Archive for the ‘General’ Category

SF, Fantasy, or Alternative History?

I’ve written science fiction and fantasy professionally for slightly more than 47 years, and if I’d put some of what has been in the news in recent days and weeks, any editor I’ve ever had would have said, “That’s not believable. Not even close.” Or words to that effect.

We have a President telling a rally that Californians wear special masks that they can’t take off even when they’re eating.

Friends and neighbors are claiming that the requirement for protective masks to curb the spread of a virus are instruments of oppression and tyranny. I mean, cloth or surgical masks aren’t anywhere like tools of torture.

The acting head of Utah public health lifted the mask requirement for Iron County because the rise in cases has only been 20%, as opposed to the record numbers of cases and hospitalization in adjoining counties.

Right-wing militia members plotted to kidnap and execute a female governor for enforcing public health measures. When Trump condemned the governor’s public health measures at a campaign rally, the audience responded by chanting “Lock her up!”, to which Trump replied,”Lock ’em all up.”

The President is claiming that the country has “turned the corner” and heading in the right direction as case numbers and hospitalizations are reaching new highs in many places and increasing in 41 of the 50 states. What’s even stranger is that huge numbers of people believe him.

The same President is claiming that children ripped from their parents arms are being treated “so well.”

And that in the steepest economic decline in ninety years that United States has had the best economy ever under him.

Or that he holds international meetings in his own luxury hotel chain and bills the government, in fact, overcharging the government – three dollars for every glass of water, for example.

He continues to insist at his rallies that Mexico is paying for his wall, but every dollar has come from U.S. taxpayers, often shifted from other federal programs.

He claims that five foreign auto makers are building new manufacturing plants in the U.S. when no plants have been even announced, let alone built.

Interestingly enough, Trump offers the most lies the most often in forums and media where they can’t refuted as the lies they are or can’t easily be refuted, just like an evil genius would in a F&SF book… except a fictional book based on Trump couldn’t ever have been published except as a farce – at least until now – because editors would have rejected it for being too improbable.

Liberty

There are two common definitions of “liberty”: (1) the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views and (2) the power or scope to act as one pleases.

For the most part, the political party railing about “liberty” these days tends to be the Republican Party. In my part of the country, as well as elsewhere, they find masks and social distancing “tyranny” and “oppressive.” Most refuse to wear masks except when absolutely required, because they want the liberty not to be inconvenienced and, in effect, the liberty to infect others.

But this desire for “liberty” is only for their liberty.

What I find both ironic and hypocritical is that they support oppression and restriction in a considerable number of areas. They want to dictate what a woman can and can’t do with her own body, even what forms of birth control her insurance, whether private or Medicaid, will pay for. They want to legalize the right of religious believers to discriminate against employees and customers on the basis of their own religion.

They oppose removing barriers to oppression and discrimination, which is, in effect, the same as retaining oppressive restrictions. They close polling places and limit ballot drop boxes, which is certainly restrictive. They gerrymander legislative districts, which restricts the liberty and voting power of those in the other party.

They want the liberty to pollute the air and water, which restricts and oppresses the ability of others to breathe. They want the liberty to pay workers as little as they can, even when people can’t live on those wages, and then they complain about government providing aid to those underpaid workers, calling the taxes required tyrannical. They’ve pushed to restrict the ability of people to obtain affordable health care.

But they claim they’re for liberty.

Just whose liberty is another question.

A Few Debate Take-Aways

For Republicans and Trump supporters, apparently all Trump has to do to claim “victory” in the debate is for Trump to be relatively polite and coherent. There’s certainly no requirement for factual accuracy, and the repetition of popular lies apparently passes for intellect and truth among his supporters.

The most brazen and bare-faced lie that Trump delivered, at least to me, was the idea that separated refugee children were being treated excellently.

Biden’s natural courtesy, and the fact that his voice is softer, tends to work against him when dealing with someone like Trump.

Trying to accurately explain complex issues in a debate is usually not a good idea, because most of the audience is looking for soundbites with which they can identify. Biden had a very good point on oil industry subsidies, but didn’t explain it well. Oil and gas producers get to exempt as much as 15% of their gross income from taxation. That’s a subsidy that other industries and workers certainly don’t get.

Trump kept asking why Biden hadn’t done things while he was a senator and vice president. While it was an effective line, it was particularly effective with Trump supporters because most of them don’t understand government. The vice president literally has no power at all, except to break ties in Senate votes and whatever the President delegates, and that’s seldom much. Trump certainly hasn’t delegated any real power to Mike Pence. Individual senators also have very limited powers. They can propose, but unless they can persuade at least fifty others, and sometimes sixty, they’re powerless. Both the House and Senate are legislative bodies that have to work out compromises with other members. Almost never is legislation the result of one member. But trying to explain that in a debate comes across as weak and whining. All Biden could do was to cite some of his documented accomplishments. Given the power a President has, and how little power a vice president or an individual senator has – except to stop legislation from occurring – Biden was better off doing what he did, which was to point out Trump’s shortcomings, given how much power the President does have.

