Archive for September, 2022

The Lag Effects and Politics

Having observed politics for quite a few years can give one a perspective that most voters don’t have. That perspective can also be rather frustrating.

Right now, the United States is experiencing higher inflation rates than at any time since the period from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, and polls show that inflation is the greatest concern of most Americans coming into the mid-term elections. Because the Federal Reserve is deeply concerned about the economic impact of continuing inflation, the Fed has increased interest rates sharply over the past six months, which effectively increases costs for consumers in addition to already increasing prices.

The major causes for inflation are the massive government aid during the COVID epidemic, the historic low interest rates [which spurred increasing housing demand and boosted prices and inspired other purchases], and the Russia/Ukraine war. Now, most Americans were happy about the first two causes, but they’re unhappy with the longer-term costs of higher prices and higher interest rates to damp inflation, and many will vote against Democrats in the mid-term elections as a result. But the majority of causes were begun by the previous administration, and people generally supported the continuation of aid and low interest rates by the present administration.

This is a pattern that has recurred over much of the last century, where the administration in power gets the blame or credit for actions undertaken by the previous administration. President Carter got blamed for situations created by previous administrations, while Reagan got credit for the impact of Carter policies. The first President Bush had to deal with the excessive spending of the Reagan administration by increasing taxes, and lost his bid for a second term, while Clinton got credit for the better economic conditions created by the Bush reforms.

The reason this happens is because the fundamental economy usually doesn’t change that quickly, except in the rare cases such as COVID, and people vote on what they see and feel NOW, not on whose policies and actions created the present economic conditions, which means that many of those voters are, in effect, voting for or against the previous administration, not the present administration.

“More Plot and Less Politics”

Every so often I get a comment like that, more often lately in the books of “The Grand Illusion,” and I just want to shake my head. In fact, sometimes I do. I feel the same way when someone makes comments about just wanting to get rid of politicians and politics.

What many of these people fail to understand is that, like it or not, politics are responsible for all the achievements of the human race, and that the declines of past great civilizations largely resulted from the failure of politics.

Why do I say that?

Because individuals acting alone are limited in what they can do. Cooperative effort is what enables technology pretty much anywhere above late stone age, and cooperative effort requires social organization. Social organization falls apart without a political structure of some sort. While some theorists will claim that a market system trumps politics, even market systems need politics to function above the stone age.

Regardless of which is more important, there have never been any societies with a technology at or above the bronze age without some form of unified political and economic system.

Now, I understand the need for entertainment in fiction. If a fiction book doesn’t entertain a reader, it’s generally a failure. But just as non-stop action is totally unrealistic, as I pointed out in an earlier blog, so are societies without at least plausible economic and political structures.

You can’t maintain an autocratic kingdom or even high-tech society without enforcers of some sort, and a set of enforcers, whether a military-police structure or a secret police, requires organization and structure, which in any system involving human beings requires politics. Non-autocratic technological societies have differing structures and differing politics, but politics remain necessary.

I could ask the question of why at least some “action-oriented” readers readily accept the impossibility of non-stop action and reject the impossibility of societies without workable politics, but the answer is most likely that, because they don’t see or understand that politics can be as deadly, and often more deadly, than military or other action, they find direct violence and action more emotionally satisfying. That lack of understanding on a larger scale in society is why autocrats like Putin, Hitler, Mussolini, Orban, and more than a few others gained power through political means, rather than by direct military force.

Shades of Gray

One of the biggest rationalizations/copouts in politics today is one used by far too many voters, usually when someone makes an observation about one politician’s unethical or potentially illegal behavior or the politician’s blatant falsehoods. Those who want to support the politician, despite that behavior or those lies, all too often say, “All politicians are crooks” or “They all lie.”

To begin with, every single human being who reaches adulthood has lied. That’s not the question. The question is what kind of lies they told and to whom. Were they white lies to spare someone’s feelings? Or lies to excuse their own failures, like claiming they were late to work because an accident backed up traffic when they really overslept because they were hung over. Or were they lies like those told by former President Trump? The other question is how often and how blatant the lies.

