Archive for July, 2018

More of the Same

From what I can see politically, the hard-core Republicans who largely control the Republican Party are more and more worried about the increasingly liberal Democratic Party, and, as a result, are nominating more and more ultra-conservatives, looking for ultra-conservative judges, and doing their best to disenfranchise voters whose districts or ethnicities suggest they might be more liberal. These trends are the result of fears that the “white” and business-oriented culture will be marginalized, and even “socialized” if the Democrats gain power.

In turn, among the Democratic Party, there is a growing liberal groundswell, fueled by a growing hatred of ultra-conservative and discriminatory Republican policies and attitudes, and by a long and barely suppressed anger at Republican tactics they see as oppressive and discriminatory toward minorities and the poor, and benefitting only a tiny percentage of the American people, the richest one tenth of one percent. As a result, more moderate Democrat politicians are being defeated in primaries or being pushed out.

The result of these trends continuing can only be increasing polarization of the U.S. political system. For the first time in a century, and possibly much longer, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Democrats and Republicans claiming to have a “very unfavorable” view of the other party have now reached nearly 60%, and 45 percent of Republicans say that Democratic policies threaten the nation, while 41 percent of Democrats think the same of Republican policies.

A Rasmussen poll claims that nearly half the population thinks that a civil war is likely in the years ahead.


I’d submit that the answer lies in the very human tendency to double-down on cherished beliefs when one is fearful or feels threatened. And right now, lots of Americans feel threatened because, due to rapid changes in technology and economics, we live in a very uncertain time. Less educated white males have seen their economic status and future possibilities dwindle. Minorities and ethnic groups chafe under what they perceive as continued economic and political discrimination, and that feeling is reinforced by Republican efforts to make it even harder for them to vote. The Me Too Movement has pointed out gross gender discrimination, especially by white males, as well as continued underpayment of women in the same positions as men. Industrial automation has cost the nation millions of higher-paid semi-skilled jobs, replacing them with high tech equipment operated by far fewer higher-skilled employees. More education is needed for almost every decent paying job, but the cost of that education has skyrocketed while middle and working class incomes have stagnated. Even the weather is getting more uncertain.

These are just the leading causes of uncertainty, and far from a comprehensive listing, but the political result is that people cling more desperately to core beliefs, even when doing so is only going to make matters worse. Higher technology and climate change aren’t going away. Neither is a global economy. Nor are the concerns of people who’ve been discriminated on account of race, color, creed, or gender. And doubling down on either “business is the only answer” or “more government is the only answer” or “less government is the only answer” or any number of simplistic slogans is only going to make matters worse.

But for all that, simplistic slogans and beliefs continue to prevail, trumpeted by no less than the President.

Free Press… or Fake News?

After CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins persisted in asking President Trump questions he didn’t want to answer, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications chief Bill Shine told Collins she could not attend the Rose Garden event with the European Commission president which was open to all other members of the credentialed media, because Collins’ previous questions were “inappropriate.”

Presidents often don’t like the questions posed by reporters, and they can certainly chose not to answer, but for Trump or his staff to single out one reporter because the President didn’t like the questions is a rather chilling precedent.

During the Obama Administration, conservatives were upset, rightly so, because that administration investigated reporter James Rosen for apparently reporting on leaked material from the State Department. But Rosen wasn’t banned from covering the White House.

The fact that the Trump White House clearly went too far in banning Collins from the Rose Garden was illustrated by the fact that not only were “liberal” media outlets outraged, but so were conservative outlets such as Fox News

The President spends an immense amount of time and Twitter complaining about “fake news,” yet he not only refuses to answer questions on current news, but he bans the reporter who asks them? This is behavior more like third-world dictatorships or Putin’s Russia.

So… is Trump going to ban every reporter for pushing “fake news” if they ask him embarrassing questions that bear on ongoing investigations? Or other matters we should know about?

Just Google It…

How many times have you heard that phrase or something similar… or used your mouse, thumbs, or fingers – or Siri – to look up something you likely should have known… just to make sure… or because it was easier.

That’s fine for simple facts, or even simple numbers, but in most occupations there are methods, systems,techniques… and facts… that a professional in that field needs to know cold – absolutely cold, without having to look them up.

