Archive for May, 2013

The Value of Prevention… and the Question of Responsibility

One of the functions that government performs best, in the sense that it is a function that can seldom be performed on a societal-wide basis by any other entity, is the one that citizens often have the least understanding of and/or the least willingness to support, with one or two notable exceptions.  That function?  To keep bad things from happening… or from getting worse once they happen.

Examples of such are police protection, trash collection, clean water, and effective sewer systems.  All of these are well-accepted government services with a large element of prevention embodied in their function. Other preventive government functions are not so well understood or accepted.

At one time, environment standards were fought tooth and nail by industry.  Now various industries fight new or tighter emission standards, but those standards are designed for one function – to prevent the emission of pollutants that harm people, and without those standards we had rivers where nothing could live, and some that even caught fire, air that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, water supplies containing virulent carcinogenic chemicals… and so forth.

More than a few people have complained about the massive federal government spending on counter-terrorism, now estimated at $150 billion annually, just in the United States.  In 2011, the most-recent year of the Global Terrorism Index, there were 4,564 terrorist incidents that led to 7,473 deaths.  In the United States, there were actually more terrorist attacks in the 1970s than in any decade since – although the 9/11 attack was the deadliest in U.S. history – but since 9/11 the overall numbers of successful terrorist attacks have continued to decline, almost certainly due to increased security measures and, some would say, a certain restriction on personal freedoms.  But consider this.  Since 9/11, only 37 people have died from terrorist attacks and assaults in the United States.  While this apparatus hasn’t prevented those deaths, how many others has it prevented?  How can anyone tell? 

Vaccination is another area of prevention, although some parents still don’t understand vaccination or the need for it, but that’s an area where some quantification does exist. For example, even today, according to the World Health Organization over 100,000 people die every year from measles, yet there have only been few hundred cases annually in the United States over the past several decades, all of which occurred in unvaccinated individuals.  Before the development of the vaccine, there were often close to a million cases a year in the U.S., and as many as 7,000 deaths.  More recently, nearly a million people died world-wide annually from measles in years before 1999, when more wide-spread use of vaccines became available.  Yet in recent years, there have been parents who insist that the vaccine is more deadly than the disease, despite long-standing figures that shown mortality from measles ranges from one death in a thousand cases in healthy and well-nourished individuals to as high as 300 in a thousand (30%) for weakened or malnourished individuals.  By comparison, severe side effects from the vaccine are less than one in a million, and fatal side effects so low that they cannot be quantified.  For all that, some parents still insist that their child is safer without being vaccinated.

Another area of successful prevention is that of automobile safety. The all-time high in automobile deaths was almost 55,000 in 1972, when the population was a third lower than it is now, but by 2011, that had dropped to 32,367, the lowest total in 60 years. Since 1960, the number of vehicles on the road has tripled and population has increased by 50%, yet automobile fatalities per 100,000 people have been halved.  The cost?  Adjusted for inflation, the cost of an average new car is roughly 140% higher than that of a 1973 new car, when the first significant mandated federal safety standards were imposed.   Assuming that no such standards were implemented, a conservative estimate suggests that we would have seen roughly a half-million more deaths than actually occurred, and most likely at least as many additional injuries. The problem with trying to quantify the costs is that it’s impossible to determine how much of the reduction in fatalities comes from improved design and how much from safety features and other factors, such as seatbelt laws.  That preventive measures have had a huge impact isn’t even in doubt, but we still have thousands of deaths a year because drivers don’t wear seatbelts, either because they don’t think it can happen to them or because they’re exercising a perverse form of civil disobedience.

Similar questions arise in healthcare.  Some critics have pointed out that the largest cause of death in the United States is heart disease, followed by cancer, strokes, and hospital infections.  Yet the most effective form of prevention is a healthy life-style, particularly avoiding obesity, tobacco use, and excessive consumption of alcohol while engaging in regular exercise. For all that knowledge, over forty million people still smoke, and over 30% of the population is obese, while excessive consumption of alcohol is a problem faced by at least 15% of the population. The cost of a single day’s treatment in a hospital for someone with a suspected heart attack can easily exceed $5,000 and the course of treatment for an actual heart attack can run many times that, and we – or our insurance carriers, or both – as a nation spend an estimated $500 billion in healthcare expenditures that could be greatly reduced if more people made, or were able to make, a greater effort toward a healthier lifestyle.