When we deal with acquaintances, most people weigh the “shades of gray” in judging people, but when they deal with politicians, from what I’ve seen, the smallest fault in a politician one doesn’t like or who’s of the “wrong” party is enough to justify voting for a politician with far greater faults who comes from the “right” party. People shy away from dealing with shady merchants or car dealers, but they don’t show the same reluctance when a shady politician from their own party spouts blatant falsehoods.

And usually, neither candidate is perfectly pure. When that happens, a large segment of each party tends to justify staying with the party candidate by magnifying the sins of the opposition candidate, rather than by comparing their actions and statements of the two [now, most people say they do this, but it’s clear from election results that many don’t].

Sometimes, voters believe that the principles a politician opposes or supports justify voting for that politician, despite his or her flaws, but how large do the flaws have to be before voters turn away from a flawed politician? How outrageous do the falsehoods and lies have to get before voters reject a politician from their own party?

Some voters never do, and that was how the Germans ended up with Hitler, the Italians with Mussolini, the Russians with Putin, and why Trump believes he can run and win a second term.

Misleading Statistics

The other day, I got an email cartoon listing nineteen goods/categories whose prices have increased 10% or more over the past year. Nine were grocery products and one was men’s suits. The others were categories: gasoline, airline tickets, used cars, gas utilities, hotels, delivery costs, electricity, furniture, and cleaning products. The bottom line caption was: So how is inflation only 8.6%?

I checked the numbers against the latest CPI-U, and some were exaggerated. The email said used car prices were up 35%, but the CPI lists the annual inflation at 7.8% The email also listed gasoline increases at 49%, when the actual was 29%.

But the most misleading aspect is that all of the items listed by the email together comprise less than 30% of all the items that comprise the CPI-U. All food items comprise only 14%. Eggs [up 44%] only amount to 1/10 of one percent.

Overall food prices (comprising 14% of the CPI-U) increased 11.4%, but all commodity prices, excluding food and energy, only rose 6.3% over the last year.

Now neither 8.6% nor 6.3% is good, but citing huge price spikes in small segments of the economy is definitely misleading. It’s also politically effective. People don’t notice the prices that don’t rise or rise more slowly. They notice that gasoline and egg prices are way up, or that used cars are getting pricy.

Yet, I’d be willing to be that the majority of people who received that email or saw the original posting of the cartoon and its statistics will have the reaction that the government is grossly “cooking the statistics.”

And the government has been “readjusting” the statistics for years, but in little ways, such as reducing the impact of food and energy costs on the CPI, but its figures aren’t “readjusted” by the two and three-fold magnitudes suggested by the cartoon.

This statistical “discrepancy” also illustrates one of the biggest problems faced by a democratic high technology society, that fewer and fewer of the people who vote really understand either the technology or the economy underlying their society, and that lack of understanding becomes fertile ground for demagogues who offer falsified/incorrect facts, gross exaggerations, and beguiling simple (but unworkable) “solutions” to complex problems.

Suspension of Disbelief

All fiction rests on, as the British poet Coleridge put it more than two centuries ago, “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.” But what continually surprises me is what aspects of “disbelief” various readers are willing to suspend (and what they are not), as well as what suspensions various authors expect of their readers.

As authors, we all have beliefs and preferences. As my readers know, I try hard to provide workable economic and political systems as a framework for my novels, and this carries over into my reading. While I’m more willing to accept an unworkable economic or political system in a fantasy, particularly when the plot doesn’t depend primarily on either, if I’m reading science fiction, especially hard science fiction, totally unworkable politics and economics are usually a total turn-off for me. Likewise, a cast of characters with no visible means of support tends to make suspension of disbelief difficult for me. But that’s me.

Everyone has different parameters for what aspects of “disbelief” can be suspended, and sometimes I find what readers can and cannot accept as “literarily believable” rather, shall I say, interesting. There are readers who can easily accept order and chaos magic but cannot believe the way certain female characters in my books behave [even though that behavior is modeled on that of my wife and my numerous daughters].

