Archive for August, 2012

Socio-Economic Implications

Over the past month, the Republican campaign has concentrated on the importance of economic issues, clearly trying to minimize its stance on so-called “social issues.”  This isn’t exactly surprising, and, based on polling numbers, this emphasis has clearly had an effect. But what I find surprising is that the Democrats haven’t seized on the underlying meaning of this emphasis… and what’s been lost in the attacks on Obama’s economic record.

A former executive  vice president one of largest U.S. companies once observed that what you pay for something reflects how much you value it.  Or as the old saying goes, “Money is power.” This is very much reflected in the economics behind the “social issues.”

For example, what exactly does it mean when women make only 67% of what men do? If money is indeed power, and it is, then they have a third less power than men.  But this discrepancy pervades the most intimate parts of human relationships, whether we’ll admit it or not.  For example, most health insurance plans will pay for Viagra/Cialis, but not for birth control pills.  Translation:  Those with money value male pleasure over women having control over their bodies.

If a woman gets pregnant, and abortion is not allowed, as the Republican Party platform would have it, she’s responsible for that child – but I don’t notice any legislation requiring the responsible male being required to post a quarter-million dollar bond for his half of the cost of raising that child to adulthood.  Right now, he can essentially walk away.  Oh, yes, she can file a lawsuit – except that takes money, lots of it, and most women don’t have it, and for the few that do, there’s little chance of collecting. So, when you get right down to it, abortion is also an economic issue, and the economics are stacked against the woman.

But it goes beyond abortion.  The rhetoric is all about a right to life, but the word life extends beyond birth.  Right now, the way the Republican platform and policies are, they’re talking about government guaranteeing a right-to-birth, but avoiding the hard issues of what happens after birth. They’re not alone, because most Americans are ignoring this aspect of the issue as well, including the economic burden that ends up on society as a result of children that need support their mothers cannot provide.

Now… the Republicans have pushed for a huge assault on “voter fraud,” with a requirement for a picture ID.  Despite study after study showing that voter fraud is minimal, the push goes on.  Why?  Might it just be because those who lack picture IDs are almost invariably those lowest on the economic totem pole – the poor, elderly, and minorities? And isn’t it interesting that the picture ID requirement would impose an economic cost on the poorest segments of society, who are, just incidentally, those most likely to vote for Democrats?

The Republicans talk about the need for economic growth, and I agree.  We need economic growth, but where are the policies that would improve our highway systems, our aging power grid, our antiquated air traffic control system, and inadequate water and sewer systems?  Those are necessary government oversight/support functions that are vital to economic growth – and they’re definitely not welfare or even “social” programs… and the Republicans have volunteered nothing. Just less restraints on big and small business and tax cuts, none of which address infrastructure, and, oh, yes, lots more defense spending.

As the old saying goes, they’ve put their money where their mouth is – and it’s for corporate America, male dominance, and the wealthy… and against women and the poor.  And no one seems to see this side of the economics of their policies… or the cost to society as a whole.


Politics of Hypocrisy

The Republican Party’s platform Committee has adopted a plank that that calls for legislation recognizing the rights of unborn children under the 14th Amendment and states that an “unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life that cannot be infringed.” Yet at the same time, a wide range of Republican leaders and national politicians have pressured Representative Todd Akin of Missouri to abandon his campaign for a Senate seat because he said that he was opposed to abortion even in the cases of rape or incest and claimed that women who were truly raped could not become pregnant.  Exactly what is going on here?  Party leaders don’t want a candidate who is following the GOP platform?  Or is it that they don’t want national attention called to their stance on abortion?

I have more than a little trouble with the Republican agenda these days, as some may have noticed, but what amazes me is that more people don’t have the same problem.  Let’s look at some basics.  On the issue of abortion, what the Republican agenda states, quite clearly, is that the government controls a woman’s body if she ever gets pregnant.  It doesn’t matter if she was forced or raped; she will have that child if Republicans get their way.  Now, some women with resources may, with luck, find a doctor who will provide an abortion… maybe, if the pro-life vigilantes haven’t terrorized the medical community to the point where very few doctors will provide abortions. Republicans continually rail against big government and big brother, but their stance on abortion is a perfect example of big government – government will decide, not the woman.  Another example of hypocrisy, perhaps?

