Archive for November, 2012

Your Politics – Nature or Nurture?

Why do people vote the way they do… and believe what they do?  A growing number of studies show a link between attitudes linked to heredity and political beliefs.  The issue has gotten hot enough that one U.S. congressman spearheaded an amendment to the National Science Foundation budget last May to cut a billion dollars. While the amendment failed, Congressman Jeff Flake’s second amendment to the NSF budget – one that banned any NSF funding of political science research – did pass, because Flake did not want the NSF funding research into the biological roots of political behavior.

According to a recent article in the British New Scientist, “there is a substantial body of data suggesting that conservatives and liberals really are different tribes, divided not by opinions so much as by temperament and even basic biology.”  Also interesting is the fact that the article and research were written by Americans and published in a British science magazine.  The article itself is comparatively even-handed, pointing out correctly that most research in the field is conducted by liberals and that there are difficulties with some studies.  But one of the underlying problems is that, by temperament and biology, the majority of scientists in most fields, excepting those involving engineering and directly related fields, tend to be “liberal” in outlook and politics.

All that said, more than 25 years of study indicate that political attitudes have a high degree of inheritability, and such studies include identical twins raised in totally different environments, who are far more likely to share political attitudes than do fraternal twins or genetically unrelated family members.  As a rule, but not invariably, conservatives are more likely to prefer people of their own ethnic background, straight people, and high-status groups.  Liberals are more comfortable than conservatives with those of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as with members of ethnic or sexual minorities. Liberals tend to be more morally offended by inequality, while conservatives tend to be more morally offended by betrayals of the in-group, by disrespect for authority, and by signs of sexual or spiritual weakness or impurity.  These characteristics have been linked to anatomical differences in the size of various brain structures.  Conservatives have a higher need for certainty, while liberals tend to revel in mental challenges.

In this regard, I’ve always had the feeling that conservatives can’t find the truth because they’ve known it all along, whether it’s true or not, and liberals will never recognize it because they’re so involved in looking for the next thing that they’ll look right past it.

What is clear about all this research is that all of us are biologically inclined in a certain direction in what might be called our social outlook, some more so than others, whether that direction be conservative or liberal.  What is also true is that each of us does have the ability to examine those predilections… and to decide whether blindly following our feelings makes sense in any given situation or whether we need to examine what we feel more closely. Obviously, both outlooks are necessary in human society… or those with one inclination or the other would have been weeded out or marginalized, and given the near equal polarization in political outlooks in the United States, that hasn’t happened… and that means, again, blind insistence on doing either just the “conservative” thing or the “liberal” thing is counterproductive.  Working out a compromise is necessary.

Unfortunately, I don’t see many signs of this happening in our political situation here in the United States at the moment… and it’s something that needs to occur.  As a society, we can’t afford to follow blindly just one of the genetic predilections that evolved to make us successful hunter-gatherers. Nor can we turn our back on what science is revealing about who and what we are. Those are recipes for disaster in a high-tech complex world.


Black Friday’s True Blackness

The “business model” has triumphed again.  Last Thursday was Thanksgiving, a holiday first officially celebrated in the entire United States on the last Thursday of November as a result of a Presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and then moved to the fourth Thursday of the month by Franklin Roosevelt, in order to give the country an economic lift. Little did Roosevelt know what he started.

This year, from Wal-Mart on – or up – retailers across the United States invaded Thanksgiving with “Black Friday” specials on Thanksgiving Day itself.  Oh, there were Wal-Mart employees protesting at hundreds of stores, but the shoppers largely ignored them and surged into stores, greedily grabbing whatever specials they could find.  From my antediluvian viewpoint, the invasion of Thanksgiving by rampant commercialism signifies, in both a metaphorical and practical sense, that the majority of Americans have become totally unaware of how fortunate we are as a society.  Can we not set aside a single day out of the entire year in which to consider and reflect on those aspects of life for which we are grateful?

Last year, at this time, I cited a short story by Frederick Pohl called “Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus,” published in 1956 and set in a future where the “Christmas season” begins in September, and I wondered how long it would be before Halloween and Christmas squeezed out Thanksgiving.  Based on the blizzard of ads in my newspapers – more than fifty separate ad sections – on Thanksgiving day itself and the media hype of Black Friday beginning on Thanksgiving, it appears as though the original purpose of Thanksgiving has already been all but lost to the “ecstasy of unbridled avarice,” to steal a quote from another Christmas staple.

