Archive for June, 2016

Not Getting It

In the musical Hamilton, there’s a song, although it pains me to call it that, entitled “The Room Where It Happens,” which deals with the whole idea of compromises and deals made behind closed doors, as well as a few other matters. In counterpoint to that, a recent article by Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “What’s Ailing American Politics” dissects the reasons for the current failure of the American political system, and much of the reason for that failure Rausch attributes to “excessive reforms,” all made with the best of intentions, but which now, in the age of excessive media coverage, which he fails to note, interesting enough, has resulted in a situation where political compromises in Congress are essentially almost impossible, except in extreme and extenuating circumstances. In turn, that forces the President to use what administrative tools he or she has in order to get much accomplished, and that, in turn angers Congress more and further polarizes the political spectrum.

As illustrated both in history and the Hamilton musical, in the past often the bitterest of political opponents managed to hammer out compromises – except on one issue, that of slavery, which failure led inexorably to the Civil War. Some have said it was over states’ rights, but the principal reason for wanting a greater degree of states’ rights in the old South was the perceived need to continue the institution of slavery. In the end, however, that failure to reach an accommodation resulted in the bloodiest war in U.S. history. In an intellectual sense, and in terms of the views of southern landholders, the need to retain slavery is certainly understandable, since often the majority of the worth of those plantations lay as much, if not more, in the value of the slaves as in the value of the land. And no one likes the idea of an “outsider” confiscating by law family assets and changing an entire way of life, particularly when those in charge of the state governments are also generally from the ranks of the affluent landholders.

Unhappily, we’re seeing a variation on this theme today, where the current “landholders” are various segments of the one tenth of one percent of the U.S. population that don’t want their ways of life changed. The quest for profits and control have become paramount in the U.S. today, particularly the profits of massive corporations, and much of that profit has come from reducing the cost of labor as a percentage of operating costs, either through off-shoring labor-intensive processes or through automation. Although I’ve never seen it quantified, these two initiatives have resulted in the displacement of comparatively well-paid skilled and semi-skilled workers, putting them into the labor pool at a time when not as many other good-paying jobs were being created in the United States. In turn, this effectively restrained wage growth across the entire economy. The result was the effective devaluation of the worth of the minimum wage and general degeneration of middle class wage levels over the past thirty years.

Because of the popular perception that the majority of higher-paying jobs require a college or even a post-graduate degree — a perception that has a great deal of truth in it, but which neglects higher-skilled jobs requiring additional non-collegiate training and education, not surprisingly, young people began attempting to obtain those credentials at an ever higher rate, but with the demand, colleges and universities had to expand, and expansion costs money, which state legislatures didn’t want to fund. So tuition costs soared. And because a great number of parents of these younger people didn’t have the funds to pay for their children’s higher education, unsurprisingly, since their wages hadn’t kept pace, the students took out student loans.

This has resulted in a situation where the U.S. is now producing roughly twice as many college graduates each year as there are higher-paid college jobs for them, and that, in turn, has a depressing effect on the wages and salaries of those who do obtain those jobs, and a debt burden that most likely can’t possibly be repaid be those who have to settle for lower-paid jobs. Another result of all these trends is that we now have possibly the largest percentage of “under-employed” people in the history of the country.

And they aren’t happy about it, as shown by the recent presidential primary campaigns.

Yet those who are responsible for this situation seem to be oblivious to the potential forces that they have unleashed, and they oppose any changes, any compromises to deal with this continuing and growing problem, just as the old South refused to confront the growing problem of slavery. The same is also true, by the way, of the position of the NRA.

As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. I might be missing something, but it seems to me that the Russian aristocracy of 1910, the southern landholders of 1860, and the U.S. robber barons of the 1880s all might rhyme with the U.S. economic aristocracy of today.

That sort of rhyme usually doesn’t turn out well.