Some kinds of prevention, such as requiring vaccinations, drastically reduce death rates and costs for a tiny fraction of just what burial costs would be.  Others, such as automobile safety features, are still obviously cost-effective, but both are effective because the prevention is not only required, but it can be largely implemented.  Basic environmental standards are clearly cost-effective, but regulators and attorneys continue to argue about the need for tighter or additional environmental regulations and whether they improve health and the environment compared to the cost to those who must comply.  Nonetheless, some kinds of prevention can only be accomplished by government.  No individual, for practical purposes, can prevent air and water pollution or require automotive safety standards, or clean drinking water and safe sewage disposal.

In healthcare, the matter is even stickier.  Healthcare providers – or the government – cannot not only not require people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, but are greatly limited in requiring people who maintain unhealthy lifestyles to pay their full share of the additional healthcare costs required by such individuals. In fact, the current direction of U.S. healthcare is away from requiring individual responsibility, even as a host of government regulations require it in other areas.

Prevention — who pays for it?  Who should?  How much? And to what degree should people be made personally responsible for their own failures to prevent the preventable?

Another Look at U.S. Priorities

A recent Associated Press news story highlighted a fact that we all know – CEO pay has been going up again ever since a brief two year decline following the initial 2007 economic meltdown, and is now at its highest level ever.  In 2012, according to data from Equilar, an executive pay research firm, the “average” CEO made $9.7 million, up 6.5% in 2012 from 2011.  By comparison, the pay for all U.S. workers rose an average of 1.3% per year over the last three years.

Even more interesting is the fact that the two highest paid CEOs were from the entertainment and media industry, with the highest compensated CEO raking in just over $60 million [not including deferred stock compensation].  In fact, five out of the top ten were in entertainment and media.  Another interesting fact is that the area with the highest average CEO pay is health care, while the lowest is that of public utility CEOs, not that they’re exactly impoverished with an average pay packet of $7.5 million.

There are a number of conclusions one might draw from this, but the one that stands out, at least to me, is that the highest paid executives come from the field that provides the least tangible value to its consumers.  We need food, water, shelter, power, heat, and medical care.  We don’t physically need packaged entertainment.  While everyone complains about the costs of health care – and in most cases those costs are far too high – especially when one considers the pricing model of the pharmaceutical industry, where U.S. consumers foot the bill, and the rest of the world gets lower-cost prescription drugs – health care does provide a tangible benefit and has improved our lives.  I’m not sure we can say that about the U.S. entertainment industry.

But entertainment – and today’s media is in fact entertainment, including almost all so-called news – obviously fills a psychological need – and one for which people are willing to pay – and one that is extraordinarily profitable – just like the illegal drug industry.  Come to think of it, there’s a certain similarity.  Both have products that make their consumers feel good, and both have negative long-term effects… and the content of both is essentially unregulated… and both are highly profitable for those at the top.

And like it or not, how we as a culture spend our money and reward those who provide goods and services says more about us than we’d like to admit.

Selective Raises in Higher Education

Last week the head of the Utah State Board of Regents proposed pay hikes for all of the college and university presidents in the state system, as much as by 24% in one case.  The reason cited was that the state has trouble keeping good university presidents.  The past two presidents of the University of Utah now make far more heading large universities elsewhere, and the president of Southern Utah University is leaving to take the head position at Eastern Kentucky University at double the salary he made in Utah.  Keeping Utah education “competitive” makes sense, so far as it goes.  The problem is that it stops with the upper administration.

Faculty salaries at state universities were frozen from 2008 to 2010, and faculty members have received raises of one percent per year for the past two years, with another one percent increase scheduled for the coming school year.  This wouldn’t be all that bad, given the current economic climate, except for the fact that the salaries of existing faculty members have been frozen for something like six of the last twenty years, and annual raises have exceeded 2% only in about three of those twenty years – and faculty salaries on average are in the lowest twenty percent nationwide.

