Archive for June, 2017

The Negative Agenda

Hillary Clinton should thank her lucky stars she’s not President. Trump’s election has shown exactly what the Republican agenda is… and isn’t. In point of fact, the Republicans, and Trump supporters [and while they overlap, they’re not all the same in their exact views], all campaigned and were united by a rejection of Hillary and of what they perceived as a Democratic agenda. For all the talk of making America great again, the underlying agenda was primarily negative… and still is.

To begin with, this administration can’t even fill all the political appointments. Why not? Because anyone who ever deviated from Republican doctrine or ever said an unkind word about our dear President appears to have been rejected, no matter how qualified he or she (rarely are potential appointees women) might be. It’s not about who can contribute positively, but about their perceived negatives.

And it’s not just the President. Congress is just as bad.

Even the so-called health care bill is negative – how much can be cut from healthcare insurance spending and how many people can be denied insurance. There’s absolutely no action or interest in the more basic underlying problem – that the profit-obsessed pharmaceutical and health care industries have created a U.S. health care system with the highest costs in the world, for only average health care [unless you’re wealthy].

The environmental agenda is a retreat from environmental and climate improvement based on the fallacious idea that allowing more pollution will revitalize U.S. industry and create more jobs in the fossil fuels industries, when most U.S. coal isn’t competitive economically and when the technological success of oil and gas fracking has not only kept the price of energy down, but made any expansion of coal production unlikely. Where are the [positive (?)] tax credits for environmental improvement? Or for reduction of greenhouse gases?

The anti-abortion agenda is theoretically positive, since it’s pro-life, except that it’s not. It’s pro-birth at any cost, but the same people who are pro-life are not only opposed to abortion and to birth-control, but also opposed to any government support of all the children born unwanted whose mothers have no way to support them, and the Republican contention that abstention from sexual activity will solve the problem is another negative approach that time and history have shown to be flawed. What reduces overpopulation and unwanted children are positive programs of health care, education, and economic improvement, not negatives.

Then there are all the cuts proposed in federal research. Science doesn’t advance without the funding for R&D, and corporate basic R&D is essentially non-existent. Corporate R&D is about creating products, not about the basic science that underpins those developments.

We’re now almost six months into the new Congress, and so far as I can tell, even with majorities in both the House and Senate, neither House has yet to pass anything positive, unless you consider a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans positive. The Republicans have forgotten how to do positive, if they ever knew.

Now… if Clinton had been elected President, given the negative bent of the Republicans, we’d most likely be watching impeachment proceedings going forward, either on Benghazi or on the Clinton Foundation or anything else…because negative is all the Republicans know or care about.

Hillary… you don’t know how fortunate you are you didn’t become President.

The Problem with Profit

The other day, I ran across an article in a prominent business publication [Bloomberg Businessweek] that made the point that bringing back manufacturing jobs to the United States – as President Trump promised – might not be the great thing that Trump and his backers seem to think.

As Bloomberg pointed out, manufacturing has declined to twelve percent of gross domestic product from twenty-six percent some fifty years ago, but total U.S. manufacturing output is actually higher, and the U.S. still accounts for nineteen percent of total global manufacturing, more than Germany’s and Japan’s shares combined, if somewhat behind China’s twenty-five percent. More important, in Bloomberg’s calculus is the point that profit margins of companies actually engaged in physical manufacturing is far lower than in companies such as Apple (with profit margins of 21% on revenues), and which manufactures nothing, but subcontracts out all manufacturing and parts to largely off-shore companies that only make profit margins in the middle single digits [and most of the U.S. suppliers offshore part or all of their contribution]. Yet Apple employs some 80,000 people.

Bloomberg also makes the point that the only way to increase manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is to, in one way or another, raise the price of imported manufactured goods, and that raising the price of imports might well decimate the retail industry, which accounts for 25% of all U.S. jobs and which is already struggling. Yet the bulk of the jobs in the retail sector are among the lowest paid positions, along with food service.

The Bloomberg conclusion is that “Trump should press for an even freer global exchange of goods and services so U.S. corporations can best organize their operations to maximize profits.”

Especially in the retail and service sectors, maximizing profits means minimizing wage costs, relying on part-time employees in order to avoid the higher cost of paying benefits.

The problem with this outlook, as I see it, is that the “high profit” model creates an employment structure where a comparatively small percentage of the workforce is well-paid at creative and professional jobs and where an ever-larger percentage of the middle-class, particularly the formerly modestly well-paid semi-skilled workers, must compete for lower-paid service positions in retail, sales, and other service positions.

