Archive for April, 2023

Good Economy/Bad Economy

On average, the statistics would seem to indicate that the U.S. economy is doing better. Inflation dropped below 5%, the lowest rate in two years, and unemployment decreased to 3.5%, a fifty-year low. Wages are up overall, and housing prices are beginning to ease.

So why does a record sixty-nine percent of the American public hold negative views about the economy both now and in the future?

Because those optimistic figures don’t tell the whole story. While overall income in the U.S. has risen over twenty-five percent since 2000, median household income has risen only seven percent, and wages for working class earners have barely stayed ahead of inflation. Income for the top one tenth of one percent of earners, by contrast, has jumped forty-one percent, and corporate profit rates and revenues are at an all-time high, a factor that created more than half the current inflation. So, for the fortunate few, the economic situation is looking good.

As for the rest of the U.S., higher interest rates have reduced the ability of average Americans to afford rent or mortgage payments, to buy car, or to pay off credit card balances. The price of natural gas for home heating has more than doubled since this time last year. The average price of a home in the U.S. has increased by thirty-five percent in just the last five years, while the average mortgage rate has more than doubled since 2020, a combination that effectively increases the cost of buying a house by almost 2 ½ times.

The overall prices of goods in America have increased by 67% (even after adjustment for inflation) since 2000. Less than half of all Americans can afford to pay an unexpected cost (medical, car repair, etc.) without going further into debt or simply being unable to pay.

At the same time, the U.S. has the lowest life expectancy of any high-income country in the world, the poorest access to health insurance, the longest working hours, and the least parental leave and paid vacation. Also, by the way, we have reached the point where firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teenagers.

Those factors might just explain the disconnect between the favorable statistics and the way most people feel.

The Underlying Problem

The “right-to-life” position of devout Catholics and extreme Evangelicals is a very real problem but is also symptomatic of a much deeper problem.

The Founding Fathers recognized that problem, which is the danger posed by making national laws based strictly on one given religion’s views and requirements, especially when there are different faiths with differing views.

Right now, the far right’s pro-life extreme position enshrines in law a belief that essentially a fetus’s right to life trumps the mother’s right to life and right to determine what to do with her own body. Put another way – the right-to-lifers believe that even a clump of undifferentiated cells has more rights than a living, breathing, thinking woman.

Jewish beliefs, from what I’ve read, state that the mother’s rights are paramount until birth. Neither represents the most widely held belief in the United States, that abortion should be allowed, roughly along the lines set forth in Roe v. Wade.

One of the essential underlying principles behind the founding of the United States and its Constitution was the goal, so far as possible, of self-determination. The far-right anti-abortion laws restrict and deny self-determination to women, despite all the explanation and apologia to the contrary.

Not only that, but the so-called “pro-life” position is in many ways “anti-life” because the ramifications of legal restrictions are destroying or reducing available pre-natal and maternity care in states and localities across the country. Some medications that can induce abortion are being banned, even for women with other conditions who need them to survive. Birth control methods are also being denied, restricting the ability of women to plan their families and their future.

All these restrictions don’t apply to men. So… enshrining the views of a religious minority creates a legal inequality between men and women. On the other hand, allowing women the right to choose does not restrict the personal rights of women who do not believe in abortion. If they don’t want an abortion, they don’t have to have one. If they find a particular kind of birth control objectionable, they don’t have to use it.

Why is this so hard a concept to understand?

The anti-abortion crew insists, in effect, that there’s something so special about their beliefs that the government should pass laws to override the beliefs held by the majority of Americans.

Not only that, but the same crew, using terms like the innocuous sounding Florida Citizens Alliance, Moms for Liberty, Families for Educational Freedom, or Utah Parents United, have effectively banned classic American novels (like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird), books that even mention different gender identities, and histories that illuminate more fully the evils of 400 years of black oppression or of the Holocaust.

State, local, or federal repression of ideas or books you don’t like because goes hand in hand with political repression, and those actions are what define a theocracy – a land where one religion rules and imposes beliefs by law — and theocracy is what the Founding Fathers opposed, and what many of them fled from.

Is theocracy what really what you want?


We have pets. At one time we had five dogs and three cats. All the cats rescued themselves by finding us. So did three of the dogs. Ergo, we needed a carpet cleaner. Although we’re down to one cat and two dachshunds, we still have the occasional need for a carpet cleaner.

