Archive for March, 2012

It’s the Economics, Stupid!

Recent news reports have noted that as gasoline prices have risen, the President’s popularity has declined commensurately. From a practical point of view this makes no sense, because the President has absolutely no control over energy prices.  He can’t even reduce or increase taxes on gasoline unless the Congress passes legislation, and he certainly can’t set gasoline prices.

In economic terms, crude oil and gasoline are what are known as fungible commodities, that is, there’s no price distinction between light crude from the United States, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere.  The only price differential in the marketplace is the transport cost from the point of production, and since Middle East oil has a lower cost of production, in most cases, transportation costs don’t affect the price of crude, only the price of refined gasoline. What that means, among other things, is that “Drill, Baby, drill!” isn’t going to make a measurable difference in gasoline prices. In fact, as U.S. production of oil has increased over the last few years, it’s made no appreciable impact on gasoline prices because world-wide demand has increased and will continue to increase as countries such as India and China build and use more cars and trucks.

The only time in the last 60 years when a President attempted to control gasoline prices was during the Nixon administration when Nixon imposed price controls [through legislation he requested and Congress passed].  The result was a disaster.  Because oil companies could not pass on the costs of higher-priced crude oil, they stopped buying and producing it because to do so meant losing money on every barrel of higher-priced oil.  The result was gasoline lines blocks long all over the nation and fuel shortages.

On the other hand, North America is literally awash in natural gas at present.  Interestingly enough, even though natural gas prices are close to all-time lows, which means that most homes heated by natural gas have seen real heating costs decline, this doesn’t seem to translate into greater political approval for the President or anyone else.

What continues to be overlooked in the debate over Romneycare/Obamacare [The Affordable Health Care Act] is the issue of “transferred costs.”  Because hospitals are essentially required to provide health care for those who need it, the costs involved in providing such care to those unable to pay have to be “transferred” to someone else – or the hospitals would go broke. Because doctors can refuse to provide services to those who cannot pay, the uninsured overuse hospital health care, especially at hospital emergency rooms, and that drives up health care costs. Because they cannot pay, the hospitals transfer costs to other paying patients, or their insurance companies, or governments. There are two classes of uninsured – those who could afford insurance and choose not to pay for it and those who either cannot get it or cannot afford it.  The thought behind the Affordable Health Care Act was to provide insurance to those who could not afford it and require those who could to purchase insurance or pay penalties, thus addressing the cost issue and theoretically redistributing health care away from overuse of expensive hospital facilities.  Regardless of whether one agrees with the Act or not, the driving force was the accelerating cost of health care and the economics behind it – and, so far as I can see, none of the opponents of the Act have come up with a viable and workable way of addressing those economics.  They don’t want to require universal insurance; they don’t want a single payer system; they oppose any cost-cutting measures that will make a real difference; and they don’t want to deny health care to anyone. Under those parameters, health care costs in the U.S. will continue to rise, even though they’re the highest of any developed nation… and our health is below average.  The issue is economics, and no one wants to confront that reality.

Whether it’s gasoline or health care prices…it’s so much easier to cast stones… especially at politicians, and especially when they deserve blame for other things.  But right now, on too many economic issues, people are blaming politicians, and politicians are trying to blame anyone else… and none of them want to look at the economics.




Real Spending, Real Dollars

The “Money Report” section of the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly contains a fascinating comparison between what Americans spent as a society in 1967 and what we spent in 2007.  The facts are sometimes in agreement with popular perception… and sometimes rather wildly at variance with them.

The area where spending has gone up the most is, unsurprisingly, that of health care, and few would dispute that.  In constant dollars, adjusted for inflation, health care costs have gone from 8.1% of spending to 18.0% – more than doubling.  Likewise, the percentage we spend on business services, things like advertising, accounting, legal services, insurance other than for health care, real estate fees, and consulting, has also more than doubled (this is also where those billions in financiers’ bonuses fit in, as well as the  additional costs of such services as tax preparation, various attorney’s fees, and all the money management fees).  Recreation and entertainment spending have also increased by 80%, so whether we want to admit it or not, we’re either pampering ourselves more than we did forty years ago or the entertainment and recreation moguls are charging more for the same things.

