Archive for June, 2018

The USPS Mail Scam Game

A week ago, early in the morning, I mailed from the local Cedar City post office, not at an out of the way collection box, some routine paperwork to the accounting office at Macmillan, using first class mail. Yesterday, I got an email from the recipient saying that it had just arrived – six days from Cedar City to New York. It cost fifty cents. If I’d sent it by UPS next day it likely would have cost me close to forty dollars; two-day UPS would have been $26.

But historically, should a simple letter cost fifty cents? In 1958, sixty years ago, first class postage was three cents. If postage had increased only as much as the inflation rate, then first class mail should only cost twenty-six cents, roughly half what it does now.

We don’t get that much first class mail, and most of that consists of bills. What we do get is lots and lots of letters from non-profits asking for money, a number of periodicals to which we’ve subscribed, and over the course of a year, close to a ton of catalogues [and this is no exaggeration because weekly, I cart them to the local recycling bin], most of which comes from companies from which we’ve never ordered anything and never will.

From reading the Postal Service rate schedule and from researching direct mail costs, it appears that each of those one pound [or less] catalogues has a mailing cost of between eighty cents and a dollar fifty.

Theoretically, the Postal Services is supposed to allocate costs of providing services according to the base cost of each class of service under a “common charge” system. Except, in practice, it’s not done that way, and it hasn’t been done that way for at least forty years. How do I know? Because some forty-five years ago, I was a Congressional staffer working for a Congressman on the Appropriations Committee, and even back then the “common charges” were undertariffed and the postal rates for bulk mail, commercial mail [such as catalogues] were essentially based on the marginal costs… and Post Office officials testified that such pricing worked, and I could never get an answer that wasn’t trumped-up gobbledy-gook.

The same thing is happening today. The Postal Service recently entered into a contract with Amazon where the charges for delivering each package roughly average two dollars, half of what other large retailers pay. The lower charges to Amazon were based at least in part on the idea that serving Amazon costs less because Amazon’s shipping was so organized that the effort by the USPS was less.

The problem with this argument is that is doesn’t take into account the heavier load on the USPS infrastructure. It’s marginal cost pricing again, without enough revenue added to support the infrastructure. Charging Amazon on the basis of an accurate proportional common charge basis would add $1.50 on average to delivery changes, which would still be $.50 less per package than for other large retail shippers.

The same system also applies to catalogues. Now, the mail order retailers claim that any significant increase in their bulk advertising rate mail would be prohibitively expensive. I don’t buy it. It wasn’t true forty-five years ago, and it isn’t true now. When companies can afford to design, print, and send us literally tons of unread, unused catalogues year after year, with only minimal increases in their rates [in most years, it’s been 1-2 percent a year; this year was a “whopping” 5.9%], that claim rings rather hollow, but obviously the lobbying campaigns by retailers, manufacturers, and non-profit organizations outweigh any practicality.

Much as I think that there are worthwhile non-profits and charities out there, we’re also inundated by the tireless appeals of both the worthy and the not-so-worthy, sent at roughly a quarter of the cost of a first class letter, and most of those we’ve also never contributed to.

Is it any wonder that the Postal Service continues to lose money?


Generally, the use of logical reasoning is a good thing. Every once in a while, intuition bests logic. Likewise, consistency is usually better than inconsistency. And, of course, continuing leaps of intuition coupled with total inconsistency is a formula for disaster… unless, heaven forbid, you’re a criminal trying not to get caught.

So why do so many people have difficulty recognizing that President Trump’s lack of logic and consistent inconsistency can only lead to more and more trouble, both nationally and internationally? He’s had so many different policies and statements on immigration, trade and tariffs, and civil rights, among others, that I’ve long since lost track.

And while support for his tax cuts is still strong, that’s only because most people have yet to figure out the consequences. Much of the federal tax cut will result in higher state income taxes, and professionals, well-off but not wealthy, in high-tax states, will see their taxes increase. Most of those who actually get a tax cut will find it modest at best, except for the very rich, who will get significant tax relief. Of course, very few people are considering that between the Federal Reserve and the tax cut, interest rates will continue to rise, and that means the new homeowners and those with adjustable rate mortgages will likely see their tax cut vanish into mortgage payments, if that tax cut hasn’t already been swallowed by higher state taxes or lower itemized deductions.

None of this seems to matter to most people, especially to Trump supporters, at least, according to recent polls, since a narrow majority of Americans now like the economic situation, but then most people liked the economic situation in early 1929, or 2007.

Nor does it seem to matter that recent actions by EPA and the Interior Department will worsen air quality in areas already suffering highly polluted air, and that such pollution will cause more deaths from respiratory failure.

What matters to most people is that they think they have a little more money, that the President “sees” their problems, that he’s going to reduce illegal immigration, and he’s going to use tariffs to put in their place those foreign nations that have used unfair trade terms to steal our jobs.