Republicans and Trump supporters make a big deal over the allegations about Hunter Biden, allegations that Trump’s own FBI declares represent Soviet disinformation, but are quite comfortable with all the money flowing into Trump properties because Trump is President. They also seem to have little problem with his keeping his tax returns hidden. Yet Biden’s tax records are public. So Trump and company use fabricated allegations against Biden’s son, while ignoring, if not dismissing Trump’s own sad and checkered financial history.

The Over-Reliance on Personal Experience

…the rise of misinformation, and “Covid fatigue” have been, in my view, the principal reasons for the surge in Cobid-19 cases and the coming increase in fatalities.

For most human beings, what we see and what we hear is far more important to us, and we’re more likely to believe what we see or hear – or what we don’t – than what we read in the newspapers or online (unless that online contact is a “trusted” source or friend), and our behavior reflects that.

Here in Southwest Utah, in my county, there have only been eight hundred cases of Covid-19 and three fatalities all year. Yet, as I write this, in Salt Lake some 250 miles to the north and in St. George 50 miles to the south, case numbers are surging, and ICUs are almost at full capacity.

Has that made any difference in behavior here? More people wearing masks or social distancing? Not that I can see. People wear masks only where they’re absolutely required, and there’s certainly no social distancing in public spaces. Outside, college students are unmasked and congregate in close proximity.

Almost no one knows anyone who contracted Covid-19, and the few cases they know about turned out to be mild. Then there’s the fact that Utah’s the reddest of the red states, and Trump signs and banners abound. And what is Trump saying? That Covid’s not a problem, and that we’ve “turned the corner.” With a resurgence of cases all across the Midwest and in Utah, we may have turned a corner, but it doesn’t look to me like that turn is toward a quick recovery.

But people are tired of not having sports and getting together. While restaurants here are open, they’re required to have social distancing. People are having large gatherings, without masks… and without social distancing. The governor is under intense pressure to relax what restrictions do exist, and the Mothers Against Masks [in school] continue to press against that requirement.

Why? Because no one’s seen much Covid-19, and what serious cases have occurred are quarantined, so that families don’t even see how debilitating the disease can be. Studies show that roughly ten percent of those hospitalized for Covid-19 have permanent systemic damage, but that damage isn’t visible to most people either. People can’t think or breathe as well, and there are a host of other complications.

We’re approaching 220,000 deaths in the U.S., but for too many people (largely Republicans) – those who haven’t lost someone or suffered that permanent damage – 220,000 is just a number, a meaningless and impersonal statistic… and that’s why the cases and deaths will continue.

How Long Will Some People Believe?

It’s been four years since Donald Trump promised that he’d provide a cheaper and better national health program. So far as anyone can tell, such a program has never even been drafted, but he’s still promising.

He promised to bring coal back. He didn’t deliver on that, either, because he knew, as does every resource economist with any ability, that it’s economically infeasible, in addition to being environmentally disastrous.

He promised that by last April, Covid-19 would be gone, like a miracle. Since that promise, some 200,000 Americans have died, and case numbers are increasing. In addition, a recent study suggests that deaths due to Covid-19 have been undercounted.

He promised a great new wall that Mexico would pay for. Mexico didn’t pay for it, and of the 194 miles “built” only three miles were new. The other 191 miles were to strengthen the existing wall.

Trump promised to deport every single one of the 11 million illegal immigrants. He’s actually deported fewer illegals than former President Obama.

Trump promised to build an infrastructure second to none. There’s been no progress on that, either, and no real effort.

He was going to bring back manufacturing. That hasn’t happened.

Trump vowed to eliminate wasteful spending in every federal department. That was just lip service. He also vowed to eliminate the federal debt in eight years. Even before the onset of Coviod-19, the federal debt increased under Trump.

He said he wouldn’t take vacations, but he’s played far more golf than Obama, whom he criticized for golfing too much.

He said he’d eliminate the carried interest provision of the tax code that allowed financial moguls to avoid billions in taxes. He not only didn’t do that, but he passed a tax bill where most of the benefits went to millionaires.

He promised to ban foreign lobbyists from raising and spending money on American elections, but did nothing,

I’m not saying Trump didn’t keep all his promises. There were some that he did. He promised to raise import tariffs, which he did, and which increased the price of imported goods, as well as the price of American manufactured goods that use imported parts or components.

In 2016, he ran on a platform of steep tax cuts, increased defense and veterans spending, and no major changes to Social Security and Medicare. As a result, between those promises and Covid-19 expenditures, the president has enacted a total of $6.6 trillion in new borrowing, a total amount of debt now likely to exceed the size of the economy in 2021.

He’s also kept promises to roll back environmental regulations and to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate accord. He also kept promises to be tougher on all forms of immigration, with the result that families seeking to immigrate – both legally and illegally – were ripped apart and children separated from their parents, and often placed in cages.

In summary, between the promises Trump failed to keep and those he did keep, as a nation, we’re poorer (except for the very rich), less healthy, suffer more air pollution, and continue to have a deteriorating infrastructure… not to mention deteriorating relations with allies.

So why do so many people still support Trump?

The “Ultra-Liberal” Voter

Ultra-liberal voters also have less than desirable and clearly identifiable characteristics, and, as with “Trump” voters, not all of them share the following traits that I’ve observed in ultra-liberals over the years.