In some areas, such as education, housing, and transportation, there’s been little change in the proportion of income we spend.  With the high increase in the cost of higher education, that suggests that spending on primary and secondary education, in real dollar terms, has dropped, and from what I’ve seen in state and local education budgets that’s definitely been the case.

On the other hand, the percentage of our spending going to food and drink has dropped by 40%, even though proportion spent at restaurants has increased by 75%. And the percentage we spend on clothing has dropped by more than 35%, no surprise to me, given the way most people look in public.

But, most surprising to me were the numbers spent on government/taxes.  In 1967, over 18% of income went to government through fees and taxes.  By 2007, that had dropped to 13.2% – a decrease of over 25%.  So… in real dollar terms, government is costing us less of our income today than it did forty years ago.  Somehow… this message hasn’t gotten across to anyone.

Admittedly, most people just look at the dollars, and in nominal dollars, the figures show that government budgets increase every year, but over time, those budgets haven’t increased as much as inflation.  Of course, neither have the earnings of the middle class, but even their earnings have only declined, in real dollars, very slightly – not the 25% real decrease we’ve seen in government spending. Is it any wonder we’re facing a crumbling infrastructure in areas such as highways and bridges, especially when a larger fraction of declining real federal revenues has been devoted to fighting overseas wars?

Of course, I doubt that these numbers, or anything resembling them, will ever show up in the political arena. But I thought some of you ought to know.



Brave New [Publishing] World

A recent internet review of  Empress of Eternity claimed that it was “the least inspiring” of any of my recent books.  I cringed when I read those words, not because the reviewer didn’t like the book – Empress tends to polarize readers; they either like it or hate it, and I understand that – by what the “reviewer” wrote wasn’t what he meant to sat.  The book was inspired.  I had to be inspired to write such an intricate and involved weaving of timelines across millions of years and make it all come together. But what the reviewer meant was that he didn’t find it inspiring.  He wasn’t inspired.

In a nutshell, this is a small example of one problem with the whole gamut of internet publishing, reviewing, and commentary.  Too many people are using words and grammatical constructions, not to mention facts, that they don’t understand… and setting themselves up as authorities.  All it takes is some eye-catching graphics, a catchy and/or pretentious title and… voila!  Another sage is born.

And if no publisher will take on a book?  Then e-publish it!  List it for sale on Amazon, and Jeff Bezos will be happy to try to sell it and take his cut.  It costs him next to nothing.  List it for $1.99 or even $.99, and maybe it will become a Kindle bestseller.  But does that tell any reader whether it’s any good?  Over the years, I’ve had reader after reader tell me that they buy books from certain publishers because they know exactly what they’re getting and what the quality is.

Established publishing firms – and magazines – tend to have standards, although I will admit that sometimes those standards and procedures do keep a good book from being published, but after 40 years in the field I can say that, for every good work that didn’t get published by a major publisher, there were thousands they didn’t publish that never should have been published… not because of censorship or anything so sinister, but because those unpublished books were just plain bad.  Such standards don’t exist on the internet, and I have doubts that they ever will.

That is what publishing firms have been for – to find, refine, and publisher works of a minimum acceptable literary quality (and hopefully much better) that appeal to the tastes of readers.  Especially in today’s fast-paced world, very few people have the time or the inclination to sift through manuscript after manuscript (or self-published e-book after e-book) in hopes of finding passable, or quality or thought-provoking entertainment.  Yet the combination of e-publishing and Amazon may very well create a huge gulf in writing/literature, with, on the one hand, the mainstream publishers only able to publish “super-titles” and a handful of other “literature” titles, while leaving readers to struggle through a sprawling mish-mash of e-novels, ranging from a comparatively few well-edited and coherent works at the top down through a vast plethora of sub-mediocrity to an even vaster array of abysmal attempts at fiction.