Logic says some of this isn’t even accurate, and that none of this will work out in the long run, and possibly not even in the comparatively near future – but logic has nothing to do with politics, which just might be why our politics are so screwed up.

Significance… Or Insignificance?

Significance? What is it? The leading dictionary definition is “importance” or “of meaning or consequence,” but the problem beyond that is how we as individuals, cultures, and societies define what is important, meaningful or consequential.

What is actually more important to the individual [and human society and culture] is the concept of insignificance, the realization that one may have no import, no meaning, and no consequence to others, to society, to the world or the universe. Study after study has shown that human beings are motivated far more by loss aversion than by hope of or desire for gain. We don’t like losing things, anything, especially a sense of self-worth.

That is why human beings will go to almost any lengths at times to avoid being insignificant or allowing themselves to consider that they are insignificant… and why individuals who believe themselves to be insignificant have a far higher rate of suicide and attempted suicide. It’s also likely why suicide rates are higher in societies with greater levels of income inequality, since people on the bottom not only perceive that their significance is less, but also see that their chances of increasing their significance are low.

Virtually every human society has a creation story or myth involving the creation of human beings by a greater power. Such myths convey a greater significance to the human race and to individuals, as does the concept of a personal god, than the actual possibility that we are merely a product of evolutionary development, and the sometimes violent reaction against the concept of evolution may well lie in the need for significance on both a personal and societal level.

In general, there are two ways to achieve comparatively greater personal significance, first by positive deeds, including accumulation of wealth, power, or knowledge or, second, by reducing the significance of others. Those who cannot achieve greater significance, or as much significance as they believe they deserve, in a positive way often attack anyone who they perceive is not granting them adequate respect – or significance.

Cultural signs of the fear of insignificance – and of the fear that others will attack one’s significance – are also everywhere. One current sign is the anger among certain minorities when someone disrespects, or “disses,” another. Authors get upset by bad reviews , especially those that minimize their work or talent. Negative tweets often generate violent reactions.

Politicians worried about their professional and personal significant take umbrage at negative news coverage, often attacking the media, or claiming that what is reported that is critical of them is “fake news” – especially when such reports are true, or largely so.

There’s an old saying about actions speaking louder than words, and it might not be a bad idea to consider how significant we – and those who lead us – might be by actions, or lack of action, rather than by all the words trumpeting greatness and impugning those who don’t agree.

Lessons from History?

Once upon a time, I was the staff director of a Congressman’s office. He was a Republican. At that time, the Democrats held an overwhelming majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. They also used that power in pushing through legislation to which the Republicans objected violently. Even when the Reagan Administration came to town, Republicans could do little to oppose the Democrats.

So the Republicans began to organize. They created initially small power bases, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee. Over time, other organizations soon followed, as did intensive grass-roots organizing in conservative areas nation-wide. Eventually, the Republicans gained and held a majority in the House and Senate, and just as the Democrats had once done, they began to abuse their power and to push through legislation violently opposed by the Democrats or to block legislation they opposed, even when polls showed that the majority of Americans supported such legislation.

Obviously, this is a pattern in American politics, but what concerns me is how, with each swing of the pendulum, the infighting and the partisanship become nastier and more violent; the attacks more personal; and the intransigence more entrenched.

The last time that political intensity in Congress may have been this intense occurred on May 22, 1856, over the issue of slavery when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate Chamber and physically attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts from behind with a metal-topped cane. Sumner was so badly injured that it took him years to recover. Certainly, the verbal intensity at present is higher, cruder, and more distorted than it has been in some time, and, combined with the political polarization of the two major parties, it doesn’t appear that there’s any sign of moderation on the horizon.

I’m old enough to have seen the swing of politics from one abusive majority to another abusive majority of a different party, but most Americans either haven’t lived long enough to see it, don’t care so long as “their” party prevails, or have no idea what I’m talking about.

History would suggest that this kind of situation, unless defused, will only get worse. The only question may be whether we’re looking at a repeat of 1968 or 1861.

Number Crunching…

More and more, business, government, and education rely on numbers, but from what I’m seeing, fewer and fewer decision-makers understand what lies behind the numbers or how the numbers are being used in ways that border lies, and all too often those in business or government who do understand the numbers are those with essentially few ethical restraints. This isn’t new. Mark Twain noted that, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Right now, there are two disparate trends in number crunching. The first is to use numbers to make everything more “efficient” and profitable, but this emphasis has two distinct problems. First, for the most part, efficiency and profitability are calculated on an ever-shorter time scale, and if something’s not profitable in terms of this year’s or next year’s budget, it tends to get slighted or eliminated, even if total profits/efficiency over time would be greater. Coupled with this tendency is the attitude on the part of decision-makers that can be expressed as: “How can you prove we’ll be better off in the future; today’s hard numbers show we’ll be better off now. Anything farther out is just speculation and guessing.”