Then again, perhaps people who cannot maintain a Thanksgiving tradition deserve exactly what they are getting from the businesses who push Black Friday – lots of cheap goods produced all too often in third world sweatshops by people who have little to thank anyone for, fewer and fewer good American jobs…and more than a few business leaders who insist that paying lower tax rates than their underpaid employees is necessary for jobs creation.

Less Federally Funded Science Research?

With the so-called fiscal financial cliff facing the United States government after December 31st, there are likely to be those in the public calling for cuts in “non-productive” federal spending, and one of the perennial candidates is federal spending on basic research in any number of fields, particularly in areas such as solar power and expensive physics research. Some advocates of such cuts claim that the private sector, and in particular, the corporate world, can take up the slack, and some cite the failures in federal research choices, such as Solyndra, the solar power company that received a $535-million federal loan guarantee as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package… and then went bankrupt.

In point of fact, there is a real distinction between basic scientific research and the follow-on development of a new scientific breakthrough into a practical product.  While the private sector can develop new products far more effectively than government can, the private sector is seldom willing to undertake the basic research necessary to make the breakthroughs from which such developments can be made… and the reason is simple.  The vast majority of basic research fails to make such a breakthrough.  Estimates of the failure rate range from 80% to 99.99%.

What is also overlooked is that negative results of research are positive.  They show approaches that will not work and often point the way to those that will.

Thomas Edison tried over 1,000 different substances before he was able to find one that would serve as the filament for a light bulb… and some sources claim it was closer to ten thousand.  Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Octave Chanute, the forgotten mentor of the Wright Brothers, listed hundreds of failed attempts to developed powered flying machines, as well as almost 60 detailed illustrations of different major serious attempts that failed before the Wright Brothers flew. More recently, Bill Gates pointed out that funding basic research naturally has a high failure rate, and that more than 90% of the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency’s projects will likely fail.  Gates went on to note that the U.S. government’s investment in energy research was woefully underfunded and called for a government investment of $16 billion per year into basic research to deliver energy innovation.

Even the one of the most profitable areas in return on research – the pharmaceutical industry – has staggering costs. According to Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, “The average length of time from target discovery to approval of a new drug currently averages about 13 years, the failure rate exceeds 95 percent, and the cost per successful drug exceeds $1 billion, after adjusting for all of the failures.”

The truth of the matter is that, first, the future economic health and physical well-being of the United States depend on continued extensive scientific research, research that a private sector dependent on short-term profitability largely cannot and will not make, and that, if government does not fund such research [and the education of those who will make the such breakthroughs, from whatever part of the globe they come from to be educated in the United States], scientific breakthroughs will be made in countries whose governments do fund that research… or not made at all.

Yet too many penny-wise and pound foolish politicians fail to see the difference between basic research and the subsequent development and exploitation.

The Written Word

Because I’m a writer, I do tend to judge people, to at least a certain extent, by the way in which they employ words, either spoken or written. And because my wife is a university professor, as is another professor temporarily residing with us, the subject does come up occasionally.  In addition, because Cedar City is a university town, we all know other professors and instructors. And… given all that, there is one subject about which all those we know in this field agree:  the vast majority of students matriculating at the university in the past few years are incapable of writing an essay test – about anything.  And most aren’t that much better at writing anything of any length, even with their computer and the internet to help, although some are adept at plagiarism, which they think of as cut and paste.

In the past, while there were some students who had problems with this kind of writing, most students could at least make an attempt that resembled an essay.  In the last two to three years, however, the situation has reversed itself, to the point that, in my wife’s current class, at least so far this semester, not a single student appears capable of writing a coherent essay test… or even a three-sentence short answer.

Mind you, this is despite the fact that the university has become more selective in admitting students, and that scores on the ACT and SAT are higher than ever. Of course, that might suggest that the ACT and the SAT have been dumbed down, but I don’t believe that.  I’ve talked to many of these students, and they’re intelligent.  They just can’t organize their thoughts in written form if they don’t have access to electronic aids, and even when they do, the results are usually pathetic.

Needless to say, this scares me… more than a little.

One of the great benefits of learning to write an essay on a test, or under pressure without computer back-up, is that to be successful, a writer has to organize words, facts, and concepts into a coherent and persuasive form with an underlying structure and logic… and these young people don’t seem to be able to do that.