Welcome to the post-literate e-world!

Hardcover, E-Book Pricing… and Irritated Readers

Over the past several months, I’ve had blog comments, emails, and questions at appearances about why my publisher insists on demanding a higher price for an ebook than a hardcover. The simple answer is that my publisher doesn’t, no matter what it may seem to readers, but… obviously some explanation is in order.

So… I’ll give some examples, but please note that the prices I’m giving are those in force as I’m writing this… and they could change.

My last two published books are currently Scholar and Lady-Protector.  The book immediately published before Lady-Protector was Empress of Eternity.  At present, the hardcover of Scholar on Amazon or Barnes and Noble costs more than the Kindle or Nook version.

The hardcover version of Lady-Protector sells for $.32 less on Amazon than does the Kindle, although the Kindle price will drop on March 27th, when the paperback is released.  The hardcover price of Lady-Protector at Barnes & Noble remains above the Nook price.

The hardcover version of Empress of Eternity currently sells on Amazon at something like $6.67, less than the Kindle version, as an irate reader noted.  Amazon purchased that book from Tor for around $12.00 and has chosen to sell it at the discounted price, in all probability, in order to unload it, because the hardcover was published roughly 16 months ago, and very few hardcovers of any book sell that long after publication. Barnes and Noble has kept the hardcover price at the original level.

The reason for these disparate prices is that hardcover books are sold at wholesale to Amazon and other retailers or distributors, usually at slightly more than 50% of the cover price, and retailers and/or distributors can sell them at any price they wish.  The prices on electronic books, on the other hand, are set by the publishers, as a result of the nasty fight between all the publishers and Amazon several years ago, when Amazon insisted on selling all ebooks at a loss, subsidized by its profits in other areas, thus attempting to fix prices at a lower level and gain control of the market.

Some readers have claimed that ebooks should be far cheaper than either hardcovers or paperbacks because the ebook does not require paper, ink, printing, and physical distribution.  That’s true, but an ebook does require all the other costs of production, and at present, the “difference in cost” between ebooks and hardcovers, on average, it runs from about $2.50 to $4.00 per hardcover, depending on the number of pages and the print run, which is roughly the price differential between the price Amazon or B&N initially charges for a hardcover and the initial Kindle/Nook price.

The bottom line is that, at present, subject to an on-going legal battle and a Department of Justice proceeding, the publishers have control over the retail ebook price, but not over the retail hardcover price, and Amazon has a practice of playing games with hardcover prices as part of their on-going fight with traditional publishing… and letting readers place the blame for the “high” ebook price on the publishers, which, in fact, is half-true.  The publishers do set those prices, but selective use of low hardcover prices is totally under the control of the retailer.  Macmillan, the parent company of Tor, has a policy of dropping the ebook price to match the paperback price on the day the paperback is released.  Amazon is usually reliable in doing so… but not always, but, again, failure to drop the ebook price is not necessarily the fault of the publisher and has to be assessed, unhappily, on a case by case basis.

As an author, fortunately or unfortunately, I have no control over any of the retail prices charged for my books that are published by Tor. Nor does any author whose books are issued by a major publisher.


E-Books, Paperbacks, and Authors

The other day I was going over sales figures with my editor, and we got to talking about where the publishing market is going.  I knew that paperback sales had taken a huge hit, but just how huge I didn’t realize, although I was certainly aware that my own paperback sales had taken hits. According to my editor, on average, once you get below the huge best-sellers, like A Game of Thrones, Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc., on average paperback sales are now running at 20-30% of what they did fifteen years ago, if not lower in some cases. Authors who could count on selling 100,000 copies or more in paperback are now selling 20,000 -30,000, and the same is true of newer authors whose hardcover sales are at the low New York Times bestseller levels.  In more and more cases, publishers aren’t even issuing some books in paperback, but only in hardcover or trade paperback and then ebook format.  It’s not just a matter of price, either, no matter what readers claim, since, in real dollar terms paperbacks are either lower or only slightly higher in price [depending on which measure of inflation is used] than they were fifteen years ago.

