Archive for the ‘General’ Category

The Creeping Cancer of “Consumerism”

Once upon a time, a “consumer” was someone who consumed/used physical goods and limited kinds of services provided by others. Today, especially in the United States, almost everything is viewed through the lens of consumerism and the old and misused mantra that “the consumer is always right.”

People used to listen to news broadcasts and read newspapers to find out the facts of what was happening. Now, they search for and “consume” the news that suits them, regardless of its accuracy or factual content.

Students now “consume” education, and to meet that consumer demand, the vast majority of colleges and universities are dumbing down curricula and providing a huge range of costly services, many of which are at best tangentially related to learning, while putting out the word to faculty not to upset the little darlings in order to keep numbers up, just like a business catering to consumers. Despite all the right-wing talk about left-wing elitism in higher education, what’s pushing the trend to coddle students isn’t primarily the faculty, but the students, assisted by well-meaning and misguided junior administrators. On the undergraduate level, education has become less and less about learning, especially learning to think, and more and more about “keeping the numbers up” and making students “comfortable.” Trigger warnings are everywhere, as if unsettling facts and theories were real bullets, instead of challenges to be faced and dealt with through thought and reason.

Politics has become consumerized as well, especially after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that essentially declared that votes were consumer goods that could be bought by anyone who had enough money and clever advertising.

Although law has always been biased on the side of the affluent, simply because the poor never had the funds for the best advocates or legislators, it’s become even more consumerized in recent years.

One of the reasons why the US has regulatory agencies dealing with food and drug safety, product safety, and workplace safety is because manufacturers of consumer products proved that far too many of them could not be trusted to turn out a safe product under safe working conditions.

Just as physical products can’t use dangerous ingredients, or parts, and make wildly false claims, why shouldn’t we require similar standards for all the new consumables?

Maybe news outlets should face fines or suspension of their licenses for airing provable falsehoods, including “commentators,” who seem able to air dangerous and blatant falsehoods. Maybe universities should be subject to “truth in education” laws. Maybe politicians should be held personally liable, with damages, for blatant falsehoods.

But… I don’t see it happening, because the United States has become largely a nation of consumers addicted to their consumables, regardless of the effects on their health, their political system, and their ability to think.

The “Basis” of Science

The other day a commenter made a statement that falsification is the basis of science. Like a great deal of what appears on the internet, the statement is true, but incomplete, and was presented out of context. As I’ve said elsewhere, a correct statement presented in the wrong context is effectively a lie, or at the least, a misrepresentation.

True science is based on physically proving what works… and what doesn’t, and in what context something works, or doesn’t. Einstein’s work theorized that there were instances in which Newton’s three laws didn’t seem to apply, or not fully. That was a theory. Later experiments proved much of what his theory proposed… but questions remain about certain physical aspects. What gets overlooked is that in most of everyday life and current industry and technology, Newton’s Laws are accurate and applicable.

The second point about theories is that while they can be disproven, they can never be absolutely proven. The best science can say is: at this point, all the evidence indicates that the theory cannot be factually disproven. So… the test of a theory is whether it can be disproven – or falsified. In some esoteric aspects of quantum mechanics or relativity, we have not been able to physically test various aspects of the theory. That means the theory seems to explain the situation, but that we can’t test it to say that either the evidence supports the theory or that it doesn’t.

Science is not static. As science progresses, we learn more. Sometimes, we learn through experimentation or discovery and analysis that an idea once held is not correct, or not totally correct. A cynical expression of this fact is that science progresses as those who hold to older and incorrect theories and refuse to accept newer evidence die off.

Accurate and effective science is a process that has two basic roots – to understand and prove what works and why and to investigate and disprove that which doesn’t. What is known changes daily and so does what was thought to be true and now needs to be discarded or modified.

Some basics don’t change, and they don’t change because evidence continues to support them. Certain viruses and bacteria cause disease. Good sanitation practices and immunization reduce the spread of diseases. Period. Proclaiming personal freedom from proven sanitation practices or immunization won’t reduce the spread of disease and the injuries and death. That’s the science. Anything else is political self-rationalization.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

People are the ones who lie. With or without numbers. People also ignore the numbers or fail to understand what they mean. I was trained as an economist and worked for a short time as an industrial economist, and I have a pretty good idea of all the ways the numbers can be manipulated.

As far as COVID numbers go, they’re not lying. People are misrepresenting them or arguing against them on non-scientific grounds. The initial testing of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines showed an initial effectiveness of 93-95%. The researchers also noted that the vaccines did not provoke as strong an immune response in older individuals or those who were immuno-compromised. The numbers also showed a minuscule risk of severe side-effects from any of the major vaccines. Those numbers and facts remain accurate so far, even considering the greater infectiousness and severity of the Delta variant.

Statistics also show, historically and practically, that a high degree of vaccination/infection-and-recovery is necessary [roughly in the 70% range] to stop an epidemic.

