growing inequality of income and power in the United States, and in his acceptance speech, Obama singled out the “wealthiest” five percent of Americans for heavier taxes. While I’ve also been concerned about what Edwards called “the two Americas,” the idea of addressing it by increasing taxes on the “wealthy” worries me greatly for a number of reasons.

First, as I noted in an earlier blog post, real “wealth” varies widely by geography and economic setting, and defining who is wealthy by an arbitrary number or percentage is every bit as erroneous as claiming that every member of one ethnic group is money-grubbing or that most young Black inner-city males are gang-members. Claiming that a New York City or San Francisco family [or families in any other number of high-cost cities] where both parents work full time and bring in a combined income of $200,000 are wealthy is absurd. That income can bring a very good life-style in much of America, but in New York and many other cities where tens of millions of Americans live, it’s definitely middle-class and nowhere close to “wealthy.”

Second, using taxation to address income inequality doesn’t work very well, because those who are truly wealthy have the assets and abilities to avoid increased taxation, while those who are merely affluent are the ones who find themselves bearing the burden of lost income. For example, someone who makes, say $5 million a year, and who would face increased taxes of 10%, can pay an accountant $100,000 a year to find away to avoid the taxes, and save $400,000. It makes no sense for family making $200,000 a year and facing $20,000 more in taxes to hire that accountant, nor do they have the financial assets to deploy in alternative strategies, yet for purposes of the politicians, both families are “wealthy.”

According to recently released IRS statistics, less than one half of one percent of Americans are “wealthy,” meaning that they have assets including houses, of more than two million dollars. When a middle-class house in many cities can easily cost over $500,000 for less than 1,500 square feet, having $2 million in assets may make you “affluent,” but it’s far from “wealthy.” Put another way, the “upper five percent” of Americans that Obama wishes to tax more heavily amounts to roughly fifteen million. According to the IRS, only ten percent of those are wealthy.

But the bigger problem with all of this is the assumption that taking money from those who are presumed to have it and putting that money into federal programs will do something to reverse the recent trends in income inequality.

Some claim that greater education will accomplish such a reversal, but during the last three quarters of a century educational opportunities and achievement for the less advantaged have improved, and yet the income gaps between the richest and the poorest have widened. Others suggest that great improvement in reducing barriers to women will help, but while not all of the barriers to women in high positions or in fields historically dominated by men have been removed, women have seen improvements in the opportunities and income available, and the income gap between rich and poor has still widened. The poorest Americans have far better housing than did the poorest Americans of a century ago and far better amenities in those dwellings. Even for the poorest of Americans, life is better than it was a half century ago.

So, with so many improvements, why has the income gap widened?

Have we become a more greedy society? That’s hard to measure, but I find it difficult to believe that people are inherently greedier today than in the time of the Robber Barons.

Is it because of a “winner-take-all” culture that praises and rewards disproportionately those at the top in whatever field? That this has occurred isn’t subject to debate. The pay received by the “average” business CEO is more than 300 times that of the “average” employee, a spread ten times what it was a half-century ago. In my own field of writing, look at the disparity between J.K. Rowling, with income of hundreds of millions, to any starting novelist with an average first-time advance of perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 for a year’s [if not many years] worth of work. Look at the difference between the pay of the average actor [circa $10,000] and the $20 million plus per film for the top names. Or the NFL minimum compensation versus the tens of millions for glamour quarterbacks. Now… the counter is that the superstars “earn” that money; they bring in the readers that buy the books, the fans who fill the seats and purchase the DVDs. But… the superstars always did. It’s just that with the growing purchasing power of Americans and the concentration of exposure through technology, the revenues that the superstars bring in are so much greater than in the past. In a very real sense, the combination of technology and greater disposable income means greater opportunity to make more money.

Add to that a culture where “worth” is measured more and more by money, by compensation, where business professors make twice what music and science professors do, all because they claim they can earn more in business. They doubtless can, but the comparative earning power in another field doesn’t necessarily translate into teaching effectiveness. Nor do high salaries or compensation in one company mean that everyone in every other company is worth that. And when some of the highest paid corporate CEOs in the financial industry have racked up the largest all-time losses for their corporations, it’s pretty clear that high compensation doesn’t always translate into excellence… but it does translate into a significant income gap between those at the top and those in the middle and on the bottom.

Given these factors and a number more, I have real difficulty in seeing how greater taxation of the upper middle class and the affluent to fund government policies and programs is likely to have much impact on the income gap. It might reduce the deficit, but given the habit of politicians always spending more than they have, I have even greater doubts about that as well.

But… it’s a great political issue, and I’m sure we’ll hear a whole lot more about it over the next eight weeks.

Reading the Same Book?

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, as some readers know, I do read the reader reviews of my books, and occasionally, those of other writers. The one thing that strikes me consistently is that there is certainly a percentage of reader reviews where I’m left asking, “Did these people even read the same book?”

The answer is: They read the same assemblage of words, but not the same book.

How does this happen? Why does it happen so often when readers see exactly the same words on the page?

In the simplest terms, words on the page evoke not only their meanings, but the emotional connotations that accompany those meanings. But even meanings vary from reader to reader, and that’s scarcely surprising when you consider that most words have more than one dictionary definition. Then add to that the emotional responses that we all have to words and situations, and we’re bound to have different reactions.

As a writer, what bothers me about all this, I have to admit, is not the difference in the range of reaction to a book but the violence of the reaction by those who dislike a book. In more than 35 years as a professional writer, I’ve seldom ever seen a “positive” reaction to my books or those of any other author of the sort that says, “This is the world’s greatest book” But I have seen more than a few books, and many were not mine, with assessments like, “the most tedious book ever” or “the worst book I’ve ever read” or “totally unreadable.”

What I found most intriguing about these sorts of comments was that they usually occurred amid other comments that praised the depth of the book and the skill of the writer. In fact, they were more likely to occur with a book that other readers praised.

This would tend to support my long-time contention that any review [either by readers or critics] reveals at least as much about the reviewer as about the book being reviewed.

And, unhappily, that leaves us writers with yet another question: Did anyone read the books we wrote, or did they just read their interpretation of what we wrote?