A number of Utah universities have dealt with the salary cap by filling the positions of departing or retiring faculty, partly by hiring more adjuncts and partly by setting a much higher salaries for new faculty, so that longer term and more loyal faculty effectively get penalized… and so that good professors who don’t have to worry about spouses’  jobs or family connections have a tendency to depart for greener pastures, none of which helps improve faculty morale or higher education.  

Yet the Utah legislature, which continually touts education as a priority, spends so little per pupil on elementary and secondary education that even Idaho – the next lowest in the United States – spends nearly  20% more on each student than does Utah.   Utah’s public school spending per pupil is 43% below the national average, and the fact that it has the most crowded classrooms is just one reflection of that.  So is the amount of remedial help high school graduates need when they reach college.

The same sort of mentality applies to the legislature with regard to higher education as well. There’s a great deal of lip service, but a real reluctance to provide funding.  And when university presidents raise money from private donors for needed facilities, the legislature balks at providing the funding for operating and maintaining such facilities.  At the same time, part of the universities’ annual state funding is based on enrollment growth.  So… let’s get this in perspective.  They want more students with less funding for each student, and they require tuition increases, adding to the burden on students, while underpaying faculty, effectively forcing universities to court donors for funds to build needed facilities that the legislature doesn’t want to maintain  … but they want to reward the university presidents.

Does that sound familiar?  Of course.  It’s the current big business model.  As one critic suggested, Utah really shouldn’t be applying the “big business” model to education, not if it wants to improve education.

But then, does the legislature really want that… or just to create the impression that it cares about real educational improvement?  After all, it’s easy to pay the CEO more… and much, much harder and more costly to fix the larger problems.

The Coming Demise of the “Now” Culture?

Human beings have always been creatures of the present, as exemplified by the old saying, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.”  Admittedly, that was originally a soldiers’ mantra, but it is beginning to appear that it’s become almost a way of life now, especially in the United States.

The most obvious aspect of this is texting and tweeting, where people literally risk death to get largely meaningless messages right “now.”  Emails have replaced letters, and a plethora of text abbreviations have proliferated because so few want to spell out phrases – or can – and the result, regardless of protests to the contrary [which have also proliferated], is that language has been not only truncated but cheapened as more and more electronic communicators adopt simplistic abbreviations, rather than attempting to take the time to express their own feelings in their own words.  But then, it may be that they’re simply incapable of doing so.

But there’s another physical problem created by the “now” nature of the internet.  More and more, those who use it are turning from text to visual images, not to mention the various real-time streaming features, all of which consume enormous amounts of bandwidth.  In less than a decade, even with all the planned expansions, the entire internet/world-wide-web is likely to come to a screeching overload/traffic jam halt… unless tens of billions of dollars are invested in new and expanded infrastructure or some new compression or routing routines are adopted.  Even so, the speeds of today may soon be a thing of the past.

As I’ve noted a number of times, the business/corporate sector has been totally co-opted by the “now.”   Long-term planning is 18 months.  The value of a corporation is strictly based on current stock prices, revenues, and sales, and at the slightest whiff of news – good or bad – that value instantly changes. Corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, to gain an advantage of little more than nanoseconds in securities trading.  Yet, over the past few years, we’ve had several “flash crashes” in the stock market, the last one resulting from hacked phony information fed from an AP account.  And yet, for all these warnings, the need and desire for “profit now,” has resulted in even greater reliance on high-speed, algorithm-based computerized program trading… putting the global banking and financial system at even greater risk.

We have an national infrastructure crisis, with millions of bridges needing repair, a national power grid that has become increasingly overloaded and fragile, scores of cities with inadequate highway and public transportation systems, an air traffic control system that is already antiquated and susceptible to disruptions, a hundred nuclear power plants with nowhere to dispose of their spent nuclear fuel,  civic water systems losing billions of gallons annually to leaky pipes and conduits – and a political system that won’t deal with any of it because the politicians are too fearful of a public that opposes any tax increases now, regardless of the long-term costs and implications.

As more than a few readers have noted, we also have a parenting problem – because far too many parents don’t want to deal with the present “unpleasantness” of disciplining their children, and because we have too many those same parents not wanting anyone else to impose restrictions on those children, we have marginal, if that, discipline in far too many schools, and far too many young people growing up with little or no idea of the conduct requirements necessary to obtain and hold a job – such as showing up for work every day and on time.

