Archive for March, 2015

Contempt of Business?

In a recent review of one of my books, the reviewer stated that, for a “United Statesman,” I was remarkably contemptuous of business. The reviewer was not an American, obviously, and his views suggest that outsiders believe that Americans are far too pro-business, and that I’m an exception. Yet, I have to say that I never thought of myself as being contemptuous of business in general. Certainly, I’ve been contemptuous of certain sectors, such as finance and mortgage banking and Walmart-style corporations that exploit part-time workers, but corporations and businesses come in all flavors and types, ranging from those on which no amount of contempt would be sufficient to describe their actions to those who act in the manner one would hope all businesses and corporations might.

The problem is, in dealing with business, those meriting contempt and/or regulatory/legal actions to rein in their corrupt and self-dealing excesses are also the most visible, just as the most corrupt and violent individuals are often the most visible. In addition, often unethical or excessively self-serving acts are legal under existing law, which also points out the fact that law can only do so much, and usually does less because of the pressure on lawmakers by those businesses with great resources.

As I’ve stated before, I believe that no truly viable society can long exist without an economy based on at least some form of market economy, but in our world market economies come in all varieties and operate under differing cultural and social constraints. In some countries, the government controls tightly just what aspects of the market are permitted to operate and how. In others, it appears that business can’t be done without some form of bribery, and bribery is a part of their market economies.

Most western industrialized economies either frown on wide-scale direct bribery or theoretically outlaw it, but in the United States we pretty much turn a blind eye away from campaign contributions, which often have operated as either slush funds or deferred retirement accounts for elected officials, meaning that such contributions were nothing more than bribery one step removed. In any case, corporate involvement in the political system has become a larger and larger part of the market economy, simply because the political system sets the rules under which business operates.

And yes, I am contemptuous of those businesses and businesses who attempt to use political influence to tilt the economic playing field in their favor. But then, shouldn’t all of us be contemptuous of that sort of behavior, whether it’s “legal” or not?


Why aren’t things improving in the United States for more people? Some recent studies give a seemingly simple answer with extraordinarily complex facets – because anything that would make a meaningful improvement can be, and usually is, blocked by some entity with the power to do so… and the United States has the most venues for blocking legislative or regulatory action of any industrialized country in the world… and those venues don’t even include the multitude of other options for stopping things from getting done.

For example, one reason [but not the only one] why Republicans opposed Obamacare was that the ACA didn’t include tort reform – putting a cap on outrageous medical malpractice legal settlements. Why Obama didn’t was because the lawyers opposed it, particularly trial lawyers, and they’re big contributors. Those who opposed tort reform claim that malpractice awards are the only check on bad doctors, which is total bullshit. Malpractice claims don’t stop most bad doctors; they just increase the cost of medical insurance for all doctors, most of whom aren’t bad, which increases overall health costs. Stronger rules for medical disbarment would do far more to rid the field of incompetent physicians than malpractice legal lawsuits.

Despite air pollution that is so bad in some areas that thousands are literally dying, air emissions standards that would make the air breathable have been delayed or halted for years because coal and power generation companies have the funds to block them. In Utah, which suffers incredibly bad inversions and air pollution along the Wasatch Front (where most people live), the utility lobbyists have successfully persuaded the overwhelmingly Republican legislature that tighter air standards would be bad for business, despite popular opinion that indicates something should be done.

Then take a look at Congress, in particular, the House of Representatives, where essentially the more conservative Republicans can effectively block legislation, even though they represent a minority of the American electorate, and where the NRA can influence representatives enough that measures favored by seventy percent of Americans can’t even get passed. In the Senate, either party can block – and has – legislation with national support.

Checks and balances are fine, but their application in practice has become a competition to see who can block what, rather than a way to work out differences and get something done.

“Market” Economies

As economists have observed for years, countries that don’t have “market economies” tend to have severe economic and social problems, but outside of textbooks, and even inside them, there’s a problem defining exactly what a market economy is. The traditional economist’s definition of a “free market economy” is one where a willing buyer and a willing seller agree on the price of a good, the idea being that government stays out of setting the terms of the transaction.

There are at least two catches to this definition. First, the term “willing” is usually constrained by reality. So if the only food market in town charges 50% more than the market in the next town, and you don’t have transportation and don’t want to starve, you may pay the prices, but how “willing” are you? In practice, of course, except in times of disasters, the various price differentials aren’t that great, but they do exist.