In addition, there’s an ever-increasing tendency to use numbers to quantify the unquantifiable or to use data that’s seemingly relevant, but isn’t. More than a few studies have shown that frequent so-called performance reviews that require numerical quantification, to put it bluntly, don’t work. In higher education, the use of student evaluations has a negative correlation to evaluating the best professors, because the best professors require more of students, and, most student down-rate demanding professors. In addition, the wide-spread use of student evaluations has also led to grade inflation. Grade inflation has led to students who are unsuited to higher education staying in the system longer and usually incurring more student loan debt without being able to pay it off. And those are just a few of the problems with numerical quantification of human performance.

Paradoxically, the second discouraging trend in number crunching is the growing disregard for any numerical analysis that requires more spending now to preclude greater future outlays. The most obvious case is that of Social Security and Medicare. Congress and the last few presidents, including the present incumbent, all talk about the coming shortfall, but no one wants to do anything, yet the earlier steps are taken, the less the cost in any one year on any taxpayer. There’s a similar problem with federal deficit spending.

And, of course, there’s the global warming problem, which for all the rhetoric, isn’t going away, and won’t. And each year that meaningful remedial measures aren’t taken means greater future costs. No… in the next few hundred years, we won’t destroy the planet’s environment, but at the current rate of ice-cap melting, which is increasing faster every year than most scientists calculated, in some thirty years, the U.S. alone will have to replace, repair, and relocate millions of structures, highways, port facilities, and utility infrastructures, as well as build seawalls, and redesign and rebuilt harbors and ports — all just to keep places like New York City functional. Just one storm in New York already flooded the subways and cost hundreds of millions to repair. And that doesn’t include all the naval facilities in Norfolk, a good chunk of Florida, Sacramento and the interior bay area, and a great deal of other valuable real estate, not to mention millions of houses and businesses. What no one seems to want to recognize is that we’re facing a monumental construction, relocation, and remediation problem that will cost trillions of dollars just in the U.S.

Yet, at the moment, the U.S. is running a huge current account deficit; the interest on the national debt will soon exceed the defense budget; billions of dollars in student loans will be defaulted; our existing infrastructure is crumbling; and those are just for starters for U.S.-based problems.

Then add to that military problems and massive social unrest caused by tens of millions of refugees fleeing drought-and-flood-caused famines around the globe because of climate change – a fact that the notoriously conservative U.S. military has already raised as a growing problem.

Yet all the politicians are worried about keeping taxes low this year and for the foreseeable future, claiming that economic growth will take care of the deficit and all the other economic problems. Even the most optimistic economists don’t see any reductions in the deficits, and that’s with budgets that don’t address any of the major increasing costs. That means that we’re pushing off addressing all sorts of future problems, in large part because no one really wants to look at the numbers impartially… and especially not if it means taking on fiscal responsibility.

But don’t worry; the worst won’t occur, if we’re fortunate, until most of us are dead.

Don’t Tell Me…

One of the unspoken rules of the current Administration seems to be “Don’t tell me what I don’t want to know.” That’s especially true where science or impartial technical expertise is involved.

For the first time since 1941, there is no White House Presidential science advisor. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, gutted the EPA Science Advisory Board, and replaced the scientists with industry shills. Ryan Zinke, the Interior Secretary, has transferred and otherwise marginalized or replaced scientists. Agency after agency has changed guidance and policy to minimize the use of scientific data and studies.

Why? While there’s been a muted denial of these events and statements along the lines of “redressing the balance” and “ensuring that the views of industry are heard,” the bottom line is simple. Quite a few industry practices are damaging to the environment and to public health, and the science is unequivocal on these points. There is no science that says more ozone from auto emissions isn’t unhealthy, or that fine particulates don’t cause lung damage, or that current coal mining practices aren’t contributing to black lung disease, or that coal mining tailings ponds aren’t endangering community water supplies – just to name a few issues out of many more.

Economists who pointed out that the “tax cuts” would create far greater long-term economic and only a one-time short term economic boost have been ignored, as have those who’ve pointed out that increasing tariffs would lead to trade wars, higher costs of living, and more international tensions.

Mr. Trump’s continual attacks on the Mueller investigation are another aspect of the “don’t tell me” attitude that pervades the administration. When Mueller’s legal team is obtaining not only indictment after indictment, but also guilty plea after guilty plea, it’s pretty clear that it’s not a witch hunt with no substance. There’s also evidence to indicate that a number of people warned Trump about problems with Michael Flynn, and Trump ignored them because it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

Add to that the fact that he didn’t want to hear the irrefutable facts and pictures showing that his inauguration crowd was far less than he claimed or his continual denial of the facts showing that voting fraud by Americans is minuscule, especially compared to the significant evidence that the Russians attempted to influence the Presidential election. From all these examples, and quite a few others, it’s more than clear that this administration is ignoring anything and everything that doesn’t agree with its beliefs, and to a far greater extent than any previous administration, given how pervasive this willful ignorance has already become.

