Archive for December, 2018

Lying and Untrustworthy

As usual, most of the media and most Americans have missed, overlooked, or minimized the most important aspect of the current partial government shutdown, a shutdown ostensibly over the amount of funding for border security, and, in particular because Congress is paralyzed over the amount the Democrats will accept — $1.6 billion—and Trump’s demand for $5 billion, mostly for “his wall.”

Except that’s not the real story, or not the entire story.  The Senate leadership had earlier gone to the President with the $1.6 billion in funding for the remainder of the fiscal year, and according to Congressional parties, the President had agreed to the $1.6 billion number.  When he received the final bill, however, he rejected it and demanded that the Congress send him legislation with $5 billion for border security, despite the fact that the administration hasn’t even spent all the funding it already has for border security.

Now, after having gone back on his word, Trump is demanding a “counter-offer” from Congress for more wall and border security funding.

Needless to say, the Democrats are furious at the President, and the Republicans are blaming the shut-down on the Democrats’ failure to negotiate, willfully ignoring the fact that the Democrats already negotiated in good faith and that the President went back on his word.  And, of course, there’s also the problem that, over time, walls have never worked, and that despite the President’s rhetoric, illegal border crossings from Mexico have dropped 90% since 2000, and that the majority of illegal immigrants today actually arrived legally, as students, tourists, or visitors.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post just published a story noting that the President averaged over 15 verifiable falsehoods a day in 2018, up from 5 per day in 2017 and describing 2018 as a year of “unprecedented deception” by the President.

Exactly why should the Democrats give in to a lying and untrustworthy President?  And why do Republican politicians continue to support him?

The Problem With “No”

The Republicans have had full control of all three branches of the federal government for the past two years and so far as I can determine, they managed only five things: (1) To keep the government staggering along (until the past few days); (2) to pass a massive tax cut largely benefitting the wealthiest Americans; (3) to pass a criminal justice reform bill; (4) to alienate to some degree almost every other nation on earth except Russia; and (5) to attempt to dismantle as much environmental protection as possible. 

Out of that more than mixed bag, only the criminal justice reform could be considered as positive for most Americans. And now, over the issue of building a wall, they’ve shut down a significant fraction of the federal government.

So why didn’t the Republicans accomplish more?  Because their agenda is almost entirely negative.  Democrats largely want to grant women more control over their bodies; Republicans say no to that, and want to take away the existing control that women have over their bodies. Democrats want to use laws and regulations to improve the environment; Republicans not only say no to that, but also want to remove existing environmental protections.  Democrats want to make it easier for all eligible citizens to register and to vote; Republicans want to restrict the right to vote and have taken active steps to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote.  Democrats are for a single-payer national health care program;  Republicans oppose that and have worked to weaken the existing system, while passing legislation that prohibits Medicare or Medicaid from negotiating lower drug prices, a key factor in making U.S. prescription drug prices the highest of all fully developed nations.

And what changes Republicans do push for are not beneficial for the majority of Americans, because they appear to be for, by their actions:  (1) unlimited rights to bear arms, regardless of the dangers to others;  (2) government control of women’s reproductive rights: (3) incorporating their religious beliefs in law; (4) greatly restricting immigration except to Caucasians and wealthy or highly educated minorities; (5) tax benefits for the wealthy and corporations;  and (6)  reduction of federal benefits to the poor and minorities.

Not only do Republicans fail to have a positive agenda for the country, but they can’t even agree on much of anything, except one thing – to oppose whatever the Democrats propose.

Regardless of the rhetoric, the tax cuts didn’t bring back manufacturing jobs, because many of those jobs didn’t migrate overseas;  instead the jobs were automated/computerized, and the others were so labor-intensive that no U.S. company could remain competitive paying U.S. wages. Since most U.S. consumers won’t pay more for U.S.- produced goods, especially if foreign goods are considerably cheaper, increasing tariffs to stop such imports would choke the U.S. economy as well as increasing the prices Americans would have to pay.

Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, a wall won’t stop immigration.  The U.S. Gulf Coast alone stretches almost 1,700 miles, and for technical, economic, and practical reasons, that can’t be walled off.

So the Republicans have become the party of “no,” except when they most should say no, and that’s to their own President.

Hippocrates Had It Right

According to various accounts, one of the basic principles of the legendary Greek physician Hippocrates was, first, to do no harm.  From what I’ve seen in my life, that prescription is valid as a first precept in just about everything.