Fear and Hatred

I’d be the first to admit that there are people I do not like; faiths which I feel are destructive, prejudicial, and antithetical to human rights; and politicians who I believe pursue unproductive and often evil ends. But, at least so far, I haven’t gone around shooting them or filling the air and the internet with vituperation and hate speech. And I certainly wouldn’t even think about doing violence to individuals merely because of their beliefs, sexual or political orientation, gender, or their ethnic background. I might well consider violence against those who have actually committed violence against others on grounds of belief, gender, ethnicity or the like.

But what I want to know is why so many people in the world believe that it is their right, duty, or obligation to beat up, torture, kill, or restrict the personal freedom of those who do not share their religious faith, sexual orientation, or political beliefs. I can understand locking up people who commit violent acts, and I can even understand violent protests against oppression.

But what earthly or unearthly good is accomplished by staging a protest against someone’s sexuality at that person’s funeral? Especially when someone has been cruelly murdered because of their sexual orientation?

Europe was wracked with centuries of religious wars over which faith would control what government. Tens of millions of innocents died. That was exactly why the Founding Fathers wanted separation of church and state, yet today we now have millions of various religious fundamentalists here in the United States demanding that secular law conform to their beliefs.

Just because it’s far worse in much of the world shouldn’t really offer much comfort. In terms of basic human rights, why should any government have the right to support or to enforce practices that insist that leaving the faith – whatever that faith might be – merits a death sentence? Or that anyone who criticizes or mocks a faith or its tenets or its prophets or leaders deserves to die? Or that genders other than straight heterosexual males have lesser or no rights, or perhaps even no right to life?

All of that boils down to outright hatred of anyone who is different. It’s one thing to hate someone for actual despicable acts; it’s another to hate simply because people are different. Or perhaps, it’s just an excuse to grab or hold power, and that makes it even more despicable.

But then, it’s oh so much simpler just to claim that all differences are “wrong,” and should be punished… or that people deserve what comes to them because they don’t share the same beliefs. It’s funny, too, how so many people who pray to the same almighty god are so willing to kill people who don’t believe in that same god in the same way.

Hatred, anyone?

The Fears Behind…

Last week I watched a gun advocate claim that household guns deter crime. Like most political claims, there is a small grain of truth behind this enormously misleading assertion, but in only one area.

Statistics from the National Crime Victimization study show that having and using a gun did reduce the loss of property against theft. Looking at crimes where the perpetrator’s intent was to steal, the victims lost property in only 38% of the incidents when using a gun in “self-defense,”compared with 56% of the incidents when taking other actions against the thief.

In all other crimes against households, having a gun seems to make little difference in the outcomes. Using a gun in self-defense doesn’t reduce the risk of injury in the case of a break-in or assault in the home. Just over four percent of victims were injured during or after a self-defense gun use — the same percentage as were injured during or after taking other protective actions.

Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicate there are fewer than one hundred burglaries resulting in a homicide in the U.S. each year. BJS statistics also show that there were only 1,600 defense gun uses in the U.S. in 2014, but there were more than 200,000 firearms stolen in household burglaries and property crimes each year.

Studies of all fifty states have also shown that the higher the rate of firearm ownership, the higher the rate of gun deaths. When firearms ownership goes down, so do gun deaths. Likewise, when firearms ownership climbs in an area, increased gun deaths follow, indicating that gun ownership creates more deaths, rather than the contention that people buy guns because they’re reacting to firearms violence.

Nearly two-thirds of the people in the U.S. live in homes without guns, and statistics show no evidence that they are at greater risk of being robbed, injured or killed by criminals compared with citizens in homes with guns. Instead, the evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home increases the likelihood not only that a household member will be shot accidentally, but also that someone in the home will die in a suicide or homicide. In the case of sexual assaults, in less than one half of one percent of the assaults did the victim use a gun in self-defense.

So… given all these statistics, why is there such opposition to even modest gun control measures?

The first reason is fear. People fear being victims, and they want to take action so they won’t be, even if that action creates the certainty of greater gun deaths. It’s in effect a form of selfishness, of saying, “I don’t give a damn about what my actions do to other people; I want to protect myself and my family.” The problem is, as the statistics show, having a gun usually does just the opposite.