What’s happened?

The immediate suspicion is that the “lost” paperback sales have been replaced by ebook sales, but the sales numbers don’t support that in the case of paperback books, although there’s a fairly good correlation in the sale of hardcovers, that is, for a number of authors, hardcover and initial ebook sales [at the higher price] are fairly close to former hardcover sales alone, although this results in lower author royalties.

There are a lot of other explanations for the paperback book sales decline out there.  Many cite piracy and ebooks as the reason, and just as many claim that “pirated” editions actually increase sales, although I’m skeptical of the latter argument on this. Here’s why. Over the past year or so, I’ve received more than a few emails and comments along the lines of “I first read one of your books as a pirated download.”  All of those who contacted me with that line went on to say that they now purchase my works, for which I’m grateful.

BUT… this raises several another questions.  Just how many readers out there are there who read one of those pirated editions and said, “Forget it!  This just isn’t for me.”?  And how many others read a few pages and turned away?  And how many people in that reading and interest bracket would have bought and tried a paperback twenty years ago?

These questions are very relevant, especially in the case of the decline of paperback sales.  Before the advent of ebooks and the subsequent widespread piracy – and it’s everywhere – a reader had to get a hold of a physical book, and that physical book had to be paid for, and that counted in sales. Even if the reader didn’t like it, and threw it in the trash or gave it to a friend, a copy of the book was sold, and someone had to make an effort to do something with the book.  In addition, after having invested in buying the book, a great percentage of readers would struggle through the book. In my case, this is particularly relevant, because many of my books are so complex that they develop slowly.  All you have to do is look at all the reviews to see that. In the “old” days, I suspect I hooked more readers because they didn’t want to “waste” their money.  Today, when readers scan a pirated ebook, they’ve invested nothing, and there’s no cost to them, and many, I believe, just turn away from something that doesn’t provide immediate gratification.

Add to this something I’ve also heard and read a lot about in the last year, and that is an attitude of entitlement – that readers “deserve” to know whether they’ll like a book before they pay for it.  What?  If you go to a movie, or rent one, or purchase a DVD, you don’t get to see it and make a decision to pay for it after the fact.  Even if you see in on cable or satellite, you’re essentially paying for it.  You can read up on restaurants, but you don’t get to eat the meal and then refuse to pay for it because you didn’t like it, at least not for long, and not without a great deal of unpleasantness.

Then… there’s simply the vast number of websites offering free downloads of books.  There are literally scores offering my books.  Would they all be doing this if there weren’t a demand?  I don’t think so.

I’ve been fortunate, in that, while I’ve taken some considerable hits in the pocketbook from this so-called market shift, I still sell enough that my publisher continues to publish my books in hardcover, mass market paperback, and ebook format. There are all too many good writers who have not been that fortunate and who are not good web-and-internet promoters… and their books no longer see print… or much in the way of new readers even when e-published.  In essence, they’ve been pushed out by cheap and usually inferior works by writers who aren’t as good in writing but who are far more effective at promotion… by a class of works that might be called “internet penny dreadfuls” [mixing anachronism and technology, so to speak].  That’s not to say that there are not some good authors who are e-publishing their own works, but they’re a very small minority among the flood of self-published ebooks.

Publishers can’t compete with this new class of “penny dreadfuls” – and they won’t.  To stay in business, they’ll have to chase the popular best-seller market, as is already happening with the proliferation of books about vampires, werewolves, zombies, or those which glorify violence of all kinds [yes, I do mean The Game of Thrones] while retaining those authors who have a dedicated following and discarding those whose sales drop off, while Amazon pushes for cheaper and cheaper ebooks [with the unwitting help of the U.S. Department of Justice].  The old model of publishers developing authors has almost vanished, and current trends will likely finish it off.