Sadly, today, most ultra-liberals have little or no understanding of the basics of politics or economics, which is why the conservatives have been able to create a political structure that favors them over time in the majority of states. It’s also why, once the current furor is over, Democrats will find themselves on the defensive again, especially at the state level, which will become ever more important with a Supreme Court that will be even more tilted to the right. Beyond that, they also continue to believe that more funding will solve almost every problem, except for the military, where less funding is the answer.

Ultra-liberals also have a tendency to focus on semantics, rather than power. They fail to understand that, if they get and hold power, the semantics will follow.

While many ultra-liberal voters are theoretically more secular than ultra-conservatives, many of them “compensate” for the lack of fervor in religious matters by channeling the same kind of emotion into politics and political correctness.

Ultra-liberals have a dismaying tendency to adopt causes, technology, words, and educational theories not necessarily because they’re good, but simply because they’re new. Conservatives, of course, reject most of what’s new simply because it is new.

Like many ultra-conservatives, ultra-liberals also tend to be condescending, and occasionally even hostile, toward those with whom they disagree.

Far too many ultra-liberals believe that there is an optimal and universally applicable solution to any problem, if only the conservatives wouldn’t stand in their way, when in fact, no technology or system has ever worked optimally for everyone. The choice is always between a system that works for most people, and which will fail or screw a minority, or the use of multiple systems, with the corresponding requirement for more funding and resources [and even then, people being people, some will fail or be screwed]. The liberal “compromise” is often underfunding both.

Liberals also seem to have a fascination with degrees, rather than actual expertise, and often fail to understand the difference. Combined with their fondness for “positive” curricula and their horror at any form of educational consequences, the result has been a dumbed-down and educational system at all levels. Yet they fail to recognize either the cause of this situation or the future economic and societal consequences.

The ultra-liberal voter enthusiastically and uncritically backs almost anything with the term “environmental” attached to it, especially touting solar power and “renewable energy” as being the most “environmentally clean power,” despite the fact that no such thing exists or ever will. The only questions are which power system has (1) the least adverse impact on the environment in the locale in which it is situated and (2) the lowest global environmental impact. Ultra-liberals often reject this position.

Right now, ultra-liberals are backing greater diversity as a solution to everything involved with cultural and racial problems. It isn’t. Lack of diversity in professional occupations, higher education, political office, etc., is a symptom of far deeper economic and societal problems. Focusing on diversity is a simplistic attack on the symptom and diverts attention and resources from the fundamental underlying problems.

But then, that’s the continuing basic problem with the far left, seizing on one simplistic and superficial answer to far larger problems, throwing money at it, and then going on to yet another superficial approach… and yet another.

The “Trump” Voter

Obviously, there’s no absolute template for the voters who back Trump and/or the Republican Party unconditionally, but there is a range of beliefs and attitudes which are far more common to such individuals than they are to those who are less than enamored of Trump or of the Republican Party.

One trait is a belief that Democrats/Liberals have debased the American system as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. More conservative voters have a greater tendency to reject various changes to our system as un-American or unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Founding Fathers specifically provided for a method of changing the system.

Another trait is a belief that the United States should “protect” and enshrine in law “traditional” religious beliefs, even going so far as trying to legislate one set of religious beliefs into law while fulminating against others and against other nations that have enshrined a different set of beliefs into law. They tend to ignore the Founding Fathers’ express desire to separate church and state, by claiming that the framers of the Constitution always meant “freedom of religion” only so long as that religion was some form of Christianity, although that was certainly not written into the Constitution… or even the Federalist papers.

From what I’ve observed, many Trump voters are angry about social and economic changes that they believe have left them in a poorer position. They also believe that government programs have unfairly elevated others, particularly minorities and recent immigrants, and that too much federal spending goes to the undeserving, which they label as socialism, but they tend to ignore the benefits of government that accrue to them. In general, they tend to view any government program that does not benefit them directly as wasteful and unnecessary.

A significant percentage of Trump and hardcore Republican voters are strong, if not fanatical, believers in the right to bear arms of any sort that an individual can carry, and oppose any restriction on what they see as an unconditional Constitutional right.

Despite the fact that every single person on the North American continent is either an immigrant or a descendent of immigrants, pro-Trump voters tend to be far more skeptical and critical of immigrants. They also tend to favor a more isolationist U.S. position in the world.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Trump voters and ultra-conservatives tend to believe the best times are behind the U.S. and generally oppose change, unless that change is to undo previous governmental action. They’re also more for economic growth, regardless of whether that growth creates enormous environmental degradation.

Those are the most obvious tendencies and traits that I’ve observed over the years, and there may be others as well. I’m not saying that the more liberal Democrats also don’t have identifiable traits as well, but that’s another post.

DOUBLE POST

One commenter requested that I give my best shot at describing the “Trump” voter. Then I got to thinking that, if I was tackling one extreme, I ought to do both.
So there are two posts. One right after the other.