What are we seeing? That the cases in hospitals are overwhelmingly of the unvaccinated with a small percentage of older vaccinated or immuno-compromised individuals, just as the trials predicted. The statistics also show that well over 10% of individuals hospitalized for COVID who survive suffer long-term and possibly permanent health damage, and in some studies that number approaches 40%.

Until a greater percentage of unvaccinated individuals get vaccinated, or catch COVID, those numbers will continue, and they will include unvaccinated children.

All the political crap about “it’s my right” not to get vaccinated isn’t going to change the numbers.

I live in an area where only 36% of those able to be vaccinated are, and the death toll hit the highest number ever last week. I’m not exactly a spring chicken, as the saying goes, and even after being fully vaccinated, I’m likely still at risk. So is my wife, who is also vaccinated and slightly immuno-comprised, but still teaching. Her students have been understanding, and all of them are either vaccinated or wear masks in class.

This is not so for the rest of the community, which is why we don’t go to restaurants or any crowded venues… and shop with care. Our life – and that of millions of others – is restricted because of the baseless fears of the ignorant and their unwillingness to follow time-tested and working procedures for dealing with an epidemic.

Just why do so many people ignore all the obvious – and verified – facts? Except that’s not really the question. In a public health crisis the question is what the government should do. Getting out the facts isn’t sufficient. Too many people are either too ignorant, too distrusting, too lazy, or too invested in self-centered “personal freedom” to get vaccinated.

So the choice is pretty basic – either require vaccinations or see a lot more people die and become permanently disabled. And if you don’t get vaccinated, you’re saying through your inaction that your “freedom” is worth more than the lives of other people.

Republicans = Exponential Hypocrisy

In the wake of the resurgence of COVID in the form of the Delta variant, the majority of Republican governors in the states hardest hit by COVID, with ICUs and hospitals at capacity or beyond capacity, continue to oppose vaccination requirements and mask mandates. Their cry is “personal freedom” or “it’s my right to choose.”

Those Republicans, including the clearly hypocritical governor of Texas, would have people die rather than give in to governmental public health mandates.

While I obviously disagree with their “principle,” they aren’t even consistent in its application. In fact, there’s extreme hypocrisy in this stance, especially in the case of Governor Abbott, because the governor wants personal choice in the case of COVID public health requirements, insisting that individuals have control over their own bodies, yet he and the Texas Taliban, i.e., the Republicans in the Texas State Legislature, have legislated to deny women the choice to control their own bodies, by effectively eliminating the vast majority of abortions in Texas and even creating a potentially nationwide vigilante system for denying that choice.

But then, it’s become increasingly clear that all too many Republicans have little interest in consistent principles, effective public health measures, or equal legal treatment for all Americans, regardless of income.

What’s even sadder is that most rank-and-file Republicans don’t see this, and, if they do, don’t care that they’re well on their way to becoming the American Taliban, in attempting to make one set of self-contradicting and repressive religious beliefs the law of the land.

Sacred Hypocrisy

The entire “Right-to-Life” movement in the United States is based on the idea that human life is “sacred.” Except that’s not true. In both practice and ideal, the movement insists that only unborn life is sacred.

The life of a woman who will die from a pregnancy isn’t sacred. The lives of tens of thousands of unwanted children born to women who cannot support them aren’t sacred. The so-called Right-to-Lifers make no provisions for the needs of unwanted or ill-fed children. Nor do most of them support legislation or provisions to aid poor mothers. At a time when minimum wage jobs won’t support an individual in most U.S. cities, let alone a family, what do Right-To-Lifers think is going to happen to all the unwanted children who will be born if abortion is banned? Not only that, but how many more unwanted pregnancies will occur because birth control counseling and means have been restricted or banned.

We already have too many homeless in our cities and streets… and the anti-abortion crowd thinks that banning abortion won’t create more?

Like it or not, human beings will have sex. Puritans, strict Catholics, and many, if not most, Evangelicals insist that abstinence is the only “approved” form of birth control, and, given restricted or banned abortion, and without access to knowledgeable and available birth control, there will be even more unwanted children and mothers who either cannot physically support those children… or who will not. Moral proscriptions and moralizing won’t change that.

Nor will moralizing and laws change the fact that most poor women don’t have the resources to raise children in ways that won’t leave many, if not most, of those children without the skills and resources to be productive members of society, particularly at a time when decent paying, low-skilled jobs have all but vanished. But the majority of the Right-To-Life crew doesn’t want to pay to provide that support.

In addition to that, the Right-to-Lifers won’t acknowledge that a significant number of unwanted pregnancies are the result of men forcing themselves on women. Given that, in most cases, men are stronger than women, the Right-to-Life position is essentially condoning the subjugation of women to the will of men, both in forcing women to have sex and then forcing them to bear unwanted children.

So Right-to-Lifers want to force women to have children they can’t support, and that Right-to-Lifers won’t. I don’t see any deity swooping down to provide manna for food or angels constructing lodging… and while some charities do the best they can, it’s not enough, and it never will be.

