Archive for January, 2022

What Gives? [Part II]

The vast majority of fast food restaurants here in Cedar City have gone to drive-by service because they can’t hire enough people. I see “now hiring” signs where I never saw them before. It took almost two months to get my snow blower repaired, partly because of COVID and partly because the power equipment dealership couldn’t find qualified mechanics.

Record numbers of people are quitting their jobs, especially in hospitality, retail, and healthcare. There have been articles in several periodicals lately about people quitting jobs or not wanting to work at “shit jobs.” I have to wonder what world they’re living in. All jobs have shit components – even writing – and historically most jobs haven’t been all that easy. There’s a reason why the term “job” is synonymous with “work.”

People want others to do unpleasant jobs, but there aren’t enough American citizens who want to do the jobs for the wages offered. Yet far too many of those who want the goods and services provided by low-paying jobs don’t want to pay for what it would cost to hire people. Nor do they want to allow immigrants who would do those jobs at current pay rates into the United States.

We have housing shortages and rapidly rising housing prices in the U.S. In nearby St. George, the price of a median-priced home has almost doubled to $500,000 over the last six years, with almost a 30% increase in the past year alone. In all too many cities, Americans with median incomes can’t afford rent, let alone mortgage payments. Yet it gets harder and harder to build a house every year, and harder and harder for builders to find qualified workers.

Students complain about the high cost of college, yet, at the same time, every year, my wife the professor has students who complain about not having enough money, but who don’t do assignments and papers and don’t show up for classes – and end up losing full-tuition scholarships because they flunk out.

Republicans complain about government ignoring the average person, but they continue to elect predominantly politicians who either graduated from expensive elite colleges or who are rich, if not both. And even though the Republicans are against everything except barring immigrants and lowering taxes at a time of massive deficits, their supporters still think they’re good for the working man, especially white males with limited skills and education.

Democrats say they’re for the working people, but they’re having a hard time reaching agreement among themselves because of the so-called progressives who are pushing so many policies with regulations and price tags even most Democrats find excessive. And a likely result is that they’ll get too little done before the mid-term elections and will wonder why they lost seats in Congress.

Freedom: Back to the Basics

The first basic point about freedom is that absolute freedom does not exist and never has. Every object and/or entity is constrained by its environment and by other entities.

The second point is that, above the forager/near subsistence level of human culture, material improvement is linked to population density and the production of an agricultural/food surplus, i.e., those producing food need to produce more than they consume to feed others who design and produce tools that make life above the subsistence level possible. All technological improvements come from communities, not isolated individuals. Virtually all major advances in human technology have been developed and been implemented in urban centers and cultures, or financially and technically supported by those centers.

Third, increasingly urban areas and areas with high population density cannot continue to exist without restrictions on human behavior, either through manners and custom, through laws, or through some combination of both. Moreover, the greater the density, the greater the need for more restrictions on the excesses of human behavior.

At least so far, every advancement of human technology has created more toxic waste products, and the need to manage such wastes requires enforceable rules. If such wastes aren’t managed, then substantial segments of the population have their freedom to a healthy life restricted by the freedom of those benefitting from the sale and use of those goods.

The bottom line is very simple. Functioning societies need restrictions on “freedom.” To remain functional over time, a high-tech, high consuming society needs more restrictions than a decentralized low-tech society.

Who enacts such restrictions and upon whom? In an autocratic state the ruler does. In a state that has some form of popular government, those elected to govern do.

The greatest problem for either form of government is understanding that everything affects everything else and that simplistic maxims don’t work well in practice. In essence, the struggle over the direction of U.S. government has been the conflict between two “principles.”

That government is best that governs least.

The government is best that strives for the maximum good for the maximum number.

The first is, at best, in effect a defense of the status quo, and at worst a maximization the power of those with power, wealth, and skills that can be easily monetized or turned into wealth and/or power.

The second, at best, puts the determination of “good” totally in the hands of government, and at its extreme, becomes a socialism that disproportionately rewards those of lesser ability and determination.

A government that governs least is highly unlikely to restrict the abuse of personal freedoms. A government determined to obtain maximum good for the maximum number is just as likely to crush innovation and excellence, and in doing so, bring about its own eventual downfall.

Neither extreme position works, or not for long, yet the Americans who control the two political parties, at least lately, are polarizing to the extremes, while the majority of Americans in the middle bemoan the lack of middle ground even as they largely vote for the most extreme politician on “their” side, and then attack the few in the middle who try to work out compromises.

A Certain “Freedom” Has Costs

As many pundits and non-pundits have pointed out, freedom isn’t free. And most people would agree. But what is seldom discussed are the costs of various freedoms.

Freedom of speech, for example, means that I get deluged with unwanted and unordered advertising mail. It means that political demagogues can assert that falsehoods are true. It means I have to spend money in court to stop someone from falsely libeling me, or at the least pay an attorney.

But there’s a new form of “freedom” being extolled that’s also far more costly, especially on others. And that’s the so-called freedom not to obey public health mandates, currently being pushed by anti-vaxxers, particularly COVID-anti-vaxxers. Since vaccinations reduce the chance of being hospitalized for COVID by close to 90%, those who don’t get vaccinated place enormous costs and strain on the health care system and those who staff it, as well as additional costs on their own families and neighbors.