Although everyone pays great attention and lip service to education, the emphasis in practice is almost totally on the present.  How do we raise test scores?  How do we get graduation and retention rates up now? Or at the collegiate level, how can we change education so graduates get jobs now?  Everywhere is the complaint that the cost of higher education falls too heavily on the students, but what is the reaction from state legislatures, who used to fund a significant share of the costs of state universities?  No one wants to raise taxes now; so we’ll hire more part-time adjuncts at near starvation wages and continue to raise tuition.

And what are the other proposed popular solutions to problems in education?  Let’s reward teachers for improvements in testing, graduation, and retention.  Just where is the emphasis on critical thinking?  Or the discussion of what kind of education is relevant for what types of learners?  Or what type of education will foster the ability to allow students to keep learning once they’re out of the education system, something that’s particularly relevant given that, according to an NCES study, 40% of  Americans are either functionally illiterate or are only able to read on the most basic level.  Other studies show that from 33% to 42% of all college graduates will never read another complete book after graduation.

Another aspect of the “now” culture is the inability or unwillingness to look at the implications of current “now” trends.  The other day my wife walked into one of the largest department stores in Salt Lake City, a store that is one of hundreds of a national chain, and walked out, unable to buy anything because “the computers are down.”  What happens when sales and inventory, and even climate control [the air conditioning was “down,” too] are tied into systems that, because of their increasing complexity, are more prone to fail?   Last month, I had to re-schedule a doctor’s appointment because, when I got to the office, I was informed that the doctor couldn’t see me – or anyone else – because the computers were down and no one could access my medical records.  That’s not a big problem for a routine check-up; it’s a huge problem if the emergency room’s access to records goes down.   Banks are trying to become more efficient by greater reliance on electronic banking and ATMs.  What happens when there’s a power failure or a computer failure?  Or a terrorist hacking of the financial system – especially when so many Americans, especially those under 30 or so, don’t even carry any cash and instead rely on their debit or credit card – or their IPhone – to pay for goods and services?

A recent article in the New Yorker featured an interview with the head of the FBI’s cyber-crime unit.  The upshot was that, with a literal handful of exceptions, essentially every single computerized system in the United States is vulnerable to current “spear-phishing” information piracy.  This includes power plants and power distribution systems, air traffic control, public utilities, and all corporate headquarters, including high tech and defense contractors. Even classified plans, such as those for the F-35, the advanced strike fighter, have been pirated, most likely by the Chinese government.  And yet, computer systems security is woefully underfunded at a time when everyone is using more and more computers for more and more information transfer.

Unless matters change, and quickly, I worry that the “now” generation may well end up having neither a “now” nor much of a future.  But then, the future’s not now… so almost no one seems to worry as much as I do.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Over the years, in the military, business, and government, I’ve watched those who’ve been successful, and, especially in larger organizations, or government and academia, an inordinate number of those who’ve been successful in getting advanced have been shameless self-promoters whose acts and accomplishments are far less than what they represent and almost invariably less than those of at least a few of their colleagues.  So why are such individuals so successful?

First, they deceive themselves into believing that they’re better than they are, and having done so, they have no doubts about themselves, unlike more honest and introspective colleagues.  This puts the more honest competitors for the same position at a significant disadvantage. Moreover, often those who might well do a better job, and often have in fact done so, are reluctant to be ruthlessly self-promoting because, first, that kind of self-promotion usually results in denigrating others [subtly, of course, in the case of highly skilled self-promoters] and involves a certain degree of intellectual dishonesty.

Now… there’s nothing wrong with blowing one’s own horn, because, all too often, if you don’t, no one else will. But all too many superiors tend to assume that if someone doesn’t blow their own horn, they have no accomplishments to tout… or that if they tout those accomplishments honestly or modestly, such accomplishments are less that those touted with the equivalent of a full brass band.  And, in all too many organizations, quiet and honest self-promotion gets lost in the din.

Shameless self-promoters are also usually masters at minimizing the accomplishments of others, and the best do it with praise, showing a certain “generosity” that suggests that maybe those accomplishments weren’t that great, but that the individuals are devoted and work hard.

