Archive for June, 2019



Hard Choices

In any society, some individuals will succeed… and some will fail… and some, for various reasons, will only make a minimal effort, if that. In the so-called natural state, which never completely existed, the results would be obvious. Those who failed or could not or would not work hard enough to survive would die.

For all of human history, such a totally natural state has never existed. Fossil and other remains show that all societies have assisted people, at least at some stage of their life, who would have died much sooner otherwise. So every society has faced the question of who gets help and under what circumstances. Because humans are incapable of surviving without assistance for years after birth, all societies help the majority of infants, but not always all of them.

Only in the last century or so, however, have societies embarked on large-scale, societally-wide programs of assistance. Some programs, such as many of those involved in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, were designed as much as economic stabilization efforts as assistance efforts, but the creation of the Social Security system was definitely a program of assistance for the elderly.

Over the seventy or so years since then, U.S. federal government assistance and support programs have grown enormously, to the point that so-called assistance “entitlement programs” comprise roughly 42% percent of total federal spending and are projected to increase yearly, yet last year almost 30% of federal spending had to be borrowed, i.e., deficit spending. Over any length of time, that much of a deficit can’t be financed without catastrophic economic impacts

The largest assistance programs are Social Security and Medicare. Without an SSA tax increase of some sort, the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted in 15 years, and under current law, benefits would have to be reduced by roughly 20% because incoming SSA taxes would only cover 80% of benefits. The situation with Medicare is worse, given the skyrocketing costs of healthcare.

While many people like the idea of wealth taxes and higher income taxes on wealthy individuals, such taxes, even if they were enacted in a fashion that disallowed subsidies and selective taxable income exemptions and cuts, which is not at all certain, couldn’t make up the current deficits, let alone future ones, without effectively confiscating the majority of income from the upper middle class and upper classes, and I seriously doubt that most of them would stay around for such taxes to take effect.

So any realistic reform is going to have to include significant but not confiscatory tax increases, especially on the wealthier members of society, coupled with spending cuts and reforms in a vast array of programs. The political problem is that no one wants his or her benefits/programs cut, and everyone, including the rich, wants someone else to pay for it.

All the rhetoric – on both sides – won’t change this reality. But people and politicians, being what they are, will insist that their one-sided approach will solve the problem.

Welcome to the 2020 political misrepresentation season.

Taxes and Income

Over the past two years, there’s been an incredible furor over income and wealth inequality, which has been compounded by the fact that the U.S. government has been running huge deficits, because Congress doesn’t want to tax people enough to pay for what Congress wants the federal government to do. Then add to this the fact that the incomes of most American families, i.e., those in at least the bottom sixty percent of all families, have on average stagnated or declined. Add to that the fact that government inflation measures don’t include all costs of living.

As a result, liberal politicians are pushing for programs to benefit those hurt most by stagnant or declining incomes, pressing for increasing taxes on the rich and especially the “super rich.” Those proposals include higher tax rates on those with incomes over, say, $10 million annually, or even annual wealth taxes.

Conservatives, in response, cite figures that show that the top ten percent of all earners pay 70% of all income taxes and that the top one percent of earners pay more total taxes than the bottom ninety percent combined.

And both sides are wrong, in a number of different ways. First, both sides are either not understanding the tax system or misrepresenting it, if not both. Second, concentrating on taxable income ignores the fact that the rich have ways of legally under-reporting their actual income, ways that are not open to taxpayers less well-off, as well as the effect of vast wealth. Even without taking into account that under-reporting, the top one percent, on average, only pay effective federal income tax rates of about 23%.

The 70% marginal tax rate on incomes over ten million dollars means just that. After you’ve made ten million, you would only get to keep $300,000 out of every subsequent million. It doesn’t mean that the government gets 70% of your first ten million, although a lot of people on both left and right, from what I’ve read, seem to think that’s what it means.

More important, a lot of that purported revenue won’t get collected. Why not? Because if the income arrives through capital gains or qualified dividend checks, the tax rate is still only a maximum of 20%. Or if the income qualifies as “carried interest,” or… [a good tax accountant can fill in all the other exceptions, but that’s the idea].

Right now, the tax code is riddled with so many exceptions, variable rates for different sources of income, and credits for various types of investments [often justified under the dubious rationale that such investments create jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist] that changing rates will do very little to affect the income taxes paid by the top one percent. They will have an effect on well-paid professionals in the top five percent who are moderately well-off, but not well-off enough to benefit much from the tax avoidance available to the super rich.