What often gets overlooked is that in 1955, U.S. Steel had nearly 270,000 employees, as opposed to 43,000 today. General Motors had 570,000, compared to 200,000 today. Today, the largest employer in the U.S., is Walmart, with something like a million and a half employees in the U.S. Now, high-tech firms pay well, but those high-paying jobs are limited. There’s a reason why the labor force participation of men from 25-54 is the lowest ever — there aren’t enough jobs for which they’re qualified that they want to take. According to Labor Department figures, there are currently some four million unfilled jobs, but there are ten million men in the 25-54 age group who aren’t looking for work, for one reason or another.

But when national growth depends on spending, and the profits go to people who spend a smaller percentage of their income, the high-profit model just might not be the best one for the country as a whole, which doesn’t seem to bother all too many of those who are the beneficiaries of that model.

The “Deep North”

For a good part of my early life, to most of those people I knew, the “deep South” was essentially synonymous with the slave-holding states of the Confederacy and “Jim Crow” politics that enforced segregation and dual school systems for whites and blacks. Then in the mid-sixties came the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which resulted in turmoil and change, but there’s still a lingering suspicion about the “deep South” on the part of northerners and westerners.

When I was in college there was a statement going around that, in the south, blacks could live where they wanted, but they’d better not try to get any higher [economically], while in the north the attitude was that blacks could go as high as they wanted economically, just so they didn’t live next door. Both representations were flawed, but many people accepted them anyway, especially, I suspect, northern liberals. At least, I thought they were flawed, but now…

Recently, a series of reports from the Urban Institute used census figures to show that the ten most segregated U.S. metropolitan areas, both racially and economically, were: Philadelphia, Bridgeport, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Detroit. Interestingly enough, all of them are in the north. Not only that, but the pace of economic segregation has increased since 2000, particularly in the north, but also in places in the Midwest and west. So just how did the north, all those states that fought the Civil War, at least in part to end slavery and racial discrimination, come to be the most notable practitioners of segregation [and the Urban Institute data shows that this trend is increasing faster in the north, as opposed to the south]?

The answer is breathtakingly simple – the use of economics. If you incorporate separate municipalities around cities, then build high-income housing, and zone out low-income housing, you don’t have to engage in overtly racist discrimination. There’s more to it than that, but it amounts to the use of economics and the legal system to break metropolitan areas into economically, and thus largely different ethnic/racial areas. Given that school systems are funded in most states by property taxes, that means that the high income areas can better fund education and all manner of public services.

The “segregation” of property tax revenues means that the economically poorer communities simply can’t provide the same level of public services as the wealthier communities, and with the popular revolt against increasing state and federal income taxes, neither states nor the federal government can make up the difference.

Welcome to the “deep North.”

The Imposition of Meaning

From what I’ve observed, human beings tend to take on one of two overall philosophical attitudes toward life, or to alternate between the two. One “outlook/attitude” is to survive in the least painful or most pleasurable state possible. The other “outlook/attitude” is to seek meaning, either in life, the universe, or the theological/metaphysical beyond the tangible we perceive. Some individuals try to balance both outlooks; few, I suspect, succeed. Part of that problem is that, if one isn’t successful at surviving, one doesn’t have the time or resources to seek meaning.

Most, but certainly not all, intelligent individuals I’ve met want to survive as well as possible, while devoting some time and thought to meaning, almost as sung in the now-ancient pop song, “Alfie,” the opening line of which is “What’s it all about, Alfie?” [The song was first a hit sung by the British singer Cilla Black, and then later recorded by Cher, Dionne Warwick, and Barbra Streisand, as well as more than twenty other singers.]

Now there are those human beings for whom meaning beyond maximization of survival is irrelevant. For those who are truly poor, survival has to come first.

But there are those who carry maximization of survival to extremes. As Bud Fox asked in the first Wall Street movie, “How many yachts can you water ski behind? How much is enough?” For such maximizers, meaning lies in how much power and wealth they can accumulate. Even if they owned the entire earth, what would that mean? [I’ll offer an answer to that at the end.]

Not surprisingly, most individuals searching for meaning seem to seek that through religion, as if nothing else could explain and attribute meaning to anything as vast and majestic as the universe, especially since every decade more refined measurements show that it is far vaster than the last set of measurements found it to be. The usually unspoken part of that quest for meaning is: “How am I meaningful in this universe?”