What the Right-to-Lifers are doing, however well-intentioned they think they are about the sacredness of life, is trying to require unwanted children to be born and then denying support to that unwanted life once it is born, because apparently those children aren’t all that sacred once they’re born and suffering, with the result that the massive costs of inadequate government benefits for those mothers and children are dumped on everyone else. And on top of that, most of these right-wingers then complain about the burden those children and their mothers place on society.

And the only terms for that are religious hypocrisy, ignorance… or stupidity, if not all three. Take your pick.

The Law As Ass

One of Dickens’ characters, Mr. Bumble, as I recall, said something to the effect that if the law established some ridiculous provision then the law was “a ass.”

Usually, the law isn’t quite that bad, but that was before Texas passed its recent anti-abortion legislation. Regardless of one’s position on abortion, this legislation is worse than an abortion of rights or a miscarriage of justice [both of which it is], and the U.S. Supreme Court’s failure to stop its implementation suggests that those justices in the High Court’s majority are also asses – in legal terms.

Apparently, in order to avoid making the state of Texas the enforcement body, the law enables anyone to file a civil lawsuit in any jurisdiction against anyone who performs an abortion of any fetus from Texas where the heartbeat can be detected [usually around six weeks] as well as against anyone who enables/assists in obtaining such an abortion. The statute also mandates a judgement/payment to the plaintiff of up to $10,000 and possibly more.

The historic legal requirement for obtaining damages is that someone has suffered an injury of some sort, yet under the Texas law anyone can file such a lawsuit, even if they cannot prove that they personally suffered such an injury. The “beauty” of this approach is that even if the complainant/plaintiff receives no damages, the defendant is saddled with enormous legal costs and bills, while the plaintiff and the Republican legislators who passed the legislation get off scot-free.

Furthermore, the language around what constitutes an enabler is vague enough that anyone who transports a woman seeking an abortion to where an abortion takes place might well be subject to the legislation. That could conceivably even involve airlines or other transportation.

The Texas Right to Life movement is already reputedly establishing a hot line to receive tips about women seeking abortions. Perhaps, in that light, the organization should change its name to the “Texas Taliban.”

The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t just strike down the law as a gross infringement on personal privacy suggests worse may be yet to come.

So… three cheers, or rather raspberries, for all those legal asses.

Biden Was Right

I’ve always been annoyed by back-seat drivers and Monday morning quarterbacks, who always KNOW how they could have “done it better” than someone who was under pressure and didn’t meet their standards, whether that someone was a quarterback or a politician. Very occasionally, the armchair strategists are right, but mostly they couldn’t have done it better… or even as well, with the possible exception of doing it better than Trump.

Hindsight’s a great predictor after the fact.

Getting out of Afghanistan would ALWAYS have turned into a scramble. The basic structural system was a recipe for disaster. Take a partly semi-modernized capital, propped up and supported almost entirely by the United States, with a “government” that was often governing in name only and only in places where Afghan troops, with American backing, could hold back the Taliban. Add a culture that, outside of Kabul and a handful of other places, hadn’t changed significantly in at least a thousand years, and a “country” that has no truly “national” identity and is split into tribal factions based on brutal fundamentalist versions of faith. Outside of Kabul, there’s essentially no modern infrastructure except that supplied and maintained by American and other allied military.

What was holding the entity named Afghanistan together was the military and associated contractor presence spearheaded by American soldiers and technocrats, a presence resented by the majority of the population outside Kabul, and even by many within the city.

When you start removing those soldiers and technocrats, the areas they leave lapse back into previous patterns – except for Kabul, which lapsed into chaos, because a significant percentage of the population there doesn’t want to return to the culture of a thousand years previous, but can’t escape.

The only way to stave off what happened would have been to continually increase the U.S. military presence there. Those who argue that maintaining a small U.S. presence in Afghanistan would have stabilized the situation can’t or won’t read maps. As the U.S. military presence receded, the areas controlled by the Taliban increased.

To get out of Afghanistan required reducing the U.S. and allied presence… and the Taliban moved in. Even if the withdrawal had started earlier or lasted longer, the results would have been similar because neither the U.S. nor its allies would have been able politically to remove and assimilate the hundreds of thousands of Afghans and their families who are vulnerable to Taliban abuse and possible atrocities. There are already difficulties in dealing with a “mere” hundred thousand or so.

Blaming Biden for the mess is just a simplistic response to twenty years of wasting huge amounts of money and thousands of American lives, and it also ignores the fact that he was opposed to remaining in Afghanistan in the beginning.

But it’s so much more satisfying to blame someone who’s stopped the years of bleeding money and lives, if not perfectly, than to admit that it was a misguided mess all along.

COVIDIOCY

Some Republican legislatures and governors have acted to forbid mask and vaccination requirements, usually giving one of several rationales: requiring masks and/or vaccination infringes on personal freedoms; people will do what’s best for them; local authorities know what’s best [except when they disagree with Republican state officials].