What tends to get overlooked in concentrating on income and tax rates is the impact of wealth. In the last thirty years the share of wealth held by the lower 90% of the population has dropped by ten percent, so that now the top ten percent hold almost eighty percent of the nation’s wealth, while the top one percent hold half of that, forty percent. That stock of wealth is held in various means, but it all produces, over time, income that is taxed at a far lower rate than income earned by working. This is one of the principal [pun intended] reasons behind the old saying that the rich get richer. If you make more money than anyone else and you’re taxed at a lower effective rate than the hard-working professionals in your company… of course, you’re going to get richer.

But the bottom line is simple. Under the current tax structure, fiddling with rates won’t raise that much more money, and that includes lowering them, Laffer Curve enthusiasts to the contrary. The only thing that will increase tax revenue is eliminating all the subsidies and loopholes, and varied rates for the same amount of income (based on its source)… and then see what happens. Right now, no one really knows just how much tax revenues have been bled off through those devices, but it’s definitely substantial.

But until Congress actually works on the tax structure by eliminating all the special treatments of various types of income and by eliminating all of the exemptions and tax credits, merely changing marginal tax rates won’t address the real problems or the deficits, no matter what the rhetoric is.

The “Race” Problem

Recently, I came across an article in New Scientist dealing with genetics and race, which pointed out that there is no single gene or even a group of genes that could define “race.” Then someone called my attention to white supremacist propaganda ranting about how certain groups are trying to destroy “the white race” by supporting unlimited immigration to the United States.

While human beings come in a range of skin, hair, and eye colors, regardless of those traits, they’re all biologically compatible and can have offspring together, and in a few generations it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to tell their origins. The descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings range in color and complexion from apparently “pure Caucasian” to “pure African” [not that either genetically pure Caucasians or pure Africans exist, because everyone is mix of genes whose origins go back at least hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, albeit with occasional mutations, e.g., blue eyes and red hair, cropping up along the way].

Test after test has shown that, while there are ranges of physical and mental characteristics among any set or group of people, all groups of all colors, given adequate nutrition and nurture, have the same general ranges of abilities and intelligences, with minor variations. History shows that there have been great empires built by people of every color and that there have been great geniuses of every color.

So why the hell do so many people get upset about “race”?

Because most people are most comfortable with others like themselves, and they’re wary, if not fearful, of people of a different color or a different culture. And when times are troubled, or people have a hard time making ends meet, it’s far easier to blame those who are different.

Right now, there’s a whole group of former middle-class workers in the United States who feel disenfranchised, and who have certainly been hurt economically, by off-shoring, by automation, and the global economy… and most of the white supremacists come from this group.

Yet the problems these people face weren’t created by minorities of color or by migrants; they were created by, if you will, money-grubbing white Caucasian males looking to maximize their profits in a capitalistic society that currently permits all manner of economic excesses.

So why aren’t the white supremacists blaming those who really caused their problems? Why are they fervently supporting a blond, blue-eyed white male who personifies all those who’ve created their problems?

How Detailed Is Enough?

Many, many years ago, I wrote occasional reviews for a semi-noted SF&SF magazine… until I got into an argument with one of the editors about some details in a book. Two of those details stand out in my memory. In one case, the protagonist was using dental mirrors to look around corners, except dental mirrors aren’t that good for looking any distance. Bicycle mirrors would have been much better. The second detail was an address. The author placed a stylish town house in Georgetown on a street in the middle of an area that has been exclusively commercial since at least the 1950s [and the novel was set in the 1980s], and where such stylish dwellings have not existed for decades. And the book wasn’t alternate history, but supposedly set contemporaneously.

Now, I didn’t trash the book in my proposed review, but I gave those two examples and several others and said that the author’s lack of attention to detail detracted from the overall quality and that while it was a good book, it wasn’t a great book. The editor said that he couldn’t publish the review unless I removed the specifics. He didn’t dispute the accuracy of my observations; he just didn’t want them in the review, and I got the feeling that he really wanted me to be more enthusiastic about the book.

That was the last review I ever wrote.

Obviously, as my readers know, I like details. And I try like hell to make them realistic and relevant to the story. Some readers suggest I go overboard with details, but to me, at least the main streets in books should have names, unless the town is as small as Haven and only has one main street. Bricks come in a range of colors, but those colors are determined by the local clays, which means that bricks in a given town, especially a small town, are likely to be of the same color and shade. The kind of roofs a town has should reflect the economy and the climate.