That said, I suspect we all know people who feel that you’ve harmed them if you don’t do what they want.  If you fail to cook a favorite food for a partner or guests, but you’re still feeding them, that’s not harm. If you refuse to go to bed with someone, it’s not harm.  Both may occasion disappointment, but they’re not harm. Now… some people are so violent that your failure to meet their expectations can result in harm to you, and that’s another aspect of the “harm” issue, and one with which society has great difficulty handling.

And sometimes, failing to do something is harm.  If you don’t throw a rope to someone drowning, that’s harm. If you fail to feed a starving child, that’s harm.  And, equally, there are times when we don’t know honestly know whether not doing what someone wants will cause harm.

But, for all those possible exceptions and ambiguities, I suspect that most of us have a clear idea of what acts, or failures to act, will cause harm.  So why do we often act in ways that harm others?

One big reason is that, in today’s complex world, we don’t recognize [or sometimes just refuse to acknowledge] acts, or failures to act, as harmful.  As just one example, allowing coal-burning power plants and other fossil fuel burning industrial enterprises to emit high levels of pollutants does in fact harm millions of people.  And yes, requiring present emissions controls will cause certain facilities to be less profitable or others to close.  But the lost profits and jobs, especially in the United States, are small compared to the health impacts.  Yet something like 30% of Americans are in favor of relaxing such controls.  Why?  Because a lost job is seen as far more important than a vague concern about health.  Except, especially in areas like Salt Lake or the Denver Front Range corridor, those health concerns aren’t vague, not if you’re young or old or asthmatic, struggling to breathe.  Although U.S. deaths from air pollution have decreased, something like 71,000 Americans died last year from the effects of air pollution.  By comparison, there are only some 55,000 coal industry workers.  Unhappily, a great number of them will likely also die young because of black lung disease.  So, why, exactly, are so many people backing Trump’s harmful proposals to weaken air pollution standards in order to save the coal industry?  At present, the employed U.S. workforce is around 130 million people.  55,000 coal workers are slightly more than four one-hundredths of one percent [.0004] of the workforce. Not only that, but in many areas, burning natural gas, while not ideal, emits far fewer pollutants and is less expensive.

Another reason for allowing harmful practices to continue us because those practices don’t harm us personally (or we don’t seem to think they do) and we believe they result in more material gain for us, and at least some of us assume that others also benefit, and, all too often, those who are harmed have neither the voice nor the power to stop the harm.

But all the rationalization and justification doesn’t mean that such harms don’t exist, only that we as a society have chosen to do nothing about them.

Economic Growth, Global Warming, and Immigration

These days, it seems like the Trump-Republican “party-line” answers to everything are: (1) economic growth will solve all our problems; (2) global warming either really doesn’t exist or, if it does, it’s an insignificant problem that can be solved by economic growth; and (3) secure borders are vital to keep out immigrants who will take jobs and who cause all our crime.

Logic and facts indicate that economic growth fired by coal-burning power plants and petroleum feedstocks and fuels not only increases the rate of global warming, but also creates much higher levels of air pollution that kill more people. In turn, excessive fertilizer [made from petrochemicals] runoff is increasing ocean algae blooms that are creating larger and larger oceanic “dead zones” where nothing can live, which, combined with overfishing, contribute to fewer and fewer kinds of fish that can be caught. And one of the products of this petrochemical fueled growth is the proliferation of plastic everywhere, which, in the oceans, also poisons scores of types of fish and sea mammals such as whales. Interestingly enough and totally ignored by Trump and his minions is the fact that in the vast majority of cases, coal power isn’t competitive with much cleaner burning natural gas… and won’t be, unless all environmental rules are eased. And do we really want air that’s totally unbreathable, the way it often is in China?

Recent study after recent study shows that global warming not only exists, but that the rate of warming is increasing. In the last month, new studies show that the massive Greenland ice cap is melting something like three times faster than previously measured. Similar melting is also occurring in Antarctica. How much “economic growth” will it take to compensate for flooding half of New York City, Sacramento, the naval facilities in Norfolk, most of Miami and Miami beach, New Orleans, Houston, just to name a very few heavily urbanized areas that are already being affected, and where the effects will just increase?

As for secure borders… as I and others have noted for years, walls have never worked over any length of time in stopping migrations, and in the short times that they have worked, the only way that they have is by killing the people who’ve tried to cross them. The U.S. was all for East Germans and others who fled the Soviet Union, because Americans believed that the USSR was a horrible place to live. Was the USSR any worse than current Central American countries barely governed by corrupt rulers where law and order seldom exist and where gangs murder people on a huge scale? And yes, there are some potential criminals among the immigrants, but the crime rate for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is well below the rate for U.S. citizens. And by the way, the ancestors of a great many Americans were deported from English lands to North America, particularly to Georgia, which was originally founded as a penal colony. So… do we want to spend billions for a wall that won’t work unless we shoot people… or spend even more billions tracking them down after they’ve gone over, under, or around the wall and then deporting them?