A study by the Peterson-KFF Health System calculated that the additional hospital health care costs created by unvaccinated individuals being treated for COVID, just for the period from July 1, 2021 to November 30, 2021, was almost $14 billion. The cost for hospital treatment of COVID patients can range from around $11,000 to well over $300,000, but comes out to average between $20,000 to $25,000 per patient, according to various studies. Other reputable studies peg the average costs more in the $40,000 per patient range. These figures don’t include follow-up visits or the costs associated with long COVID. In addition, unvaccinated individuals hospitalized with COVID had a 10% higher rate of complications, which increased their costs of treatment.

And these costs don’t just fall on the unvaccinated individuals. Some costs fall on insurers, who will cover those costs by raising premiums on everyone. Other costs will fall on family members because insurance and government programs don’t cover all COVID medical expenses. The costs of treating uninsured or underinsured unvaccinated individuals will require increased fees on others or funding from government sources… or in some cases, closure of the health facility.

Then, when hospitals are filled with largely unvaccinated COVID patients, those hospitals won’t have enough space or staff to treat urgent non-COVID patients, or not to treat them as quickly or effectively.

The increasing number of unvaccinated COVID patients is also taking a toll on doctors and skilled nursing staff, with a workload and stress level that makes them more vulnerable to breakthrough COVID and other opportunistic infections. In turn, over time, that reduces the level of care for all patients, which means that those comparative few vaccinated COVID patients, usually older people or immune-compromised individuals have to suffer more as a result of the “freedom” of the unvaccinated not to be vaccinated.

So…for those of you “freedom-loving” anti-vaxxers, your so-called freedom isn’t free. You’re just imposing the costs on everyone else… and, in my book, that’s called “freeloading,” not freedom.

What Gives?

I’ve lived in Cedar City for close to thirty years, but I’ve almost been hit by drivers blatantly running red lights three times in the last month, compared to once in all the years before. Red lights, not yellow lights that turned red. I’ve also seen four drivers running stop signs, not slowing instead of stopping and then speeding up, but running them full speed… and not in the middle of the night when no one was around. I know of at least two recent accidents where a driver ignored a red light and caused an accident, one of which resulted in the death of a motorcyclist.

The Utah State Highway patrol has also reported that highway speeds, accidents, and deaths are up dramatically in the past year – the average speeds appearing to the fastest ever, even though speed limits haven’t changed. I’ve been passed on Main Street, when driving the speed limit [25-45 mph, depending on locale] by drivers who had to be going close to sixty, and frequently, not just occasionally. On the interstate, while going 82 mph in an 80 mph area, I found that to avoid causing a traffic back-up I had to move up to 85 mph, and people were still passing me, going at least 90 mph.

But this isn’t confined to Utah, either. Neighboring Colorado registered the highest number highway deaths in twenty years in 2021. And late in 2021, the federal government reported that road fatalities spiked the first half of 2021, the largest increase ever recorded in its reporting system’s history during a six-month period, nearly a twenty percent increase from the same period in 2020. Incidents of speeding and not using seatbelts were also found to be higher than before the pandemic.

Then there’s this pandemic, where statistics demonstrate rather conclusively that being vaccinated and wearing a mask reduces your chance of being hospitalized and/or dying. Data from New York shows that of those recently hospitalized for COVID, the unvaccinated were more than 32 times likely to be hospitalized than those who were vaccinated and even more likely than that to die and/or suffer long-term complications.

I just wonder if all those people speeding and running red lights are the same ones who aren’t getting vaccinated, especially here in Cedar City, where only 47% of the eligible population is vaccinated.

Everyone’s Like Me

One of my readers made a telling comment last week – that Republicans believe the election was “stolen” because they cannot believe they’re in the minority.

The first reaction of those who aren’t Republicans is likely disbelief. How can they believe something that’s so manifestly not so?

The answer to that lies in a simple observation. Given any choice in the matter, people tend to surround themselves or join with people who are like themselves, and they also tend to buy houses in places where they feel comfortable. Add to this the combination of the growth of cell phones, the internet, and a range of news services that all allow people to wall out anyone or any news they don’t want to believe in. So they instinctively come to believe that “most people are like me.”

This has almost inexorably led to a mindset whereby they believe that people like themselves are the only ones who count, and, in the case of Republicans, that mindset can be justified by the past, where all those who mattered were essentially white males. Since Republicans find it difficult to believe that there can be large numbers of women and minorities with money and political power, they attack specific individuals, particularly women, as “outliers” and unrepresentative, claiming that these individuals don’t represent “true” American values.

This leads to the dual fallacy that not only are Republicans really in the majority but also that those who don’t believe as they do aren’t truly “real Americans.”

So, if those who aren’t real Americans aren’t in the majority, they must have stolen the election from real Americans.

Of course, that line of thinking ignores the fact that the only real Americans are American Indians, because they were here first, and the ancestors of the Republicans’ “real Americans” stole the United States from those American Indians.

