Archive for April, 2009

The Non-Extrapolated Future

In today’s world, everyone predicts the future. We don’t think of it in that way, of course, but we do. If you go grocery shopping for special pasta to entertain friends on the coming weekend, you’re essentially predicting the future — that you and they will be there and healthy and will enjoy a pasta dinner. Businesses that plan next year’s product line are making predictions about the future. Making contributions to a retirement plan is another form of prediction. In a way, so even is voting for a political candidate. Science fiction writers try to make a living by predicting the future in a fashion that is, hopefully, both intriguing and enjoyable. Economists make their living by trying to predict economic trends.

Most of this kind of prediction is based on extrapolation, on taking existing knowledge and trends and merely extending these trends into the future. Such past-based extrapolation can at times be not only inaccurate, but extremely dangerous, as has been the case with the business and economic types who predicted that good economic times, ever-rising housing and stock prices, and enormous personal deficit financing could continue indefinitely.

Extrapolation can be very effective, if used cautiously, because technology and semi-basic human social patterns normally do not change that quickly, and it’s usually years, if not decades, before “new” technology is fully deployed and adopted throughout society. In addition, most changes are either incremental or cosmetic. For example, most western men wear trousers of some sort most of the time, and it’s been almost two centuries since trousers replaced breaches and stockings. In industrialized nations, the internal combustion engine powers most surface ground transport and has for almost a century. And in most of the world, women remain largely subject to male control and oversight, and in the rest of it, most men — and some women — are resisting further changes in the balance of power between the genders. For all the claims about human adventurism, on balance, we’re a conservative species, and that makes biological sense… until or unless or environment changes radically.

The problem with this mental conservatism is that, when the future cannot be accurately predicted on the basis of extrapolation from past experience, most people, including experts, tend to get it wrong. Conservatism and experience have combined in most people so that for years, the majority tended to be skeptical of global warming and the possible speed of climate change. Many still are, even though the latest measurements of arctic ice and glacier melting in Greenland and Antarctica indicate that the “radical” estimates of the effects on the oceans were far too conservative. The same thing happened with last year’s financial melt-down. But attempts to predict massive and radical change can be equally wrong. Forty years ago, most “experts” were convinced that space travel would be commonplace — and yet, it’s been something like 37 years since any human being even stood on the Moon. And for all the predictions of an “information singularity” or “spike,” it still hasn’t occurred.

As both a writer and as an economist, I’d love to be able to predict accurately beyond the extrapolated future, and so would many, many others, but few ever have, successfully, and perhaps, in some ways, that’s for the best. Cassandra could prophesy beyond the expected, according to Greek myth and the playwright Aeschylus, but her curse was that no one ever believed her, especially when she warned the Trojans against bringing the wooden horse into Troy.

The Impact of Technology on Reader Civility

Perhaps I’m a minority of one, but after almost forty years as a professional writer, I’ve noticed a distinct change in the attitudes expressed by readers… and in the way those attitudes are expressed. On the one hand, the rise of the internet and emails, not to mention instant-messaging, allow readers a far greater range of ways to express their views about books they like and dislike, and those choices have definitely led, at least in my experience, to greater contact with and interaction with readers. I have to say that, for me, the overwhelming majority of such direct contacts have been positive.

On the other hand, the comparative anonymity of the internet, the proliferation of “review” sites, both professional, semi-professional, and non-professional, and the growth of “reader reviews” on the bookseller sites, particularly Amazon and Barnes & Noble, have resulted in what I can only call “the enshrining of the validity of each individual’s opinion.” We all have opinions, and some are more valid than others, usually depending on the expertise of the one proffering the opinion. But this “enshrining” has led to the growth of a sub-class [sub in more ways than one] of opinion-givers who often express their opinions of a book as extremely negative opinions of the author and who express themselves rather vociferously if the book doesn’t meet their expectations… or even if an author doesn’t write the next book quickly enough to suit his or her fans. At times, such as when a book has received glowing reviews from all sorts of standard literary authorities and when the vast majority of readers rate it as good or superior, it’s fairly clear that the reviewer is angry because the book didn’t meet his or her very personal expectations. Ten years ago, as I’ve noted previously, there were precious view of these violently negative opinions. Now, very few popular authors escape them, especially authors who write a range of work that doesn’t fall within a narrowly defined sub-genre.