The shameless self-promoters tend to offer simplistic and excessively optimistic solutions, and then blame others when the results don’t materialize, again with that “generous” deprecation, such as “the team tried hard, but…” or “the finance types are good people, but they just don’t understand.”  The combination of self-centeredness and simplicity appeals to many harried superiors, because far too many of those superiors don’t want to hear of difficulties, needs for more resources, etc.

The shameless self-promoters are extraordinarily adept at “sucking up” to those above them who can help them rise in the organization and politely ignoring those who cannot… but once they’ve reached a level where those who once helped them can no longer do so, the self-promoter will quickly and quietly move away and find others even higher up to whom he or she can address praise and interest.

Now… there’s no secret to this general pattern or formula of behavior.  It’s been noted for generations.  What I find so amazing is that it continues to work, generation after generation, in culture after culture.

Beliefs, Fundamentals, and Extremes

From what I’ve observed, and from what history reports, the majority of violence wreaked in human history has been primarily caused by two kinds of people – by those who are mentally unbalanced, either temporarily or permanently, and by those with extreme views of some sort [and some might claim that extreme views are a form of mental imbalance, but I’m not in that camp]. Since I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, I’ll forgo, at least for now, in commenting on mental instability, save that there appear to always have been those who are mentally unstable, and make a few observations on extremism.

To begin with, extremism leading to violence always seems to manifest itself in beliefs of some sort.  These beliefs may be religious, political, social, or even in some other secular area.  This does NOT mean that all extremists are prone to violence, but it does mean that the tendency to violence is far more prevalent in those with extreme views. I’ve certainly met some fairly extreme vegetarians and environmentalists.  I’ve even met a few, believe it or not, extreme pacifists. Certain religions at certain times seem to have created more extremists prone to violence. 

I’d submit that extremism is usually an offshoot of fundamentalist tendencies in an individual’s belief structure, again whether religious, political, or secular.  Those with fundamentalist beliefs of whatever sort share the conviction that adhering to a simple, basic, belief structure is the only “right” way.  Such fundamentalists can be violent and vicious, sometimes against others who believe only slightly differently.  One has only to look at the Hundred Years War, the internecine violence in England in the time of Henry VIII and his immediate successors, the present violence between various Shiite and Sunni factions in the Middle East.  This can occur along political lines as well.  The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party has been merciless in trying to weed out moderate and liberal Republicans.  I’ve been attacked fairly violently for suggesting a few restrictions on gun ownership, and I’ve in no way proposed taking away all guns.

So why do so many “fundamentalists” of all sorts get so angry – and sometimes violent, especially when challenged?

Someone I respect, who has great insight, suggested that it is because everyone has a core set of beliefs, and that those who become most violent are those who, first, identify most strongly with a simple and basic set of beliefs, and second, feel threatened by those who do not believe as they do.  I also think that such individuals are easily angered when they feel others do not “respect” their views.  The last factor is economic.  Often, extremists feel that those who do not respect their views will force them to conform or even take either “rights” or property from them… or they feel that such others already have.  This last case was clearly a factor in the rise of both Communism and Nazism, where the political leadership tied the both real and perceived hardship of the people to specific groups who became the focus of group violence.  Certainly, income and social inequality, real and perceived, have fueled a great deal of extremism  

Do extremists with tendencies toward violence become attracted to fundamentalist extremes, or do groups with fundamentalist extremist views influence their believers toward violence?  Or is it even possible to separate the two.

What is clear from a reading of the present, the past, and history is that there have always been extremists, and that the majority of violence comes from them… and that they go to great extremes [of course] to justify their both their views and their acts as being necessary for either the greater good or for self-defense.

What else is new?

Famous, Happy… and Making a Difference…

This is the season for high school and college graduations… and a time when the famous and semi-famous are often invited to provide inspiring graduation speeches.  I’ve never been asked to speak at any graduation, because I’m obviously not even semi-famous enough, but I’ve often thought about what I might say.

 Over the years, I’ve heard students, in responding to questions about what they intend to do, express sentiments such as “I want to be famous.” Or they want to be happy or rich.  The more idealistic among them want to do something meaningful or “make a difference.”  And, of course, all too often, graduation speakers talk about “these talented graduates” and how they can change the world.  They offer inspirational advice that implies close to instant achievement… and sometimes more.