But before getting to the posts, I have to offer a disclaimer. I am not a psychologist nor a professional pollster. I am someone who spent twenty years professionally in the world of national politics, serving in the legislative and executive branches [as a Republican under Republicans] and working in the private business sector for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. I’ve also spent the last decade or so in the “reddest” state in the U.S.; so I’m not speaking/writing from a “blue/liberal” enclave.

The Denial Campaign

After requiring supplemental oxygen at least twice, and getting three different treatments for Covid-19, Trump is now declaring, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” That’s fine for someone who has an entire staff of doctors looking out for him on a minute-to-minute basis, but most Americans don’t have that kind of healthcare, as should be obvious from the more than seven million cases and over 210,000 deaths recorded so far.

The most blatant denial of the danger of Covid-19 was when Trump, still sick and contagious, ordered his Secret Service detail to drive him around so that he could wave to supporters. Just how many more people did he endanger by that stunt? Especially after the unmasked Rose Garden ceremony a week ago that resulted in passing on Covid-19 to at least two senators and a number of Trump staffers.

But that’s just the beginning. Trump’s entire Presidency has been one of denial. He denied that white supremacist groups were evil and a danger. He denied that air pollution was a danger by rolling back air quality standards. He’s denied the reality of climate change and the significant contribution to it by human caused emissions, and then pushed for less regulation of dirty coal-fired power plants. He’s denied the heritage of immigration – and the fact that almost half of the important patents that have led to U.S. dominance were issued to immigrants. He’s denied police brutality. He’s denied the right to affordable health care. He’s the first president in modern times to deny a look at his tax returns. He’s denied that there was and is foreign interference in our elections, and at the same tine denied the safety of mail-in ballots, a denial of statements by his own FBI that there’s no evidence of wide-scale fraud in any form of U.S. voting, including the mail-in ballots used by ten states. Even before Trump was President, he denied that President Obama was a U.S. citizen.

And all the time, he’s made impossible promises that he never followed through on… and likely never intended to.

Rules Are For Suckers

Trump agreed with the rules for the first Presidential debate, including one that stated that he would not interrupt while Biden was speaking. He almost immediately broke that rule.

In one sense, that should tell everyone who and what he is. He’ll only follow rules, or laws, when he physically has to, or when they’re to his benefit, and even then he’ll twist them to his advantage, like when he paid his daughter something like $70,000 for consulting services – when she was already on the payroll. You can’t be both an employee and an independent contractor for a company at the same time, but that clearly didn’t faze the Donald.

For the Donald, rules are for suckers, just as dying for your country is for losers and suckers, and that’s why someone paid off a doctor to find the Donald unfit for the military because of bone spurs. That’s why he’s stiffed contractors.

He’s been in office for more than three and a half years, and he’s promised a better health plan since even before he was elected. He also promised a massive infrastructure program. So far, there’s no sign of either even having been drafted. He also promised that Mexico would pay for his wall. Mexico didn’t and won’t. Those are just the most obvious examples, but his failure to keep promises is because keeping promises is also for suckers.

He pushed through a tax bill that gave most of the population a short-term tiny tax cut and the millionaires and billionaires a huge tax cut, which dramatically increased the deficit and made it harder to fund existing government programs, and then he lied about what he’d actually done.

The Donald isn’t ever going to change. He is what he is.

What bothers me is that so many people not only don’t see that, but that they also don’t see that any successful society runs on rules, usually called laws. When people don’t obey the rules voluntarily, society goes downhill. When that occurs, three things can happen. Society can collapse into revolution or anarchy. Or an authoritarian strongman can take over, which is becoming more and more common in today’s world. Or people can decide that it’s better to do the right thing and obey the rules, and work cooperatively to make things better so that bad rules/laws are changed.

The real suckers are those people who believe rules are for suckers… because in the end, rules accepted by the majority are the only thing that holds a successful and free society together, and abiding by those rules and, where necessary, peacefully cooperating to improve them are the only way to remain free. And that’s something that the Donald will never accept… or understand, not surprisingly, since he wants to reintroduce the divine rights of kings, or in his case, the divine right of dictators.

Hidden Agendas

I don’t use Siri, that helpful aide on my I-phone. In fact, I’ve never even enabled Siri. Nor do I use Cortana, the aide on my Microsoft Surface Pro. I don’t have Alexa, either. Despite the fact that each of these “helpful” digital aides were created and manufactured by different corporate behemoths, they all share one characteristic.

And, no… it’s not that they can be as frustrating as they are helpful, not that I’ve experienced such, but I’ve certainly witnessed others fume while trying to use such devices.

What’s most insidious – and depressing – is that they all arrive on your device programmed to perpetuate a sexist stereotype. They’re all devices that, at least in theory, must obey their “master,” and they’re initially programmed with female voices. I’m certainly not an extreme and radical feminist, and I’m probably slow to come to this conclusion, largely because I don’t use any of them, but I find it troubling that “subservient” devices are programmed with clearly feminine voices – not male voices, not androgynous voices, but women’s voices.

Whether intentional or not, whether it’s a marketing decision or not, the use of women’s voices for such electronic “servers” is a continuation of the cultural assumption that all matters dealing with the home or subservient clerical tasks are “women’s work.”

