Archive for October, 2008

The Discriminatory Structure of Law?

Over the years, I’ve often heard the argument that all too many laws are biased against the poor or the disadvantaged. One particular example that was cited for years was that in many jurisdictions, the penalties for possessing “crack” cocaine were far stiffer than for possessing exactly the same amount of powdered cocaine, and because crack was more prevalent in poorer neighborhoods, the law was more lenient in dealing with wealthier addicts. Another example is that often criminals who commit what amount to small scale robberies with weapons face far, far greater sentences than do “white collar” criminals who embezzle or misdirect far, far greater sums. In fact, from what I’ve seen, this differential goes much farther than that and generally seems based on the idea that threatening someone with a weapon or violence outweighs all other factors.

I’m not suggesting greater leniency for criminals who try to get their way with weapons or force. Far from it. What I am going to suggest, however, is that, as a society, we’ve bought into the idea that a crime that does not involve violence is somehow less of a crime… or that an act that “legally” deprives others of their money, houses, or other goods, even when the victims are not culpable, is not a crime at all.

Currently, we’re in a financial crisis that has effectively reduced the collective wealth of the United States by something like forty percent. Certainly, my retirement funds, parked in a solid and stable and conservative set of mutual funds, are down somewhere in that neighborhood, and I’ve heard of others losing even more. I didn’t gamble with the money. I didn’t follow hot-shot brokers and tips. But like hundreds of millions of Americans, I had that money taken, in effect, stolen because a group of hot-shot money managers came up with ways to leverage financial assets, in some cases as high as 130 to one, in order to boost their corporate profits and to “earn” extraordinary bonuses.

Now… if you asked any one of them what would happen if ten percent of these assets went bad, at least some of them could have predicted what would happen. That’s knowledgeable neglect. Most didn’t understand at all. They just went along. That’s negligence.

The basis behind criminal law, in an overall sense, is to deter crime and harm to the individual and to punish those who create such harm. We tend to classify such crimes on the severity of the harm and on the intent of the perpetrator, with an offense such as premeditated murder being one of the more severe, because the perpetrator knew he or she was going to commit the offense of taking another life. Assault generally merits less punishment… and so on. But some acts, even when “accidental,” also merit punishment, such as involuntary manslaughter or accidental vehicular manslaughter.

Now… let us say that an individual has diligently saved five percent of his or her earnings for thirty or forty years, a sum amounting to years of work… and through either premeditation or negligence someone takes it away. If that someone is a thief or an embezzler, the act comes under criminal law. If that someone is a corporate CEO who agrees to massive trades in credit-default swaps and derivatives, then he can just claim he made a mistake… and most won’t even do that, even in front of a Congressional hearing.

Right now, a broker, a brokerage firm, an investment banker, and many other individuals can take actions that lead to financial devastation for millions of others — and walk away, essentially unscathed, saying, “It was just the market.” Or “we did the best we could.” And all too many of them take enormous bonuses when they leave. We tend not to let careless drivers, doctors, or lawyers get away with such excuses when they’ve committed malpractice. Exactly how did we set up a structure where those individuals who manage our savings and our retirement have no liability and accountability for incredibly poor judgment or out-and-out negligence?

Perhaps to take care of the worst abuses, we ought to enact legislation that creates criminal punishments for “involuntary theft” or “fiduciary negligence,” in cases where the actions of an individual, regardless of his corporate standing, lead directly to the loss of significant sums of money on the part of large numbers of individuals. Perhaps then, if they faced the possibility of long prison terms, some of these financial types wouldn’t be quite so quick to adopt and endorse leverage schemes they don’t understand.

I know… any such suggestion will have the financial gurus claiming that such laws and regulations will destroy the world financial structures. So… for all those of you who don’t like my thoughts and suggestions, what exactly would you suggest to create greater accountability and responsibility? And… please, please… don’t cite Adam Smith and the invisible hand or the pure and free market. History has proved, time and time again, that, while such a free market might work if men and women were angels, history has also demonstrated that people aren’t anywhere close to that honest and altruistic where money is concerned, especially other people’s money.

Financial-Literary Comparisons?

Are the stock markets and the publishing markets subject to the same sorts of ups and downs…and crashes? In some ways, that sounds like an attempt to draw an impossible parallel, but since the fluctuations of both are created by the interplay of financial, logical, and emotional factors, I’m not so certain that there aren’t certain similarities.

Theoretically, each is based on financial principles. If a publisher doesn’t make money, sooner or later, the company goes under or gets reorganized. Authors whose books don’t sell sooner or later don’t sell any more books… and it’s often sooner, rather than later. Likewise, the price of stock in money-losing companies usually goes down, and if a dividend-paying company can’t pay its dividend, or cuts it, the stock price usually plummets.