There is, of course, a difference between willingness to suspend disbelief and disliking the way characters are portrayed, but there’s a definite crossover. Readers who aren’t fond of strong women are going to have more trouble suspending disbelief when they encounter a female character who’s not particularly tolerant of male chauvinism, misogyny, and patriarchal power. Readers who are fond of action will be less likely to suspend disbelief when a character has to deal with a great deal of bureaucracy, subtlety, and intrigue.

From what I’ve observed, readers are far more likely to suspend disbelief about politics, economics, and technology than about interpersonal relationships and social structures, although this has changed significantly over the past thirty years. Even so, radically changed socio-economic structures are still comparatively infrequent, possibly because they’re hard for many readers to even imagine, let alone accept as “realistic” enough to suspend disbelief.

And, in the end, because one of the reasons why people read fiction is to escape reality, fiction that is apparently “farther” from reality draws more readers than fiction closer to reality, but that’s often an illusion, because while the magic or technology vary greatly from reality, societal basics seldom do, which is why an older book such as The Left Hand of Darkness still stands out.

The Freedom Threat

For the past three months I’ve been inundated with appeals for funds by various Republican and Democratic candidates and both political parties. But I’ve noticed that there’s a fundamental difference.

Almost every Republican appeal is not only fear-based, but it’s always about how those vile Democrats are going to take away “your freedoms.” They’re going to take away your freedom to own a gun [despite the fact that the Second Amendment preludes that, if admittedly, Democrats possibly might not allow high-speed, multiple-shot, mass-killing weapons]. Republicans charge that Democrats will have the FBI raiding your home [especially if you have top-secret documents illegally]. They’re going to hire 87,000 new IRS agents, and all of them are after you [even though the point of the agents and the additional funds is to answer phone calls the IRS hasn’t had enough people to answer for years; to handle tax returns that have taken extra months, if not years, to process; to fill vacancies that have existed for years; and to have enough people to go after high-income tax cheats, who’ve gotten away with fraudulent tax returns for years]. Yes, those Democrats are going to take away your country [that is, they want true equality for all ethnicities and genders]. They’ll take away your freedom to infect other people [can’t have required immunizations even when they’ve proved to reduce and eliminate childhood and other deaths from infectious diseases]. And, of course, they’ll actually charge the Republicans’ beloved Donald Trump with the crimes he’s already committed.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are more concerned about freedoms that the Republicans have already restricted or attempted to restrict, such as women’s freedom to control their own bodies and reproductive rights. Democrats also oppose Republican initiatives and recent laws that make it harder for ethnic minorities to vote and thus to hold office, as well as legal and legislative initiatives to allow state government officials to override election results, which Republicans have already done in several states with regard to legal ballot initiatives. Democrats also oppose Republican bans on books that only Republicans seem to find objectionable.

So, from what I can see, Republicans are fearmongering on what Democrats might do, even when such acts are Constitutionally impossible, while Democrats are fearmongering about what Republicans have already done and what they want to extend to the whole country.

Whether many people, especially Republicans, will understand the difference is another question.

Compromises of Power

I’ve recently noticed a trend – or maybe it’s always been there – in various reviews, both of my books and others, of a view of ethics by reviewers that seems to believe that compromises to power and reality are always sell-outs.

Unhappily, this view has also dominated U.S. politics for at least the last decade, if not longer. The far right wants to ban all abortions all the time; the far left wants no restrictions on abortion. Polls show that the majority of Americans want something in the middle, roughly along the lines of Roe v. Wade. But the battle lines remain.

For years, Congress has been stalled on issues dealing with climate reform, a better IRS system, the high cost of prescription drugs, getting wealthy corporations to pay taxes, and the need to reduce health insurance costs for poorer families.

In early 2021, the President proposed a $3 trillion program to address such problems. The Republicans’ counter was to say that they were opposed to all of it, despite the problems. For a year and a half, the Democrats, despite having control of Congress, if only by one vote in the Senate, couldn’t agree on anything.