Over the years, I’ve seen people lobby and complain about seat-belt laws, initially insisting that seatbelts would trap you in a burning car and otherwise create more deaths. I’ve seen motorcyclists complain about helmet laws and claim that such laws restrict personal freedoms. Or companies complain about environmental laws restricting their emission of harmful pollutants because those laws would make them unprofitable or put them out of business. A tremendous percentage of the opposition to measures that make society safe comes out of the very human motives of fear and not wanting to lose control.

What the NRA and the gun lobby people don’t want to admit is that they don’t really care about anyone or anything else. Their crusade for “second amendment rights” is based on appealing to people’s fear of losing control and becoming victims. We all have that fear. It’s fundamental to human existence.

The problem is that more guns, especially guns with larger magazines and more rapid rates of fire, just make the likelihood of more people becoming victims even greater. And the more victims there are, and the more widely those shootings are publicized, the more fearful people become, and the more guns that are sold, if to a smaller percentage of households.

Fear based on irrational feelings leads to more guns and more deaths by than guns than is the case without guns, and that’s something that’s gotten overlooked in all the furor.

Interpreting Health Statistics

The other day I came across a summary compilation of health care data put out by Optum, which is said to track over a hundred different health metrics across the United States and which shows various regional differences in health problems.

Some of those differences are easy to comprehend, such as the high prevalence of hypertension in the “old South,” because a variety of associated other serious conditions also occur there, including diabetes and high cholesterol, most likely because of a higher level of rural and urban poverty, a diet higher in saturated fats, as well as other factors. Likewise, the incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) occurs in the states with both the highest levels of smoking per capita and the areas with some of the greatest percentages of deep shaft coal mining. For some reason that the Optum researchers can’t determine, lower back pain is the highest in North and South Dakota.

The area that has the highest rate of depression is, according to Optum, the “Rocky Mountain states,” and Optum opines this just might be because people there are just more willing to talk about their depression. I don’t buy it, at least not entirely. When I looked at the map Optum provided, the highest levels of depression coincide, from what I can determine, with the concentrations of LDS population. Now I can see why no health researcher would want to put that in print, but since I’m an economist by training and like looking into numbers, the coincidence was striking.

Also, to me, it makes sense. It’s a well-known and documented fact that the highest rate of Prozac use nationwide is by Utah women, which is hardly surprising, since Mormon women are under incredible social pressure to be perfect in every way, while also deferring, if quietly, to the males in their life. For whatever reason, they have, on average, more than twice the number of children women in other faiths, or no faith, in the U.S. have, yet married Utah women work at about the same percentage as other married women, and, as also documented, for lower wages and salaries than women elsewhere in the United States, and Utah is the state with one of the lowest, if not the lowest, percentage of adult women with a college degree. They’re also expected to be smiling and cheerful all the time.

This suggests to me a great deal of pressure, unrelenting pressure, and unrelenting pressure can often result in depression. This, of course, doesn’t mean all Utah women are depressed, just a higher percentage than women elsewhere in the United States. And, certainly, having more children in a lower-wage state with ten percent of your gross income going to the church might just add some stress to the men as well.

But I can almost guarantee that very few, if any, health professionals will dare to suggest that a particular religion or religion-influenced culture might just have an impact on the incidence of depression.

“Useful” Scientific Research

Once again, members of the U.S. Congress are pounding on the National Science Foundation, demanding that the agency focus on “useful” research. While there is a rather large difference of opinion about what might be “useful” research, there is, I believe, a question of whether any NSF research should be immediately “useful,” especially since the U.S. corporate sector has moved away from funding basic research to a great degree. Various studies over the last five years show that in all fields corporate funding of basic research has dropped to one third the level it was thirty years ago, although total corporate R&D funding has remained comparatively constant in inflation-adjusted dollars. This finding includes the acquisition of start-ups, as well, meaning that even when the basic research done by star-up companies later acquired by large companies is included, overall basic research remains at one third the level of 30 years ago.