These reasons all ignore the very basics of government. ALL working governments place restrictions on their citizens in order to maintain the common good.

Those legal requirements are necessary because, without them, and often despite them, there is always a significant percentage of the population that will act against the common good and/or their fellow-citizens individually, either through ignorance, stupidity, greed, self-interest, or malice, or some combination thereof.

Despite the considerable rhetoric against masks and vaccinations, there is NO statistical credible evidence that masks impose harm on healthy individuals or children over a certain young age, and no evidence that vaccination harms healthy adults or children.

There is considerable evidence that mask-wearing dramatically reduces the spread of COVID and that vaccination virtually eliminates hospitalization and death from COVID, with the exception of immuno-compromised individuals (a very small percentage of the population).

So… why are all these Republicans opposing public health measures that would benefit their constituents and save the lives of many? Even as emergency rooms and ICUs are filled to overflowing in largely Republican-led states?

Could it be that those Republicans have forgotten that government exists for the protection of everyone? Or is it that they’re also suffering from an associated malignant mental condition that only appears to strike Republicans – Covidiocy?

Corruption

One of the reasons given for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government is corruption, which most people take to mean the illegal diversion or theft of materials, goods, weapons, and cash. All of that happened, according to a wide range of reports, but corruption goes far beyond that.

When incompetent individuals are appointed to positions that control resources, either in return for payoffs or in anticipation of some form of ill-gotten gain, much more is lost than just resources. There are at least scattered reports that Afghan soldiers often didn’t get paid, although accounts indicated they had been paid. And when such events occur continually, soldiers become less and less willing to fight for superiors whom the soldiers perceive as getting rich off them while ordering them into danger under officers more likely to get them killed.

All effective organizations require some form of trust, and trust has many components, ranging from belief in the organization and its leaders, to the understanding that good performance is rewarded, and poor performance is not. Effective organizations pay people in some fixed ratio to responsibility and results. Less effective organizations do not. In corrupt organizations, power and resources are siphoned off with little or no relation to organizational priorities, needs, or results.

At times, some effective organizations are based on a negative form of trust – if you don’t get results and aren’t loyal, you’ll get fired or even killed. In that respect, there’s a certain similarity between the old-style Mafia and certain high pressure consulting firms.

Corruption in any institution destroys loyalty and trust, and if the corruption is extensive it will destroy the institution – or government – directly or indirectly.

In a democratically governed nation, such as the United States, the appearance of corruption can be as deadly as actual corruption. The poorer and/or more liberal segments of society see great income inequality in a nation, corporation, or institution as a sign of corruption, even if the methods that cause those inequalities are legal under existing laws. Corporation officers and conservatives often seem to be either unaware of this feeling or believe that it is totally unwarranted because the inequality is “legal.”

On the other side, social liberals and disadvantaged individuals support baseline economic support programs for those who are unable to work or involuntarily unemployed, but many right wing conservatives see those programs, since they’re financed from taxes on working individuals, as a form of corrupt government seizure of income.

Both extremes view these programs/systems valued by the other as “corrupt.” Such perceptions undermine the support of government, despite the fact that these programs/systems were legally established, unlike the widespread corruption in Afghanistan.

That raises the question, of course, of whether there is such a thing as “legal corruption” and, if so, how one can effectively define it.

The Afghanistan Illusion

Way back right after 9/11, when the Bush Administration decided to go into Afghanistan, my wife the music and opera professor said, “It’s going to end up like Vietnam.” I didn’t disagree. We weren’t alone, but I’d hoped that the Bush Administration would get Osama Bin Laden and bow out.

Getting Bin Laden didn’t happen until much later because, as I understand it, when Bin Laden crossed the border into neighboring Pakistan, the Administration didn’t want to invade two countries simultaneously, and back then drones weren’t quite as far advanced as they are now, or if they were, the Bush Administration was leery of using them, at least if they could be discovered. Even before Bin Laden’s death, too many U.S. politicians and policymakers endorsed the continued idiocy of the idea that the U.S. could create a democratic nation in a land split by ideology and tribalism where the concept of national identity had never really existed.

My wife has had a rare perspective on the war in Afghanistan because a number of her students were National Guard and Army Reservists who were deployed there [interrupting their schooling considerably] who kept in touch with her, admittedly, often sporadically, but all of them were of the opinion that (1) the country was too “tribal” to successfully unite against the Taliban and (2) the Taliban could and would wait us out. One spent his deployments in forward area intelligence, and his comments were more than a little eye-opening.

This understanding of Afghanistan certainly wasn’t rare among U.S. troops – and their junior officers – serving in the Afghanistan or even in other Middle East locales. So why didn’t it ever filter into upper levels of U.S. policy [and if it did, why was it ignored]?