Technology changes things, including popular attitudes, and most of them won’t change back, and that means that the publishing field is changing and will continue to do so.  But…please don’t make the argument that pirated ebooks are good for authors, books, good writing, or literature.  They’re only good for the ultra-popular writers and the great self-promoters… and that narrows the range of available books in a very practical sense.

Health Care and “Entitlement”

The commentator Bill O’Reilly weighed in on the Sandra Fluke/contraception controversy by saying that Fluke, while sincere, represented the growing “entitlement” culture in the United States, those people who believe that they should receive “free contraception” through their insurance. Like O’Reilly, I’ve expressed concern about the “entitlement generation,” but unlike him, I don’t see contraception as anywhere central to the issue, except as a way for O’Reilly to come out against it without directly taking on a lot of very angry women.

I’d be the first to admit that I’m concerned about a generation that feels “entitled,” but, unfortunately, entitlement feelings aren’t limited to one generation, although I’ve observed that  those feelings appear to be more widespread in younger generations.  I can still remember the anger of an older American some thirty years ago when I tried to point out that he received more in Social Security benefits in one year than he’d paid for in his entire working life [this was generally true of all recipients prior to the mid-1960s, and has become less and less so with each passing decade].  He was furious, because he’d paid Social Security taxes his entire working life and was “entitled” to those benefits. We see this today with Tea Partiers, who insist that Social Security and Medicare are not government programs or pay-as-we-go tax transfers only partly backed up by a “trust fund,” and who claim they’re entitled not to have their benefits reduced. And there are more than a few documented and recorded cases of food stamp recipients claiming food stamps as an entitlement.

But to claim that insisting that birth control medications [which are also used to treat a number of other health conditions having nothing to do with contraception] is an untoward manifestation of “entitlement” either goes too far or not far enough.  Viagra and Cialis and other erectile dysfunction drugs are covered.  Which is a greater manifestation of entitlement, birth control and prevention of unwanted pregnancies or male pleasure? [After all, most of the men who need those medications aren’t in the child-rearing age brackets, anyway]. And what about the “entitlement” of smokers to cancer, respiratory, and heart care treatments and surgeries?  These are people who have chosen to indulge in a habit that is proven to create huge long-range health care problems. Why are they, in O’Reilly’s calculus, any less members of the “entitlement” generation, claiming they’re entitled to insured health care when they’ve spent a lifetime knowingly destroying their health?  And what about extreme sports enthusiasts who knowingly endanger their lives every time they indulge their pastimes… and in several cases have caused the deaths of would-be rescuers?  Are they entitled to rescue that can endanger their rescuers?

All of this debate also obscures the entire basis of insurance, which is the pooling of risk by including a broad range of individuals and covering them over time. Some people have almost no claims, excepting routine check-ups or minimal procedures, over their entire lifetimes.  Others, with exactly the same backgrounds and habit patterns, may have huge ones.  The wife of a relative suffered a brutal and expensive and eventually fatal form of lung cancer, although she’d never smoked, never been exposed to second-hand smoke, was in perfect health, and a trained athlete. That’s one reason why we have insurance, to deal with the unexpected.  And there is a good reason why insurance covers check-ups and diagnostics – and that’s to prevent worse and more expensive treatments.  Unwanted children are a huge burden on society, and no matter what any of the pro-life people say, they and the private sector aren’t the ones picking up those very real costs, not only in terms of straight medical costs, but also in life-long social costs.  Government at all levels bears those costs, and isn’t that a form of “entitlement”?

What O’Reilly appears to be saying is that only some entitlements are justified, and in that case, I have a huge problem with his choice of what’s “entitled,” because it’s just another instance of declaring that government regulations should only support “my” beliefs under the guise of a semi-rational argument.


“Bubble” Cultures and a Shrinking World

The comedian and social satirist Bill Maher devotes a section of his program to “Dispatches from the Bubble,” in which he attempts to show how right wing Republicans are living in a bubble that has little to do with reality in the rest of the United States.  But there are far more bubbles than just the one Maher points out, and some bubbles exist within other bubbles.