I read widely and voraciously, and I only recently came across a reference to this (in the latest issue of Science), although Siri, Cortana, and Alexa certainly aren’t new, but the fact that the use of the female voice as a subconscious indicator of subservience is so widespread and so unremarked indicates to me exactly why women are still fighting for equal rights and treatment in so many areas. In a very real sense, every use of Alexa, Cortana, or Siri reinforces a cultural stereotype of women’s roles as subservient.

Payback/Karma?

The latest phase of the coronavirus pandemic is just beginning, and it’s becoming very obvious here in whitebread Utah. The case numbers have skyrocketed in the last week with the total number of cases the past week increasing by nearly 50% over the previous week, and setting a new daily high of nearly 1,200 cases yesterday. Why? Because students have gone back to college and they’re tired of being cooped up, and all sorts of “underground” parties are taking place.

The most blatant example of this occurred in the Provo, Utah, area, home of BYU and Utah Valley University, the two largest universities in the state, with a combined enrollment of over 85,000. There, a company founded and incorporated by two young entrepreneurs has hosted a number of massive dance parties, and, predictably, the majority of the coronavirus cases has come from this area. Oh… and the company’s name is “Young and Dumb.” [I’m not kidding.]

In a way, all of this is incredibly predictable, for a number of reasons. First, fatal and/or serious cases of coronavirus are exceedingly rare among the college-age group, roughly ½ of one percent. Admittedly, those few who do get Covid-19 in that age group are in for a very rough time. But most who are infected likely won’t even show symptoms, and most of them know this. Second, pretty much the majority of Americans under 40 with any amount of college education have been coddled, showered with praise and told they’re wonderful in an educational system that, in general, has been dumbed down over the last fifty years. Their concept of applied social responsibility (i.e., actually doing something) only exists in so far as it extends to their in-group, if that. Many of them have no real concept of fiscal responsibility, and the concept of really hard work is foreign to the majority. Plus, a significant percentage have real contempt for their elders.

So why not party? They’re not the ones who will get hurt by spreading the disease. And that’s what’s happened here in Utah and in more than a few other locales.

But don’t blame them. How do you think they got that way?

They got that way because most parents didn’t want them to fail or have their feelings hurt. They got that way because most parents wanted their darlings to do well in school, and the public education system, in general, has been dumbed down. They got that way because we’ve eliminated the worst of immediate consequences for bad choices from their young lives. They got that way because there’s no requirement for public service [like a drafted military or required peace corps or the like].

And when they bring home the coronavirus, just remember who raised them… and how. [By the way, I’m from the so-called silent generation, and my offspring were raised old-style.]

It’s called payback… or karma.

Thin-Skinned and Angry

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, all societies and all religions have faults. Now, for too many privileged individuals in any society, what this translates to is that every society and every faith but theirs has faults… and too many individuals take great offense when someone, especially an author, points out those flaws.

I do my best to be even-handed about this, pointing out the flaws and foibles on all sides. So far, my writing about faith and society in F&SF societies in cultures or worlds that aren’t our own or in a future or alternative Earth that’s markedly different usually hasn’t created too many outraged readers, but I have to say that I’m getting worried.

I see authors who portray traditional ( i.e., western European post-Victorian) social and sexual mores in their work being called out and labeled as unwilling to embrace diversity, but I also see them attacking writers and critics with a more liberal, PC, pan-sexual, and diverse outlook. I see publications and awards effectively ignoring writers whose views and works aren’t “flavour du jour,” and while that has always been true, it seems to me that this is the first time in my life that this tendency has been so pronounced… and too often vitriolic

More important than that, though, is that it’s becoming almost impossible in the United States to point out factual problems in society that are counter to beliefs. I fully understand the outrage when an innocent and unarmed person of color is murdered by police, but I have great difficulty when a national movement makes martyrs out of petty criminals.

Yes, when police over-react, especially abusively, they should be subject to the full force of the law, particularly because they’ve abused a position of trust and authority. But petty criminals are still criminals, not martyrs, and abusive police officers are also criminals, not the untarnished blue line, no matter what the right-wing law and order crowd thinks. Yet each “side” seems to think that “their” lawbreaking is minor or necessary, and what the other side does is beyond the pale.

I have the same difficulty when right-wing Republicans make a deity out of a lying, cheating, real-estate con man who assaults women and who has habitually stiffed contractors and workers out of their earnings, and who denies that he’s mismanaged the entire Covid-19 pandemic… and that’s just for starters.

And the abuses of religion, all types of religion, have been legion over history, and on all continents, including North America, and those abuses continue, often violently, but heaven help the person who points out a particular religion’s abuses, particularly if the religion, cult, or sect isn’t Christian.

That’s why attempting to point out such facts in life, or in fiction, risks creating violent anger, and, if you’re not careful, especially with the far right or far left, bodily harm.

The Cubage Racket

I’ve used UPS to ship overnight or two-day packages for years… but not any longer, not after a rather “interesting” encounter.

My wife the professor, who’s been overwhelmed by the combination of the university term beginning, complying with all the additional procedures and necessities as a result of Covid-19 and the additional problems of a university insisting on transitioning from a semester system to a trimester system at the same time, asked if I’d take care of shipping a few small presents to a daughter-in-law for her birthday.