Compare the Republican position on abortion and women with the positions regarding big business.  Republicans trumpet the need for less regulation and more freedom, but with regard to women, and their bodies, they want more regulation.  Let me get this straight.  The Republicans trust the people who created the biggest financial mess in the last half century more than they trust women?

Now…the Republican stance is disguised by a lot of rhetoric about being pro-life, but the problem with this rhetoric is that it’s only empty words, because the rest of the agenda wants to cut program after program for disadvantaged children.  Or are the Republicans only pro-life until a child is born… and after that the child, no matter how disadvantaged or poor, is on his or her own?  Not only that, but the Republicans have also mounted a campaign against using federal funds for family planning and birth control… which is bound to result in more unplanned children… and who’s going to pay for them?

If they’re not raised properly and educated, we all will, with unproductive adults in 16-20 years or more criminals or more welfare recipients or more social unrest… or all three.  And if we want to avoid that, we’ll need to spend more money… which Republicans don’t want to do, either.  The vaunted private sector is not going to step up and provide that support and education, and it certainly isn’t going to provide jobs for uneducated or undereducated adults.  So merely saying no to abortion and family planning doesn’t exactly address the problem.

Ah… but human life is sacred, or so the rhetoric goes.  Really?  When deity after deity at some point in history demanded human sacrifices [and that includes the Old Testament Christian God]?  When there are more than six billion human beings on the planet and maybe a thousand tigers left?  According to the god of economics worshipped by the Republicans, scarcity determines value – and that means the remaining tigers are more valuable than people.  And so, by the way, by that token, are the endangered Utah prairie dogs.

Economics doesn’t apply to people, then?  Or maybe it does.  Maybe the whole idea is to increase a workforce that already doesn’t have enough jobs to go around so that employers and big business can keep wages in the already low-paying service industries even lower… and that means that all those employees will have to limit their purchases to WalMart… and their entertainment to pirated movies and ebooks… no… not ebooks, because most of them won’t have the time to read, not holding down three part-time minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

That really couldn’t be… could it?

The Hidden Aspects of the Rating Game

The other day my wife made the observation that almost everything seemed to be “rated” these days.  Rate your stay at the hotel or motel.  Rate your purchase. Rate the service and food at the restaurant.  Rate this book.  Rate this movie.  Rate your car.  Rate the teacher.  Rate the doctor. Rate the professor.

When I was in college, too many years ago, about the only things that were rated were a handful of very high-end restaurants… and they were rated by anonymous experts. Now, almost everyone can rate almost anything.  But for all those ratings… have matters changed all that much? Even as millions have rushed to rate, exactly how much do those ratings mean?  And is their effect more in what is bought or sold or more in boosting the companies offering the ratings?  In the case of Amazon, the ratings definitely boosted sales, and probably affect to some degree what is bought, but, as I’ve discussed before, the ratings certainly don’t measure excellence, only popularity.  As for other companies in other fields, the results are at best mixed.

There’s definitely an effect in areas where millions pile on, so to speak, if only because the amount of ratings suggest a certain popular appeal… but, again, that doesn’t reflect excellence necessarily, just popularity, a fact that’s particularly overlooked in such spectacles as “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent.”

What also tends to get overlooked is that the more things are rated, the less respect there is for the area being rated.  The idea of rating Einstein on a scale of one to ten, or one to five, seems ludicrous now, but how long before we get to the point of “Rate the Scientists”?

Even at Amazon, the ratings game can be absurd.  How does one make a meaningful comparison between Pride and Prejudice and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies without disrespecting the original?  And some comparative “ratings” clearly point out the absurdities, as when Americans give Congress approval ratings of something like 18% while a majority of voters in most congressional districts approve of what their representative has done.

And, once more, as I’ve pointed out, the idea of 18 year olds having any idea of what they’re doing in rating college professors is absurd.  They’re “excellent” in picking popular teachers, but the only meaningful correlation is that the professors with the highest student evaluations, in 90% of the cases, are those who give the highest grades… not the ones who demand the most of their students.

So… on a scale of one to five, I’d give most ratings a negative grade, not that what I say will do a damned thing to change or even slow the ratings madness.