Based on my own experiences, both as a Navy helicopter pilot with two deployments to Vietnam and as a political staffer in Washington, D.C., in the last years of South Vietnam and later, and from what I’ve learned from others, realistic assessments of the situation were continually discarded by upper level politicians… or ignored for “political” considerations

When I was a junior pilot being briefed on the Vietnamese government and social structure in 1969, instructors laid out the point that the government was almost entirely from French influenced Catholic families, as were most of the senior military officers, that the wealth was held by a minority that came from Buddhist-related families, and that more than 80% of the population was comparatively poor and held folk beliefs or beliefs in various combinations of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Those were broad-stroke generalizations, but essentially true. Yet I never saw any public or policy acknowledgement of those factors.

The same lack of cultural and belief understanding has been repeated in Afghanistan, and, not so strangely, even here in the U.S. Too many of those on the far right simply do not or cannot understand the cultural and political concerns of even moderates, let alone liberals, and the same is true for the liberals who fail to understand those on the far right, whose beliefs are, in effect, who they are.

Yet policy-makers who don’t understand much of their own culture and have trouble working out legislation to benefit all Americans continued to believe that they could create a democratic nation in a culture that has no history of or understanding of democracy?

And now, everyone is shocked that the Afghan government folded so quickly? I strongly doubt that most of the front-line U.S. military members who served there are. So why is it all such a surprise? Because too many were wedded to an impossible illusion?

The Most Dangerous Addiction?

A certain percentage of human beings have addictive personalities. They may be addicted to substances or behaviors. Thrill-seekers are often addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes with successfully surviving dangerous sports or activities. Substance abusers may become addicted to smoking, to alcohol, or to more dangerous drugs or substances.

But there are other addictions that are also dangerous and destructive, such as excessive gambling. In recent years, there’s also been recognition of so-called sex addicts.

In the end, a percentage of these addicts will overdose. They may seek too much danger, or the ultimate high of some sort, and many die every single year. Not only can overdosing destroy the addict, but the costs to family and others, and to society, can be enormous.

But there’s one kind of addiction that we as a society have been unwilling to recognize as an actual addiction – and that’s the addiction to power.

Seeking power for the sake of power is indeed an addiction, but there are also those who seek power to do good or for some cause or another and subsequently become addicted to power itself. We see this most often in politics and on the national level, most recently with a President so addicted to power that he attempted what amounted to coup in order to stay in office.

But it happens in other areas as well – the corporation president who bends laws and customs and stacks the corporate board room to maintain power, or the one who micromanages everything. Perhaps it’s even the head of local arts or cultural organization who ends up running the organization into the ground rather than give up that position, all the time insisting that no one else could possibly do it as well.

Unlike more personal addiction overdosing, where the results affect a limited number of individuals in each instance and where the ultimate price is the one paid by the overdoser, those who overdose on power ruin more people and can destroy large organizations and even governments, all the while lying and rationalizing their actions with misleading statements and statistics, as well as often with blatant lies.

Yet today no one seems to recognize, directly, this most deadly of addictions, although the Founding Fathers did. Isn’t it about time we do?

Looking in the Wrong Place

Today, in the United States, we have a tremendous amount of anger, most of it because people feel disenfranchised in some way or another, but despite this anger, and the efforts of people on both sides – often misguided and sometimes merely oppositional – almost nothing significant in a structural sense is being accomplished, and when something is, it takes much longer.

There’s a fundamental reason why, as illustrated by an old anecdote. A drunken man keeps circling around a street light on a dark night, muttering, “Not here… not here.” A police officer arrives and asks what the man is looking for. The man replies, “My keys. I can’t find them.” “Have you looked anywhere else?” asks the officer. “What’s the point?” replies the man. “I can’t see anything where there’s no light.”

Every statistic about the U.S. education system indicates that it’s failing the majority of high school graduates. Yet a huge amount of rhetoric and funding is devoted to increasing the number of high school graduates, as well as the number of college students and graduates. The numbers of graduates aren’t the problem, despite all the “light” focused in this area. The most important problem is that the majority of those graduates aren’t learning what they need to know. While study after study shows that basic learning patterns and abilities are acquired in early childhood and primary school, the emphasis remains on high school and college, despite the fact that, if solid basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills aren’t learned before puberty, the vast majority of students who don’t acquire those skills by then will be handicapped permanently for the rest of their lives.

Immigration is another significant problem, but history has shown that walls don’t work, not when the immigrants face near-certain death in their own country and not unless every foot of your wall is manned with armed soldiers who will shoot to kill. That’s enormously expensive, in more than a few ways, and it doesn’t work over long periods of time. If you’re willing to shoot, it would be more effective to remove corrupt governments in the countries from where the immigrants are coming. If you don’t want to do either, then you’d better find a way to teach and employ those immigrants, because the solution to the problem doesn’t lie in all the “light” at the border.

The current COVID situation illustrates the same pattern. We know who is getting vaccinated and why, but we avoid truly shining any light on the unvaccinated, under the rationale that they have the right to remain in the darkness, even though that darkness is where 97% of the new cases are occurring.