I live in Utah, a state that well might be termed the “semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret,” where we have a state legislature that believes freedom of information requires giving schools the right not to teach sex education and has just passed a bill to that effect and that will forbid any mention of birth control except abstinence. It’s a state where legislators continue to demand and legislate ways to try to “reclaim” Utah lands from the federal government, but where one of the legislative leaders is pushing a bill to allow the condemnation of private lands to facilitate the development of oil wells and coal mines by industry.  It’s a state where every public high school in the state has an LDS Seminary of Religion across the street and where students are scheduled for “release time” during the date to attend seminary… and where the legislature balked at beefing up the high school curriculum because that would require cutting “release time,”  i.e., religious instruction, during the school day.

Wall Street financiers all live in a bubble.  They honestly think that “bonuses” aren’t the same as earned income and that paying only 15% income taxes on sums of money/securities received for services is eminently fair when middle class families pay far higher rates on infinitesimally smaller wages.

Then there’s the Congressional bubble, where no Representative or Senator can ever afford to change his position on anything, for fear that the media will discover that he or she actually thought and changed his or her mind – and that the voters would then throw them out of office – even if it happened to result in something getting done.

There’s the special bubble for climate change deniers… who somehow can’t see that the world is indeed warmer… or accept the fact that all the glaciers in the world have drastically diminished [except for three or so, which they use to refute the case], that the Arctic sea ice is vanishing, that the coral reefs are dying, that sea levels are rising…

Then there are the ultra-feminists, some of whom have declared that every act of heterosexual intercourse is an act of rape, and they won’t accept any other interpretation.

Or the black extremists, who lay every problem of U.S. black culture and subcultures on the “whites” because of slavery, conveniently forgetting that every single slave sold to the white slavers who took them from Africa had first been captured and enslaved by blacks first. That doesn’t excuse the inhumanity of slavery, but the blame for it covers all races and shades, because at one time or another, pretty much every culture has had a form of slavery, sometimes dressed up as penal servitude or indentured workers.

But the bubble problem isn’t just American.

The problem today is that, especially with globalization, we have different culture bubbles across the world.  Some of those “bubbles” coincide with national barriers, but many don’t. In a way, I’m reminded of the “Well of Souls” books by the late Jack Chalker, where there’s a massive “world” in which smaller worlds are separated by physical barriers, and the physical and cultural rules are different… except our bubbles aren’t protectively physically separated from each other.

India and Pakistan live in separate “bubbles”… and to make matters worse, each has nuclear capabilities.  Iran and Israel live in vastly different bubbles… and before long the Iranians likely will have nuclear weapons as well.

In much of the Middle East, women and children are still property (and yes, I know, that for all practical purposes, Rick Santorum and many Republicans believe the same thing, except they cloak it in terms of preserving traditional beliefs and personal freedoms – of men, of course), and people in those Middle Eastern cultures believe that Americans are infidels.  Do we live in a bubble… or do they?

The Japanese, those oh so polite folks, are one of the most xenophobic cultures around, at least if you’re Ainu or Chinese with roots in Japan for decades or centuries.

What bothers me is not that so many of us live in bubbles, but that so many of us are so absolutely convinced that the way of life in our bubble is the only way – and that laws should be enacted to force “our” way on others, whether those laws deal with abortion and restricting free speech in the United States or insisting on strict Sharia law in the Middle East or… [fill in the blank].  All too many nations, if not states and regions within those nations, seek to not only change their neighbors and their enemies, but also to restrict the rights of those within their own societies… and I’m not talking about civil order, but more basic rights, such as the rights to free speech, the rights to believe in whatever Deity the individual wishes (or not to believe), the right not only to own property, but the right to buy or sell it, regardless of faith or color…

Paraphrasing the Bard…

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire, burn; and caldron bubble.
Legislate all into our bubble,
Turn the world to strife and rubble.


States’ Rights?