Why U.S. Politics Will Get Uglier

The simple reason for this is that a significant percentage of Americans are either depressed, discouraged, or angry – if not all three.  And most people want either a quick and easy solution or someone to blame, if not both. Easy solutions are not possible, and no solution is possible without compromise, as I’ve noted before, and the media is a large factor in making compromise politically infeasible.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem. The Republicans have spent most of the past four years attacking Obama and the Democrats, and making political gains from those attacks.  The Democrats have finally realized two things.  You can’t prove a negative [which philosophers have known for thousands of years], and urging people to be reasonable doesn’t work when we you’re under violent attack.  The negative that they can’t prove is that matters would be much worse without the steps taken by both the last Bush Administration and the Obama Administration to bail out the financial community.  Yes, I know – the financial types didn’t deserve it, and they’ve continued to behave as irresponsibility as the government will allow them to be.  But the plain fact is, like or not, without the highly unpopular bailout, the entire world financial system would have collapsed – except you can’t prove that unless you let it happen.  So there’s no way to prove that without unacceptable results, and after four years, the Obama Administration is stuck with the “responsibility” for something it didn’t cause and a solution begun and initially implemented by Republicans [and now denied by them]. And people don’t care about those facts.  They just want things fixed.

People are angry, and many are afraid.  Angry fearful people don’t listen to reason.  They listen to the loudest and simplest voice that addresses their concerns, and the Democrats have finally begun to realize that, in order to have any chance of holding onto power in the Senate, stopping the surge of Republicans in the House, and re-electing President Obama, they’re going to have to shout just as simply, just as loudly, and just as nastily as the Republicans have been doing all along.

The Republicans don’t like this realization. That’s clear enough from recent comments from Romney and even John McCain.  But what exactly do they expect?  They’ve spent four years attacking and misrepresenting matters and seen that tactic work.  Now that their opponents have responded in kind, they’re claiming that the Democrats are to blame for politics becoming nastier.

Nonsense.  This is one area that’s becoming totally “bipartisan,” and will get even more so in the weeks and months ahead.  The attack ads will proliferate.  The charges and countercharges will escalate, and by the time the election arrives, we’ll still be polarized as a nation, if not more so, and feelings will be running higher than ever… all because it’s clear that fear-mongering beats reason in getting elected, and getting elected is more important for almost all politicians than dealing with complex societal and political problems.


Harry Harrison… and “Flavour du Jour”

Harry Harrison died earlier this week, and the F&SF press and blogosphere is now filled with incredible praise for his work, much of which was truly ground-breaking and ahead of the time in which it was published. Rather belatedly, Harrison was inducted into the SF Hall of Fame in 2004, and received the SFWA Grand Master Award in 2009 – when he was 84, and already in ill health.

All the current praise is deserved, but its timing frankly once again raises some questions that are continually swept under the metaphorical carpet.

Where the hell was most of this praise when Harry really could have used it and had time to enjoy it?  Or for that matter, where was it for many other ground-breaking and influential writers [such as Fred Saberhagen] who sometimes were never fully recognized? And why do some many readers vote for awards for whatever the current literary or genre “flavor de jour” happens to be?

Harry’s death was noted by the BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and innumerable other news outlets, and yet, in a writing career that spanned more than five decades, he never won a Hugo, although he was nominated twice, and shared in only a single Nebula (and that was for the movie Soylent Green, adapted from his book Make Room!  Make Room!).

Interestingly enough, now that George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has become a popular HBO miniseries, his latest book – A Dance with Dragons – is now a Hugo and World Fantasy nominee for best novel, and Martin was just named a lifetime award winner by the World Fantasy Convention, at the comparatively young age of 63.  And pretty much all the other novel award nominees for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards have some or all of the following – strong and active PR, fanatical fan bases, extensive insider connections, and internet presences.

Harry, by comparison, just had his books and ideas behind him, and he was never a “flavor de jour.”  My salute to him and his books!



The Postal Service Mess [Again]

As some long-time readers of this blog may know, some forty years ago, I served briefly as a legislative director to a Congressman.  One of my duties was to handle the staff work for one of his subcommittees – the one dealing with appropriations for the U.S. Post Office [before it was theoretically made an independent agency].  Way back then I raised the issue as to why the Post Office was basing its revenue on first class mail rates and treating bulk mail as a marginal cost. Over the years, I’ve raised this issue, and to this day, no one seems to want to deal with it.