The answer to that is, bluntly, we’re not. The latest calculation on the size of our universe by the Institute of Physics is that it contains two trillion galaxies, each containing something like 200 billion stars.

We’re only meaningful to ourselves and to those who care about us and – for those who believe in a personal Deity – to that Deity. Yet we all want to mean something, somehow, to someone, or to lots of someones.

The only entities that appear to understand this need are other human beings, and most likely, not even all of them.

Yet, in all too many cases, the followers of each religion or variation of that religion, rather than appreciating the need and the quest for meaning, seem determined that their particular views are the only “true” way of reaching understanding and meaning, and today and historically, seem determined to prove in one way or another, that their belief is the only “true” faith, just as the maximizers of survival are trying to convince themselves and others that billions of dollars mean anything to the universe.

Really? In a universe where the planet on which we live is less than one eighth of one two hundred billionth of one two trillionth of the known universe?

Isn’t that a bit arrogant? Either way?

Maybe we should find a bit more meaning in other people, rather than trying to impose our meanings on them, and in turn, they should stop trying to impose their meanings on us. Then, we might, just might, be able to work on what’s meaningful to all of us.

Book Price Complaints

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more than a few complaints about the price of books, especially the price of ebooks, and how they have gotten more and more expensive, and how the people who complain just can’t afford to buy new books.

How does price factor into this? Since 2013, print book prices have stayed relatively the same, but the average ebook price from traditional publishers has increased about a dollar to about $9.50.

During this period, ebook sales have declined about three percent, while print book sales have increased slightly less than one percent, but what is interesting is that juvenile fiction sales of print books are up 13% since 2013, while adult fiction print books are down by 7%. Those numbers don’t include ebook sales because they’re based on BookScan data, which doesn’t track ebooks. Sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks are up, but, not surprisingly, the sales of mass market paperbacks are down by over 25% in the last four years, and they’ve been declining steadily for almost fifteen years. In most reading categories, print books make up something like 65-80% of sales – except in adult fiction, where ebooks comprise 48% of sales.

The high rate of ebook sales for fiction makes sense to me, because much fiction is read for one- or two-time enjoyment, and ebooks are more convenient for many people, and that convenience is definitely a component in the steep decline of the mass-market paperback. And, no matter what anyone claims, ebook piracy is a definite factor in the decline of the mass market paperback/ebook reading sector, given that ebook sales have been flat for the past four years while mass market paperback sales have plummeted.

As for the complaints about book pricing, I did a little research, and while some of that research involves my own books, that’s because I know the prices and times. For example, the hardback version of The Magic of Recluce was published in 1991, and the list price was $19.95. According to the CPI calculator, which likely understates inflation, an equivalent price today would be $36.67. The mass market paperback version came out in 1992 at $4.99, which equates to $8.80, compared to the current list price of $9.99 [discounted to $7.70 by Amazon], and an ebook price of $10.00. A more recent book, Imager’s Intrigue, was published in hardcover in 2010 for $27.99, and an inflation-adjusted price today would be $31.31, but Treachery’s Tools, a book of equivalent length, published in late October of 2016, also lists $27.99.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness came out as a mass market paperback from Ace in 1969, costing $1.25 for all 284 pages, which would equate to $8.64 today, also now list-priced at $9.99 and discounted to $7.70. Adjusted for CPI inflation, most mass market paperbacks published more than ten years ago cost slightly more today in inflation-adjusted dollars than when published, but given the discounts, actually sell for less.

Yet compared to other forms of entertainment, books are anything but exorbitant. Today, the average movie price in the U.S. for a one-time ticket is $9.00, the average pizza price around $13.00, and a single Big Mac costs just over $5.00, on average, yet people complain about $10-$15 ebook prices. This desire to get books cheaply has had a definite effect on authors and publishers. Many major publishers are barely profitable, even after often massive cuts in staff and editors, and reductions in the numbers of books published.

As an author, I can’t complain,because I make a comfortable living from writing, but while my hardcover sales numbers [including those ebooks released at the same time as the hardcover] are slightly higher than fifteen years ago, my mass-market/ebook sales on an individual title basis [these ebooks being those priced comparably to mass market paperbacks] are down by more than 30 percent, and so is my total income. Without my extensive backlist, the drop would be catastrophic, which is why a number of authors who publish fewer books have literally dropped out of the market. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, this situation affects all but about the top one percent of authors. A recent U.K survey found that of British authors who published work in the previous year, only 11.5% made a living wage in 2015, compared to 40% in 2005.