In both the stock market and in publishing, there are scores of analysts who try to predict what will happen and what stock or book is hot… with more than a few reasons why you should or should not buy said book or stock. And in both areas, they’re often wrong.

And in both markets, the financial results are strongly influenced by hype and by perception. Some books that show marginal technical writing ability, but which tell a story that taps into a popular sensibility sell incredibly well, far beyond what most editors and publishers would have predicted, while others, even with the same general theme and better written, do not. Also, there are books that, like a popular “stock-de-jour,” enjoy a quick flash on the best-seller list and then sink, forgotten by all within a year. There are other books, like stodgy and conservative utility stocks, that sell well but not spectacularly year after year.

But what about crashes? Will the publishing market suffer the same sort of financial melt-down as the financial markets appear to be experiencing at present?

So far, at least, and for the past century, overall book sales don’t seem to be quite so precipitous in either their ascents or descents as the stock market. But… that’s not true of the sales of individual authors, some of whom have either seen smashing sales success, followed by years of decline into oblivion, and others who have been one-book hits, and still others who have toiled for years, barely staying in print, until some book, somehow, propelled them into success.

And as in the stock market, no matter what the “experts” claim, successes and failures don’t seem to follow just logic or expertise.

Double Standard for the Nobel?

Recently, I’ve run across a number of blogs, commentaries, and the like about the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has been awarded to a well-established French writer, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, whose work is less known outside France. Interestingly enough, the Swedish Academy praised Le Clezio as an “author of new departures, poetic adventure… explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”

According to public information, the new Nobel Laureate has published more than 40 essays, novels, and children’s books, where he has written of exile and self-discovery, cultural dislocation and globalization and the clash between modern civilization and traditional cultures.

At the same time, a noted critic of American fiction, Horace Engdahl, who is also the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, has suggested that it is unlikely that the U.S. will produce a Nobel Prize winner because American writers are “too insular, too isolated” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.”

Now… I have nothing for — or against — Mr. Le Clezio, because I have to confess that I’ve never read any of his work, partly because there aren’t any French bookstores in Southwestern Utah and because his work is largely untranslated into English.

But I have to ask, “To which American writers are you referring, Mr. Engdahl?”

I have written all the themes claimed as reasons for awarding the Nobel to Mr. Le Clezio, and there are several handfuls, if not more, of talented American writers who have also done the same. All of us have written well outside contemporary U.S. culture, while at times also dissecting that very culture and contrasting it to alien cultures. Many have produced a larger body of work than Mr. Le Clezio, and certainly a writer like Ursula K. LeGuin, for example, has more than transcended her “own” culture. Or is the problem that all those who might nominate American writers only select those who are in fact “insular,” rather than nominating from the F&SF community, where writers usually do go well beyond the parochial?

Of course, I’m just a “genre” writer, but I do find it most interesting that what I — and others also classed as such — write fits into the description of what it takes to win a Nobel Prize for literature, at least according to the press releases of the Swedish Academy, while those who are praised and acclaimed by “mainstream” U.S. critics are dismissed as “too insular” by those associated with the Nobel Prize selection and administration.

That leaves us F&SF “genre writers” damned either way, it appears.

Another Form of Arrogance

Once upon a time, some two thousand years ago, there was a city of a million people, with great aqueducts, public baths, a solid sewage and sanitation system, and that city ruled the largest empire the world had then known. Little more than two centuries ago, that great city had dwindled to something like 50,000 people living above and amid the ruins of greatness. Although Rome has since rebuilt itself, for much of the past millennium it was a shadow of its former greatness. Some 4600 years ago, another city, known as Mohenjo-Daro, flourished in the Indus River valley. It too had good water and sanitation systems, with bathing facilities in individual dwellings, and a central granary that suggests a sophisticated culture. Today, only ruins remain.

The world is littered with ruins of former great cities and empires. And why do I raise this oh-so-obvious observation? Because these ruins obscure an even more basic and obvious point — one that was overlooked by the vast majority of the citizens of each of these fallen great cities. That may be because what lies behind the observation is so very simple.

Because of the complexity of great and advanced cultures, such societies are incredibly fragile and can only be maintained by equally great and cooperative effort.

And it is a form of cultural and societal arrogance to refuse to understand the underlying fragility of a complex society. Look what happened after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans… or in L.A. almost a generation ago during the Watts Riots.