What concerns me is not that readers don’t enjoy certain books by certain authors, but the anger expressed when an author fails to meet a reader’s expectations, especially when it’s clear that most readers do in fact like, or don’t actively dislike, the book in question. It’s almost as though those violently negative reader-reviewers take it as a personal slight that the author didn’t meet their individual wishes. They don’t seem to want to understand that with thousands or even millions of readers, not every book that an author writes will please everyone, and not even, in all probability, everyone who liked the previous book. In my own case, I know this to be true, because regardless of appearances and readers’ perceptions, I do some things differently in every book. That upsets some readers, and others get upset because they don’t see enough radical difference between the approaches in books.

For an author, that comes with the territory. What comes increasingly with the territory, and shouldn’t, is the growing amount of abusiveness written and directed at authors personally… even if much of it is somewhat subterranean in forums only visited by their faithful. If a reader doesn’t like a book… that happens. If the reader wants to say why, that’s also fine. If the reader doesn’t want to read any more books by that author, that’s also a personal choice. But targeting authors personally and abusively in reviews and forums because they don’t meet expectations… or deadlines — that’s not only bad manners and uncivil, but reveals an incredible degree of anti-social self-centeredness that bodes ill for our society.

Contemporaneous with this type of self-centeredness is another kind — the posting of downloads of e-books on a wholesale scale by individuals. Now… there are all sorts of arguments about whether legal downloads — or even the free-distribution of e-books by some publishers — affect book sales positively or negatively. I suspect that depends largely upon the author, but so far studies are inconclusive. If publishers wish to do that, they do so in the hopes of encouraging other sales, and with the full knowledge of the author. They also seldom release many books by a given author at one time. If a publisher or an author chooses to offer free downloads to encourage sales, that’s their determination and choice. But it’s clearly both unethical and illegal for someone else to make that choice for the author or publisher. What not only bothers me about such “wholesale” postings by individuals is not only the contempt for the author that such download postings represent, but the fact that none of these “downloaders” even seem to recognize that their actions are contemptible as well as illegal. Almost all the authors I know — and after all the years I know a great number — work demanding, sometimes grueling, schedules. Many still hold down full-time jobs in other fields. Contrary to popular belief, most published authors do not make millions. In fact, most can’t support themselves on writing alone. Among those of us who can, only a few handfuls make the “millions” [and, no, while I’m comfortable and not hurting, I’m not even close to being in that class]. So… posting or using such downloads declares in effect that the person who reads them doesn’t value the writer’s work enough to pay for it. Some them claim that they do so because books and e-books are overpriced. That’s a cop-out, not to mention inaccurate. If books are so overpriced and publishing so profitable, why are almost all publishers laying off staff and closing imprints? No… for these downloaders, it’s all about “me.” Yet most of them would be highly offended and more than a little unhappy if their employers suggested that they should work for free, which is effectively what unauthorized downloads are imposing on authors and publishers.

As I said in the beginning, almost all readers are generous, open, and, even when they don’t like what I or other authors write, polite. But I can’t say that the growth and increasing visibility of a self-centered and often verbally/textually vicious and comptemptuous sub-class isn’t disturbing, particularly in these times.

The "Fair" Tax Problem

April 15th has come and gone, but the arguments and bitterness remain, even well after the last “tea parties” have disappeared… for this year. We’ve all heard the arguments. The “rich” pay too little in taxes; the rich pay far more than their fair share; the middle class carries the heaviest tax burden; taxes are too heavy for working families… The arguments, points, and counterpoints seem almost endless, and more than a few Americans have asked year after year why Congress can’t come up with a taxation system that is simple and fair.

There are essentially three reasons why that seemingly simple task is in fact impossible. First, the U.S. government spends an incredible amount of money. That requires hefty taxation, and raising large amounts of revenue mitigates against fairness. While everyone thinks spending should be lower, there’s no majority agreement on what particular programs should be cut. Oh… there’s a general agreement that waste should be cut and that perhaps defense spending should be lower, but, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. One person’s definition of waste, as I’ve discussed earlier, is another’s vital program. And, as for defense cuts… There should be fewer military bases, but don’t eliminate the ones in my state. Fewer troops in uniform? But we don’t want longer tours for those in service, and we don’t want the return of a draft. Less fancy weapons? But that increases casualties.

Similar issues arise in other programs. What about Social Security and healthcare? As it is, millions of Americans have trouble making ends meet in their older years… and you want to cut their benefits? Multiply these kinds of questions by the thousands of programs, and there’s precious little consensus on the details of any major spending reform.

Second, because so many Americans’ income, expense, employment, and life situation differ, a simple system capable of raising adequate revenue will inevitably have very different impacts on different taxpayers, and those differences will be perceived as unfair.