The second catch lies on the seller’s side. In practice, a seller of a good has to price a good at a level that covers his cost of production or acquisition, as well as his costs of selling it, with enough of a profit to support himself or his business. What has been historically overlooked to a great degree, if less so today, is that many of the costs of production have historically been foisted off on others and not included in the final cost of the good or service. The most notable example of this is air, land, and water pollution, and the costs of cleaning up after industry have become so great that most industrial countries impose regulations on the producers of goods limiting or prohibiting the creation and emission of pollutants. Industry, of course, has historically protested that such regulations stifle a “free market.” That’s not quite accurate. What such regulations do is to give a cost-of-production advantage to those producers who make their products in places with less costly regulations, which is why many multinationals have off-shored their production facilities. What gets overlooked in this “economic” debate are the costs of clean-up and the added costs of health care incurred by those living around highly polluting facilities.

All of this leads to the proposition that a “true” or a “full” market economy is only possible if ALL costs of production are factored into the price of a good or service. Obviously, this isn’t possible, certainly not at present in a world of over 200 nations with differing environmental and other regulations, but it should be used as a standard against which economies should be measured as to the degree of their compliance with market principles.

The idea of the so-called “free market economy” has come to mean in practice the amount of freedom a producer has to foist off costs on the rest of society. The amount of such freedom a producer has is largely determined by two factors – the regulatory structure, or lack thereof, in which it operates, and the amount of financial resources, i.e., capital, it has, which affects its power to influence regulatory oversight. If people who work for a producer or seller of goods cannot live on what they are paid – and that includes not only food and shelter, but medical care and other necessities – and society deems that those workers and their families need assistance to live, in effect the producer has shifted some of his costs to society as a whole, and everyone is taxed to pay for that assistance.

So, in point of fact, goods producers who complain that government regulations hamper the “free market” because those regulations force them to clean up their toxic or unhealthful emissions or by-products or require a living wage are complaining that they’re not as free to impose costs on society as producers in other states or countries are.

And that’s why there is a difference between a “free market” [or capitalistic market] economy and a true market economy.

Songs in F&SF

As most of my readers know, at least in some of my books, people actually sing… and the lyrics almost always have sections that rhyme. For some writers, apparently, this can be a problem. I was recently asked to offer favorable comments on a novel in which song and its singers were absolutely essential elements… and I never found a single rhyming line in any of the lyrics, and no discernible meter, either. Needless to say, I did not comment on the songs, and it was a pretty good book otherwise… but it still bothered me, because I expect more of professional writers – their songs should have meter and rhyme. There are some writers who are actually singers of one sort and another, ranging from classically trained opera singers to bar-room balladeers, and so far, at least, I haven’t seen any of them just toss out phrases and claim that they’re songs.

Heaven knows, the song lyrics in a book don’t have to be great, because the lyrics in most popular songs in most cultures aren’t great, and the folk songs tend to be comparatively straight-forward tales with couplet endings and common rhymes… and most have at least a chorus or refrain.

Some writers have copped out by saying, in effect, “they’re speaking another language, and the song rhymes in their language but not in ours.” Oh? Does that mean the author might not be “translating” the other things they’re saying accurately? If you can’t write proper lyrics… don’t. Just have the characters talk about “another folk song with the same old clichés” about whatever is a cliché in that culture. Or say that the singer’s accent or diction was so bad that the character has no idea what the song’s about. And if you really need a song to make sense, find an old folksong or something that isn’t copyrighted and then change the words to convey what you want in a way that preserves the meter and has a different rhyme.

The other thing about song and culture is that, generally speaking, the less technological the society is, the greater the role of participatory song and music in the life of the average person. Passive listening to song and music is a luxury reserved for the rich or well-off until cultures reach the industrializing level. That’s also why folk tunes have rhyme and meter – because when you’re relying on memory to learn songs, rhyme and meter make it far, far easier.

The same is also largely true of music as an organized form of propaganda. While the American colonists used satiric songs as a motivating tool against the British, and Sam Adams used them in rallies, organized and wide-spread use of music was limited by the lack of technology to amplify the music to reach larger numbers and create motivating spectacles. It’s not an accident that the Third Reich was the first government to choreograph public spectacle and music.

Music is always there in human societies, but how and where it is used, and for what, is greatly influenced by affluence and technology.