Just look at the chaos in the world financial markets. We were on the brink of having an entire productive society shut down because banks could not or would not lend… because they have no way of trusting or verifying the trustworthiness of those who would borrow. We have incurred trillions of dollars in debt because those who created various securities also created an uncertain and untrustworthy marketplace. Yet… have we had a global famine, or a war of the scale of World War II? Or even a continental impact on crops similar to that created by the dust bowl of the 1930s?

We have not, and yet our entire system of commerce, on which our civilization is predicated, is teetering, and no one seems to have an answer.

Cooperative effort has to be based on trust, and trust comes from believing that most others will do their part and not take undue and undeserved advantage of others. Cooperation can be maintained, for a time, without trust, through bribery of various sorts, such as buying votes and public support through the diversion of resources or increasing public debt, and through fear of a greater calamity — such as a great enemy, either real or contrived — or through promises of a better tomorrow of some sort. But, over time, and in the end, if public trust is not either maintained or rebuilt, that society is doomed.

Right now, that public trust is threatened, and all the technically “correct” adjustments to the lending and borrowing will fail unless steps are also taken to reassure the people that the abuses of the past will be corrected and that massive and undeserved diversions of resources into the hands of a comparative few will no longer be tolerated.

It’s not communism or socialism to suggest that financial rewards — for salaried employees, because that’s exactly what CEOs are — of as much as 1,000 times the income of an average worker, if not more, are both economically unwarranted and an abuse of public trust.

Yet those who have taken such rewards fail to understand, or perhaps, like the Roman emperors of old, choose not to understand, that continuing such a system makes a society more and more fragile, both economically and politically, until it reaches the point where it cannot and will not stand on its own. In the past, such an erosion of public trust took longer, because communications and knowledge were slower to diffuse through the system and because those lower in society had less access to both.

With higher technology everything happens more quickly, both prosperity and expansion, and in turn, the loss of public trust and confidence. Will we be so sure of ourselves and our society, so arrogant that we will refuse to see the fragility of our society and refuse to act to renew and rebuild it?

Sic gloria transit.

The Story — Endangered Literary Form?

When I proposed the idea of my collection of short stories — Viewpoints Critical — my editor observed that, first, I wouldn’t get and/or make nearly as much from the collection as I would from even my worst-selling book and, second, that collections were invariably a very hard sell for a publisher. For the record, despite some outstanding reviews of Viewpoints Critical, he was right.

But all that got me to thinking. Why is this so? Why are people more willing to buy long novels than collections of stories? Why are the sales of fiction magazines, both in the F&SF genre and elsewhere, continually declining? Now, some enthusiasts of on-line short fiction publication cite costs as a reason, and given paper and distribution costs, I wouldn’t dispute costs as a contributing factor, but circulation was declining before the cost increases became as significant as they are now.

In the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid as much for a single short story in a popular magazine as the annual earnings of an average lawyer. Even a half-century before Fitzgerald, short story writers could sometimes actually live off their earnings [if poorly]. Today, it’s physically and financially impossible for a short-story writer to support himself or herself, even at the poverty level, on earnings from short fiction sales alone.

It’s been asserted that part of the problem is that paperback books made reading novel length works far cheaper, and that the rise of paperbacks corresponded with the decline of fiction magazines and even of magazines that weren’t exclusively devoted to fiction. It’s more than that. “Women’s magazines” used to print more fiction. Some that used to provide short fiction now print little or no fiction at all.

Beside, theoretically, paperback books already provide story collections and anthologies of better quality to readers, and far more cheaply than would be possible by subscribing to a number of magazines, but readers aren’t buying all that many collections or anthologies, and it’s certainly not a matter of cost.

Could it be that a short story requires a different kind of reading skill, one that is in decline in English-speaking populations? Or does writing shorter fiction well require a creative skill that is in short-supply among modern authors? Both… or some of each?

Or is it that a nation and a world that has come to value size and “more is better” in everything from food to transport automatically equates a thick book with satisfaction and has difficulty appreciating smaller “gems” of writing?

Whatever it is… one thing is clear. You won’t make anything close to a living just by writing short stories… even if you win lots of awards and praise… and even if you can find a publisher who will publish them as a collection.

Arrogance and More Arrogance

As stock markets around the world are plunging, various financial executives are claiming before Congress that it really wasn’t their fault and that they deserved their multimillion dollar golden parachutes and million dollar salaries and bonuses. At least one former executive was being retained as a “consultant” at a million dollars a month while, days after the AIG bailout, AIG executives held a resort retreat in California, to the tune of something like $440,000. Now, admittedly, what’s a few hundred thousand after you’ve blown billions, but it does tend to make voters and taxpayers a bit irritated.