A number of years ago, my wife almost died while emergency room physicians were looking for causes of her incredibly painful symptoms and trying to figure out what was wrong. She was extraordinarily fortunate. The senior surgeon on call arrived and took less than a minute to diagnose that she had a ruptured colon and that she was in septic shock. Even so, it took three major operations and eleven months before she fully recovered. If we’d had to rely on people looking up things, I’d be a widower today.

I was once a Navy pilot. You have to know instinctively a wide range of emergency procedures when something goes wrong. You don’t have time to look them up.

Now, in other professions, it’s not necessarily a matter of life and death, but a matter of time…. Or perhaps keeping your job. Professional singers, especially musical theatre and opera singles, who do live concerts have to learn the music. You can’t carry a score around and sing from it.

One of the things I learned early on as an industrial economist is that there are numbers… and what those numbers mean, really mean. Later on, when I was doing environmental consulting, and looking at epidemiology exposure studies, in one case where I was hired, most of the studies only used either arithmetic or geometric means to represent the exposures. No one seemed to look at the frequency distribution of exposure levels – and they showed a very different picture, essentially that exposures above a certain level had very adverse health effects, and that below that level the effects weren’t discernable, but because the numbers of workers in the plant who were exposed to high levels were very small, and the numbers with low or minimal exposure were far larger, using any kind of mean effectively showed that the health risk was acceptably low. Yet there was no mention of this in any of the data. Everyone was arguing over setting the level of “mean exposure.”

The danger I see today with students is that a great many of them have an attitude of “why do I have to learn that when I can just look it up.”

The problem with that attitude is that, in any professional field, there is information that professionals need to know on an on-going and instant basis to do their job and before they can learn more in order to do their job better.

And “Googling it” just doesn’t cut it.

Entertainment Bias

The other day I came across a magazine ad with the heading of “Attraction Is Only Natural,” a picture below, and the following language:

“The [XXXX] instantly draws you in. And with the instant access to information and entertainment via the intuitive Touch Pro Duo dual touchscreen infotainment system and state- of-the-art sound provided by audio experts Meridian, every journey becomes an immersive, first-class travel experience. You’ll find your preference for the new [XXXXX] is only natural.”

I’m not cherry-picking the text. This was the only text accompanying the graphics, except for the product name, which was Range Rover. The Range Rover may be a luxury SUV, but it’s still a vehicle whose ostensible purpose is transportation, not entertainment.

By the same token, the ostensible purpose of cell-phones is communication, but virtually every new bell and whistle on them seems to focus on entertainment.

Likewise, media news programs focus on entertainment and outrage [which is another form of entertainment]. These days, teachers, especially college professors, are urged to “keep student interest,” which is effectively code for “keep them entertained, no matter if it requires dumbing the curriculum down.”

And this focus on entertainment has a far higher cost that most people really want to acknowledge. For example, over the last decade, texting and walking has caused over 11,000 injuries and deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA figures also show that, every day, nine people are killed and 1,000 are injured by distracted drivers, most of whom are texting or using in-car entertainment devices.

Another lesser cost, but one that is still considerable, is the use of business computers to play games or to access Facebook and other social media. That just might be another reason why businesses are trying to automate more jobs.

And certainly, the news media’s emphasis on entertainment value may have helped their bottom line, but it’s definitely not helped our political situation or public understanding.

Entertainment has its place, but not in everything. Not if we want to survive as an educated, productive, and self-governing nation.

Distrusting The Media

Trump has now declared that “Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people…” In short, any media story or outlet that criticizes him or the actions of his administration is an “enemy of the people.”

Trump is far from the first sitting president to be savaged by the media. Thomas Jefferson loathed newspapers, and he observed that the mass of people “have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.” At the same time he fervently believed in a free press, stating that: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Benjamin Franklin stated, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech.”

On the other side of the coin, in 1914 the German author Reinhold Anton coined the term “Lugenpresse” [lying press] to refer to enemy propaganda. Twenty years later Adolph Hitler resurrected the term in his attacks on the press. Hitler also stated, “It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”

Trump has taken, whether inadvertently or deliberately, the propaganda strategy adopted by Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. As Goebbels stated, “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Goebbels also said, “…the rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious.” In addition, he pointed out, “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

In something like two years Trump has raised the public distrust of the press to a level where, depending on the poll, between forty and seventy percent of Americans distrust the news media.

Last month, a poll from Axios found that seventy-two percent of Americans believe “traditional major news sources report news they know to be fake, false, or purposely misleading.”