Last quarter, the Postal Service lost $5 billion, and those concerned in the USPS and Congress keep talking about raising first class rates, closing post offices, and eliminating Saturday delivery.  None of these steps will address the problem.

The vast majority of my mail – measured by weight, not rate class – is either bulk advertising mail, reduced rate charitable solicitations, or periodical reduced rate mail.  I’ve asked a number of people with various Postal Service profiles, and that seems to be true of all of them as well.  As first class rates have soared, first class volume has declined, and periodical and bulk [junk] mail make up as greater and greater percentage of Postal Service deliveries, again by weight.  But weight is what counts!  Ask FedEx and UPS.  They charge by a combination of weight and speed of delivery.

The problem is that USPS “bulk,” periodical, and “non-profit” rates aren’t literally carrying their weight… or paying their freight.  But neither the USPS management nor the Congress has wanted to face the fact that these rates are too low, because, in effect, the USPS inherited built-in subsidies adopted for political purposes.  Some of those purposes are still political. For example, all members of Congress have a “franking” privilege that allows them to send letters to their constituents over their signature on the envelope for literally pennies.  The direct mail industry is being subsidized as well, as are non-profit organizations and periodicals. If I’ve read the rate charts correctly, advertising mail and periodicals are charged at slightly over twenty cents a pound[ or in some cases twenty-one cents for the first three ounces], while first class letters are now forty-five cents an ounce.

If Congress wants those subsidies to continue, then it should fund the USPS deficit… but in this time of fiscal difficulty, it won’t do that, and it won’t force the USPS management to adopt a realistic and practical rate structure, because churches, political organizations, direct mailers, and Congress itself would all have to pay more.  Instead, the everyday Americans who don’t like all the junk mail and political and endless charitable solicitations are faced with poorer service and higher prices for personal communications – and not all of us can or want to pay our bills electronically. Nor can we, since  it’s not possible for all businesses or for all individuals. Nor should we have to when those higher postal rates are subsidizing the unrealistically low rates paid by other classes of mail.

It may well be that lower postal rates for periodicals and non-profits serve a greater social purpose, but, if that is so, then Congress should subsidize those rates with public funding.  But, as usual, Congress doesn’t want to pay for its privileges [the franking privilege] and doesn’t want to admit the degree to which it wants everyone else to subsidize bulk mail for business, charities, non-profits, and political organizations, all of which apparently have more political clout than the citizenry as a whole.

Not that any of this is surprising, but I have yet to see any public discussion of this aspect of the Postal Service cost structure, not in more than forty years – except for my own comments.




The Best-Laid (?) Plans

Last week, the American gymnast Ali Raisman tied for third place at the Olympics in the all-around competition… and lost the tie-breaker because she was a more consistent performer than the Russian gymnast with whom she was tied.  Yes… that’s correct.  The more consistent performer lost in a competition designed to reward the most consistent   I doubt that was what the gymnastics federation had in mind when they drew up the tie-breaker rule, but that sort of result was absolutely and mathematically inevitable because of the rule, which provided that, in the event of a tie, the lowest score each of the two gymnasts had, out of the four events, would be thrown out, and the one with the highest remaining score would be declared the winner.  The result mathematically is that when two gymnasts are tied, if one has a particularly bad single event, the winner will always be that one.

This is an excellent example of how what seems, on the surface, to be a perfectly logical “solution” created a result totally at odds with the goal of the competition.  Unhappily, this doesn’t just happen in Olympic gymnastics, but in all too many areas of society, business, and government. It occurs because too many decision-makers, from politicians to business CEOs, don’t think through the implications and ramifications of their decisions.  Sometimes, that occurs because they don’t think events will ever require contingency plans – as in the case of safety requirements at Japanese nuclear facilities.  After all, who could have predicted the freakish combination of earthquake and tsunami? And in gymnastics, what was the probability of a tie with that many judges and four events with scores measured in thousandths of a point?

Results at variance with what one might call common sense also occur when situations change and the rules or procedures don’t. Or they occur because everyone is so concerned about the moment that something totally predictable that occurs periodically, but at long intervals, is totally overlooked, as in the case of Delta Airlines forgetting to renew their online security certification at a time when they had cut commissions to travel agents and increased the fees required for telephone booking, thus increasing the percentage of reservations and payments made online.