The Federal Reserve and the Treasury keep pumping billions into the system, and what happens? Not much, because, as of the moment, the banks in general still refuse to lend. That means that either they’re so far away from meeting their reserve requirements that they can’t lend or that they have decided that they can’t make loans because they can’t trust anyone. Either way, that suggests a certain lack of competence in bank lending departments. To get around this, the government is now beginning to lend to corporations directly, based on commercial paper, so that these corporations have the cash to meet payrolls and pay suppliers.

Many years ago, I knew a banker who made the statement to the effect that, “I don’t lend on numbers and financials; I lend on people.” Interestingly enough, his children still carry on the family tradition… and that modestly sized bank is also still quite solvent. Years ago, he knew what most modern finance types don’t seem to have learned — anyone can juggle figures. It’s harder to juggle character, but with all the regulations, it’s also more and more difficult to judge character without facing a lawsuit for some form of discrimination or another.

Even so, there’s more than one kind of arrogance behind the financial and credit collapse. In addition to the executive pride and arrogance and privilege and clearly undeserved multi-million dollar salary and bonus package mindset — call that personal arrogance — there’s another kind. It’s the arrogance of the financial analyst, and the technical types who were so convinced of their models and the fact that nothing could go wrong.

Except… it did… and so badly that the entire world is going to suffer. Pension funds have already, on average, lost 30-40% of their value; housing starts are the lowest in decades, while foreclosures are the highest; credit card debt and failure to pay are skyrocketing; state budgets are plummeting; and the economy is closing in on losing more than a million jobs this year, and that’s before more than half of the bad debt has even surfaced.

And these executives, seemingly to a man, and most of them are men, have the nerve and arrogance to claim that they did nothing wrong? Yes, Americans have been spoiled. As a nation we over-borrowed and overspent. BUT, none of those in charge of lending and finance ever spoke up and said, “Hold it. You can’t borrow any more.” Nope. Instead, they flooded the market with unasked for credit cards and marginal home equity lines of credit based on over-inflated housing values. They increased credit card limits, and often made home loan prepayments or refinancing impossible, all the time relying on finance models most of them, under questioning, couldn’t possibly even explain, let alone justify in practical or moral terms. They also created so-called hedge funds that were so highly leveraged that it appears most, if not all of them, will be out of business before the meltdown is over, all the time seeking higher and higher returns, and ignoring the simple fact that the stock market, as a whole, cannot grow, over time, much faster than the sum total of economic growth, inflation, and capital inflows.

And now, when it’s all coming crashing down, they have the arrogance to say that they did nothing wrong in lending more than the people of the nation could possibly repay and in profiting personally from those excesses. And the worst of it seems to be that the executives who’ve replaced the ones who failed seem to have inherited the same arrogance that caused the problem.

The "Save the World" Expectation

One of my soon-to-be-published novels recently received a review which essentially said that the book was engaging and well-written, but the conclusion was perfunctory because it “leaves unresolved the larger issues of the role of magic in public life and the position of women in society.” Oh? And exactly how many reviewers would think of criticizing Jane Austen for not resolving the position of women in society? Or Tolkien for not resolving the issues of the role of magic in public life?

In case you haven’t gathered, the book is The Lord-Protector’s Daughter, and in it, the protagonist is faced with a nearly impossible situation where she must fight an extraordinarily chauvinistic culture and the expectations placed on her in order just to survive. She does more than that, but it’s clear that the reviewer expected one young woman to totally change society in less than half a year. I’m not bringing this up because I’m more than slightly irritated at the denseness of the reviewer, which I am, but because many readers — and reviewers — of F&SF exhibit what I’d call a “save the world expectation.” This expectation is endemic, so far as I can tell, only to two genres — thrillers and F&SF. No one expects Hercule Poirot to save the world, only to solve the mystery. In virtually all so-called mainstream literature, the characters may not even be able to save themselves, let alone the world. In romances, the characters only have to save each other.

Now… I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with F&SF books where characters save or destroy worlds, or galaxies. I’ve certainly written some. What bothers me is the expectation that this must always happen… or the book is somehow unfulfilling. I’m certainly not the only one to notice this, either. As a matter of fact, the sometime author, editor, and critic Matt Cheney made this observation about another of my books, Archform:Beauty:

Finally, I was particularly pleased with the resolution of the central plot elements. Though the mystery is solved and the bad guys get taken care of (and two of the characters even find love and at least momentary happiness), the triumphs of the novel are primarily personal. For the police and politicians, it was all one crisis among many, and for most of the citizens it was just a good news story for a day or two. What we, the readers, see is that for a handful of people, life has changed, but the world around them has not. Even though things are different for these characters, they still have to work their way through the world, they have to get through their days, they have the remaining moments of their lives to live. That, it seems to me, is a courageous ending for a book of this sort, perhaps even a subversive one…

Anytime a scholastic genre critic like Matt has to note that a book that doesn’t “save the world” is subversive, it certainly suggests to me that we have too many world-savers and not enough books that “merely” provoke thought… or heaven forbid, entertain without saving or destroying worlds.