I made the mistake of deciding to send them in a modest sized box – 12x12x9, inches, that is – with some light-weight padding as insurance against breakage, filled out my shipping label, since I have a UPS account, then took the package to the UPS office, which verified the weight as two pounds. Except that when I got the bill, the total shipping cost was for one hundred dollars. Because the package was so light, UPS charged me for the size of the package, not the weight, and that didn’t make any sense to me, either. I’ve sent ten pound manuscripts to the same area for $55, but even after I protested UPS was absolutely firm – one hundred dollars, sucker. I can see a modest surcharge, but a $60 surcharge?

And it’s not that UPS is hurting because of Covid-19. In fact, UPS has never been busier, but apparently with that surge have come more charges and more and more packages damaged in transit, most likely because UPS is overloading its existing work force.

At the same time, the current administration is trying to hamstring the U.S. Postal Service, which, had I known and thought better, I could have used to send the package priority mail for a fifth the cost of UPS, and it only would have taken one day longer.

But the USPS remains hamstrung by a pricing model that’s totally senseless, whereby mail-order businesses can print and mail millions of catalogues, the majority of which are discarded unread, a huge subsidy to such businesses, while not having enough revenue to cover costs.

Because we live in a university town in the middle of beautiful but sparsely populated lands, we do a fair amount of catalogue/online shopping, but we’ve seldom if ever found any of the unsolicited catalogues of any value, and I’m putting 20 plus pounds of unread catalogues into recycling every week. As I’ve pointed out before, if that kind of marketing is cost-effective, it’s only because taxpayers and first class mailers are subsidizing it.

Because of the business and package-mailer subsidies, and the failure of Congress to make up the revenue losses caused by such subsidies, USPS revenues are inadequate for the tasks required of it and mail-handling is slowing… but USPS can certainly deliver Amazon packages on Sunday. At the same time, alternative transmission systems, like UPS and FedEx are increasing rates for rapid-delivery services, both directly [and indirectly, as I just discovered].

And who’s going to end up paying most of the increased costs, one way or another? Everyone but business.

Cost-Effective Incompetence?

In this time of Covid-19, I suspect more than a few of us are ordering items for delivery. In order to be able to get better ventilation while teaching singing, my wife the voice professor needed two enormous floor fans. Since there were no such fans to be had in Cedar City, she ordered them. Given their size, I was the designated assembler.

The first fan arrived. I got everything out of the battered and enormous cardboard box, and tried to make sense of the directions. It soon dawned on me that two critical parts were missing, one of them the lower support for the fan. How it vanished from the box I have no idea, but considering that it was a steel tube nearly three feet long, I definitely couldn’t have misplaced it. So everything went back in the box, and I carted it (literally, since the box declared it was a “two person lift) to the SUV, levered it inside, and drove to Home Depot to return it. That took over an hour, and I reordered the same model (they couldn’t just replace it; they had to refund the money, and then order another new one), which wouldn’t arrive for a week.

In the meantime, fan number two arrived, just slightly smaller. I got the base and fan assembly together, despite the instructions, which insisted that I place the high tension spring inside a tube that was smaller than the spring itself, but when it came to attaching the fan motor assembly to the support structure, I ran into a “small” problem. The support bolt was round on one end and was to be secured in place by a hexagonal nut, which fit into a hexagonal hole. The problem was that to tighten the bolt meant tightening the round end of the support bolt. Even with channel lock pliers, I never could fully tighten it, despite gouging the metal of the bolt head. What idiot designed the end of the bolt that had to be tightened as round? I did manage to get it assembled and working, but I had to set the fan higher because the motor assembly drooped slightly.

Then the replacement for fan number one arrived, with all the parts. Once again, the directions were less than clear. There was no mention of where the support spring went, or the bolt cover assembly, but the biggest problem was that the diagram for the fan motor assembly was printed in faint gray ink on shiny paper. Now, although my vision is about 20/25, the only way I could read the directions was under high illumination with a magnifying glass. But I did get it together, and so far it’s working well.

These are certainly not the only problems I’ve run across in goods requiring assembly, but a little more competence in directions would be useful. And, of course, it’s unlikely that my recently acquired expertise in fan assembly will be of much use when the next item of a different type arrives with similarly inadequate directions.

Low Minimum Wage = Business Welfare

In 1968, the average annual poverty income level ($3,410) for a family of four was almost exactly what a minimum wage worker could earn in a year of full time work. Today, given inflation, the average annual poverty level for a family of four is $26,200, but a worker receiving the federal minimum wage working full time for a year only makes only $15,000, 43% below the poverty line.

For the last forty years, or since the beginning of the Reagan administration, Republicans and businesses have opposed raising the minimum wage, claiming that it hurt business and the economy. In truth, raising the minimum wage does hurt certain businesses, often small businesses, but that should never have been the question. The first question should have been whether it was fair to penalize workers on the edge of poverty to keep marginal businesses going. Supposedly, the idea behind the minimum wage was to keep business from taking advantage of poor workers.