A Gallup poll released this week found that 44% of the national sample polled found the news inaccurate and 62% stated that it was biased. Interestingly enough, the poll also found that just 48% of Republicans say they use fact-checking websites when they encounter information they suspect is false, compared with 72% of both independents and Democrats.

So… is this just a phase, or does Trump intend to destroy faith in the news media or his own ends? And do most Americans really care?

The Misuse of Labels

Americans, and perhaps all societies, have a tendency to label whatever they believe in and support in positive terms and apply negatives to their opponents and opposing views.

This shows up especially in political terms, where catchy and short phrases are necessary to make an impact. So that part of the woman’s movement in favor of a woman’s right to obtain an abortion refers to itself as “Pro-Choice” and their opponents as “Anti-Choice,” while those opposing the right to an abortion label themselves as “Pro-Life” and their opponents as murdering unborn children.

Those opposing immigration characterize illegal immigrants a criminals, rapists, and other unfavorable terms, while those in favor of more open immigration tend to characterize such immigrants as refugees and victims of oppression and violence.

Conservatives who oppose federal land policies champion themselves as being in favor of states’ rights, as did slave-holding states before the Civil War, and characterize the federal government as being dictatorial and overbearing, and when they violate environmental laws and regulations by tearing up federal lands, not paying grazing fees, and using firearms to stand off BLM agents, they characterize their actions as freedom-fighting. Those in favor of more environmental and land controls characterize their opponents as criminals and terrorists.

Those in favor of massive tax cuts for the rich and for large corporations claim they’re fighting for economic growth, economic freedom, and against excessive government that rewards the undeserving, while those opposing such tax cuts claim they’re fighting for economic and social justice and against special privileges for the rich.

There are similar arguments for and against more military spending, minority rights and the role of police, the issues of free trade and tariffs, and a host of other issues, but all of these issues are far more complex than the sound-bites and rhetoric make them out to be. The even larger problem and the result of such definitional oversimplification is not only a mischaracterization on both sides, but also a hardening of views and positions that makes working out a mutually acceptable [not ideal, but mutually acceptable] solution more and more difficult.

And the result is that each side, more and more, doesn’t want a compromise, but moral self-justification… which makes the partisans on each side even more self-justifying and less likely to reach a solution.

Changing Times

Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has risen almost 28%, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a rate almost 50% higher than the global average rate. The increase in the rate centers largely on middle-aged white Americans over 50 and among male teenagers 15-19. Although overall teenage suicide rates are still below the national average, they’ve doubled over the past ten years.

What both of these groups have in common is a growing mismatch between personal expectations and an increasingly bleak reality for Americans who do not have the skills to compete for jobs, as well as those who do not have the resources to obtain those skills. Suicide rates for middle aged Americans who do not have a college degree are now more than twice as high as for those who do.

Yet there persists in the United States the myth of the American dream, that anyone can work hard and pull themselves out of poverty. Current statistics show that today only three percent of individuals born in the bottom 20% of the population in income terms will rise to the top 20%. Studies by the Urban Institute and the US Treasury have both found that about half of the families who start in either the top or the bottom quintile of the income distribution are still there after a decade, and that only 3 to 6% rise from bottom to top or fall from top to bottom. The U.S. now has the lowest intergenerational income mobility of any developed country.

How did this happen? It happened because the myth of the American Dream worked, at least in a way, while the U.S. was still a nation with a frontier. Now that the frontier doesn’t exist, it’s much harder to get out of poverty without skills, and skills cost money. Other developed countries offer their poorest citizens more economic, social, healthcare, and educational support.

Because comparatively few poor Americans have access to those resources, and discover that things are not going to get better, more of them have a harder and harder time making ends meet, and, in the end more of them kill themselves.

Yet too many people in the U.S. cling to the myth that anyone can “make it” if they just work hard enough. It’s not true. What is true is that most people with a college education or high level technical skills can make it if they work really hard. The problem is that too many Americans don’t have access to that level of education and training, and, these days, many who do can only get such education by incurring incredible levels of debt.

The United States is no longer a frontier nation. We’re a developed nation, and we need to realize that in our social, business, and educational structures. If the unrest among minorities and the growing feminist stridency don’t get your attention, then perhaps the suicide numbers alone should tell us that.

A Trade War Backfire?