 Now, perhaps I’ve been at the wrong graduations at the wrong time, but the ones I’ve attended, and there are more than a few, given the number of offspring we’ve had, often miss one of the most basic points.  I’m sure that some speaker, somewhere, has made this point, but I suspect that it’s fairly rare. 

 All the lofty aspirations too many students and speakers mouth are all results, and sometimes, as in the case of being happy or famous, they’re not even goals that anyone can attain directly.  There is no business and no profession that creates happiness or fame directly [Hollywood and the Internet notwithstanding], and there’s not a single profession entitled “make a difference.” To be happy, you have to take satisfaction in what you do in life and in the people with whom you associate.  That means acquiring significant expertise in a field, and that requires, usually, long and dedicated effort.  The same is true of relationships; they just don’t happen.

 As for doing something meaningful or making a difference, that generally requires even more education and years of effort.  In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that in every field, to be successful takes not only innate talent but at least 10,000 hours of dedicated and focused high-level effort.  That’s 10,000 hours of practicing piano or singing, always trying to master more and more difficult pieces, not to mention needing a solid mentor and teacher. That’s 10,000 hours of writing computer codes, building your own hardware and programming it.  That’s generally a minimum of ten years of intensive application in a single field, most of it after finishing formal education.  Athletic success has to start earlier, of course, as does most musical performance, because muscles have to be trained as they develop… but it still takes 10,000 hours.

 So… all those lofty aspirations… those of you about to graduate can pretty much kick them aside unless you want to work with incredible dedication for the next ten years, and that’s just the beginning!  As for the less lofty aspirations, such as being happy, achieving them still requires an interest in and a dedication to something that you like doing that pays the bills, because, frankly put, no one stays happy long if you can’t put food on the table, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head.

 Talent, intelligence, and ideals are just the beginning of the beginning… and that’s something that’s not often emphasized enough.  Not that anyone’s going to ask me to give that speech.

Authority, Civility… and Civilization

Yesterday Ricardo Portillo died in a Salt Lake hospital.  He died from terminal brain injuries caused by a single punch to his temple.  Why?  Because he was a volunteer soccer referee and he had yellow-carded a seventeen year old for excessively rough play.  While he was writing up the yellow card, the seventeen year old walked up and punched him in the side of the head.  Portillo never saw it coming.  I’d like to think that this sort of violence and anger is unusual.  It’s not.

 Everywhere I look, I see a growing anger at authority, whether it’s the referees in sports contests, the police, the government, parents, or children.  And this anger is just like what happened to   Ricardo Portillo, in the sense that it’s all out of proportion to what seemingly generated it.  In Portillo’s case, the player wasn’t even ejected from the game; that takes a red card or two yellow cards. The soccer game wasn’t even in a tournament, just a routine local match.  Week after week, there are stories about angry sports contestants, and even more often, stories about out-of-hand parents and fans.  Referees in most sports take incredible abuse.  Why?  Why should they be targets?  They’re doing their best, and, in almost all cases, especially on the professional level, they’re impartial. 

 Every day, there’s another incident of “road rage,” where someone goes berserk, because of another driver’s behavior.  Sometimes, frankly, it’s understandable, especially when someone tries to cut in front of people who’ve been politely and patiently waiting, in order, but in both cases, that of the initial offender and that of the outraged offender, the individuals are over-reacting and wanting it “their way” regardless of the impact on others – and the results are often tragically out of proportion to the offense.

 We see the same thing in politics and political rhetoric. Day after day, I read and hear the violence in the words of all too many gun owners, everything about how the government will have to take their guns from their cold dead hands, about how the government is out to take their freedoms and their guns.  It’s absolutely senseless. The legislation about which they’re getting so enraged deals with banning one class of guns out of hundreds and limiting magazine size – and as many gun owners have pointedly told me, the magazine size makes little difference.  Obviously, this rage is fueled by fear, but exactly what is there to fear?  The politicians are so cowed by this rage that they aren’t about to do anything, and there has never been anything close to a national consensus, liberals notwithstanding, in the entire history of the United States, for outlawing all individual ownership of firearms.

