Archive for October, 2021

False News

At the time when the Founding Fathers codified freedom of speech, they had few illusions about the press or its truthfulness, but at that time, they were used to untruthfulness being applied more to character and personal acts, or to failures in acting responsibly. While there were instances of false news and manufactured blatant non-personal falsehoods, since media consisted largely of local newspapers and broadsheets, the impact of such was largely restricted to specific and limited numbers of cities.

Even with the growth of newspaper chains in the 1890s, it took significant personal and corporate resources to manufacture and spread totally false and incorrect news on a wide regional or national scale. This was largely the case until roughly the early 1990s, when the internet and low-cost and sophisticated electronics made low-budget national media campaigns possible, including those spreading total falsehoods. But the full impact of the Media Revolution didn’t really register on the public consciousness until after the Founding of Fox News in 1996, and particularly after Roger Ailes became CEO in 2001.

The greatest danger of false news is that so much of it is designed to appeal to people’s emotions, rather than to their intelligence, and it’s often so well designed that even highly intelligent people are sucked into believing things which are factually untrue. A peer-reviewed study by researchers at New York University and the Université Grenoble Alpes in France has found that from August 2020 to January 2021, news publishers known for putting out misinformation got six times the amount of likes, shares, and interactions as did more trustworthy news sources, such as CNN, BBC, or the World Health Organization.

Under current statutory and case law, it is perfectly legal to print absolute falsehoods, no matter how untrue or outrageous, so long as they do not cause verifiable and provable damage to an individual, and usually that damage must have an economic component.

One of the legal rationales for this is the idea that any law that criminalizes falsehoods places the definition of a falsehood in hands of the government, which can and, in the past, has led to the destruction of freedom of speech.

In the end, the only thing that can halt the spread and growth of misinformation, falsehoods, and disinformation is for individuals to monitor their sources of information for accuracy, rather than for comfort – and that’s largely contrary to human nature, which means that false news is here to stay. Because it is here to stay, it’s likely that a greater number of politicians will espouse views and actions unsupported by facts or even reality.

Welcome to the world of newspeak.

The Supply Chain Woes

As a recent and continuing victim of supply chain woes, I not only have a personal interest in the problem, but a definitely professional one – because I don’t get paid the last of the advance on Isolate until the book is printed and published, and it appears likely that its publication date will be moved again (although this is not yet certain) because of the impact these issues are having on the printing industry. I’m far from the only author having these difficulties, which include some of the largest best-sellers in F&SF, and which will before long, if not already, affect a great number of authors who rely on the sales of actual printed books.

Too many people are blaming most if not all of the delays and problems on COVID, but while COVID may indeed be a contributing factor, what COVID also did was reveal the near-fatal [at least I hope they’re near-fatal, rather than fatal] flaws in the current U.S. and world economic structures.

Some time ago, I pointed out the fragility of an economy and an industrial structure based so heavily on “just-in-time” delivery systems and suggested that this could prove problematic and have wide-spread repercussions. When companies don’t have inventory of products and of components and parts, the smallest disruption can halt production, and many corporations are facing more than small disruptions. These repercussions also appear to be increasing rather than decreasing, and they’re being complicated by other problems.

A record number of employees quit their jobs in August. They weren’t furloughed, fired, or laid off. They quit, and they quit at a time when wages are increasing. A recent study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that while corporations thought employees were most motivated by money, the leading complaints by workers were that they felt undervalued, overworked, and that corporations didn’t really care about them or listen to them.

Amazon may be raising wages, but it’s also raising the pressure to “produce” to the point that more than a few employees have stated that they don’t even have time for bathroom breaks.

The difficulty in finding sufficient retail and service industry employees will likely mean that consumers will turn more to Amazon and other online delivery platforms at a time when those delivery systems are already overloaded, and when there’s already a shortage of truck drivers.

It’s not just in business, either. School systems and higher education are facing more and more disgruntled employees, especially teachers and professors who feel that they’re pressured to compromise on standards, to coddle students who are unmotivated and undisciplined, and to turn out “numbers” rather than quality.

Shortages of trained medical professionals at all levels are increasing, both from deaths and disabilities and from burnout caused by continual overwork.

Add to these the growing demand for electronics/computerization in all fields and the fact that certain key resources are limited both by design and by physical scarcity and/or production difficulties.

Good systems that can endure hardships and shortages incorporate redundancies, back-up plans, contingency planning, and additional staff, but those cost money, and the emphasis on immediate results, maximum profits, and minimizing costs means that when disruptions occur, small problems escalate into larger ones, and larger ones can become catastrophes.