Manners and “Culture”

More than 200 years ago, Edmund Burke made the following observation:

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are
what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us… They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

Admittedly, the law touches each of us a great deal more now than in Burke’s time, but the essential truth of his observation remains, simply because law cannot encompass everything in social interaction, business practices, government, and personal life – and when it tries, it fails on some and often many levels, even in the most authoritarian states.

All functioning societies have a shared culture, or at times, more than one culture, each shared by a significant fraction of the population, and each culture embodies a standard of manners. Much of what has been historically manifested in the operation of the government of the United States was never codified into law. It was based on manners and custom. Losing candidates accepted their loss, sometimes grudgingly, but they accepted it. Except for Andrew Jackson, Presidents generally accepted Supreme Court rulings they didn’t like, as did Congress.

All this was based on a mannered acceptance of authority.

Then came the 1960s and 1970s and what amounted to a combination of an assault on manners as phony and hypocritical, the Civil Rights movement, which was a slow-burning explosion against the cultural, legal, and long-standing physical repression of black Americans, and the feminist movement, another slow-burning explosion against thousands of years of male dominance. Over the years that followed, these led to significant but delayed changes in the legal system.

But what revolutionaries and reformers have too often failed to understand is that while laws can, immediately after enactment and enforcement, require different requirements of behavior and conduct, when such laws are enacted, they’re often in conflict with cultural beliefs and behavior. And cultural beliefs and manners are highly resistant to change, particularly when those in power have a vested interest in resisting change.

We’ve seen this around the world in often futile attempts to change social structures and cultures into societies that are more “democratic” and egalitarian.

Yet we’ve failed to notice that we have the same problem here in the United States. We’ve also failed to notice that since the European invasion of North America [a phrase studiously avoided by almost all politicians and historians], the forms and control of culture, business, political and governing structures have been and continue to be dominated by white males, but with legal changes over the last generation or so that complete dominance is no longer assured.

And because so much of the American political and social system has been based on cultural acceptance, when the impact of profound legal changes has truly begun to change the political, social, and economic power structure of the United States, those believing themselves to be disadvantaged by those changes, and who feel they’re the ones being discriminated against by their relative loss of power and influence, have effectively decided to reject the traditional mannered acceptance of popular political change, since it no longer benefits them. Given that, it appears, unfortunately, that more unrest and violence are likely.

For the People?

I can understand that Republicans feel Democrats spend too much and want to spend even more. I can understand that they feel the “wild left” is pushing gender/sexual politics beyond the law. I can understand why they want more spending on police, rather than less. I can understand their concerns about immigration, concerns that many Democrats share but refuse to acknowledge publicly. I can understand their concerns about excessive government regulation. I can understand, even if I disagree violently, their feelings about abortion. I can even understand [although it’s incredibly difficult] that they want Trump back as President.

Issues such as these, whether we like it or not, are the sort of issues to be decided by Congress, the courts, and the President through Constitutional procedures, not by a mob smashing its way into the U.S. Capitol and not by an authoritarian government.

What I find impossible to accept from Republicans is their belief that the last election was “stolen,” and their failure to accept that the January insurrection was just that – an attempt to overthrow the results of an election that even Republican state officials claim was fair, particularly at a time when Republicans controlled the majority of state governments.

To me, such Republican stances are the precursors of yet another attempt to force their will upon others, even on issues where over two-thirds of the population opposes the Republican position.

In his Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln said that the Civil War was fought so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

Today, it’s more than a little clear that the Republicans firmly no longer believe that, but instead will deny facts and ignore the will of all the people in order to create government of Republicans, by Republicans, and for Republicans, and the hell with anyone else, even though Republicans are in fact a minority of Americans.

A “Christian Nation” ?

Lately, especially over the last few years, there’s been a great deal of rhetoric from largely conservative sources about the need to stop “the war on Christian America,” a “war” supposedly being waged by “the left.”

Those making such charges claim that liberals and the left want to replace “Christian values” with big government, but those making the charges conveniently ignore history and the Constitution. At the time the Constitution was drafted, Europe had endured hundreds of years of war over which creed and what “Christian values” were to be the law of what land. That was why the Founding Fathers stated in the First Amendment to the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

So… by the words of the Constitution itself, the United States is not legally and should never be a “Christian nation.” Nor should explicitly religious beliefs and practices be enshrined in law. Yet when individuals and groups use the law to protest local and state laws establishing or promoting religious values, Republicans and many evangelicals paint those individuals as leftist radicals trying to destroy the United States.

What’s ironic about the efforts of the Republicans and evangelicals to paint the left as the enemies of Christianity is that Republicans and too many evangelicals are attempting, through changes in statutory law, especially on the state level, but increasingly on the federal level, to impose mandatory “Christian values” on everyone, whether Christian or not. Currently, a wide range of studies and surveys indicate that roughly 35% of Americans are not Christians. Most of that 35% are either non-believers, atheists, or agnostics.

There’s a clear difference between freedom to practice one’s own faith and enacting laws to force one’s beliefs on others through law, and that difference is ignored more and more, largely, but not exclusively, by Republicans and the far right, not that there’s much difference any more.