Author Earnings – a website devoted to writing – recently reported that only 4,600 authors made more than $25,000 a year, and only 1,340 made more than $100,000, compared to 1,696 NFL players in any given year drawing an average salary of $1.9 million. Given the methodology used by Author Earnings, I suspect that those numbers are a bit high, because they’re based on gross sales and include self-published authors, without deducting all their costs of promoting and producing.

So… do you really think that books and ebooks are that expensive?

Americans and Illusion

As a nation, Americans have generally been more optimistic than other countries, but how much of that optimism has been based on facts, and how much on the embracing of various illusions?

Some illusions are deep-rooted, such as the ideal of the United States as “the land of the free.” Well, yes, if, at the time of the revolution, you happened to be a male, white, and a property-holder, but not if you were black and in the American south. Not if you were female, and little more than a chattel of your father, husband, or other male relative.

Slavery was abolished in Great Britain more than 30 years before the U.S. did, and it didn’t take a brutal Civil War in which between 620,000 and 750,000 died. And even after the Emancipation Proclamation and two Constitutional amendments, it took another century, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, for most blacks to even have decent chance at voting. Women didn’t get the right to vote until almost 150 years after the Declaration of Independence.

Illusions have also cloaked American political personalities from the beginning and have continued to this day. Franklin Roosevelt concealed, and the press abetted that concealment, the severity of his disability, as well as his several marital affairs. . Dwight Eisenhower had a public image as a genial, avuncular man, but in private was cold and calculating. John Kennedy was portrayed as a healthy vital young man with a solid domestic family life and a beautiful wife. The wife part was true – although even she hid her chain smoking – but Kennedy was having affairs continually and was actually a sick man racked with a bad back and Addison’s Disease, which required continual cortisone treatments, a condition so severe that when he underwent back surgery in 1954, he actually received the last rites. Yet Richard Nixon was perceived as far less healthy, despite his living to the age of 81. Such illusions haven’t always been favorable. Gerald Ford, possibly one of the most athletically gifted of American Presidents, was portrayed by the press as clumsy, because he had a terrible slice when he played golf and because he once stumbled on camera, but that illusion helped defeat him for re-election, combined with his pardon of Richard Nixon, enabling the genial, honest, and well-meaning Jimmy Carter to be elected, who was, unfortunately, also cloaked by an illusion, that as a governor, he’d been a good manager, when in fact he was an excessive micro-manager.

There’s also the American self-illusion that we happen to be a peace-loving people, except that, paraphrasing Citizen Kane, we’re peace-loving on our own terms… as are most nations. Despite the protection of two large oceans, we’ve managed to get involved in close to a hundred armed conflicts over the last three centuries, including fifteen large-scale wars. We’re also the most gun-toting nation on the planet with over three hundred million firearms in private hands. To me, that doesn’t exactly square with peace-loving.

Then there’s the illusion about having the best medical system in the world. Again, if you’re talking about medicine for those who can afford it, there’s no doubt we do have the most high-tech and advanced system, but if you’re poor – or even rich and ill-informed – it’s another story. We definitely do have the most-expensive health care system in the world and the most technologically advanced, hands down, but the best?

Then there’s the illusion of opportunity. While a century ago, it was truer than now, study after study shows that the odds of an individual’s economic improvement over a lifetime have dropped significantly over the past forty years. Most people who were born at the bottom of the economic ladder will stay there, and most born at the top will stay there. Although the United States is supposed to be a land of opportunity where young people can expect their quality of life will be better than their parents, a U.N. sponsored study shows that the U.S. isn’t even in the top 20 countries when it comes to opportunities for young people, ranking twenty-third on a list of 183 countries based on 18 indicators that measure progress for youth ages 15 to 29. Eight of the top 10 countries are in Europe, plus Australia and Japan. Now because, our standard of living is still higher than in most countries, it doesn’t mean young people are starving, but it’s another indication of an illusion – most young people aren’t going to live comparatively better than their parents did. The same perhaps, but not better.

And one of the problems with all these illusions is that people cling to them, rather than recognizing them, because you can’t change things without recognizing reality.

It’s one thing to have ideals, and to strive for them, trying to reach them, and another to profess that we’ve attained the ideals and that all is well when we’re falling short.