The big old idea behind much of the Republican Party today is the idea of states’ rights, that somehow devolution of federal “overcontrol” and federal powers to the states will not only solve our problems but give us greater freedoms.  It’s a lovely argument, but it doesn’t hold water if you look at the origin of so-called states’ rights and what they really mean.

The fundamental issue behind the vast majority of issues debated under the rubric of “states rights” is the issue of property rights, in particular property rights as they existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in English speaking lands, i.e., the property rights of landed white males.  At that time, not only were real estate and structures considered property, but so were wives and all unmarried females, as well as underage males [unless they were the sole surviving heir, requiring a guardian to protect that property], and, of course, slaves.  The initial impetus for the American Revolution was the infringement of property rights of white males in the colonies without their consent or participation.

After the revolution, among the first champions of states’ rights were the Federalists of the New England states, who proposed secession from the union at the Hartford Convention of 1814-15 over the War of 1812, which they opposed because the war effectively infringed on their trade with England and Europe… and their property rights.     In 1832, the state of South Carolina passed a Nullification Ordinance, declaring null and void the federal tariffs imposed in 1828, because those tariffs increased the costs of British and European manufactured goods being imported to the south and thus threatened the value of southern cotton prosperity. President Andrew Jackson sent a flotilla to blockade South Carolina ports, and threatened to send federal troops as well.  Following that, the next to raise the issue of states’ rights were the states of the confederacy, and they wanted those rights not only in order to continue the right to enslave others, but also to ban the dissemination of anti-slavery literature in the southern states, because both acts infringed on their rights to their property – slaves in particular.

After Reconstruction, the states’ rights position centered on the use, largely in the south, on ways to restrict voting rights of blacks, equal access to education and other facilities. In fact, in 1948, the so-called segregationist “Dixiecrat party” was officially called the “States’ Rights Party,” and the term “states’ rights” was an open “code” term for supporters of segregation.

Over the last fifty years, the usage of the term has broadened, but in general it’s been used to identify opposition to federal laws or regulations unpopular in specific states.

In 1964, the state of California enacted a Proposition 14, which nullified the federal Fair Housing Act, a proposition later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Again, the state was acting to allow discrimination in housing, by supporting the “right” of owners to refuse to sell or rent property on the basis of the buyer’s or renter’s religion, creed, or color.  What Proposition 14 attempted was to continue as a property right the absolute right of the seller to determine who could purchase property on the basis of the purchaser’s color, creed, or other factors not related to his or her financial ability to meet the sales price.  Proposition 14 would have established in law an inequality in freedom to purchase or rent property, arrogating the rights of the property owner over the rights of some groups of buyers, resulting in a diminution or restriction of freedom.

Another “leftover” issue from the white male property owner’s rights is that of reproductive freedom.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as property, women had no such rights, even if their lives were threatened by childbearing. Both before and after the U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion [Roe v. Wade] many opponents of abortion insisted, and still do, that whether abortion should be legal should be a matter of state law, effectively making the point that they want states to limit women’s freedom to determine what happens to their own body.  Regardless of the moral issues, in practical terms, the demand for states’ rights is a way to obtain restriction of personal freedom, in effect a carryover of male property rights, and in no way an expansion of freedom.  The ramifications of Roe v Wade do not require any woman to have an abortion, even in the cases of rape or incest.  They leave the decision to her.  To give that decision to anyone else is essentially re-affirming that child-bearing women are property.

The issues over the teaching of birth control, evolution, climate change are not about faith or states’ rights; they’re essentially about power over what children should be taught, and they’re also an extension of the “property mindset.”  Those who oppose such teaching are effectively stating that they do not believe that children should have the freedom to be exposed to such knowledge, and that parents regard their children as property and should control to what knowledge those children should be exposed.

Other “states’ rights” issues follow a similar pattern. Another “states’ rights” issue was raised with the Obama Affordable Healthcare Act.  A number of states have filed lawsuits over the provisions, but what tends to be overlooked is that close to 50 million Americans have no healthcare – and that’s the largest number and percentage of uninsured in any advanced western nation.  Furthermore, under the previous practices of the insurance industry, the majority of the uninsured not afford health care or could not obtain it at all.  The legislation effectively curtailed the “rights” of the insurance industry to refuse coverage, but expanded the rights of 50 million people to obtain it.  How does this restrict overall freedoms?