But the biggest reason why a “fair” tax system is impossible is because, as a nation, we cannot agree on what constitutes fairness. It sounds simple, and it’s anything but.

Begin with the reason for taxes. They’re officially levied to pay for services that individuals cannot provide for themselves, matters such as national defense, court systems, interstate and local highways, food safety and environmental standards — the list is long, and while many people complain that it is far too long, every one of those functions or rules was legislated into being because the so-called private sector proved unable or unwilling to deal with such issues. In general, at least in theory, each American has an equal claim to those services. Sam doesn’t get more national defense or environmental protection than Georgette, or less use of the highways or the courts.

So… one “fairness” argument asks why citizens who earn more than others and create jobs, either through the businesses they build or through their spending on goods and services, should pay higher taxes, either in absolute or percentage terms, than other taxpayers, when both receive the same government services. In fact, in percentage terms, many of those with the lowest incomes receive such services without contributing at all, except to Social Security and Medicare, and sometimes, not even to those programs.

A second fairness argument is based on equating fairness to percentage taxation, i.e., the fairest income tax is one that taxes all incomes at the same percentage. Under such a tax, often proposed at around 20%, a family that earned $45,000 [approximately the U.S. average family income] would pay $9,000, while a family that earned $135,000 would pay $27,000. The problem with this, many claim, is that $9,000 represents a far greater burden on the average family than does $27,000 on the better-off family, and this makes a flat tax unfair. On the other hand, does the better-off family receive three times as many benefits as the poorer family? Is that fair?

A third level of fairness argument is advanced by those advocating a “progressive” income tax systems [which, in various varieties, are what most nations actually have in one form or another, again, at least in theory]. This version of fairness states that those who have and earn more should pay a higher rate, often a far higher rate, than those who have less. There are a number of rationales for this, but the one most advocated is that those who are blessed with being successful have a greater obligation to pay back society with by paying higher taxes. Put slightly more cynically, that tends to equate to “it’s your civic obligation, and we need the money, and there aren’t enough of you to stop us from doing it.” I, at least, find it hard to argue that the wealthiest citizens, at least those who do pay taxes, and almost all of them do these days, thanks to the Alternative Minimum Tax, receive substantially more in government benefits than do other citizens, other than perhaps the benefit of the government not enacting even higher taxes. Do they have a moral obligation to pay higher taxes? On what grounds? Is it fair to insist that they do? Opponents of progressive taxation raise the question of why it’s considered fair for the most productive citizens to subsidize the needs of the least productive. Or why people with more children pay less in taxes than those with fewer children, when those with more children require more services?

These certainly aren’t all the arguments about “fairness” in taxation, and there well may be better ones than I’ve mentioned, but, whatever anyone’s position on these questions of “fairness” may be, it is quite clear that among Americans, and probably all populations everywhere, individuals have very different definitions of what constitutes fairness. And that, I submit, is one of the basic reasons why there will never be a tax system considered fair by those across all income levels of a society.

And, then, is it fair for a majority, because those who make less are always the majority in any society, to decide what is fair? Yet… would it be any fairer for one minority or another to decide?

Just Have Everyone Else Do the Work [Part II]

Several months ago, I posted a blog deploring the tendency of all too many businesses to outsource their work to their customers, such as by promoting “paperless” records kept by the consumer, rather than continuing the practice of sending out paper statements. Several readers pointed out that since such “innovations” reduced costs or kept them from increasing, the customers should benefit by not having to pay higher prices required by the old practices. I mentally considered that the point might have validity in some cases, but, overall I have remained somewhat skeptical.

Some recent developments have tended to reinforce that skepticism. The first is the pending decision by the U.S. Postal Service not only to raise first class postal rates in the next month, but also to eliminate Saturday mail deliveries to cut costs, partly on the grounds that revenues have dropped because much former priority/first class mail has decreased because more people are using the internet to pay bills. That may be, but I think that argument is largely a red herring. First, most all the services most Americans and I use still send out paper bills, even if we pay by internet. Second, the volume of advertising and junk mail continues to flood the mailboxes. The Postal Service has claimed for nearly 30 years that they “save” money by letting advertisers do the bulk mail work and that raising bulk mailing rates would drive down revenues. Oh? I do know printing costs, and when multiple catalogues continue to deluge our mailbox, it seems highly likely that any company for whom printing and mailing thousands and thousands of unnecessary catalogues and solicitations is cheaper than cleaning up the mailing lists is getting far too low a rate, especially when the delivery of the first class mail that is far more important to most Americans than bulk junk mail is going to be delayed even more. This is likely to become critical to more Americans in these financial trying times when an ever greater number of companies have also shortened their billing cycles, giving customers far less leeway in paying their bills before slapping them with various fees. The public is already subsidizing advertising and waste through the present pricing system, and now we’re being told that we need to accept poorer service in order to preserve the junk mail bonanza for advertisers.