Then too, are the Republicans even looking at U.S. birth rates? The birth rate for whites in the U.S. is significantly below the replacement rate. Success in choking off “unwanted” immigration would drastically increase tax rates on younger Americans in years to come – unless, of course, politicians decide to cut Social Security and other benefits to older and disabled white Americans even more drastically.

But these are “only” facts, and until they manifest themselves so absolutely that they cannot be denied or ignored, Republicans will insist that economic growth, however achieved, is an overriding benefit, and that that the waves of immigration that built the U.S. were only good until their ancestors arrived.

The Big Kill/Big Hit Misconception

I know an investor who’s always looking for that one stock that will make him at least a millionaire. It’s never happened, at least not so far as I’ve been able to tell, and he’s lost plenty seeking out those kinds of stocks. People shake their heads when they hear stories like that, but what they so often fail to realize is that our entire society is infected with that same disease, just in varying forms.

All too many people praise and admire those who “hit it big,” whether it’s a chart-topping song, the most home runs in a baseball season, or what team wins the national collegiate football championship or the Super Bowl.

But one of the problems with the big hit is that very few of them last. In writing, there are literally a handful of what the trade calls “evergreens.” According to Ranker, there are a hundred books that have sold more than ten million copies, and that’s over several centuries, although the majority of those have been sold in the last 150 years. Put in other terms, on average less than one book a year sells that way. And last year in the United States alone, over a million separate book titles were published, although two-thirds of those were either self-published or print-on-demand titles. So, if you want to be successful as an author, the odds favor those who can produce good or excellent books consistently over those who strive for the one “big” book, especially authors who labor for years over a single book. For every J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien, there are tens of thousands of authors who make at best a few thousand dollars a year, and usually a lot less.

Who’s a better voice professor – the one who teaches one opera star/Metropolitan Opera winner in his/her career and few others, or the one who turns scores of talented but overlooked students into solid professional teachers and performers but never has a big name performer?

Who’s the better CEO – the one with the headlines who’s gone in five years or the one whom no one has ever heard of who leads a firm successfully for a decade or more?

I know a lobbyist/consultant who’s accomplished quite a great deal for his clients over the past thirty plus years and who managed to get enacted a clause in legislation that radically changed environmental and other regulatory processes in favor of his clients. His name isn’t a household word, unlike scores of other lobbyists and consultants who’ve made the headlines and flamed out or gone to jail, but he’s lived well for a long time on moderate and consistent success.

Now, I’d be the first to admit that there a number of professionals in many fields that have had “big hits,” but they did so on the basis of consistency, not one-shot efforts. Babe Ruth held the major league record for most home runs for years, but he also, even today, has the third most home runs ever, as well as a career batting average of .342 over 22 years. The two who have more home runs than Ruth both played at a high level for 22-23 years as well. The man who took the record from him, Roger Maris, never had another season close to that season and left baseball after 11 years with a .260 batting average.

Yet all too often people think about the “big year” or the big record, rather than the consistency that’s often [but not always] behind it.

The Delegation Myth

There’s a general myth about delegation to the effect that successful people can delegate and those less successful can’t. Like all myths, it has a small grain of truth behind it, but I’ve discovered over the years that the myth serves as a justification for those with resources and power and all too often belittles those with insufficient resources and power.

Once upon a time, I was a legislative director for a Congressman. I worked ten to twelve hour days and took work home on weekends. Why? Because I had a wife and four children and needed that job… and because, at that time, no one else was hiring someone with my skills. I couldn’t delegate the work because everyone else in the office was working nearly as hard… and because Congressional staff budgets are fixed, there was no money to hire anyone else. So we were among the first on the Hill to develop “computerized” correspondence answering systems using electronic typewriters with limited memories [remember, this was 45 years ago]. Getting seemingly personalized responses, however, just encouraged more constituents to write the Congressman. Likewise, other innovations just had a similar result. So, in the end, we all ended up working the same long hours, except we were accomplishing more [and, believe me, all politicians want more].

I could list a range of occupations and professionals in other fields whom I know and who were or are relatively successful, but never made it truly big-time, and frankly, the reason was that they chose not to delegate. Were they wrong? It all depends on viewpoint. Two of them were homebuilding contractors, and they chose not to delegate that much because they weren’t satisfied with what delegation did to the quality of their building. I also knew an attorney who kept his firm small for the same reasons.