Just a few thoughts…

Legislative Foibles

The Utah State legislature completed its usual two month annual session last week. In the course of two months, the legislators increased just slightly the funding for education, but not enough to even come close to changing Utah’s position as the state with the lowest funding per student in the entire United States, or to increase the pay of teachers and university professors, among the lowest paid in the country – but they did approve 35% plus pay increases for the governor and top state elected officials.

Nor did the legislature do anything to deal with the air pollution along the Wasatch Front – where something like 80% of the people live and where winter air quality is so bad that healthy people are often advised not to exercise and asthmatics and those with respiratory problems literally take their lives in their hands by venturing outside. In fact, the legislature passed a bill that forbid any restriction on the use of wood-burning stoves, even at times of the very worst air quality.

The Utah Senate did pass SCR 4, a resolution declared that energy development and grazing were the “highest and best use” for the Cedar Mesa area of Utah, in effect stating that industrializing the Mesa through energy development should be prioritized over preserving sacred cultural sites, Native American traditions and a breathtaking natural landscape that draws visitors from around the world.

Because the legislature was concerned about the availability of drugs for execution through lethal injection, the legislature decided to revive death by firing squad as an alternative.

Oh, yes, the legislature also refused any expansion of the Affordable Care Act in Utah, even though the federal government would pay for it, and even voted down a far more modest proposal offered by the Republican governor.

To cap it all off, after all that, the legislature then approved a bill, and appropriated funds, to pay “stipends” to football players at Utah State – in addition to their full scholarships, for the ostensible reason that doing so would bring more tourism to USU and Logan, Utah.

Single Factor Fallacy

Some of the responses to my recent blogs illustrate a tendency that illustrates a particularly human foible – the tendency to attribute a problem or a success to a single factor. I recently suggested that there were multiple causal factors lying behind fatal police interactions with young blacks, and a number of individuals basically insisted that the sole or the overwhelming cause was the racist excessive use of force and position by police officers and the policing system. There’s no doubt that in many cases, as in Ferguson particularly, such racist excessive use of force exists.

But there are other factors, also important, that have led to situations such as the Michael Brown and Anthony Robinson cases, and they’re continually minimized or dismissed as self-serving conservative or establishment rhetoric.

Young black males commit over a quarter of all homicides in the United States every year, yet those young black males comprise less than one percent of the population. Young white males also have a much higher homicide rate than the average as well, committing 16% of all homicides, but there are six times as many young white males as young black males. It’s not surprising that black males commit the majority of black homicides [roughly 90%], just as 84% of white homicides are committed by whites, because the vast majority of homicides are committed by people who know the victim.

But cities with primarily black police forces, such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, have only slightly lower murder rates than the ten worst cities in the U.S., with rates well above the national average, and the murder rates in many cities with high percentages of black police officers are among the highest in the country.

Regardless of all the rhetoric, there are a myriad of factors contributing to the higher percentage of blacks being killed by police than racist police officers. Poverty is an enormous contributing factor. So is the prevalence of dysfunctional and single-parent families, as is a bias against education among all too many young black males, as are poor schools in all too many minority communities, not to mention the gang structure in many inner cities and minority communities.

And, just as there isn’t one cause of the problem, there isn’t going to be one single solution, no matter how politically convenient that might be.

Where Were the Adults/Parents?

With all the uproar over the shootings of Michael Brown and now Anthony Robinson, I’m very definitely getting the impression that both the protesters and the media are simplifying the situations to the point of tragic absurdity in their single-minded focus on police bias and misbehavior. And no, I’m not condoning any police incompetence, bias, or excessive use of force. But there’s another critical factor that is being totally overlooked. And it’s very fundamental.

Teenagers and even adults in their very early twenties are stupid in their lack of judgment. Virtually all of them, black, brown, white, multi-racial, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, it doesn’t matter. Their brains are reprogramming themselves, and people in this age group make a far greater percentage of bad decisions than they will at any other time in their life. They allow peer pressure to override better judgments because belonging becomes a paramount value. They make unwise spur-of-the-moment decisions based on how they feel right at that instant. They become so focused on the moment that they’ll ignore the dangers involved in texting/cell phones while walking and driving to the point of getting themselves injured or killed or killing someone else. Their hormones are raging and readjusting, and the combination of hormonal and neural readjustment taking place simultaneously often results in poor judgment.