Now… when minimum wage workers can’t make enough to live on, what happens? They suffer, and so do their families…and they start applying for federal and state benefits. Those benefits are paid for by taxpayers, in effect subsidizing the various businesses benefitting from paying lower wages. The use of part-time workers, who don’t make as much and don’t get benefits provides an even greater indirect subsidy to those businesses.

Those indirect subsidies aren’t primarily paid by corporations, but by individual taxpayers, including the higher paid employees at those businesses, which is another revenue stream to support this indirect business subsidy.

The second question is what is the overall economic effect of keeping the minimum wage low. Because salaried wages are to some degree pegged to the minimum wage, especially those of workers paid by the hour, this depresses wage levels compared to prices. Combined with the loss of purchasing power by minimum wage workers, the result is that a significant proportion of workers have less and less money to spend. Add to that the fact that the lower a family’s income is, the greater the percentage that’s spent. Tht means that when lower-paid workers have more money, the economy benefits more than when those funds are hoarded in corporate coffers. Because the U.S. is essentially a consumer-driven economy, people buy less and the rate of economic growth slows.

A comparison of the minimum wage to the poverty level indicates an overall trend that, on the average, there has been more economic growth when the minimum wage is closer to the poverty level and that growth rates have generally declined as the minimum wage was frozen and costs-of-living have increased.

It’s simple. When people don’t have enough money they can’t buy things. Moreover, when the government is providing a greater share of the income of underpaid workers, because they can’t earn it, not only can’t people buy as much, but the deficit also grows, the indirect subsidy to business gets greater, and economic growth slows.

And, in a way, keeping the minimum wage below the cost of living is essentially a form of fascism, supporting business through government intervention.

Future Publishing?

Over the last several years, I’ve certainly read and heard a great deal of speculation about the future of publishing and books. When ebooks were first introduced, some viewed them as a trendy but short-lived novelty, while others felt that they’d dominate the entire industry. Only a few old-time industry professionals and not many more of the newcomers foresaw the way the market has sorted itself out.

One aspect of publishing that’s overlooked is that that the non-fiction and fiction markets are very different, even though most major publishers handle both. So, if you look at overall publishing revenue, print books outsell ebooks almost four to one, but those figures don’t break out non-fiction from fiction (at least the figures I can easily find) and they don’t include the full impact of independent authors self-publishing, which is largely e-publishing. Non-fiction also tends to sell a higher percentage of print books, as opposed to ebooks, and much of the printed non-fiction sells for higher prices than fiction. So aggregated revenue figures tend to misrepresent the market.

One of the more interesting statistics I ran across was that in 2019 ebook sales comprised 18% of the total book market by revenue generated, but 36% of the number of books sold, and that 36% number tracks fairly closely to my unit sales figures – excepting audiobooks.

Not surprisingly, sales of mass market paperbacks for most authors have declined precipitously. Regardless of all the rhetoric, for most authors mass-market paperback sales have declined to a third or less of what they were twenty years ago, and that assumes that a traditional publisher will even print mass-market paperbacks for midlist (or lower) authors.

Right now, unless there’s major shift in the economics of publishing, mass market paperbacks are on the way out for most authors. Only million-copy sellers are likely to be published in mass market paperback within a decade, if not sooner. Hardcover volume for fiction seems likely hover in the same range and may even increase slightly for non-fiction.

My personal belief, backed by no statistics, is that the number of self-published “indie” authors will taper off and only track future growth of the fiction-reading public, for several reasons. First, while indie authors get a much larger percentage of sales revenue, readers expect “indie” books to be cheaper (with the growth of indie sales, some readers also expect ebooks published by traditional publishing firms to be cheaper, which I don’t see happening, except for promotional events). Second, most indie authors sell fewer copies per book. That means writing more books per year. That’s damned hard, especially if an author wants to maintain any quality, and if the author outsources editing, that adds to costs.

The other factor is that ebooks can be easily pirated, and I don’t care what anyone says or what any studies purport to show, piracy cuts revenue to authors. The drop in mass-market paperback sales has in no way been compensated for by a corresponding and equal growth in ebook revenues.

So, however it turns out, I don’t see authors or publishers getting any great windfalls from ebooks.

Comment Translations

Every once in a while, I read comments by readers, which my wife insists I shouldn’t, but, because I’m a glutton of sorts for punishment, I do. The words on the left are what the reader wrote. My translation, based on the rest of their comments, follows on the right. I will also add that such reader comments were comparatively rare… but this is my way of suggesting that some few readers are, shall we say… less than perceptive. I say that, because it should be obvious from all the years of writing and comments that, while I do have a fair amount of action, especially in some books, I don’t write action for the sake of action. I write action scenes as a result of what people think, desire, and feel.

Boring: It doesn’t have a fight, murder, battle, or explicit sex in every chapter.

Repetitive: The protagonist actually has a job and responsibilities.

Anticlimactic: No battles or deaths to end the book.

Too much military detail: Forget about logistics, training, and discipline; get on with the slaughter.

Marginal excitement: Not enough battles.

Uninspired: The protagonist succeeded as he planned.

Poor Ending: It has a happy ending.

Pedantic: There’s actually explanation.

Too much political intrigue: Wanted more action

Tedious: Too much detail.