A great many of the federal regulations that states’ rights activists and others find excessive and burdensome, such as environmental regulations, financial regulations, and even regulations requiring access for the disabled, are about restricting property rights because the unrestricted exercise of those rights infringes the freedom of others.  The right to operate a factory or a power plant without regulation allows pollution or air and water and can impair the health of not only the environment, but of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of individuals.  The same is true of the Food and Drug acts. Do some regulations go too far?  Undoubtedly, but those regulations were enacted because the unrestrained exercise of property rights proved unhealthy to millions, and in a heavily populated world, everyone’s rights impinge on everyone else, a fact conveniently overlooked by those who champion “states’ rights.”

Here in Utah, virtually every piece of legislation bandied about on the states’ rights platform is not about more rights, but about restricting rights.  The legislature is now considering a bill to prohibit photographing of farms and agriculture, because animal rights groups might target abusive Utah farmers.  It has restricted the dissemination of information about birth control to students.  It is attempting to take over the administration of Medicare and Medicaid in order to limit services.  It is seriously considering a law to claim all federal lands as state lands, so that it can grant mineral leases to private industry, and it has already given the state the power to condemn private lands to allow access to all mineral and mining production areas.  Similar restrictive laws are being attempted and enacted in a number of other states as well.

I’m sorry… but the states’ rights argument is almost always used either to restrict the freedoms of large numbers of people or to maintain or enhance the rights of small numbers of people, if not both, and historically, that has almost always been its use, even as those people who champion the supremacy of truly old-fashioned private property rights claim to be for the rights of the people.

Just which rights for what people?


Jobs Versus “Career Choices”

The other day my wife and I read an editorial which listed the unpleasant situation facing young people today, which cited the difficulties they faced, one of which was that more than half of the people aged 18-34 worked in a job to pay the bills, not because it was a career choice. Then we looked at each other and laughed.  We weren’t laughing to ridicule anyone, but because the entire idea of “career choices” is so American and so recent a phenomenon… and yet it’s almost a given today that it’s a hardship not to have a “career choice.”  Except for the upper class and upper middle class, which comprise perhaps ten percent of the population, there haven’t been many career choices for most people in the United States for most of its history. Throughout history, young people either followed in their parents’ craft or trade or in that of another crafter who needed a spare pair of hands.  People felt fortunate to be able to make ends meet, and many could not even do that.

For most of us who predate the Baby Boomers, even if we were able to find a job in a field of our choice, the positions open were usually limited and involved more than a few trade-offs, including moving all over the country.  There were usually many qualified applicants for each job, and in many fields this is still true.  There are usually several hundred applicants, if not more, for each opening in my wife’s profession, and in our entire working lives, neither of us ever has had the luxury of making a choice between two jobs, and more than once took jobs that were anything but ideal to “pay the bills.” This was true for most people of our not-quite-that-advanced age.

So… it’s no surprise that we laughed at the idea that “taking a job to pay the bills” was thought to be such a mighty hardship on younger workers. Jobs exist to fill the needs of those who offer them, not to meet the career aspirations of workers.  That’s frankly one reason why I wrote long hours after the day job for years… because it was the only way I could get to where I wanted to be, and I know I’m exceedingly fortunate to have been able to get where I am – and it’s also why I still work long hours… because I never want to be at the whim of an employer again.  But… to even hint that career choices are some sort of right or that today’s young workers are facing an unprecedented change in not having that many “career choices”… that is laughable.

What I find actually amazing is that we as a society have progressed over the past century or so to the point where half the young workers are actually working in a field of their choice. If that is indeed true, then it marks real progress… but it also wouldn’t hurt to remember that such is not the case in all too many countries across the globe… and it’s anything but a “right.”