And that’s exactly where we’re heading. Even if we muddle through this time, the odds are that the lure of low costs and higher profits will drive business back into the same rut… with even worse results the next time… assuming there is a next time.

Their Own Worst Enemies

There’s a very simple rule about making laws. You have to have the votes. Right now, the Democrats barely have the votes for the second “infrastructure” [for social/environmental programs] bill if the total cost is somewhere in the vicinity of $2 trillion [or possibly less] over ten years. They can’t possibly get that $3.5 trillion bill that they want, because they do not have the votes.

All the gnashing of teeth, all the crying out about the unfairness, or the need to reduce the inequalities of opportunity and wealth mean nothing without the votes to pass a more expensive bill. The simple fact is that those votes are not there, and it’s highly unlikely they will be in this Congress. It’s even more unlikely that they will be there in the next Congress, given that the political party in control has almost always lost votes in a mid-term election.

The sensible course is for Democrats to negotiate within their own party for the best they can get support for and pass it now. They certainly won’t have any more votes next year, since next year is an election year and political positions will become even more entrenched. That means there will be even less chance to pass a large bill.

If they pass whatever they can this year, it’s better for them than passing nothing, and if, miracle of miracles, they actually gain seats in the mid-term elections, then they can revisit the issues in 2023.

But Democrats being Democrats, it appears likely that all the Republicans have to do is to do what they always do best – and that’s nothing, because the Democrats appear to be on the road to accomplishing nothing at all because the “progressives” in the party don’t have the votes for what they want, and, in demonstrating their purity and resolve not to accept less than what they’re demanding, they’re destroying not only their chances for improving matters for their constituents, but they’re also eroding support for their President, which will make it even harder for them to hold seats in Congress in the mid-term elections, let alone pick up seats.

As I’ve said before, you have to get the votes before you can enact the policies you champion. And right now, the Republicans and the more conservative Democrats have the votes, and the way the “progressive” Democrats are acting, it’s likely to stay that way.

Arrogance

Arrogance has always been distasteful to me, but recent “debates” on this website and in the public arena about COVID have demonstrated a great deal of arrogance. Two categories, in particular, stand out: arrogance of the able/entitled and arrogance of the comparative young.

I will freely admit that I had advantages growing up, particularly being raised in an intact, caring, economically stable, and quietly disciplined family; being given the advantage of a good education by my family; and inheriting decent genes. None of these advantages were my doing, but those basic advantages gave me a far better personal foundation upon which to build a future and several different careers than millions of people who were born at the same time. This is nothing new. It’s been that way at least since the beginning of towns and cities.

The problem is that far too many people of modest or even greater accomplishment discount those basic but unseen advantages and claim, variously, that they accomplished what they have all on their own, or that others could do the same if they weren’t lazy, or that their superiority is innate. Yet study after study has shown that accomplishments are the result of a myriad of factors, roughly half genetic and half environmental, most of which factors we do not control, especially when we’re young. But too many people of “ability” and/or accomplishment, especially, disproportionately, Caucasian males, have the arrogance to assert or imply that the failures of those less fortunate are entirely their own fault, and, even if that’s not so, there’s no reason to help them or even try to improve equality of opportunity in society.

The other form of arrogance revealed in the COVID debate is the dismissal of older people, immuno-compromised people, and others who are not healthy young adults as not worth protecting because the length or type of life they have remaining is somehow less valuable.

I did a quick check of people who accomplished notable achievements late in life, and that list is anything but short, but I include some examples. Winston Churchill was 65 when he became Prime Minister at the beginning of WWII, and it’s doubtful that there was anyone else who could have done what he did (since every other leading British politician had already botched matters). Peter Roget created the first effective thesaurus when he was 73. Darwin didn’t publish On the Origin of Species until he was 50. Louis Pasteur was 63 when he developed and proved the effectiveness of his rabies vaccine. Rita Levi-Montalcini won a Nobel Prize for her discoveries about the nerve growth factor at age 79 and made additional significant discoveries for almost another decade. At 55, Pablo Picasso completed his masterpiece, Guernica. At 88, Michelangelo created the architectural plans for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series, was 64 when she published her first work, Little House in the Big Woods. Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Then, of course, there’s Stephen Hawking, who was anything but hale and healthy for most of his life.

The value of a life can be “measured” in many ways – by accomplishments, by character, by the changes in the lives of others resulting from one’s acts or failures to act, by the amassing of influence and power, but why are those, or other measurements, not applied to older, immuno-compromised, or disabled individuals, rather than considering them of less worth or consideration merely because of their age or physical frailty? Or is youth, which is so often wasted on the young, so much more important?

