Archive for December, 2019

Hard Choices

Unless Donald Trump actually shoots someone, or does something equally stupid or horrible, the Senate won’t even come close to convicting him on the articles passed by the House of Representatives. The reason most analysts give for this conclusion is the polarization and tribalization of American politics.

At the same time, I don’t see anyone going into the basic reason behind the polarization of government. There are plenty of commentaries and articles offering reasons why the electorate is polarized, but in our history there have been many times where there’s been significant civic polarization, but only one other time, at least as I see it, where the legislative branch has been so polarized.

And the reason for those two instances is the triumph of short-term greed over ideals and long-term economics.

Most people don’t quite understand the basics behind the Civil War. That conflict is often presented in a form of good versus evil. Sometimes, it’s presented as a struggle between two different economic systems. In fact, it really wasn’t either. It was a struggle between two different visions of capitalism. The economic elites of both North and South were capitalists, but their forms of capitalism differed. The North invested much of its capital in equipment, and paid near-starvation wages to those who worked in the factories. The South’s “capital” was largely invested in slaves; they were the equivalent of machines, and they were also often poorly fed.

Because the South’s “capital” was largely in slaves, and in land worked by those slaves, any form of abolition would have immediately bankrupted or at least severely impoverished most Southern landholders… which was largely what later occurred as a result of the Union victory. Yet the southern elite could see no way out of the problem, simply because so much wealth was in the slaves they held. That meant that Southern politicians could not compromise, not when any compromise would have meant economic disaster in the Old South. Those politicians felt they could not make hard choices, and they refused to look to the North or to the rest of the world, where most industrialized nations were outlawing slavery and the slave trade.

The result of failing to make hard choices in the years leading up to the Civil War led to an even greater disaster in the long run, just as today’s failure to deal with economic and environmental problems will make the eventual reckoning even more costly and disastrous.

We face a situation similar to the 1840s and 1850s today, if in a more fragmented way. For example, coal is viewed as cheap energy, just as slaves were cheap labor. But what those whose economic well-being has been based on cheap coal don’t want to see is that coal is anything but cheap if all its costs are considered. Over 80,000 miners are known to have died from black lung. The costs of black lung disability benefits now exceed $100 billion. According to a report published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences back in 2011, the external costs of coal-fired power are twice the direct costs. In other words, it costs twice as much to deal with health, waste, and environmental costs of a coal-fired power plant as it does to generate the power.

There have been more than a few documentaries on Amazon’s brutal workplace practices, which are the 21st century equivalent of the wage-slaves of early industrialization. At the same time, the real wages of the majority of Americans are declining. Life expectancy of certain economic and age-groups has actually declined in the last decade, for the first time in a century.

But the Legislative Branch of our government is polarized, and in considering some issues, paralyzed, largely because any realistic solutions are seen as politically unacceptable. The right wing feels the industries supporting its senators and representatives cannot or will not change because the costs are too high. The left wing won’t compromise from idealistic standards that cannot possibly be funded [regardless of what Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders claim]. Members of either side refuse to make the hard choices because they fear that, if they do, they won’t be re-elected… and re-election is far more important than the future of the country… or the planet.

So no one will make hard choices… and, if they don’t…


Earlier this week when I sent the manuscript of Isolate to my editor, we encountered a number of technical glitches because various “improvements” in Word created difficulties we’ve never encountered before.

This isn’t a new problem for me; it’s a recurring one. Even though I’m using Word 2010 on my writing computer because it had features that don’t work on later versions, the “updates” often limit or cripple those functions. For example, in Word 2010, I used to be able to do a global word search for a particular word in all the files in a given directory. Now, that’s become spotty and unreliable, and it’s impossible [at least I haven’t found any way to do that] on later versions of Word. This is particularly useful function for me, and losing it for all the “improvements” that I don’t use is irritating. Likewise, the three-keystroke speed keys that shift me out of what I’m working on because I made a typo [and sometimes lose some of what I’ve just written] are also annoying. And my editor has other problems that she never has had before in terms of compiling what authors send her.

This so-called improvement isn’t limited to Word or Microsoft; it seems to be everywhere. I don’t do MP3 music downloads, but I discovered that, in the interests of getting a lot of music into MP3 format, something like 90% of the actual music/”tone” is eliminated in order to obtain the necessary file compression…and the majority of listeners apparently don’t notice or don’t care.

My wife the music professor has discovered that, with every new version of certain technical vocal pedagogy software programs, the newer versions are both simplified [leaving out important technical details] AND also more expensive… and that the older and better software doesn’t work on newer operating systems.

How many of these “improvements” are just so the manufacturers can force upgrades to yet more glitch-ridden software and systems that provide “features” that only a minuscule number of users will ever utilize while compromising and eliminating more utilitarian features employed by a far wider range of users?

The Free-College Fairytale

I’d be among the first to admit that the U.S. higher education system is flaw-ridden and too expensive. The cost of higher education is, in a practical sense, financially impossible for more than eighty percent of the population, at least without either financial aid or going heavily into debt, but making it “free” to all U.S. high school graduates won’t improve the situation. In fact, it’s likely to make it worse.

No one wants to look realistically at the situation. Today, every year, roughly twice as many students graduate from college as there are jobs requiring a college education. In addition, the real wages of the bottom 60% of those graduates are declining and have been for a decade. Third, twenty-five percent of all Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 cannot pass the basic reading literacy test required by the U.S. armed forces, and unhappily that includes a percentage of college students.