Last week the “old” carpet cleaning machine died. I’ve never gotten more than four years out of any cleaner, and this was no exception. So, over the weekend I trundled off and purchased a new version of the same brand – one that proved effective over the years.

The price was almost exactly double what I paid four years ago. The design was somewhat better and likely more functional, but essentially the same technology and design. When I checked other makes, the price increases were comparable.

Now, according to the BLS, overall inflation since 2019 has been 19%. So why is my carpet cleaner showing a 100% rise in prices? Most statistical reports I’ve been able to find show that U.S. manufacturers required, on average, price increases of 8% per year over the past few years to maintain profit margins.

Even the average price for new cars has “only” increased some 30% over the past four years. So why have carpet cleaners increased 100%?

I fear that the answer is quite simple. Because on certain product lines, those where the consumer really needs to buy the product now, the manufacturers can charge more, get more profit, and blame the increase on generic “inflation.”

According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, over the past four years, over half (54%) of inflation was caused by increased corporate profits, which makes sense since profits have increased at record rates, while, historically, corporate profit increases have only contributed 11% to inflation.

So let’s put the blame for high inflation where it really belongs – on greedy corporations – because those increased corporate revenues didn’t go to workers [except high paid executives], and the “supply chain” shortages or increased wages weren’t the principal cause of today’s inflation. Excessive profits were.

Which is why my carpet cleaner cost 60% more than it really should have… and why I have absolutely no sympathy for corporate executives opposing higher corporate taxes.

The New Fanatics

The most common definition of “fanatic” is: “a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially for an extreme religious or political cause.”

The far right in the United States clearly meets this definition, especially with regard to abortion.

They’ve harassed and murdered doctors for conducting legal abortions, not to mention wide-scale harassment of women seeking legal abortions. They’ve attempted and often succeeded in banning and limiting a range of effective birth-control medications, including medications not limited to birth, thereby threatening the health of women requiring such medication to treat other medical problems.

In practice, banning all forms of abortion would kill thousands if not millions of women – or turn them into criminals for not wanting to bear children they don’t want and often can’t support. The fanatics who propose such laws have demonstrated that they have no interest in supporting and educating these unwanted children, even when the mothers cannot. That’s hardly “pro-life,” not when they’re willing to require a living woman to die.

These same fanatics also want to ban the majority of contraceptives, the result being that men can have sex without being effectively required to deal with the consequences, while effectively shoving the entire responsibility for having sex upon women and denying them the means for avoiding unwanted pregnancies in the first place, and likely increasing the amount of domestic violence (which almost invariably turns out poorly for the woman).

As I’ve noted earlier, the Republican political establishment largely backs or does not oppose these measures despite the fact that the majority of Americans don’t support the fanatics’ agenda.

Notwithstanding the flawed and often deliberately misleading legal rhetoric of today’s far right, the Founding Fathers made it clear in the Constitution that they did not want government to impose religious standards on the people.

But fanatics don’t really care about what the Constitution really stated, or about having a government for and by the people; they want a government that imposes their standards on everyone, even when the majority doesn’t approve. It’s ironic that so many of them have spoken against the imposition of Islamic “Sharia” law when they’re effectively proposing a “Christian” law that treats women in the same fashion and would effectively create a semi-theocratic state.

Abortion, Immigration, and the Far Right

What aspect of both abortion and immigration does the Republican far right fail to see or understand?

That aspect is fairly simple. You can’t totally stop either. You can’t even significantly restrict either without massive loss of civil rights and without significant adverse health effects and social disruption, particularly on women and families who are living from paycheck to paycheck.

Already, some of the various state restrictions on abortion are having major impacts on women’s health. Family planning clinics are closing;.hospitals are closing maternity wards; some doctors are reluctant or refusing to treat patients with spontaneous miscarriages because they fear lawsuits. Certain drugs that can be used to induce miscarriages are effectively being prohibited for sale, even to patients who need them to survive other medical conditions, partly because pharmacies fear lawsuits and even conviction on felony counts.

Some women, largely affluent or with connections, will still find ways to obtain abortions. But millions of women won’t have that choice. Millions of others will find their health and health care compromised.