Obviously, there are exceptions, such as Google and Elon Musk, but those exceptions are far outweighed by the bulk of corporations, which are far more interested in short-term, incremental research that results in immediate product improvement or new products that don’t require significant development expenses.

At the same time, U.S. federal funding for research and development has fallen significantly over the past 50 years, from almost 10% of the budget in 1968 to around 3% in 2015.

The problem with focusing on “useful” research is that no one, literally no one, knows what basic research will turn out to be useful… or when. Einstein’s theories are absolutely necessary for today’s GPS systems, but it was seventy years or so after he postulated them before GPS systems came into wide use.

When Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered CRISPR, the most powerful DNA editing technology ever discovered, described by the MIT Technology Review as “the biggest biotech discovery of the century,” they were studying the system that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses, not looking for a world-transforming DNA editing tool, which is what it turned out to be.

Google, now a $250 billion corporation, actually got its start with an NSF grant to a research project.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, has been quoted as saying that “the iPhone depends on eight or nine basic technologies, none of which were invented by Apple. Those inventions were discovered at research universities or government laboratories, which were funded by the taxpayer.”

What’s troubling about all of this is that more and more basic research is being funded by governments other than the U.S., and that means that more bright young scientists go elsewhere, and that more and more of the basic research that underlies tomorrow’s technologies is going to come to U.S. corporations second-hand, if at all, and that some of them might also find yet another reason to move their operations and headquarters somewhere other than the United States.

In this world,for politicians, “useful” basic research translates into government-restricted research and far less future benefit for the U.S., a lesson not learned by the late Senator Proxmire a generation ago and still unlearned by senators and representatives today.

Not So Epic Fantasy

My fantasy books are often labeled as “epic fantasy,” but over the years, more than a few readers have complained that I don’t write epic fantasy. One even noted that the only thing epic about the Recluce Saga was the number of books and words. While I disagree somewhat with that description, that reader was on to something.

My fantasy books are largely about protagonists, as individuals, who are involved, or often caught, in epic events that go far beyond them. I write about their conflicts, beliefs, and struggles as they’re caught in times of great change.

Admittedly, in some cases, those individuals are in positions of power, or attempting to get into such positions, but even those who do gain power find that many of the events with which they must contend or endure are indeed beyond their powers. Creslin, in The Towers of the Sunset, discovers that he cannot change the mechanics of basic economics, and he doesn’t create a powerful land from scratch, but rather a small outpost of order that’s just strong enough and tough enough and worth little enough that the major powers don’t want to bother any longer. Cerryl, from Colors of Chaos, discovers that he can either have the woman he loves or children, but not both, and that even as High Wizard, he’s definitely constrained. Dorrin, The Magic Engineer, cannot change the culture of Recluce single-handedly, although what he begins will in fact do that. Even Lorn, who achieves great power, is limited in what changes he can make… and how long they will last.

Part of that is because, for better or worse, what I learned as a junior officer, a pilot, an economist, a political staffer in national politics, and as a consultant is that the sweeping changes and great battles that dominate much epic fantasy seldom happen that way in real life, not that there aren’t occasionally sweeping changes and great battles. Also, societies and their cultures are far more powerful than most people think, and what a single individual can accomplish is anything but unlimited, and that the greater the accomplishment, generally the higher the price.

That doesn’t mean I don’t write about protagonists that don’t accomplish a great deal, just that the focus is more on them, and what they do within the framework of the world in which they exist, whereas, so far as I can determine, “epic” fantasy revolves around great battles that determine the future of the world, or at least a significant part of it… and sometimes the universe. By that definition, I don’t write epic fantasy, and I have no desire to write that kind of novel or series.