I certainly learned more from older teachers and older mentors than from those younger, yet many of the views I’ve seen expressed suggest that, rather than require a minimal effort of others, such as a vaccination, politicians and policy makers would rather subject older people and those more vulnerable to greater danger. And if those who suggest such an approach do succeed in establishing such a precedent, will they go “gentle into that good night” or will they “rage against the dying of the light” [of civility and care] when it comes their turn to be minimized or disregarded? [With thanks to Dylan Thomas].

“Shovel” Time

Many years ago, when I was eased out of a position, essentially dehired, my soon-to-be previous employer made a comment along the lines that he didn’t mind so much my calling a spade a spade, but he drew the line at my calling it a “God-damned shovel.”

Well, it’s shovel time. I’m sick and tired of the anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers, the apologists for those who endanger everyone else by refusing to follow tried and effective public health practices. Those practices work, and they work not just for COVID-19. Last year, because of masking and social distancing, the number of flu cases dropped by roughly 95%.

There hasn’t been much recognition of that fact, especially by the anti-maskers and the “I want my personal freedom” crowd.

Vaccines work. Just look at who’s in the hospital and dying — and at the vast majority who aren’t.

But too many people are saying words to the effect of “protect yourself and let the stupid ones die.” The problem with that approach is that millions of people are still vulnerable, either because they can’t be vaccinated, because they’re stupid or ignorant, or because those who control their health decisions are. My wife the professor has college students who are afraid to get vaccinated because their parents oppose vaccinations. Small children can’t be vaccinated. Older people who are immuno-compromised and vaccinated can still get COVID, and some small percentage will die despite taking every preventive step they could. Even those who recover from COVID may face lifelong negative health consequences.

And the “freedom” crowd persists in saying that people should have the right to make an informed decision. Vaccinations have a minuscule negative effect, but when a large group of people fails to get vaccinated, the impact on the rest of the population is significant – witness the continuing death toll. So a decision not to get vaccinated isn’t just a personal decision; it has a significant adverse public impact. Even if “you” escape the consequences of COVID, “Your” freedom can and will kill other people, even if you don’t know them.

One real problem is that too many policy-makers and politicians refuse to admit that a great number of people are in fact stupid or ill-informed, and their ignorance results in too many innocents dying. Public health measures are called “public” because they affect everyone. School systems require vaccination for something like ten diseases, and most of them aren’t as deadly as COVID, but idiot legislators across the U.S. are forbidding COVID vaccine mandates, either because they’re afraid they’ll lose votes, or because they have no understanding of public health requirements, or because they’re idiots, possibly well-meaning, but still idiots who don’t want to admit, either publicly or privately, that a significant fraction of any population isn’t that well informed or intelligent.

But this shouldn’t be a great surprise. Too many Americans have been ignoring reality for years, coddling their children, turning their eyes from ongoing economic and educational dysfunction, supporting political philosophies and decisions that cannot work over time, and extolling freedoms that, in actuality, don’t exist for everyone. And now they’re insisting that everyone is rational and can make an “informed” decision and that everything will be fine if we let them make that decision.

Can I interest you in buying a large used bridge in California?

Opposition Success

I’ve called the Republican Party “the party of No,” but this stance by the GOP predates Trump, although he certainly amplified and took advantage of the negativity of Republicans. And I’m certainly not the only one to make that observation.

So why do Republicans continue to oppose almost everything – except lower taxes? And, by the way, lower taxes are essentially opposition to existing government programs in general.

It strikes me that there are several reasons. First, most Democratic proposals involve change, and the majority of people, including many Democrats, are wary of or opposed to change.

Second, many policies that Republicans champion, just like lower taxes, are essentially negative in their impact on most people. Being violently pro-life is a restriction of a woman’s right to decide her own reproductive freedom, especially when some pro-life proposals essentially tacitly condone rape and incest. Proposing to cut back on federal regulations on business almost always results in allowing greater harm to people and the environment.

Third, and possibly most important, recent studies, including studies on the impact of Facebook postings and algorithms, show that people are more likely to get physically and emotionally involved when they are encouraged to oppose something than when they support something.

In addition, almost every policy change or legislative proposal will have opponents, and the opponents tend to be more vocal and angry than the supporters, which is why, even though anti-vaxxers are a small minority, they create more visible support, as well as unrest and violence, than those who support vaccination. The same is true of white-supremacists. Thus, a policy of negativity generates more support, particularly among conservatives, who are already wary of change, while it’s harder to get support from Republicans, and even some Democrats, for proposals or legislation that would change the system away from what people believe or are familiar with.

In effect, Republicans are wagering, often successfully, on negativity as the best way to maintain and/or gain popular support.