Part of this is that they also have either great difficulty in remembering facts or no interest in doing so — or perhaps both – and it is difficult to write anything factual that is meaningful without a mental knowledge base.  The ramifications go far beyond writing, because without such a knowledge base, individuals have no factual internal framework by which they can judge the world around them, and their judgments and decisions become governed more and more by their emotional responses to what others have said or done most recently.  This phenomenon isn’t limited to the young, of course, but it appears to be more prevalent there.  How else can one explain the wide-spread lack of understanding about the number of political candidates who flip-flopped on their positions over the course of the last year – and how many people there were who claim that the “media” made it all up?

We’ve already forgotten that electronic books can be re-written without the knowledge of their users, and with a generation that is reading fewer and fewer print sources, and doesn’t seem to want to learn facts in a permanent way, how long will it be before whatever appears in their personal-media-electronica at the moment is the only reality there is to most people?

Or… have we already reached that point?


What “Free Enterprise” Means to Some Republicans

The day after the elections, Robert Murray, the owner and CEO of Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal company in the United States, laid off  156 employees, claiming that the Obama administration was waging a “war on coal.” Murray offered a prayer with his announcement, part of which stated:

“The American people have made their choice. They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals [sic] of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance.”

What makes this statement both ironic and hypocritical is that Murray Energy is hardly a pillar of responsibility. Since 2000, the Ohio EPA has cited Murray’s American Century and Powhatan coal mines for coal slurry leaks on seven occasions, twice for leaks that lasted days and turned more than 20 miles of Captina Creek black. Murray Energy also owns the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County, Utah, which the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) fined $1.8 million for violations that directly contributed to the death of six miners in 2007.  What is worse is that the company ignored MSHA warnings that the operating conditions were unsafe.

All this shouldn’t be surprising, given that Murray Energy and its subsidiaries have one of the worst safety and environmental records in the mining industry. It also shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Robert Murray has been criticized widely for coercing employees and miners to attend a Romney fundraiser – without pay – and has spent years attacking EPA, OSHA, and MSHA for “overregulating” the coal industry.

What bothers me about Murray, and the Koch Brothers, and a number of other Republican industrialists who trumpet the need for free enterprise and less federal regulation is that they’re not talking about reducing bureaucratic nit-picking and regulations that don’t make sense, of which there are more than a few, but about basic environmental and safety regulations.  Murray clearly wants to build cheap slurry ponds, despite repeated failures of those ponds that have polluted streams and sent toxic wastes into water supplies.  He opposes regulations on dangerous forms of mining as a restriction on “free enterprise.”  He’s opposed dust control measures in mines, despite the fact that coal dust causes black lung disease.

In practice, “free enterprise” advocates like Murray want to be free to make money, regardless of the health and environmental costs they impose on others.  That’s not really “free enterprise,” because taxpayers shoulder much of the burden of cleaning up waste spills; other businesses suffer; the families of dead miners suffer greatly; and the government/taxpayers end up paying Social Security disability and Medicaid costs for workers whose health is destroyed by poor working conditions.  And of all of this, Murray and others like him seem to be unaware – or they feel that imposing such costs on others is their right in a “free enterprise” society.

So-called “free enterprise” isn’t.  No business enterprise is without costs, both internal and external, and the question is who pays those costs. Murray’s lay-off of employees is just another example of an egotistical and self-centered businessman who has no understanding of the costs his actions impose on others – nor does he care, except for his profitability, for all of his pious rhetoric [and poor grammar].

So… when you cite the need for free enterprise, think carefully about how free you want it to be… and who really pays for that “freedom.”


Get It Together… and Give a Little

The election is over… and the change favors, clearly but not overwhelmingly, the President’s program [and not necessarily the Democratic agenda], despite any rhetoric from the right.  What is also clear, however, is that the American people expect both parties get to work and hammer out solutions, rather than standing on extremist rhetoric.  What support for that claim is there?  For one thing, in districts or states where the demographics weren’t overwhelmingly loaded on one side or another, the majority of true extremist candidates from either party who were seeking either re-election or election were unsuccessful.  For another, there were more women and minorities elected to the Senate and the House, reflecting a wider perspective than the “rich white male” viewpoint largely represented by the current Republican Party, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.  And at a time when the Republican Party advocated massive change and when most Americans have expressed concerns about the direction of the country, the Republicans actually lost seats in both the House and the Senate. That’s anything but a mandate for continuing obstinacy.  Yet Democrats must also realize that gaining a few seats and winning the Presidency by only a few million votes is also not a mandate for pressing radical agendas.