This is nothing new. Societies have known this behavior pattern for millennia, even if they haven’t understood the cause. They also imposed, in various ways, fairly stringent social codes… and the understanding that there were definite and often fatal consequences for bad judgment. For a myriad of reasons, in American society today, the entire thought that there are indeed consequences for actions has been minimized. Add first to that the fact that our advanced technology multiplies the impact of bad judgment. Add second that the pie-in-the-sky idea that any child can do anything. This combination has proved, and will continue to prove, deadly, especially to those young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

A number of the recent high-profile incidents in which young blacks have been killed began with illegal actions that escalated into confrontations. In a good many cases, the police officer felt his life was threatened, and certainly in some, the officer was injured before he fired a weapon. Everyone is asking why the police had to use force, possibly excessive force, and that is a good question, and one that needs to be asked, and answered, and those answers used as the basis for improving policing.

But no one I’ve seen is asking the other question. Why didn’t any of these young individuals understand the fact that there were likely to be adverse consequences for their actions, possibly severe ones — even if the police had managed to avoid using excessive force? Where were the adults who should have pointed out that even petty crimes can blight one’s future? Just recently, the actor Mark Wahlberg petitioned the governor of Massachusetts for a pardon to remove a minor felony conviction from his record because that record of conviction could make it difficult if not impossible to engage in certain business activities. If the white and wealthy Wahlberg is having trouble over one felony conviction, shouldn’t that suggest to minority youth – and their parents — that it’s a very good idea not to engage in illegal activities, that is if they want the best possible future? Or that, even if the police are arrogant and high-handed, getting into a confrontation on the street isn’t exactly conducive to future happiness and success?

This lack of understanding of consequences isn’t a problem confined to minorities, either. My wife, the university professor, deals with it on a daily basis. A significant percentage of first-year college students seem to think they shouldn’t be downgraded for failing to turn in reports on time… or failing to show up for lessons or classes. Many are so thin-skinned that even telling them that they need to improve brings tears to their eyes [and that includes young men]. The music department holds auditions for admittance to the program and to determine which students will get financial aid based on vocal ability. The audition dates are posted on the departmental website, and all students who have expressed an interest are also informed well in advance. Yet applications flood in well after the dates, often even after acceptances have been sent and scholarships awarded. Then there are the college students who don’t understand that they can flunk a class that is largely participation, such as chorus, if they don’t attend. Students are often stunned when they lose financial aid after their grade point average drops to unacceptable levels – but they have more than enough time for partying and social media.

The issue of rape on college campuses is another example – cases of young men from “outstanding” backgrounds not even considering the implications for them and their future – and the fact that such a felony on their record will close off most professional occupations, assuming they can even finish college after a prison sentence.

My niece, a high school art teacher who has won a number of awards for her art and teaching, was verbally assaulted by an angry parent who wanted to know how his son could be flunked from an art course. The parent either didn’t seem to understand that never turning in an assignment for the entire semester and missing a huge percentage of classes was an easy “F” or didn’t even know that his son was such a flake-off.

All across our culture, the message these young people are getting is that the consequences for failing to act responsibly are minimal… and that it’s all the teacher’s fault, or the administrator’s, or the police officer’s. Where are the parents and adults who should be pointing out, early on, that actions have consequences, and that failure to act responsibly can have permanent, if not deadly, consequences?

No…the police and the educators are far from blameless, but blaming it all on them is also a deadly societal cop-out, and it’s also incredibly hypocritical when the police are under immense public pressure to reduce crime and when teachers take all too much of the blame for parental shortcomings.


The problem with the political extremists on the left and right could be described, crudely, is that each side doesn’t believe their excrement is odoriferous. What do I mean by that? For example, the right-wing business types won’t accept the fact that there are some businesses that will do anything to make a profit, no matter who gets hurt. For them, all business is good and can do no wrong. Oh, in theory, they’ll admit unethical behavior exists, but I don’t see many, if any, calling out their wrong-doing peers for excessive greed or unethical behavior. On the left, in similar fashion, there is no such thing as a minority, no matter what that person has done, who can’t be saved by the proper incentives, government programs, therapy or what have you. For gun nuts, everyone should have the right to a gun. For libertarian extremists, any government restriction on behavior or action is bad. I could spend hundreds of words describing extremists of all sorts who deeply, truly, and honestly believe that, if everyone followed their beliefs to the extreme, there would be fewer problems in society, and everyone would be better off, and each one of them can easily point out why any opposition to their views is wrong.

