Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Is It the Economy…? Or Partisanship? Or Something Else?

The Clinton Presidential Campaign of 1992 [yes, that one] was highlighted by various iterations and permutations of the phrase, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” And from then until sometime during the Obama Presidency, the popularity of the President in office seemed to be linked to the state of the economy.

Last week The Economist published a story that purported to show that “the true state of the economy is nearly irrelevant to voters.” After reading the piece, I came away with a different interpretation of the polling numbers. The Economist poll showed that Republicans were “four times as optimistic as Democrats about the state of the stock market” while “Liberals complained about high housing costs and low wage growth.”

Duh… might this “shift” just have something to do with who has what assets and what sources of income and who lives where? Although wages are rising faster now than during the last years of the Obama administration, real inflation-adjusted wages for people who are mid-middle-class and lower on the income scale are lower than they were a generation ago and housing costs are far higher. And most people in that income category live in urban metropolitan areas and also face higher housing costs, while housing costs in rural areas are far more affordable. Likewise, the cost of post-secondary education is crippling for students coming out of any income group but the upper class or upper middle class.

Under these conditions, certain aspects of the economy matter more to these people, not because of their political orientation but because of their socio-economic position. And as Republicans continue to ignore these economic problems, these individuals are more likely to vote Democratic, but their partisanship is driven by economic factors, rather than their partisanship driving their view of economics.

In addition, the stock-market means absolutely nothing to such voters. While some may have pensions or retirement programs invested in the market, on a day-to-day basis, the stock market isn’t a perceptual factor to them because very few of them have discretionary cash assets to invest.

As is often the case, the poll numbers may indeed be accurate, but what they mean isn’t necessarily what they used to mean – or what even renowned sources postulate.

Demotic or Not?

Originally, and still to linguists and historians, the word “demotic” referred to the day-to-day, or common, script used by ancient Egyptians for business transactions, records, and, most likely, what might have passed for correspondence. Hieroglyphics were usually reserved for the sacred and monumental uses, and employed by the priesthood.

In more recent times, authors have been classified as to whether their writing is “demotic” or “literary,” although sometimes instead of “literary,” the term “hieratic” (meaning priestly writing) is used. In other words, does a writer put down words like the common folk speak them, or is he or she highfalutin and esoteric in word choice and sentence structure?

What brought all this terminology to mind is that recently I ran across a commentary that, if I read and understood it correctly, seemed to suggest that Robert A. Heinlein had begun as a demotic writer and moved more to a “literary” style in his later works. The same commentary suggested that while demotic writers tend to be more popular in their lifetimes, the work of writers with a more literary style outlasts the demotic stylists, with the notable exception being Mark Twain.

To me, all this misses several points. Is the way the author writes true to the author? And does it matter so far as the reader is concerned? And could it be, perhaps, that “literary” prose outlasts demotic prose because the beauty of the words and the presentation of the ideas and/or story outlast a style that becomes dated as society changes, linguistically, socially, and technologically?

In truth, I have no idea if any of those hypotheses are correct. All I know is that, for the most part, I write in the manner in which I speak – except the sentences I put in the books are much, much shorter, because, as my family knows, I can speak sentences that are far too long.

What’s the Hurry?

All across the United States, especially in cities and suburbs, and in business, everyone’s in a hurry. The mad rush is everywhere. Seemingly everything has to be done faster.

Amazon Prime is “encouraging” employees to become private contractors so it can cut delivery times to one day.

The local university is adopting a trimester program and cutting semester lengths from 15 weeks to 13 weeks so that students can graduate in three years instead of four, despite the fact that there are already more college graduates than there are jobs that require a college education and that the speeded up education will cost just as much and will have less content. Yet for all this hurry, fewer and fewer students are emotionally ready for college, let alone the workforce or a professional career.

Parents are in such a rush that they register children for select preschools as soon as they’re born, and some even game the college admission system. The kiddy-porn-clothes industry is doing its best to accelerate sexual awareness in pre-teens.