Once the Democrats realized that only by compromising among themselves could they get anything done did they finally pass the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which everyone should know won’t do all it promises. No one got all of what they wanted. Did that mean that the Democrats lost their ethics? Or did it mean that they did the best they could?

As for the Republicans, their “ethical” position was that they’d oppose anything. Most likely, if they’d really agreed to compromise, the final legislation would have been better. But they opposed compromise.

But what too many people tend to ignore, forget, or fail to acknowledge is that getting almost anything done in government requires compromise, not getting all that you think necessary, and having to accept things you think are unnecessary or even wrong.

Accepting compromise doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost your ethics. It may mean that your opponents have more votes and/or power. And for those who refuse compromise, especially when not acting means people will suffer, it suggests that some people believe so highly in their view of what’s ethical that they’d rather have people suffer or die than do what they think is “unethical.” And what does that say about their “ethics”?

Software Deviltry

As happens periodically, I’ve had to update and replace my old computers. Fortunately, I made the switchover before the two older computers [seven and ten years old] completely died, and because I’d backed things up. I salvaged almost all my critical files.

Unfortunately, I’m stuck, for professional reasons, with the latest version of Word, which has some “features” that strike me as glitches. For example, there’s no quick “save” command. While Word insists it saves documents as I type, that’s not accurate. It does such backup saving sporadically, from what I can tell.

So that means, when I want to save a document, I can’t just save it. No, I have to hit “save a copy,” and then click a separate “save” icon, and then be asked if I want to replace the previous file, and then be told that it’s already been saved, and that what I’m doing is redundant – except it’s not.

I also can’t add icon commands to the ribbon, where they’d be convenient. Nope. At least, I haven’t been able to find a way. Instead, I have to create a “new tab” linked to the ribbon and add the icons there, but that means I have to call up the “new tab” when I want those commands.

Does anyone who does these re-designs actually write for a living. I mean really write, with revisions, moving texts around, or redrafting?

Or are they just coming up with all these “nifty,” but useless, changes to justify their jobs?

The Freedom Trade-Off, Part 2

A number of economists and commentators, including me, have raised the question of how the Russian economy can sustain such a powerful military force with such a comparatively weak economy, one with a Gross Domestic Product roughly equivalent to that of Spain, a relatively prosperous nation, but certainly no military heavyweight.

The simple answer is that Putin and the oligarchs direct more resources proportionately to the military than other industrialized nations, and much of that funding comes from agricultural and natural resource exports. Some comes from the depressed wage structure that requires labor and services, even high-skill services, at little more than survival level, if that [which, ironically, is an improvement over the 1990s, and one reason why the Russian people put up with Putin]. And some likely comes from plundering re-conquered parts of the former Soviet Union.

The Russians also steal any technology that they can, so they don’t have to develop it, and rely on foreign suppliers to provide parts for some of their industries, because they’ve never been able to afford to develop those technologies. At times, they’ve been unable to produce advanced weapons systems they’ve developed because they lack the funding. They’ve announced ambitious ship-building projects, but in reality, the actual numbers of new vessels aren’t that large, and most are submarines or smaller surface or amphibious ships. At the same time, they have difficulty maintaining and operating all of their existing fleet, particularly capital ships. They also lack the ability to gain clear air superiority over Ukraine and appear to be losing aircraft faster than they can replace them.

All that being said, Russia has a substantial backlog of artillery, ammunition, and tanks [if of older models] and the ability to induce/force men into the army as well as to stifle public dissent almost totally. So Putin will expend those assets until he no longer can, which could be years, based on the assumption that the U.S. and western European nations will give up before he runs out of artillery, ammunition, tanks, and the soldiers who are little more than cannon fodder to him.

And all that provides an example of why military-authoritarian nations continue to exist, because weaker nations can’t stop or contain them, and stronger nations that maximize individual freedoms often ignore them until they provide an imminent national threat.