As I noted more than a few times before, you also can’t stop all unwanted immigration, not without becoming an authoritarian police state with walls like the former East Germany, willing to shoot anyone who crosses the border.

Yet the Republican Party trumpets freedom – except what they’re effectively trumpeting, as demonstrated in Tennessee last week, is more a form of white male supremacy, rationalized by evangelical white Christianity, in a country where less than fifteen percent of the population adheres to the stringent beliefs of Christian nationalists (essentially the largely white evangelical Trump base).

Moreover, a Pew study released last week showed that two-thirds of Americans believe that religion should stay out of politics.

Yet Republicans continue to use gerrymandering and judicial selection as a way to impose stringent religious-based beliefs into law, beliefs contrary to those held by the majority of Americans, and for that matter, contrary to the U.S. Constitution itself.

Those laws will fail to stop abortion or immigration, but they will adversely impact the health and welfare of all Americans, as well as increasingly limit personal freedoms in almost every area, except of course, the right to bear arms – and to carry and use weapons of war.

Climate Change & Weather

This past Tuesday, at 2:15 in the afternoon, the thermometer indicated that it was 55 degrees F. on the back deck. By 3:30 p.m., the temperature had dropped to 30 degrees, and there were already two inches of snow. By the next morning, when the snow stopped, it was almost knee-deep in the back yard, and the temperature was down to 15 degrees – on April 4th.

Now… radically shifting weather and weather events far out of season are scarcely unknown here in Cedar City. In 2014, we got 13-14 inches of snow on the Saturday before Mothers’ Day. We lost power for two days, and it took weeks before all the broken branches were cleared from the town.

But changes in climate have markedly changed the weather patterns, especially in increasing the violence of weather events and the wind speeds associated with extreme weather events. Statistics show that climate change doesn’t seem to increase the number of severe weather events, such as major rains or snowstorms, hurricanes, or tornados, but it does appear to have increased the intensity of such events.

The vast majority of this past week’s tornados in the south and Midwest, for example, had more high wind speeds and stayed on the ground significantly longer than historical averages, just as last year’s hurricanes had higher wind speeds. Likewise, the amount of snow dropped on the California mountains this past year is close to the all-time record year, and the snow year’s not over. Here in Utah, this winter set an all-time record for snowpack, and the governor has announced a snow-melt warning. Even so, the Great Salt Lake is only a few feet above its all-time low.

So while the southwestern United States has been given a brief reprieve from one of the worst droughts in historic times, I’m wagering that this past winter is only a short respite from increasing heat and dryness.

The Infrastructure of Evil

The other day I was reading a book – one I found enjoyable – when suddenly a question occurred to me? How can the bad guys create all these problems with no one even noticing until they get in the protagonists’ way or someone gets killed.

As a writer, I put as much effort into creating the infrastructure that opposes my protagonists as I do for the protagonist, and that means giving more than hints that the opponents are up to something. Obviously, how much of this is seen or noticed by the viewpoint character or characters depends on how much the protagonist knows to begin with and how much he or she should know, but really effective opposition/evil has to leave traces somewhere. If people disappear, those around them notice. Everything leaves traces… somewhere. Now, often people, and even governments, are gullible, stupid, or greedy enough to ignore those traces, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The other aspect is that effective organizations require resources and expertise, even the evils ones. I know that the James Bond movies are thriller popcorn, but I have to laugh at the implausible economics of the villains. Smuggling gold by disguising it as the bumpers and parts of a luxury automobile and then shipping the automobile by air freight? That doesn’t make sense economically or technically.

One reason why I stopped writing book reviews years ago was that the publication I wrote for didn’t like my pointing out implausibilities – such as giving an address as residential when that address was actually in the middle of the main drag of Georgetown – the D.C. Georgetown – or using dental mirrors for long-distance around the corner surveillance.

And effective and realistic villains not only need money or the equivalent, but they also need a consistent source of it. In the real world, that’s usually drugs or counterfeiting something, or skimming off businesses or occasionally using a totally legitimate business to provide resources or cash for something less legitimate and more profitable. But I seldom see where such resources come from in F&SF novels, especially fantasy.

Yet I so often find that while authors labor over the realism of the viewpoint characters and supporting characters, that same care isn’t always applied to the bad guys.