In another case, users of one of the more popular tax calculation programs became aware of a flaw in the program almost four months ago. The flaw would not allow taxpayers with certain investments, even of a few hundred dollars, to file their taxes electronically, because the software insisted that there were errors in the federal return. More and more users complained. Nothing happened. After several months, one user figured out a fix, and several others improved on it. Less than a month before April 15th, someone at the tax software company cleaned up the user-derived fix and posted it. It’s not really a fix, but a work-around. Exactly why in four months can’t a software company fix its own programs? Why do the users have to find the fix? My own suspicion is that the glitch only affected a few hundred or a few thousand users out of millions, most of whom just gave up in frustration and filed by mail, knowing that the glitch didn’t create an error in their tax returns. That way the company didn’t have to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars creating a real fix.

Another set of examples lies with the airline industry. First, most airlines gave up meal service included in the price of tickets. Then many gave up “free” snacks. Some even restricted or eliminated inclusive soft drink services. Checked bags used to be included in ticket prices. Now anyone who needs more than an overnight bag pays a surcharge. That doesn’t just include business travelers whose companies can pick up the tab, but mothers of infants and small children visiting parents, for whom schlepping bags is usually neither possible nor practical. It also makes security screening, as well as loading and unloading an airliner, an increasingly tedious experience, which may be yet another reason why scheduled flight times are growing longer and longer, even though airplanes are not flying any slower [except, of course, in comparison to the discontinued Concord]. The latest “cost-saving” inconveniences are the replacement of boarding cards with flimsy paper boarding slips and the elimination of the airline ticket envelope. If one does check baggage, then the baggage claim notice is unceremoniously stuck to the back of a boarding flimsy, where the chances of its survival through multiple flights are greatly reduced.

I’ve only cited a few such cost-saving inconveniences, but I dare say that there are many, many more out there. Now, I’m the first to admit that anecdotal evidence doesn’t necessarily have any statistical value for the population as a whole, but there are times when it does. I’m beginning to think that we just may have reached that time. The other aspect of this that bothers me, especially as a F&SF writer, is that, while I have tried to retain the optimism that technological and computer advances would reduce the pressures and costs on people, I have the feeling that more and more often technology is being used to optimize ways of separating people from their money, rather than providing new and improved services.

Isn’t there a point where so-called cost-saving is going to be recognized as just another gimmick to preserve profits and, heaven forbid, corporate bonuses — which will doubtless go to the executives who dreamed up the ever-increasing levels of inconvenience foisted upon Americans in all sectors of the economy?

The Oversimplification of Everything

Some time ago I was reading a book [Lies My Teacher Told Me]. I didn’t finish it, not because it wasn’t good, but because it was thoroughly depressing, and I’m usually not the kind to be easily depressed. The author was pointing out case after case where textbooks and teachers were wrong. I got to thinking about his approach and realized that what he was often complaining about wasn’t about lies at all — but that teachers and textbooks all oversimplified everything to the point that those oversimplifications become simplistic and often were not technically correct.

Part of that is understandable — almost nothing is as simple as anyone makes it out to be, and few of us have the time and patience to learn the full story about anything. Life is really like fractals — while we seem to see regular patterns, those events aren’t all that regular, and the deeper one looks the more there is.

Yet, at times, overunderstanding can be counterproductive. I don’t care about impact physics when I’m stapling shingles or hammering in a picture hangar. The problem is that once some things, particularly economics and politics, are oversimplified, they are in fact lies, and those lies change the course of human events, while oversimplifying the impact physics of hammering nails generally has little effect on the ability to hammer in nails — or the rate of housing construction.

But failure to understand can be even more deadly, especially in a representative democracy where voters have to decide on who represents them and when those decisions are based on news so condensed that it’s essentially a lie, even if every fact presented is in fact accurate, because the facts not presented would have changed the entire slant of that news item. Unfortunately, in this day of instant news and instant information, most individuals don’t want to listen to the full story. They have a thirty second — or less — attention span for anything that doesn’t affect them, especially at that moment, and to cater to that, most information providers condense information and news to short snippets of quick and oversimplified material. Almost always, this results in distortion and can change popular opinion or reinforce already existing stereotypes.