The real question is how long Trump and his supporters will be able to deny economic, scientific, legal, and other technical aspects of reality… and how much it will cost the rest of us to pick up the pieces and repair the damage… and how many people and organizations will be permanently injured by this cavalier mindset of denial.

Income Inequality?

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a great deal of talk about income inequality and also, to a lesser degree, about intergenerational mobility, that is, the changes in a family’s economic status between successive generations. What’s been surprising to some, and what many better-off Americans have trouble believing, is that the United States is no longer the leader in inter-generational family wealth/income upward mobility. A variety of studies over the last decade has shown that the United States had about one third the mobility of Denmark and less than half that of Canada, Finland and Norway. France, Germany, and Sweden also had higher mobility, with only the United Kingdom of this group being less mobile than the U.S. Less than four percent of Americans born to a family with income in the bottom fifth end up in top fifth.

Forty-two percent of U.S. children born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain in the bottom, while 39 percent born to parents in the top fifth remain at the top.

Studies of wealth and income inequality all find that education and parental income play a significant role in determining the income mobility of their children, but there’s one factor that’s all too often downplayed, and that’s the role of family. First of all, the relative stagnation of middle and lower class wages, the rising costs of living, and, frankly, rising expectations – have all made it more and more difficult for families, especially families with children, to live on a single income. Today, men’s earnings still constitute the majority of total family income, but their share has dropped from 75 percent of average family earnings to 61 percent. In other words, for most families, even holding the same income position as one’s parents, let alone obtaining upward family income mobility, requires a couple’s combined earnings. Two-partner families increase, on average and over time, their assets by 16% more a year than single parent families.

But those figures ignore another aspect of family – and that’s the support, financial and otherwise, that doesn’t show up on balance sheets or in statistics. When parents help a couple over a hard financial period, or a medical catastrophe, or even lend a car when one breaks down, these acts of support often prevent the total disintegration of a family’s well-being. Obviously, such support is easier to give and obtain in families with higher incomes, yet this kind of support is even more comparatively valuable for lower middle class and working class families

Unfortunately, as a result of a number of factors, including the fact that financial problems are the largest single cause or marriage break-ups, marriage rates have plummeted in the lower-income socio-economic groups, resulting in a comparatively larger number of single-parent families. While such families have always had a harder time economically and especially in providing the additional education for children that is necessary for their economic success, this change makes it even harder for families in such groups to improve the financial situation.

This is rapidly becoming a vicious circle, because economic inequality reduces marriage rates and educational opportunities for the poorest members of society, which in turn makes it ever harder for them to escape poverty, while improving the opportunities for wealthier families to remain prosperous, even when the efforts and abilities of their offspring may well be less than those of others lower on the economic totem pole.

And, unless we find a way to break this cycle, income inequality and the concomitant anger and resentment of the less-fortunate will continue to increase, and, with it, social unrest and violence.

Hatred and Arrogance

Humans are beings who can both think more deeply than other creatures [at least from what we now know] and feel, often intensely. While these dual capabilities provide certain advantages, they also create problems which we tend to ignore, and this willful ignorance, at which we’re also very good, often makes the problems of overthinking and overfeeling worse.

As I’ve mentioned before, all too many overthinkers believe that correct logic leads to good solutions, but that’s not necessarily true, especially if the premises or assumptions or “facts” are incomplete or incorrect, or if the logic is designed to change people’s feelings, because emotions aren’t easily swayed by logic.

On the other side, strong feelings, especially hatred, can easily turn otherwise intelligent people into stupid idiots. And when hatred is linked to a need to belong to a group, or extreme frustration, and especially to both, the results range from horrible to catastrophic. Riots are almost always the result of emotions overriding intelligence, and the results of riots benefit no one and simply reduce the resources available, and usually that means fewer resources are available to those who had too few to begin with.

This allows those with resources to point out how “stupid” the rioters were, because most riots have the greatest destruction in the areas serving the rioters and the most loss of life among the rioters, at least until the frustration and hated among the under-privileged results in a national revolution, which has happened more than a few times.

Those with resources, more often than not, are not blinded so much by hatred, but by arrogance, or by supreme self-confidence in their own righteousness and abilities, which allows them to rationalize the idea they’ve earned, all by themselves, everything that they have, and that those with less have less solely because they have less ability and less determination.

Each “side” feels the other to be unreasonable and spoiled, and those feelings exacerbate hatred.

And, unhappily, this growth of hatred and arrogance is what has led to where we now stand, which is on a course toward severe social upheaval, if not worse.