In some fields, delegation is a chancy proposition, especially with non-profit or volunteer organizations with limited resources. That’s because because doing anything right and on time takes effort, expertise, and dedication, and if the person doing the delegating doesn’t have a certain degree of control over those to whom work is delegated, the odds are something won’t get done… or done right.

And when the person in charge is the one held responsible, the question is often a choice between spending long hours doing it themselves so that they’re sure it’s done right, or spending less time knowing that the results won’t be as good. Sometimes, it doesn’t make a difference, but when the would-be delegator is publicly and financially responsible for the project, and there aren’t resources to delegate properly, sometimes they just can’t risk delegating… and they’re called “workaholics” or control freaks. Most of the time they’re neither. They’re just exercising self-preservation… and sooner or later, a good many of them will leave that position, and their superiors will wonder why… or come up with the rationalization that the person who left “just couldn’t delegate.”

Who Got You There?

The other day, I was reading an author’s afterword to a book, the kind where the author thanks editors and readers, and family, acquaintances, all of whom made the book possible in the author’s eyes, and something struck me. Rather what hit me was who was NOT thanked, and who seldom is. What about the teacher or the person who turned the author on to reading or writing… or the professor who really helped with developing the author’s ability with words, the early encouragers and mentors?

In my own instance, I know exactly who those people are, and I’ve thanked them repeatedly over the years. My mother was the one who got me interested in science fiction. The late Walter Rosenberry was my high school English teacher who both encouraged my writing and critiqued it unmercifully. Clay Hunt did the same at the college level… and both did so years before I published fiction professionally. That doesn’t mean that later editors didn’t help, because they did, but my basic style and ability to handle words and ideas was largely established long before any editors ever saw a word of my work.

On a more global level, I see the tendency of professionals in a wide range of fields to offer profuse thanks to their “last” instructor or mentor, while ignoring all the others who actually did most of the work. In professional classical singing, singers usually list some distinguished professor or noted singer as being of great help, but seldom mention earlier professors or teachers who gave them a strong basic technique and actually did most of the work in shaping their voice and getting them to a point where the “last” instructor could polish them into professionals.

To be fair, sometimes that “last” instructor does do a great deal of work, but from what I’ve observed, most “last” instructors build on what that budding professional has already learned… and they usually get all the credit.

The same tendency also exists among professional athletes, too many of whom seem to think that they did it all themselves or that a collegiate coach made them the professional they became.

In a similar vein, I’ve also noticed that professors, mentors, and teachers are often publicly recognized in direct relation to how much they praise and encourage students, rather than on how much those professors, mentors, and teachers actually improve their students.

So here’s to the teachers and mentors who have always done the bulk of the work, usually with less pay, less recognition, and fewer resources.

This Labeled World

When I first read what is now termed speculative fiction, it was known as science fiction. Then sometime in the late 1960s, with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy emerged as a separate sub-genre and grew over the next few decades to outsell science fiction, and the field became F&SF. Now, it’s speculative fiction with so many subgenres I doubt I could name them all – hard science fiction, social/soft SF, alternate world/counterfactual SF, media tie-in SF, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, horror fantasy[as opposed to “straight” horror, which has become its own genre], and the list goes on.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m one of the few remaining writers who can and does publish a range of work, from “hard” SF and military SF all the way through alternate world SF to fantasy, all of which are published under my own name. From what I can tell, the majority of up-and-coming writers are either encouraged or required to use a different name when they write in a different genre. My use of the same name for whatever I write doesn’t seem to confuse my readers. Some like the fantasy, some the SF, and some like both. Some even like one fantasy series rather than another.

But the marketing types apparently are getting the upper hand. Heaven forbid that Samantha Smith, who writes urban fantasy, should publish hard SF. So she needs a totally different name. “S.C. Smith” won’t even do. Nor can Steve Smith, who wrote thrillers, publish social SF under his first name.

This sort of labeling isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, either. Labels and acronyms proliferate everywhere, and they change all the time. “Work-study experience”: is now “experiential learning.” “External diseconomies” became “negative externalities,” which is actually less accurate. But who cares about accuracy? If you need to reinvigorate an older practice, just jazz it up with a new name.

Nor do names necessary mean anything. What exactly is the “optimal learning interface?” Is there any meaningful difference between “individualized instruction” and “differentiated instruction?” In business, what exactly is “thought leadership?” How can you have leadership without thought? Or “laser focused?” That strikes me as so tightly focused that, the words of a much older maxim, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Which, to me, is the real problem with buzzwords and labeling everything.

Not that the marketing types care in the slightest. Just make them think it’s the new and improved version of whatever.