Years ago, when I was legislative director for a U.S. Representative, he made the point that in an appropriations hearing there was more debate on a line item for mule barn than on research appropriations for a nuclear collider — because everyone knew what a mule barn was and wanted to voice their opinions. He was exaggerating, but not by much. In another case, the abandoned hazardous waste sites [Superfund sites] ignited a giant controversy during the Reagan administration because the American public had heard about Love Canal and could visualize the problem. The political uproar that followed because people felt that EPA wasn’t enforcing the law vigorously enough essentially resulted in the removal of 33 out of the 35 political appointees at the Agency, and all the top officials. Yet, several years later, studies revealed that there were nine other far more serious environmental problems that were killing far, far more Americans than leakage from abandoned Superfund sites, and that those problems couldn’t be addressed adequately because so much of EPA’s funding, as a result of the Superfund scandal, had gone to the waste site problem.

Virtually every government agency has similar stories, and so do many corporations. While absolutely egregious, the recent payment of bonuses to AIG executives tends to overshadow the far larger and more critical problem of a financial system that institutionalizes and rewards excessive risk and short-term profits and diverts funding and attention from basic reforms of that system, as well as from vital infrastructure, health care reform, and education.

In short, in a condensed, sensation-based news culture, what you hear is usually an oversimplified version that’s all too often a “truthful” lie because of what’s missing. And, more and more, such “truthful lies” lead to bad public policy and worse legislative fixes, which in turn create more problems reported in another set of “truthful lies”… and so it goes.

The Bell Curve Revisited

A number of years ago, a book called The Bell Curve was published and immediately became the center of an intellectual firestorm. In retrospect, one could almost say that it was a case of “While I don’t like your statistics, I don’t have any better figures, but because your statistics conflict with what I believe (or have seen on an individual basis), they can’t possibly be so.”

As Murray and Hernstein, the authors, stated, statistics are not valid for individuals, but well-developed statistics are almost always accurate for large populations. Their statistics appeared to raise disturbing implications in two areas: (1) individuals with higher IQs — on average — are more successful in our society, and (2) certain minorities, notably blacks — on average — have lower IQs. The authors also claimed that IQ does not change significantly for most people after an early (pre-school) age. Recent research has raised some issues with the last point, but only about the threshold age after which IQ seldom changes, although it seems clear that certainly IQ does not usually change significantly after puberty, and may be determined considerably earlier.

Whether the authors are correct or not should be assessed, not by philosophical predilections or by anecdotal evidence, since exceptions make both bad law and bad policies, but by a broad-based study which addresses such specific issues as:

(1) Is IQ a valid predictor of economic/societal success [not whether it should be, but whether it is]?

(2) If IQ does have validity as such a predictive tool, to what degree is IQ genetically determined, and what other factors can scientifically and effectively be determined to change IQ [i.e., do prenatal care, maternal nutrition, very early childhood education and support, etc., play a significant or a minor role]?

Finally, regardless of causal factors, the authors addressed one simple and basic problem: the fact that, in an information-based hierarchy, those who show higher IQs are more likely to be successful than those who do not. Even if methods and techniques can be developed to ensure all individuals realize their maximum potential IQ, in our society those with higher IQ levels will continue to become an increasingly powerful and self-selecting elite. Isn’t that really the controversy? That we have developed a culture where some individuals, no matter how hard-working, will never be among the most successful so long as success is measured by hierarchical power and economic success and that such success requires the skills measured by higher IQs?

We also seem ready to reject any “scientific” method that may indicate some groups will be either more or less successful than others in areas requiring mental prowess, even while we readily acknowledge such inequality in athletic areas. Why? Is it because we are unwilling to admit that most individuals cannot alter their basic mental capacities, and that such capacities are fixed by outside factors and the actions of others?

In the end, much of the controversy over The Bell Curve seemed to have been generated by individuals — on both sides — whose beliefs were deeply affected — those who either wished to use the statistics presented to justify their already-existing negative feelings and actions about minorities or those who rejected those findings because the findings were antithetical to their very beliefs.

Yet, more than ten years after the publication of The Bell Curve, I have yet to see any evidence whatsoever addressing the authors’ point that, like it or not, economic and professional success in the present-day United States can be predicted largely on the basis of IQ. I have to emphasize that I am not saying this is as it necessarily should be, but the fact that this finding has been quietly buried and remains unrefuted is more than disturbing in itself.