In all these instances, as well as others, we spent too much time in the existing light, rather than lighting the darkness.

Unexamined Assumptions

Even the best logic in the world can result in terrible outcomes if the basic premises or the assumptions behind those premises are incorrect or not factually accurate.

The biggest flaws behind “libertarian” ideals lie in certain underlying assumptions. The first is that we all have equal power. The second assumption is that those with power and ability earned it. The third assumption is that, even if we don’t have power, we have no right to band together to stop the abuse of power by others through government because it restricts the freedom of those with more power and/or ability. The fourth unspoken assumption is that life is unfair, but that all those without power and resources are personally responsible for their situation, and that it is entirely up to them to improve their situation. The fifth assumption is that society bears no or limited responsibility for providing opportunities for those with less power or ability.

But Libertarians aren’t the only ones with unexamined assumptions. Liberals have more than a few as well. There’s the assumption that more government funding will solve every problem. The assumption that more regulation is better, when it’s clear, just by examining California, that there’s a definite limit to what regulation can do, and that overregulation creates more problems than it solves. There’s also the assumption that government mandates can create economic processes. Or that you can change economics and government by forcing cultural mores on people, when all historical evidence suggests that economics drive culture, rather than the other way around.

Conservatives generally assume that a largely unregulated marketplace provides the best economic outcomes, even though history has consistently shown this is not so, but conservatives still tend to persist in making that assumption.

A huge percentage of Americans from all groups are making the assumption that a college education is an automatic passport to economic success because it has been in the past, but they ignore the facts that a diploma no longer necessarily equals an education and that we’re already creating more college graduates than there are jobs for them.

The states of the U.S. west and southwest made the assumption that the water flows of western rivers, especially the Colorado River, would remain as they were in the early years of the twentieth century, and planned on that basis – except geological and ecologic studies have shown that the water flows during that period were the highest in the last several thousand years. Now, western cities and states are facing drought and crisis because that assumption wasn’t questioned early enough or rigorously enough.

History is littered with assumptions that should have been examined… and weren’t, and we’re continuing to make that mistake.

Stupidity of the Extremes

Civilizations are built on cities, not on small isolated or rural communities. Even the word “civilization” is based on the Roman word for city, not the Greek, possibly because the Greeks never built a true unified civilization – only cities and a semi-shared culture. Given human nature, cities require rules, as do large cultures and civilizations.

Some of those rules have to be authoritarian, or cities and civilizations will collapse. The idea behind this is the public good, often expressed as the maximum good for the most people, without creating actual physical harm to the minority. We don’t allow the “freedom” to shoot people you don’t like, or to dump garbage anywhere or force people to breathe toxins or drink poisoned water [or at least we didn’t].

Because rules for the maximum good infringe on everyone’s behavior, such rules should be applied to preventing those actions which could harm the most people. That’s why laws against murder and theft or requiring clean air and water and vaccinations against diseases that could kill millions are a good idea.

It’s also why zoning laws that prohibit modest dwellings anywhere in a municipality or town are a very bad idea – simply because most people aren’t well-off and that includes most of the people who provide basic services. So, as could have been predicted, such zoning increases homelessness, imposes huge burdens on low income earners, and increases the costs of doing business.

As in everything, a middle course works better. If you over-regulate, you get less progress, less innovation, higher costs, and, in the end, a lower standard of living for everyone but the very wealthy. If you under-regulate, you get more deaths, more monopolies, less progress, less innovation, higher costs, and, in the end, a lower standard of living for all but the rich.

Neither extreme freedom nor extreme regulation works well. History shows this fairly convincingly… if one bothers to look closely and carefully.

And yet, today, the United States seems polarized into the extremes, neither of which provides the maximum good for the greatest number.

Personal Freedom To Do What?

The reason for prohibiting smoking in confined spaces is simple. Study after study has shown that smoking is hazardous to the health of smokers and those nearby who inhale secondhand smoke. The tobacco industry fought against public dissemination of those findings for decades as well as against regulations restricting smoking.

The public generally accepts the rationale that bystanders in enclosed spaces shouldn’t be forced to inhale toxic substances, yet a significant percentage of the American people refuse to accept the idea that innocent bystanders shouldn’t be forced to inhale air potentially filled with COVID droplets and aerosols from people who refuse to get vaccinated.

This isn’t even a new issue. Governments have required vaccination against other diseases for decades in the interest of public health. So why, all of a sudden, is there this sudden push for “freedom to infect others,” albeit disguised as the personal freedom to reject government public health requirements?

Here in Utah, the legislature has prohibited the state government and public schools and colleges from imposing vaccine mandates. In short, the only institutions who could, on a wide-scale basis, significantly reduce the spread of the Delta strain of COVID are forbidden to do so. That means more people will be exposed, and more will die, in the name of “personal freedom,” particularly children too young to be vaccinated and people with compromised immune systems.