Likewise, music in lower-tech cultures tends to be based on percussion or rhythm and rhyme because non-rhymed, non-rhythmic lyrics are difficult to remember. That’s why I get irritated when writers put down what are supposedly ballads or folk tune lyrics that seem to have neither rhyme, meter, nor rhythm.

And then there’s money. EVERY culture has a medium of exchange, and even in this day and age, it’s amazing how many books never even mention what that medium might be.

Not every street needs a name, nor does every dwelling need to be described, nor every transaction counted out… but lack of detail makes a book a generic throw-away- after-reading, and too much detail makes it a throw-away-before-finishing. And, of course, each reader has his or her threshold of what is too much or too little detail.

But…as the old saying goes, the devil’s in the details.

Is It the Economy…? Or Partisanship? Or Something Else?

The Clinton Presidential Campaign of 1992 [yes, that one] was highlighted by various iterations and permutations of the phrase, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” And from then until sometime during the Obama Presidency, the popularity of the President in office seemed to be linked to the state of the economy.

Last week The Economist published a story that purported to show that “the true state of the economy is nearly irrelevant to voters.” After reading the piece, I came away with a different interpretation of the polling numbers. The Economist poll showed that Republicans were “four times as optimistic as Democrats about the state of the stock market” while “Liberals complained about high housing costs and low wage growth.”

Duh… might this “shift” just have something to do with who has what assets and what sources of income and who lives where? Although wages are rising faster now than during the last years of the Obama administration, real inflation-adjusted wages for people who are mid-middle-class and lower on the income scale are lower than they were a generation ago and housing costs are far higher. And most people in that income category live in urban metropolitan areas and also face higher housing costs, while housing costs in rural areas are far more affordable. Likewise, the cost of post-secondary education is crippling for students coming out of any income group but the upper class or upper middle class.

Under these conditions, certain aspects of the economy matter more to these people, not because of their political orientation but because of their socio-economic position. And as Republicans continue to ignore these economic problems, these individuals are more likely to vote Democratic, but their partisanship is driven by economic factors, rather than their partisanship driving their view of economics.

In addition, the stock-market means absolutely nothing to such voters. While some may have pensions or retirement programs invested in the market, on a day-to-day basis, the stock market isn’t a perceptual factor to them because very few of them have discretionary cash assets to invest.

As is often the case, the poll numbers may indeed be accurate, but what they mean isn’t necessarily what they used to mean – or what even renowned sources postulate.

Demotic or Not?

Originally, and still to linguists and historians, the word “demotic” referred to the day-to-day, or common, script used by ancient Egyptians for business transactions, records, and, most likely, what might have passed for correspondence. Hieroglyphics were usually reserved for the sacred and monumental uses, and employed by the priesthood.

In more recent times, authors have been classified as to whether their writing is “demotic” or “literary,” although sometimes instead of “literary,” the term “hieratic” (meaning priestly writing) is used. In other words, does a writer put down words like the common folk speak them, or is he or she highfalutin and esoteric in word choice and sentence structure?

What brought all this terminology to mind is that recently I ran across a commentary that, if I read and understood it correctly, seemed to suggest that Robert A. Heinlein had begun as a demotic writer and moved more to a “literary” style in his later works. The same commentary suggested that while demotic writers tend to be more popular in their lifetimes, the work of writers with a more literary style outlasts the demotic stylists, with the notable exception being Mark Twain.

To me, all this misses several points. Is the way the author writes true to the author? And does it matter so far as the reader is concerned? And could it be, perhaps, that “literary” prose outlasts demotic prose because the beauty of the words and the presentation of the ideas and/or story outlast a style that becomes dated as society changes, linguistically, socially, and technologically?

In truth, I have no idea if any of those hypotheses are correct. All I know is that, for the most part, I write in the manner in which I speak – except the sentences I put in the books are much, much shorter, because, as my family knows, I can speak sentences that are far too long.

What’s the Hurry?

All across the United States, especially in cities and suburbs, and in business, everyone’s in a hurry. The mad rush is everywhere. Seemingly everything has to be done faster.

Amazon Prime is “encouraging” employees to become private contractors so it can cut delivery times to one day.