All of these situations are the result of failure, in some way, to consider the implications of either certain actions or of failing to act… and all are preventable… but, given human nature, few will be.



The Dangers of the Instant

Several days ago, a former student of my wife called, frantically trying to locate an original copy of music he needed – by the next day.  Last week, her department chair informed her that a special grant was available for her opera program, if she could submit the paperwork by Monday.  Now… he had been informed that she was leaving for a singing appearance the next day and would not be returning until Monday evening… and he’d had the information about the grant for almost a month.  And more than once I’ve had editors of periodicals [not my regular editor; he knows better] request corrections to proofs in a day or two.

What gives with people these days?  Now that we have instant messaging and email and networks, etc., it’s as though half the population, if not more, believes that everything can be done instantly… and that everyone is instantly available all the time.  Yet often these demands and requests involve material objects that can’t be produced or located instantly.  Electronic instantaneousness doesn’t translate automatically to instant physical production, especially of objects involving more than text, a fact that is increasingly lost on many superiors.  Nor is everyone always physically located where they can comply with such requests and demands.  Yet the creation of near-instant communications has created the illusion for many that everything is instant.

Even when someone is present and ready, these last-minute requests and demands create the danger of fast and shoddy work, often with little or no oversight and review. For the most part, speed is dangerous.  This fact is certainly recognized in areas such as aviation and various racing sports, where great attention to detail is the hallmark of those who are successful. There’s all too much truth to the truism that “speed kills.” But the dangers of speed appear far less well-recognized in business or education, or finance, despite such mishaps as the flash crash of the stock market several years ago, or the more recent mishaps dealing with a portfolio of stocks handled by a large market-maker, caused, incidentally, by the adoption of new trading software designed in part to speed trades.  And the use of fast electronic processing by shoddy mortgage firms has doomed many homeowners to unnecessary financial ruin.

There’s a huge difference between planned and careful use of speed and laziness, incompetence, and procrastination enabled by rapid communications… and it’s well past time that individuals, not to mention organizations and their leaders, recognized that difference.

Genius Doesn’t Excuse Anything

Mozart was a genius.  That’s something on which almost all professionals in classical music agree.  Outside of music, however, his acts, language, and behavior left, shall we say, something to be desired.  The same was also true of Richard Wagner.  Because my wife is a professional singer, as well as a professor of voice and opera, over the years, I’ve met a few renowned figures in the field.  Several, often described as outstanding or geniuses, have come across as boors, bitches, and self-absorbed bastards [no..I won’t name names].  In my years in politics, I went through the same experience, except that occurred in the back rooms, so to speak, because any competent politician, in general, is warm and caring in public… or at least careful in dealing with anyone who can vote or contribute or give good media coverage. 

Now… not all geniuses are uncaring, self-centered egotists, but from what I’ve seen, a disproportionate number are – especially in private or when they think they can get away with such behavior.  What is it about so many people who have great talent that makes them so indifferent to the feelings of others and so willing to tromp over others – even when it gains them nothing and often costs them far more than they realize? That might just be a reason why the career of pop music phenoms average 18 months.

Some have claimed that such egotistic behavior is one of the costs of or prices for genius.  I don’t buy that.  I suspect that people tend to excuse behaviors by those with great talent, wealth, or power that they would not tolerate in others.  I understand [but still find repulsive] such excuses when people feel they must ignore or excuse bad behavior by those with great power, as in the case of corporate subordinates of egocentric CEOs, because calling your boss on bad behavior is usually a career-limiting move.  And I have to admit that I’ve never understood the appeal of rock stars or popular musicians whose popularity seems to be enhanced by bad behavior.  That might possibly be because fans wish they could do the same and identify with it, but, elitist that I am, I much prefer quiet class to the openly displayed arrogance of power.

As I’ve noted before, in the corporate area, competent and quiet CEOs almost always outperform the egocentric ones, but both the public and the media seem all too willing to praise the egotists, at least until they fail… and most do.  As for Mozart, while his music lives on, he was buried almost without mourners in an unmarked grave.  Maybe that fact ought to be trumpeted a bit more.