Highway speed limits keep climbing, and despite speed limits of 80 mph on the interstate here, if you travel at 80, eighty percent of the other travelers will pass you, including more than a few semis. I see mothers in minivans doing 40 mph in 25 mph residential areas, and more than half of them are on cell phones at the same time.

Television shows are electronically compressed so that things happen faster, and Amazon Prime and Netflix release new series all at once so that viewers and speed-binge-watch them faster and faster. Video games move faster and faster. Basketball has shot clocks to keep the action moving fast.

Bosses and superiors get impatient if emails or texts aren’t answered in minutes.

Politicians are hurrying to start their next campaigns earlier and earlier, while fewer and fewer of government problems are getting addressed. The members of Congress were sworn in less than six months ago, and re-election campaigns are already in full swing. That’s clear from the solicitations I’ve already gotten. And certainly all the hurrying by politicians to start the next new campaign hasn’t done much for getting the old problems fixed.

But what’s the point of all this speed? When children are forced into growing up earlier, is that good for them? When they’re hurried from planned activity to planned activity, with little free play time, is that in their best interest? And is fast-tracking them into colleges and insisting that colleges give them high-level vocational training, and little else, to speed them into the work force in anyone’s interest, except that of business?

When employees keep having to hurry to answer electronic status requests, does that help them get their real work done well and on time? Or is that why U.S. work hours keep getting longer and longer?

And, as for taking any time to stop and smell the roses, since no one has the time to cultivate roses, the only roses most people ever see are South American hothouse roses with no scent at all.

“Impractical?”

Once, many long years ago, I was the legislative assistant for a U.S. Congressman. Like many young and idealistic professionals, I wanted to make the United States a better place [and I still do]. I implemented an early form of a computerized constituent response system so that my boss could get his ideas for reform and improvement across. I came up with plans for tax reform and quite a few others. A few of those my boss introduced, partly to humor me, I suspect, and partly because they were actually good ideas, but none of them ever even got a hearing. I also came up with a way to allow the U.S. Postal Service to run at a profit without continually jacking up first class letter rates [the general approach would still work today].

None of these proposals went anywhere, although they were certainly technically and practically feasible and could have been implemented. I won’t even come close to claiming I was a voice in the wilderness. There have always been idealists trying to make things better, and there still are.

But what my congressman told me, patiently at first, and then not so patiently, was that it didn’t matter how good something was, or how it would improve things, or how technical and practically feasible it was, if there wasn’t political support for the proposition. My proposals for improving the Postal Service were a perfect example. To this day, the USPS regards mass mailings as a marginal cost, even though the bulk of what’s carried are mass mailings and parcels. This means that the first class mail revenues have to support the bulk of core USPS costs. I’d simply proposed that mass mailers be charged the actual full cost of providing that service.

Needless to say, as the mass of junk mail even today continues to proliferate, that proposal was a total anathema to the highly subsidized mail industry – which is why at my house we recycle some 20-30 pounds of unwanted and unread catalogues every week, each sent for as little as twenty-one cents per pound. So, as a result, first class letter writers – and occasionally federal payments when the USPS runs a deficit – are subsidizing commercial for-profit advertising mailers, because it’s never been politically possible to enact what would seem like practical improvements.

There are many possible reforms, whether they’re in healthcare, taxes, or postal rates, which are technically and economically practical – but, without political support at all levels from the grassroots through the entire political structure, they’re effectively impractical.

To claim that the U.S. or any other country should be able to enact “practical” measures put in place elsewhere ignores the fact that any reform proposal is impractical unless political support either exists and can be mobilized or unless such political support can be developed.

And right now, in the United States, there’s just not enough political support in elected government itself for the reforms various Democrats are proposing, and very few of them are working to develop grassroots support. On the other hand, conservative Republicans have spent almost a generation developing an evangelical/conservative grassroots political network… and that effort is bearing its bitter fruit today… and this will continue until Democrats or others build broad-based political support willing not only to talk about but to work to get out votes and voters for their ideas.