If this idiocy had been adopted in the 1950s or 1960s, millions more Americans would have died, but too many Americans born in 1970s and later have no experience with the ravages of infectious diseases, nor do they apparently understand history, epidemiology, public health, or common sense.

It’s a mindset on a par with the states’ rights arguments of the Confederacy, who claimed that the government was infringing on their rights to enslave others, except this latest incarnation says that no one can infringe on someone’s rights to infect others.

Beliefs, Facts, And Stupidity

We all rely on beliefs to get through life, but there’s a range of beliefs. There are beliefs based on hard verifiable facts; beliefs based only on wanting to believe; and beliefs that have elements of facts and elements of desire unfounded in hard reality.

Despite the beliefs of billions of people for tens of thousands of years, there still exists no replicable, verifiable proof that there is a god – or supreme deity. There are reports and prophets and scriptures, but there exists no proof of the sort required by science. Obviously, this hasn’t stopped people from believing in various deities, or for that matter, in believing there is no deity.

Every individual, one way or another, decides to what degree his or her beliefs are based on facts, rather than on considerations that cannot be supported by facts.

In this context “facts” present a problem. While the universe is complex, human understanding of that complexity continues to improve, but, all too often, that with that complexity comes a degree of uncertainty.

Covid-19 provides a good illustration. The early tests of the Moderna vaccine indicated an effectiveness of 94% in preventing symptomatic Covid-19 after the second dose. The Pfizer vaccine was rated at 95%. But even most of those few vaccinated individuals who do catch Covid and show symptoms only have mild symptoms. But the vaccines are not 100% effective. No vaccine is.

Currently, the recent cases of Covid-19 are showing that 93-97% of hospitalized cases and deaths are in unvaccinated individuals. Those are hard facts. Yet in some states, such as Utah, barely half the population is vaccinated.

All the “belief” in the world won’t change the fact that 95% of people hospitalized for Covid-19 are unvaccinated.

The problem is that people seize on single “facts,” anecdotes, proclamations by individuals or politicians not based on ALL the facts as a confirmation of what they want to believe. There are almost always exceptions to anything, but wagering your life on exceptions isn’t the best of strategies.

The associated problem with people who do this, for whatever reason, including citing their “freedom,” is that they endanger others… and restrict those others’ pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Which means that they’re not only stupid, but selfish… and in a sense, also criminal because their failure to protect themselves can result in the unnecessary deaths of others.

Thoughts on Climate Change

One universal characteristic of people, even highly educated individuals, is that we tend to prefer simple and uncomplicated answers, even to problems that are anything but simple.

That’s one of the reasons why getting people to understand the danger of global warming and climate change is so difficult, and when you add in the problem that the effects of what world industries and what billions of people choose to do today won’t fully impact the world ecosphere for years, if not for decades or generations, the difficulty becomes much greater.

The heat waves the U.S. is experiencing right now are the result of “normal” summer weather patterns boosted by years of underlying incremental changes, and these changes have impacts in all sorts of interlocking changes. There have been literally thousands of studies confirming these effects, and essentially no reputable ones refuting the overall trend, yet people see all those numbers and throw up their hands.

The article here [ https://www.tomorrow.io/weather/blog/global-warming-status/] [brought to my attention by a reader] presents those interactions without presenting the myriad of numbers and calculations behind the descriptive analysis. But the numbers do exist, supported by thousands of studies over years. Despite claims to the contrary, there’s no reputable evidence against global warming or against the human contribution to it.

Yet, accurate as I believe the article to be in general terms, there are always outliers that climate deniers will cite, using hard numbers for a specific instance. For example, the vast majority of glaciers in the world are shrinking, but there are a handful that are increasing. Antarctic ice shelves are crumbling in overall extent, but inland build-up of Antarctic ice is increasing in some areas because warmer ocean air around the Antarctic holds more moisture that turns to snow in colder areas.

People also rely more on personal experience and anecdotal evidence than on statistics. But anecdotal evidence and experience only persist as long as individuals live. I can personally testify how the importation and stockpiling of massive quantities of water by the Denver Water Board fueled runaway growth in the Denver Metro area, with a resulting local micro-climate that is far more humid than the dusty plains where I grew up [which are now damper and hotter wall-to-wall suburban houses]. But there are fewer and fewer of us who can testify to those times, and if there’s no one left to relay those stories and you don’t trust statistics and records, the actual facts get ignored… or ignored even more.

“Realistic” Dialogue

Dialogue is a key component of the vast majority of fiction, and certainly of the kind of books that I read and write. While readers and writers can have distinctively different views on dialogue, often what readers, and even some editors, think is “realistic” dialogue is nothing of the sort.

Over the years a small number of readers have occasionally complained that my dialogue is too formal. And compared to the way many people talk today, it probably is, but throughout history, the educated and professional classes in any society have used more formal dialogue. Some languages even had “high” and “low” versions. Ideally, dialogue should be specific to the characters and their culture, not to what’s comfortable or familiar to editors, but in writing there has to be compromise. I’m not about to write in the equivalent of high German, but the word choice of those who would be speaking in that fashion should suggest formality.