At the same time, there are literally millions of jobs going unfilled in the United States because job-seekers lack the skills to perform those jobs. Part of this is simply because, more and more, businesses don’t want to train new employees because the training time is unprofitable and lower level skilled employees tend to change jobs quickly, and colleges don’t want to get into what they consider “vocational” training… and they’re not staffed or equipped to do so.

All too many college bachelor degrees have become test-passing “credentials” and little more. The ranks of public university faculties are increasingly filled with adjunct teachers, the vast majority of whom are underpaid and overworked, often working part-time at two or more colleges or universities to cobble together enough income to barely make ends meet. Yet universities, especially state universities, are hiring fewer and fewer full-time faculty, and even those faculty members are burdened with all sorts of non-teaching requirements.

The result of these and other factors is that the majority of graduates of public universities, except for a few handfuls of elite public universities, are at a distinct disadvantage in the quality of the education they receive. Oh, there are still outstanding professors in every state university, but they’re far and few between, and all too many of them are leaving teaching, either through retirement or dissatisfaction. That means that the graduates of elite private universities and the few handfuls of elite first tier public universities have a tremendous advantage in getting jobs or into the best graduate schools.

Pumping billions of dollars into “free tuition” isn’t going to solve any of those problems, and it also ignores the fact that living expenses for college students are anything but insignificant.

In short, the well-educated and well-off are going to continue to prosper, while the poorer students… and the taxpayers… suffer.

Rule of Law

This past weekend, I watched a conservative legal scholar [who supported the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court] list the legal reasons why Trump should be impeached and convicted. At present, more than five hundred legal scholars from all across the nation have also signed documents in support of impeachment on detailed legal grounds.

So why does something like at least 40% of the American population oppose impeachment when there’s a considerable legal consensus that the President’s acts and behavior meet the legal tests of impeachment.

Many of those people, including the President, claim that the Democrats are trying to “undo” the election and take power. That’s not only untrue, but nonsense. Even if Trump were to be impeached, his successor is Vice President Pence, who is a right-wing, evangelical Christian far more conservative than Trump. Making him President will actually make things worse and harder for the Democrats and liberals.

No… I’d submit that the reason many people don’t want Trump impeached is because at heart they don’t believe in either actual government by the people or the rule of law.

They want what they want and think Trump will either give it to them or keep the Democrats from enforcing the laws. They believe, despite the progress we’ve made in cleaning up the environment over the past forty years, that environmental laws don’t do that much good and hurt them. They would rather have tens of millions of people breathing air that literally kills them over time so that these non-believers in law and science can make more money or get paid in industries that destroy the environment and the health of the poorest of Americans.

They believe that equal rights for all people under all circumstances go too far. And if you think that’s far-fetched, just consider what happened in the South after Reconstruction was abandoned – the rights granted to former slaves by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment were essentially abrogated by the southern states for a century. And in terms of redlining and financial discrimination, the North wasn’t that much better.

We’re still seeing police discrimination against minorities, despite laws that require equality. All Americans are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, but the majority of Trump Republicans want to cut off the opportunities that our ancestors had, and the Trump administration is accommodating them, often violating the law in doing so.

Trump’s even said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. And if that’s not disrespect for the law, I don’t know what is… well, except for saying that the President is above the law, which is exactly the way in which Trump has behaved.

We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. That was what was supposed to make us better. But Trump and his supporters are claiming that the laws don’t apply to them.

And what happens if everyone decides to follow that example? Is political tribalism important enough to tear the country apart? We’re still paying for the last time a chunk of the union decided that economic gain outweighed rights, rights for everyone, not just rights for white males.


Back in the middle of the previous century [and writing that makes me feel even older than I am] my parents were firm, possibly tyrannical if compared to the relaxed (and sometimes non-existent) parenting of families today. Television viewing [the only screen time then available] was essentially non-existent, and, outside of school hours, time spent on homework or athletics, and family events, during daylight hours and even twilight we were to be outside. By the time we were teenagers, the rules were somewhat modified to allow one other exemption from the “outside” requirement – work, either unpaid or paid.

Today, I seldom see children outside, even on weekends, and we live in an area that gets neither excessive heat nor cold. We had a foot of snow this past weekend, and the only one in the entire neighborhood who was sledding was our visiting granddaughter. I didn’t even see sled tracks or snowmen. I know there are children here. I see them every school day at the school bus stops, but playing outside? Almost never.

The new “indoor” life isn’t good for children, especially for their vision. A recent study showed that by junior high school, today 40% of U.S. children are near-sighted and need corrective lenses, up from 20% fifty years ago. That’s a doubling of nearsightedness in two generations. This isn’t a world-wide trend. It’s a U.S. trend.

According to 2017 Pentagon data, 71% of Americans in the 17-24 age group are not qualified to join the military primarily because of one of three reasons: (1) poor health [mainly obesity]; (2) lack of physical fitness; (3) lack of reading skills.

Kids don’t play outside as much anymore, and according to the researchers behind the study, that lack of outdoor activity, combined with excessive screen time, is the major cause of the increase in near-sightedness.

Certainly, one reason why many parents don’t let their children play outside is fear, fear of violence, kidnapping, and other mayhem, but the U.S. is actually far safer now for children[except possibly in inner city areas] than it was in the middle of the last century.

No matter what anyone claims, most screen time doesn’t teach reading and comprehension skills, and it reduces physical fitness… and excessive screen time certainly degrades vision.

All of which are a major reason why today’s children are looking at shorter and unhealthier lives.