Idealism/Principles as Policy

Every thinking person should have ideals, but ideals need to be tempered with practicality.

There’s a saying that’s been attributed variously to George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, Winston Churchill, and others that goes like this: If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain. According to research by a number of individuals, the original version of this was first uttered by French historian and statesman François Guizot when he observed, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.”

I’d put it another way. To trumpet high-sounding ideas without any practical, workable, and politically acceptable plan for implementing them is well-intentioned idiocy, but, equally, to turn one’s back on want, discrimination, and the abuse of privilege on the grounds that attempting to remedy or ameliorate those ills is impractical is not only arrogant and uncaring, but stupid, and, in the long run, often fatal to a society that ignores those needs.

And, frankly, that’s the political divide I’ve seen emerge out of the unrest in the United States today. I look at all the rhetoric on the Democratic side, addressing valid concerns and real ills… with almost no practicality in sight. You cannot raise the money to deal with those problems by merely increasing tax rates on the wealthy; under the current structure, they’re already avoiding taxes. What’s needed is a tax structure that cannot be avoided, that is seen as fair, and that is not confiscatory. I could make the same sort of case about most Democratic proposals. Of course, that’s why almost all of them talk in glittering generalities.

On the Republican side, almost all the rhetoric is about principles…or fear… principles that aren’t working well for most Americans, except for the well-off and well-educated, and fear of change, fear of anyone who is different, and fear that people won’t live as well as their parents did.

There’s another old saying, about death and taxes, but that’s not quite right. The only two things that are certain in life are that things do change… and that, sooner or later, everyone dies. We try to prolong life, but death remains. And if we don’t adapt to change, things will get worse… and we’ll die sooner.

Neither impractical ideals nor unyielding rejection of change serves anyone well, but that’s the shape of the current political divide.

Gutless Wonders

This past weekend I listened to two career politicians waffle and essentially refuse to answer questions about Trump and his administration. Both were Republicans, and it was clear that they didn’t agree with what Trump had done [in one case, selling military weapons systems to the Saudis without Congressional authorization and in the other sending more troops to the Middle East], but neither wanted to disagree publicly. In my own state of Utah, Senator Mitt Romney bounces back and forth on Trump, but so far still votes for whatever Trump wants.

Congressional Republicans, for the most part, have no plans for leading, and they haven’t for years. What few initiatives they do have are based on spending more money on defense and pork barrel in their own districts, while effectively reducing programs that benefit working Americans and decreasing the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans. They’ve given up the idea of a balanced budget, or even reducing the deficit, although they occasionally give lip service to it, because they know and won’t admit that, at the present time, there’s no realistic way to reduce the deficit in any meaningful way without increasing taxes on wealthier Americans.

In the meantime, across the board, Trump tries to minimize Congress and its responsibilities under the first section of the Constitution. While the Democrat-led House tries to stop this Presidential overreach, the Republican Senate does nothing. Pretty much, the Senate Republican leadership’s reaction is either “no” or a refusal to address anything but a minimal effort to keep government running. They all know that Trump’s trade war with China is a disaster for American farmers and some industries, but they refuse to admit it. While they’ll admit, if quietly, that Russian interference in our elections is a real problem, they won’t even look at the fact that Trump openly invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, or that Trump denies that he benefitted from Russian interference.

Nor will Republicans address the thousands of outright lies and falsehoods made by Trump… or his “re-tweeting” of false and falsified material, such as the distorted video of Speaker Pelosi.

Now, Trump has proposed to issue pardons for several Americans on trial for war crimes, including one who brutally murdered a helpless Middle Eastern teenager. The U.S. military strongly opposes such pardons. These wouldn’t be Trump’s first totally unwarranted pardons. In 2017 he pardoned Joe Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff convicted for refusing to end his racial profiling of the state’s Latino residents and noted for his long-standing, brutal, and dehumanizing treatment of prisoners.