What many Americans, in particular, fail to understand is that most cultures have far tighter social customs and restrictions, as did an earlier United States, than the U.S. does at present. The January 6th attempted “insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol reflects this. In no earlier U.S. period would that many Americans ever thought it proper to storm the Capitol. It wasn’t “the way” things were done. And certain phrases and terms just weren’t used in “polite society.” What tends to be forgotten is that in most societies and times, the equivalent of “polite society” is where the power lies.

In practice, that means less formal dialogue belongs to the outsiders, not the insiders. It also means, even in fantasy and science fiction cultures, if they’re to be realistic, that there should be unlegislated or customary restrictions on what is proper to be said in public, and in private, and on what actions are “beyond the pale.” Obviously, customs change over time in any culture, but history has shown that societies without unspoken restrictions seldom endure, while enduring societies have more unspoken restrictive customs and speech patterns than are obvious to the casual or careless observer.

Unconscious Hypocrisy

Over the weekend, I read a letter to the editor in the “local” paper (it’s mainly about St. George, but includes regional news and some stories about Cedar City). The writer was deeply concerned about the rapid and uncontrolled growth in St. George, and how the pleasant and friendly town had changed into a small city with traffic and rude drivers, growing air pollution, runaway building that would lead to water shortages, and other urban problems.

Then the writer went on to describe how the same process had occurred in the Los Angeles in which he’d grown up.

Now, the writer was totally accurate, possibly even understating how much St. George has grown in the past twenty years, but it didn’t even seem to occur to him that he represented the reason why St. George has grown so much. In both Cedar City and St. George, the “immigration” numbers from California are staggering.

When we moved here from New Hampshire twenty-eight years ago, the reasons were purely economic and professional – the only full-time job in her field that my wife could find (after massive cutbacks in the New Hampshire higher education system) was here. Writers are portable, female soprano opera directors not nearly so much. At that time, the move was far from ideal, but there weren’t any other feasible options. We bought an existing house [which we slowly spent twenty years repairing and upgrading] on a street where only one other family happened to be “immigrants” – and he was another academic from the east coast.

For the first fifteen years after we arrived, only three houses in the two block stretch in our area changed hands. Since then, more than half the homes have been sold, and every one of them, except possibly one, has been bought by a family from California, most of them retirees.

This is happening all across the southwestern corner of Utah. I understand why people want to leave California, particularly retirees who can sell homes in California for ridiculously inflated prices and buy a retirement house in Utah (often larger) for far less, but it does mystify me that those who come here don’t seem to understand that, when so many of them descend upon a largely rural and arid area, they’ve become part of the problem, particularly when a good percentage of them oppose local government controls on growth, but then complain about uncontrolled growth.

Useless?

When I was a teenager, all too many years ago, I knew a few other “guys” [how else can I refer to males of that indeterminate age too old to be teenagers and too immature to be adults] who doted on their cars. Now, I’ve always liked cars, but I never obsessed over them. I once thought I wanted a Jaguar XKE, that is, until I drove one and discovered that its only redeeming quality was the speed it could attain, and that its handling left a great deal to be desired.

And until I was much older, my cars were all used, and, frankly, their original owners had bought them for practicality, except for the cherry red Corvair, and I have no idea why the grandmother who owned it previously had bought it. I got it because it was affordable.

But back in the late 1950s, the car guys all seemed obsessed with lowering and/or raking their vehicles and then replacing their mufflers with glass-packs, which apparently, in those days, met the legal definition of mufflers. The result was, predictably, that you could hear those vehicles coming from blocks away, possibly for a good mile in the then-exurban area where I grew up.

I thought that era was gone, and it seemed to be, except in the last year or so I’ve begun to see giant trucks with lifted suspensions. I can also hear them a good half mile away because they’re even louder than the 1950s vehicles equipped with glass-packs. They vibrate the double pane windows in the house, and set every dog on the street either to barking at the intrusion or whining in terror, depending on age and breed of the canine and the temperament of the owner. These are not old clunkers driven by post-teens, nor are they driven by men of my age and older trying to relive a misspent youth. They’re usually massive late-model shiny pickup trucks, usually either gleaming white with lots of chrome or jet black… and occasionally metallic red. What they pick up is another question, because some of them have a truck bed so high that it would require a cherry-picker or forklift to load it. Oh, and the worst of them belch black smoke.

Now, I can understand the need for hauling things. We have two vehicles. One is an economical 21 year old Toyota RAV, and the other is an 11 year old Tahoe, necessary for hauling such things as opera props, stage furniture and the like, but I still can’t figure out the appeal of the monsters that roar up the hill on which we live… or what else they’re useful for… and for that matter, how they’re even legal under current emissions and noise standards.

I couldn’t see the appeal when I was a teenager, and I still can’t… unless it’s the desire to be as assertively and ostentatiously obnoxious as possible.