Bland: Too subtle.

Too PC: Women are actually people in the book, and men are portrayed accurately.

Needs editing: Cut out the details and get on with the action.

Disappointing: Not enough action.

Now… those are my translations… and they’re obviously somewhat subjective, but occasionally writers get to be subjective about readers, rather than the other way around.

Denial Culture

One of the biggest reasons why Congress is deadlocked on everything, why the major political parties are polarized, and why people are at each other’s throats over politics and national policies is, in my view, because we live in a culture of denial, based on the feeling that “we” are totally right, and “they” are wrong or totally misguided.

Despite the fact that the purchasing power of the minimum wage is more than 40% lower than it was fifty years ago, and is possibly worth less than that, given the “adjustments” made to the CPI in recent years, conservatives deny that this has created enormous hardship for poor working Americans, regardless of color or class.

At the same time, while the left understands this and wants change, they deny that there are financial and fiscal limits on federal spending with the simplistic mantra that taxes on the super-rich will fund their entire array of social programs.

While I happen to agree with the fact that the ultra-rich need to be taxed more, increasing their taxes even dramatically won’t come close to solving the problem. The current federal debt is over $26 trillion. So far just this this year, the federal deficit is nearly $3 trillion dollars. According Forbes magazine, the total wealth of all 630 U.S. billionaires amounts to $3.4 trillion. That means that even confiscating the wealth of all those billionaires would barely cover the deficit for two years, let alone provide significant additional revenue for major program improvements. Even if you confiscate all the wealth of those worth $100 million, you only add another $3 trillion.

And there are plenty of other denials.

Anti-vaxxers deny the proven efficacy of vaccines, while the extreme right denies proven public health methods, such as masks and stringent social distancing, to control the spread of Covid-19.

The right denies a history of economic, political, and cultural subjugation of both the poor and minorities, while the left denies the problems created by political correctness.

Even though self-esteem movements, rampant grade inflation, and student evaluations have played a major role in dumbing down education at all levels and in turning out the most fragile students in the history of the U.S., too many of whom are largely ignorant of the history of their own country, the liberals refuse to see it, let alone address it, while the conservatives blatantly deny the negative impact of local education funding based primarily on property taxes, which effectively means that “rich” districts almost invariably get better education.

The extreme conservatives deny the human-caused aspect of global warming and the future costs of not slowing or preventing it, while the far left denies the magnitude of the costs of mitigating global warming.

The far left can’t recognize that EVERY form of power generation has environmental downsides, while the fossil-fuel intoxicated conservatives ignore the immense climate and immediate pollution created by excessive and unregulated use of fossil fuels. In fact, the best we’ll ever be able to do is fit the environmentally appropriate power source to the climate, geography, and water resources of the locale it serves.

The right denies that Trump has any significant flaws, while the left did the same for Hillary Clinton.

And both reject compromise, especially significant compromise based on verifiable facts.

How the Democrats Lose the Election

The biggest reason why the Democrats could, and likely will, lose the election [unless they change their campaign tactics] is that they’ve forgotten the basics. The election isn’t about money; it’s not about racial injustice; it’s not about Trump; it’s not about ideology; it’s not about police brutality.

It’s about power.

Now, in the U.S., power isn’t money; power’s not religion or the strength of belief; power’s not guns, or mass movements, or bodies in the streets demonstrating, peacefully or otherwise.

It’s about votes – pure and simple.

Money, ideology, civic involvement can be ways to get votes…but they don’t always translate into votes.

The Republicans have spent almost twenty years working with state laws and governments to make it harder for Democrats to vote. They’ve worked legislatures to gerrymander districts. They’ve just tried to slow down mail delivery for the same purpose.

During the last Presidential election, Hillary Clinton polled almost three million votes more than Trump… and lost. Election scholars have estimated that Democrats have to average 53% of the vote, in general, just to break even with the Republicans.

The second problem Democrats have is that they so far don’t have a single unified message. Trump does. It’s simple – keep America white. It’s not phrased that way, but it’s the basic theme.

The Democrats have lots of good ideas – and they’re still arguing over which one is best. Forget it. Now is the time to agree on a single simple theme – one like “A better life for all working people.” Don’t get hung up on details, just emphasize “a better life” or something else simple and positive that people can get behind. And then work like hell to turn out every possible voter.

An old and very successful political pro, who elected some pretty disreputable characters in his day, made this point to me: You can’t beat someone with nothing. What he meant is, no matter how awful the other guy is, you have to give voters something to vote for, not just something to vote against.

Third, all great ideas mean nothing if you can’t elect enough people to pass the laws to change things. Winning the election comes first.

Finally, most voters, especially the ones most likely to vote dependably, are risk-averse. They don’t like radical proposals, violent demonstrations, shootings, and the like. A recent study of the 1968 elections indicated that riots reduced turnout and likely support for Democrats, while peaceful actions or even peaceful protests improved turnout.

So… Democrats… if you want to hand the election to Trump, keep on with your scattered radical messages, bland unfocused generalities, and claim those messages and all the riots and violent demonstrations are just demonstrating free speech. Being “right” in that way before the election may well insure that you’ll never get the power to actually change things.