Unfortunately, people aren’t ideals, and almost no one lives up even to their own ideals. There have always been business people who abuse trust, workers, clients, and customers. There always will be. There have always been lazy bums that no amount of coaxing, schooling, therapy or what have you will ever turn into industrious citizens. There are vicious criminals who’ve come from the “best” of backgrounds. That is why societies that work have laws to put restrictions on the worst of those who cannot be trusted to act honestly and ethically.

And for all the pressure for all young people to have a college education, the plain fact is that a significant fraction of young people don’t belong in college and never will. That’s not to say that many of them can’t pursue remunerative careers or fields, because they can, and many of them, if given the right opportunities, may well make more money and be much happier than if they went to college – but this side is never raised by the “no child left behind” or “college for everyone” extremists.

Problems arise, also, when certain groups of people don’t believe that “their group” contains unethical or criminal elements. The financial meltdown of 2008 was essentially caused by two groups of people who had no restrictions on them – financiers out to make a buck at any cost and people either too crooked, too uneducated, or too deluded to pay those mortgages. Both were aided and abetted by Congress and various administrations, which passed laws and regulations mandating, effectively, that almost anyone could take out a loan to buy or to refinance a home, and in fact, made it difficult if not impossible for many lenders to refuse to make loans.

Yet, I’ve seen each side claim that the other was totally responsible, saying, in effect, my shit doesn’t stink, but yours does.

This attitude, although illustrated in the primary cause of the Great Recession, goes well beyond that. Democrats push cost-ineffective social programs on the basis that everyone can benefit, and Republicans push tax breaks and subsidies on the same grounds. The fact is that some social programs work, and some don’t. The fact is that taxes that are either unrealistically low or prohibitively high don’t work, either. And again, both sides agree in theory, but when it comes down to practice, every social program is sacred to that side, and every tax break sacred to the other side.

But, as a society we’ve gotten to that point where the “leaders” in any field refuse to deal with the beams in their own eyes, while decrying the motes in their opponents’ eyes. Because, after all, pragmatism and cooperation are dirty words to extremists of any stripe… and right now, because of partisan gridlock, the number of extremists in the United States appears to be growing.

More Snow Thoughts

Outside of one snowfall right after Christmas, where we live in Cedar City had experienced on of the driest winters on record. From the second week in January until the third week in February, we also experienced record highs for winter, with the high on many days in the sixties and the low not even freezing. In the twenty-one years we’ve lived here, we’ve never seen anything like this. We had tulips actually leafing out – two months ahead of time. Even in a time of climate change, this couldn’t possibly last, and sure enough, it didn’t. On Sunday, February 22nd, it began to snow, and by the time it cleared, Cedar City had experienced another record – 24 inches of snow, an all-time record. By Wednesday, it was into the high forties, and then we had more snow flurries, and on Saturday – the day my wife was directing a multi-state regional singing competition at the university, at five in the morning it began to snow again… and when it stopped snowing at six that evening – about the time the competition ended – we had another foot of snow. Sunday was mostly clear, until sunset, when it began to snow once more, and when that snowfall ended on Monday afternoon, we had another ten inches of the stuff. And yes, I was again very glad for the snowblower I purchased last fall.

Now… we’ve certainly experienced more snow in our lives – every year when we lived in New Hampshire at the foot of the White Mountains, but Cedar City is high desert, and the water content of the snow was also a record. While weather is not necessarily indicative of climate change, what we’ve experienced tends to suggest that climate is indeed changing.

Of course, the fact that local weather and world-wide climate aren’t the same, or even close at times, is a fact lost on certain powerful Republican politicians. While the eastern U.S. has had one of the colder winters on record, the fact is that the planet as a whole is experiencing, so far, the warmest on record, and the west and southwest, and even large sections of Alaska have had far warmer winters than usual. In fact, the part of the U.S. suffering record-low winter temperatures comprises less than 3% of the world’s land, and roughly just as much of the U.S. is experiencing record-high winter temperatures. But then again, when did most politicians ever look farther that their own bubble… or the views of those who elected them?

On a lighter, or at least, more amusing, note, on Monday morning, my wife received an email, as did all the faculty at the university, stating that because of the massive amounts of snow blanketing the university, campus mail would not be delivered until further notice. Classes, however, were neither delayed nor cancelled. Now… if the mail carriers can’t even trudge across the four block by four block central campus… how does the administration expect students and faculty to do so?