In practice, this means, if the President and Republican leaders are serious about bringing the nation together and resolving the fiscal cliff and other problems, that each party is going to have to give up some ground.  The Democrats are going to have to stop avoiding the fact that government cannot continue deficit spending indefinitely.  They should stop insisting that professionals who make $250,000 are “rich,” and they’re going to have to broaden the tax base to make sure that more of the “47 percent” who pay no federal income tax pay at least some tax, because, like it or not, Social Security and Medicare taxes don’t pay for federal government programs. They’re also going to have to take a hard look at existing federal programs and cut back or eliminate those that are wasteful or not critical. They’ll also have to realize that because the economy is still fragile, the necessary effective increases in taxes need to be gradual and minimal… and not targeted at any one group. They also need to realize that the Republicans are not wrong about everything, that such proposals as tort reform and a rethinking of the entire corporate tax structure are in fact vital and necessary.  They also need to recognize that “wealth” is not income, and that even though a tiny minority of Americans has too great a concentration of wealth, for overall continued economic prosperity, government cannot redress that balance through immediately slapping huge higher taxes on the “rich.”

The Republicans, on the other hand, need to realize, first of all, that “no” to everything is not a viable agenda for the good of the country.  They also need to understand that when too many people have too little income, they cannot make ends meet, let alone purchase goods and services that fuel business growth and jobs expansion.  They also going to have to swallow effective increases in taxes, whether through allowing rates to rise – but gradually – or through the elimination of excessive tax breaks – such as mortgage interest deductions on mansions and multiple homes and the elimination of favorable tax treatment of classes of income available only to the truly wealthy – such as carried interest for hedge fund traders and managers.

Both sides need to come to agreement on a viable immigration policy, since the current non-policy is essentially based on “don’t look and don’t do anything,” an approach that blocks the most valuable individuals from immigrating to the United States and ignores the discrimination and abuses imposed on the children of illegal immigrants… not to mention the enormous waste of government resources and human potential.  Again… simply putting up fences won’t work, especially once the economy recovers.

I’ve scarcely touched the surface of what needs to be addressed, but the same parameters apply to the other problems – practical and workable compromises are necessary, and standing on inflexible “principled” rhetoric will only worsen the problems.  Nor will promising “compromise” with rhetoric, but failing to offer substantive concessions to the other side.

None of this will be anything but tortuous, and painful…but it is necessary. Will it happen?  I have no idea… but I can point out the necessity to everyone I can… and hope.


Thoughts on a Coming November Tuesday

I’ve spent much of the last week here in Canada – at the World Fantasy Convention – and have spent some enjoyable hours with Canadian colleagues and friends I don’t see too often, which is not surprising, since I don’t live exactly near Canada, and since too much traveling means far too little writing. It’s also been quite interesting to see the Canadian perspective on the coming U.S. election, including an observation in the Globe and Mail, one of the largest newspapers in Canada, that most Canadians don’t understand why the U.S. election is even close, because most Canadians can’t fathom why there is widespread popular support for Mitt Romney.

Part of that arises, I suspect, because Canadians don’t understand the furor over Obamacare, and there are doubtless other reasons I don’t know. I also suspect those in the United States who support Romney would claim that it’s because the Canadians are all “liberals,” but Canadian politics have trended toward the more conservative in recent years, and the current Canadian prime minister is from the conservative side of Canadian politics [admittedly less radically conservative than the American right wing, but clearly not liberal in most senses of the word]. Certainly there’s no doubt that Canadian banks were and remain far more conservative than are American banks, a fact explained by a Canadian friend’s tongue-in-cheek observation that the United States got more Irish immigrants, while Canada got more of the tight-fisted Scots.

One of the aspects of the Romney campaign that appears to ironically amuse many Canadians is how Americans seem to be blind to… or just ignore… Romney’s blatant flip-flops and vehement denials of proposals and statements that he himself made just months before. That doesn’t exactly surprise me because, over the years I’ve observed that a greater percentage of Canadians I’ve met tend to consider ethical questions somewhat more deeply than do the Americans I know who share similar backgrounds to their Canadian counterparts. You could also say that perhaps it’s because Canadians lag in “adjusting” to the “realities” of the twenty-first century, since their culture isn’t, at least yet, so highly permeated with reality shows, graphic violence, and endless tweets and twitters… and thus, they don’t seem to understand the necessity of continually changing their self-presentation to meet each new situation in the way in which Romney and all too many other American business and political leaders clearly excel.

Whatever the reason, there’s definitely a different outlook from north of the border.