The local university is adopting a trimester program and cutting semester lengths from 15 weeks to 13 weeks so that students can graduate in three years instead of four, despite the fact that there are already more college graduates than there are jobs that require a college education and that the speeded up education will cost just as much and will have less content. Yet for all this hurry, fewer and fewer students are emotionally ready for college, let alone the workforce or a professional career.

Parents are in such a rush that they register children for select preschools as soon as they’re born, and some even game the college admission system. The kiddy-porn-clothes industry is doing its best to accelerate sexual awareness in pre-teens.

Highway speed limits keep climbing, and despite speed limits of 80 mph on the interstate here, if you travel at 80, eighty percent of the other travelers will pass you, including more than a few semis. I see mothers in minivans doing 40 mph in 25 mph residential areas, and more than half of them are on cell phones at the same time.

Television shows are electronically compressed so that things happen faster, and Amazon Prime and Netflix release new series all at once so that viewers and speed-binge-watch them faster and faster. Video games move faster and faster. Basketball has shot clocks to keep the action moving fast.

Bosses and superiors get impatient if emails or texts aren’t answered in minutes.

Politicians are hurrying to start their next campaigns earlier and earlier, while fewer and fewer of government problems are getting addressed. The members of Congress were sworn in less than six months ago, and re-election campaigns are already in full swing. That’s clear from the solicitations I’ve already gotten. And certainly all the hurrying by politicians to start the next new campaign hasn’t done much for getting the old problems fixed.

But what’s the point of all this speed? When children are forced into growing up earlier, is that good for them? When they’re hurried from planned activity to planned activity, with little free play time, is that in their best interest? And is fast-tracking them into colleges and insisting that colleges give them high-level vocational training, and little else, to speed them into the work force in anyone’s interest, except that of business?

When employees keep having to hurry to answer electronic status requests, does that help them get their real work done well and on time? Or is that why U.S. work hours keep getting longer and longer?

And, as for taking any time to stop and smell the roses, since no one has the time to cultivate roses, the only roses most people ever see are South American hothouse roses with no scent at all.


Once, many long years ago, I was the legislative assistant for a U.S. Congressman. Like many young and idealistic professionals, I wanted to make the United States a better place [and I still do]. I implemented an early form of a computerized constituent response system so that my boss could get his ideas for reform and improvement across. I came up with plans for tax reform and quite a few others. A few of those my boss introduced, partly to humor me, I suspect, and partly because they were actually good ideas, but none of them ever even got a hearing. I also came up with a way to allow the U.S. Postal Service to run at a profit without continually jacking up first class letter rates [the general approach would still work today].

None of these proposals went anywhere, although they were certainly technically and practically feasible and could have been implemented. I won’t even come close to claiming I was a voice in the wilderness. There have always been idealists trying to make things better, and there still are.

But what my congressman told me, patiently at first, and then not so patiently, was that it didn’t matter how good something was, or how it would improve things, or how technical and practically feasible it was, if there wasn’t political support for the proposition. My proposals for improving the Postal Service were a perfect example. To this day, the USPS regards mass mailings as a marginal cost, even though the bulk of what’s carried are mass mailings and parcels. This means that the first class mail revenues have to support the bulk of core USPS costs. I’d simply proposed that mass mailers be charged the actual full cost of providing that service.

Needless to say, as the mass of junk mail even today continues to proliferate, that proposal was a total anathema to the highly subsidized mail industry – which is why at my house we recycle some 20-30 pounds of unwanted and unread catalogues every week, each sent for as little as twenty-one cents per pound. So, as a result, first class letter writers – and occasionally federal payments when the USPS runs a deficit – are subsidizing commercial for-profit advertising mailers, because it’s never been politically possible to enact what would seem like practical improvements.

There are many possible reforms, whether they’re in healthcare, taxes, or postal rates, which are technically and economically practical – but, without political support at all levels from the grassroots through the entire political structure, they’re effectively impractical.

To claim that the U.S. or any other country should be able to enact “practical” measures put in place elsewhere ignores the fact that any reform proposal is impractical unless political support either exists and can be mobilized or unless such political support can be developed.

And right now, in the United States, there’s just not enough political support in elected government itself for the reforms various Democrats are proposing, and very few of them are working to develop grassroots support. On the other hand, conservative Republicans have spent almost a generation developing an evangelical/conservative grassroots political network… and that effort is bearing its bitter fruit today… and this will continue until Democrats or others build broad-based political support willing not only to talk about but to work to get out votes and voters for their ideas.