But then, as someone categorized as “subversive,” I suppose I’m being optimistic when I hope that readers — and reviewers — won’t be disappointed when my characters don’t always save or transform the world.

Life by the Numbers

I’m old enough to recall when one of the fads sweeping the country was “paint-by-the-numbers” kits, where anyone could produce a reproduction, at least of sorts, of a famous artist by simply matching the number on a tiny jar of paint with the number printed on a cheap canvas stretched across cardboard and dabbing each number with the correspondingly numbered paint.

The older I get, the more I’m seeing our society structure itself along similar lines. It seems like everything is analyzed “by the numbers” and then either quantified, evaluated, or replicated… according to the numbers. Vital services — such as medical care, road and highway maintenance, public safety, and education — are evaluated in terms of their cost-effectiveness for populations as a whole. The problem is that all too many people and situations don’t fit the numerical models. And numerical models seldom result in excellence, any more than paint-by-number kits resulted in great paintings.

In education, students’ futures are effectively being determined more and more by standardized tests, and teachers’ effectiveness is being measured more and more by the performance of their students on those tests. Besides the problem that there are students who test well beyond their real-life abilities and those who test below their potential, and the corruption of the system into teaching to the tests, there’s the even larger problem that the tests are designed to measure the ability to succeed in “intellectual” settings and occupations, and there’s also a tacit assumption that the abilities measured by those tests are the only ones that count. Now… I confess. I’m one of those who did well on tests, and to the test-designers and analyzers, I’m proof that the tests “work.” At what? Such tests are excellent at identifying a set of skills useful for perhaps ten percent of the population. twenty percent at most. And what about all the others?

I’m sorry, but, as well as I may test, you don’t want me trying to repair your leaky faucet, or your home wiring. I’m a good painter and a barely passable wood-worker, but keep me away from the mechanical side of your automobile or almost anything else. Yet the numerical, test-taking educational experts are acting as though it only takes people like me to run everything in society, because, by acting as though their tests measure all that is important, they effectively ignore those who don’t fit in a narrow numerical model.

I’m more than happy to pay experts in fields other than those I know… but experts like that are getting harder and harder to find. The problem is that, in our zeal to evaluate education “by the numbers,” we’re not steering those students who aren’t “intellectually” inclined to fields in which they could be both successful occupationally and financially. We’re treating every one of them as either intellectual successes or failures, because that’s what the numbers say.

In medicine, the numbers pressure for cost-effectiveness by the government and by insurers has resulted in fewer and fewer doctors who going into “general” or family practice, and those who do end up being pressured into seeing more and more patients for shorter and shorter visits… just to pay the costs of modern high-technology medicine. Reports are coming in showing that, in community after community, doctors are limiting the number of Medicare patients because the combination of excessive paperwork and low-mandated reimbursement results in their losing money on such patients… and in fact the inflation-adjusted real earnings of “family doctors” are declining, largely as a result of cost-effectiveness measures developed by the numbers and imposed on medical general practitioners.

On the other side, as I’ve noted in a different light in earlier blogs, the emphasis on financial success, by the numbers, has played a significant role in the housing/credit/mortgage melt-down, because almost everyone in the financial sector was focused on maximizing short-term yields and returns. Call it high finance by the numbers.

From the media to elite institutions, more and more, those lauded publicly are those who have been financially successful or who have been so and donated large sums of money, not necessarily those whose contributions to society cannot be easily quantified. Bill Gates is a figure known-world wide, because of the staggering “numerical success” of MicroSoft, but I can’t even recall the names of the men whose pioneering work in transistors at Texas Instruments made that success possible, and I doubt most Americans could.

All this emphasis on the numerical and quantifiable neglects some very basis aspects of life and society.

No student was ever touched — or inspired — by a number. No patient was ever healed by a number. No criminal was ever physically apprehended by a number. No fire was ever extinguished by a number. But excessive emphasis on numbers — from the stock mania of the 1920s that led to the Great Depression, to the body counts in Vietnam, to the dotcom and housing booms and busts of the last decade — has always led to one form of disaster or another.