Understanding and Perspective

Every so often I run across a commentary or published letter to the editor that both infuriates and saddens me. The great majority of them are along the lines of the most recent one I saw, which is why I decided to comment on it and what it represents. The letter in question asked why we’re spending so much money on space programs and research when so much needs to be done on earth. Besides the point that a tremendous amount of good for those of us on earth has come from such programs, the other point is that the amount spent on space programs is a tiny fraction of the U.S. federal budget. In fact, right now NASA spending is one half of one percent of total federal spending.

In past years, the same complaint has been leveled at foreign aid. Even today, polls show that Americans believe, on average, that 26% of federal spending goes to foreign aid, when the total is actually less than one percent.

Americans believe that ten percent of federal spending goes to pay non-defense federal employees. The real amount is a third of that. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is another area. Americans believe it takes up five percent of federal spending. The reality is one tenth of one percent.

Interestingly enough, popular estimates of spending for the programs that most people find “worthwhile” are far more accurate, as in the case of Social Security, where people believe, again, on average, that Social Security takes up twenty percent of total federal outlays, which it does.

In short, the figures that people use are the ones that support their beliefs, despite the fact that the correct numbers for foreign aid, for instance, have been published for years. And even when “everyone” knows the correct numbers, they can’t or won’t do the figures. An example of this is immigration. The figure of eleven million illegal immigrants has been printed, denounced, graphed, and presented in almost every way possible over the past several years. The U.S. population is now roughly 320 million people, and “legal” immigrants comprise just over ten percent of the population, so that all immigrants, legal and illegal, comprise less than 14% of the total population of the U.S. – as opposed to the 33% that Americans, on average, believe. [Of course, both the correct and the “popular” figures ignore the fact that everyone in the U.S. is either an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants, and that includes Native Americans, although their ancestors arrived some 15,000 years before everyone else’s.]

Such distortions abound everywhere politically. One “liberal” group has been declaring that 57% of the U.S. budget goes to defense spending, except a look at the fine print reveals that’s 57% of federal “discretionary” spending, which doesn’t include the bulk of federal spending. Defense spending amounts to around 21% of total federal spending, possibly as high as 24%, given which recent fiscal year’s data is used.

It used to be said that people were entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Apparently, now, everyone is also entitled to their own facts.

The Politics of Avarice and Belief

There are many ways to define or categorize politics, whether by tactics, structure, customary practices, or other means. One of those other means is categorizing the politics of a system by the basic purpose of such politics. The noted military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted, “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” But what is often missed in that definition is Clausewitz tacitly assumes politics is a form of conflict short of war… and that, in my experience, is certainly true.

While there are many purposes behind political conflict, those that are most basic, at least from what I have observed, are the politics of economic conflict, which one might call the politics of avarice, and ideological conflict, or the politics of belief. Historically, these two conflicts have usually been intertwined to some degree, in that economic systems reflect the beliefs of those in control of the economy and that belief systems cannot persist without economic support.

History has shown that when the politics of belief take control of a society and explicitly dictate who may hold power, or even survive, based on their adherence to a particular system of belief, that’s usually when politics get really nasty, and life gets unpleasant, if not fatal, for those who do not share the beliefs of those in control, as witness Spain under the Inquisition, the Taliban, ISIS, Germany during the Third Reich, and other political systems dominated by a requirement for absolute adherence to a belief.

One might claim that it’s just as bad when pure economics reign, but I’d contend that, while an unfettered market system will invariably create great income inequality, the privations created by that inequality generally don’t create the systemic executions, torture, and oppression regularly imposed by the tyranny of political systems that require adherence to a specific belief structure.

That may be why I have great concerns about those individuals, even those with the best of intentions, who wish to use politics as a means to legally impose belief structures on individuals. A true believer, even with the best of intentions, still poses a danger to all society, while a pure free market advocate poses a danger to the poor and disenfranchised.

Both need to be curtailed, but the danger posed to society by not curtailing the true believers is far greater, something that the Founding Fathers felt most strongly, and that was why they insisted on the separation of church and state, something that today’s true believers would have us forget or ignore.