 This rhetorical viciousness is everywhere, and it often goes beyond rhetoric. The anti-abortion extremists have gone so far as to physically threaten and even murder doctors who perform abortions.  Like it or not, there are two sides to the abortion debate, especially when the life of the mother is endangered, or she is a victim or rape or incest, if not both.  Yet vitriolic absolutist rage isn’t going to solve anything. It’s just going to engender more rage.

 The anger over health care is another example.  The issue is two-sided.  Failure to have health care destroys people and families… and some people simply can’t afford it.  Likewise, many small businesses face crippling financial burdens.  [I’ll admit I don’t have much sympathy for multi-billion dollar businesses like WalMart who hire tens of thousands of part-timers to avoid paying health care… and then cry poor.]  But the vitriol in the rhetoric is astounding.

 According to Theodore Roosevelt we need to struggle for “true liberties which can only come through order.”  He also stated that “The first principle of civilization is the preservation or order.”  There’s also the quote attributed to Jefferson – “Without order, there is no liberty,” but for all the truth behind it, I can’t find any evidence that he actually said it.

 On the face of matters, it would seem evident that without order, societies don’t work, and establishing order requires a certain amount of civil authority, but more and more, Americans, as well as others around the globe, seem to take umbrage when that authority applies to us – or those we support.  It’s all right to use drones against foreign terrorists, but not against American citizens.  Miranda rights are absolutely necessary for American-born citizens [read WASPs], but not for immigrants or foreign-born citizens.  It’s fine when the referee punishes a player on the other team, but not on “our” team, and especially not my son or daughter, and I can yell and scream and threaten the ref.  Or, I can text safely while driving, so that there shouldn’t be any laws restricting my ability to use electronic devices while driving, and I’ll get really angry if I get a ticket for it.  Or, if I’m a celebrity caught driving drunk, I can threaten the officer who arrests me.

 Regardless of who said it or who didn’t, liberty and order are inseparable in any workable society.  Without liberty, the most ordered society will fail, and we’ve seen that happen time and time in our lifetime.  Likewise, without order, there is no society… and no way to protect liberties – except for the strongest and most ruthless.

So why are so many people so enraged at attempts to maintain order? 

The World – A Better Place Today?

If someone had asked that question a century or so ago, in most places in the world there would have been one of two answers.  In the western hemisphere, or in those areas dominated by western hemisphere culture, the answer most predominantly would have been, “Of course.”  And in the remainder of the world, the answer would most likely been, I suspect, a variation on “Has it changed?”

 The problem with trying to answer that question today is defining what one means by “better.”  If we’re talking about general health, better nutrition, less deadly and widespread violence, then, in general, the world is a better place, that is, if you’re not in Somalia, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, parts of Africa… and similar locales. But other aspects of “better” aren’t so clear.

More people can theoretically read, if one defines reading as the ability to decipher the meaning of symbols in print… but, at least in the United States, based on what I and all too many others have seen in higher education, high level comprehending literacy and the ability to concentrate on written material has declined even as technical computer skills have increased. The retained knowledge database of most individuals has declined, most likely because any fact is easily found through smartphones or computers.  Better or worse?  That depends on the definition… and the priorities behind the definition.

 There are certainly more nations where citizens can vote, and according to various foundations, in general there’s more freedom, but given the political structures in many countries, that “freedom” often means little real choice, which means that matters may be “better” politically, but not nearly so much better as the Pollyannas claim.

 In the high-tech western nations, child labor is rare, and air and water pollution is far less than it was a century ago…but in all too much of the world, those conditions are likely worse.  Whether matters are better depends on where you are… and how high – or low – your income is.

 The problem with deciding whether the world is a better or worse place is that most of us decide based on where we live, and no one place is representative of the world.  More troubling than that is the fact that most of those who can make their views known about the state of the world are those who are anything but representative, because in a media intensive world, the vast majority of those who can even participate are the comparatively more affluent and advantaged. This isn’t anything new; it goes back as far as the invention of writing because, then, only the advantaged could write [and even the slaves who served as scribes were more advantaged than most others].

 In the end, it’s a good idea to remember that “better” is a comparative, and that it all depends on what is being compared by whom… and for what reason.