Recently, I’ve heard and seen a lot of negative commentary about how Trump’s stance on tariffs is going to backfire, both economically and politically, but most of that commentary isn’t looking at why Trump is doing what he’s doing.

In the most recent issue of New Scientist [odd, I know], a French economist makes a point that most commentators are overlooking — that most of the economic damage will impact geographic areas in the U.S. that are Democratic strongholds, while strengthening Trump’s political position among his supporters.

In addition, there’s the simple point that Trump knows that most of his supporters don’t know or don’t care about the complexities of economics and trade. One automobile analyst made the point that for every U.S. steel job saved, 16 “downstream” auto jobs could be lost. While those figures are likely worst-case, there isn’t much doubt that increased tariffs will cost the U.S. more jobs than they save, as well as push up the price of U.S. goods. The thought of Mexican tariffs on U.S. agricultural products has already panicked the farm sectors, and Chinese tariffs on soybeans have already impacted U.S. soybean producers negatively. According to U.S. aluminum fabricators, 97% of aluminum jobs in the U.S. depend on imported aluminum, and tariffs will cost U.S. fabricating jobs without offsetting gains in aluminum smelting. There’s already a long list of economic negatives to Trump’s tariffs, with more to come.

But these facts don’t matter to Trump’s base. For the most part, they firmly believe that foreigners are the cause of many of our problems, from immigration to off-shoring of U.S. jobs. The facts show otherwise, and in fact, more Mexican born immigrants are now returning to Mexico than there are new Mexican immigrants [legal and illegal] coming into the United States, but no one is paying much attention. Nor do they care that past trade policies have resulted in cheaper consumer goods for Americans.

These Trump supporters “know what they know,” and what they care about is that Trump is doing what he promised to do. And when it doesn’t work out, Trump will blame the Democrats, especially if they retake the House of Representatives, and Trump’s supporters will assuredly agree with him.

And, unfortunately, most Democrats and opponents of Trump don’t seem to have even considered the grass-roots political impact.

Another Double Standard?

Donald Trump can get away with cheating on his wife with a porn star, talking about “grabbing pussy,” and continually misrepresenting facts and changing his mind, and lying about it, and that’s just for starters… and his ratings among his Republican supporters are increasing. On the other hand, a single, and comparatively mild instance of a forced kiss and grope by Democrat Senator Al Franken forced his resignation and the end of his political career. These are the most glaring examples, but there are many more than a few others.

For the most part, although there are exceptions, at this point in history, Democrats seem to be less forgiving of sexual and ethical lapses by Democratic politicians than Republicans are of Republican politicians.

Is there a double standard?

That’s the wrong question to ask. The more accurate question is why Republicans tolerate, even ignore, behavior that has current Democrats cringing and defenestrating their own politicians after such behavior when their own politicians engage in it and furious when Republicans ignore such behavior by Republican officials.

It’s not a double standard. We’re talking about two different standards.

The values of Trump’s Republican base are anchored firmly in the 1950s, if not earlier, where men expect to be the single bread-winner, where women are subservient to men, where the rest of the world bows to U.S. wishes, where minorities know their place, where every man should have any gun he wants to possess, and where the business of government is business, with minimal government regulation and where untrammeled economic growth trumps the environment and civil rights, with the single later value is that deficit spending should only be used to reduce taxes, subsidize business, and increase U.S. military power.

The majority of Democrats don’t see it quite that way. They tend to believe that women should have control of their own bodies and that women and minorities should be paid equally with white men, that protecting the environment requires greater regulation on business, that the second amendment does allow certain regulations on the use of firearms, that national parks and federal lands shouldn’t be wide open for low-cost mining and extraction, that taxes are a price paid for a civilized society and that the most affluent should pay more of them in return for their affluence.

As a result of these differences, Republicans tend to minimize male misbehavior as “men being men” and to believe that women, minorities, and the poor only have to act like men to improve themselves, even while failing to recognize all the existing barriers to doing that, or the fact that minorities who act that way are considered rude and uppity, and assertive women are bitches. Study after study shows that identical resumes, articles, and work are more highly praised when a “white male” name is attached, and downgraded when a feminine or minority name is attached.

But no amount of logic is going to change values… or an outdated standard of belief that’s also at variance with the rest of the industrialized world. And unlike the 1950s, this time what the rest of the world believes will make a difference… and that difference will be costly to the U.S. in more ways than one, beginning with the oncoming trade war.