Once again, most Republicans are mute, and that makes all but a very few truly gutless wonders. What’s worse is that a few Republican lawmakers even support such pardons, something I find incredibly appalling, and unfortunately reminiscent of all too many repressive regimes and dictatorships. The other appalling aspect of all of this is that over 40% of the country presently supports such a President.

People and Belief

Contrary to popular opinion, we do not live in a totally free society. Behavior in our society is in fact restricted by laws, laws theoretically made up by the people for the people, laws designed by the Founding Fathers to reflect a secular, i.e., non-religious, set of principles for acceptable conduct. Those Founding Fathers were so concerned about the adverse impact of religion on law that they insisted on the separation of religion from government.

What they either could not, would not, or did not foresee was that religion is merely one face of “belief.”

My seemingly ancient Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedic dictionary defines “belief” as “mental conviction of truth or actuality of anything without certain proof.” And certainly religion fits under “belief,” because it is based on the conviction, utterly without any form of physical proof, as Isaac Asimov once pointed out in detail, that there is a deity.

Unhappily, there are also other forms of belief, also without proof, that infect society today, and yet all too many “true believers” wish to restrict the acts and behaviors of others or to behave in a way that jeopardizes others on the basis of their beliefs. I certainly hold that people should be free to believe what they wish, just so long as (1) they do not force or attempt to use government to force those beliefs on others and (2) they or their beliefs do not do me, or others, harm.

The idea that there is a soul in two cells that one day may become a fetus and then a human being is not a fact, but a belief. To use that belief to deny a woman who has been raped, or who may die from a pregnancy, the right to determine her own future places a belief without proof above present and demonstrated harm to the mother. If that mother believes that, of course, and chooses not to abort those cells, that is her choice and right. But no woman should ever be denied a choice to preserve her life and her own control over it because of an unfounded belief. Likewise, once a fetus is viable outside the womb, there is absolute proof that another human life must be considered.

Some may insist that life is “priceless” or sacred. There’s absolutely no proof of that. There are far more miscarriages and spontaneous abortions than medically induced ones. In addition, every single day we calculate the value of human lives, whether through insurance, regulatory findings, lawsuits or wrongful death findings. All those are absolute proof that, for human beings, life is anything but priceless. As for the deity, at least deities in the Judeo-Christian mode, life also obviously isn’t sacred, not when various peoples have been supposedly instructed by the deity to kill others.

Anti-vaxxers believe that vaccinations are more dangerous to them and their children than the actual diseases. This is another deadly – and incorrect – belief, and there are scores of studies, as well as documented evidence, to the contrary. The problem here is that, because of this belief, those unvaccinated, particularly with regard to rubella [German Measles] and whopping cough, can infect children too young to be vaccinated, subjecting them to risk of death, or hearing and eyesight loss. The fact that, just this year, over 1,000 children in Madagascar died from measles obviously has no impact on such believers.

Scientific evidence continues to mount in support of the fact that the acceleration of global warming is human caused, yet global warming deniers choose to believe the opposite, and oppose measures to reduce, if not halt that warming. There’s massive evidence to support human caused warming… and virtually none to the contrary… and that warming trend is already causing significant deaths and massive destruction.

The problem, of course, goes beyond beliefs, because “true believers” almost always want others to share their beliefs, whether others want to or not… and whether there’s any real proof to support their beliefs.

Liberals, unfortunately, have the same problem. Faculties and students across the country protest when ultra-conservatives are scheduled to talk at their universities. While hate speech does indeed exist, having contrary views, so long as one doesn’t propose violence to others, is not hate speech. Telling students facts that they don’t want to hear, or giving them poor grades for poor performance, is not persecution, or creating a toxic environment, yet university faculty are being charged with just that because more and more students don’t want to hear facts contrary to their beliefs.

People react badly when their beliefs are challenged, even beliefs totally without proof.

That’s why the Spanish Inquisition tortured heretics to death. That’s why ISIS killed non-believers and destroyed historical antiquities that didn’t match their beliefs. It’s also why white supremists minimize and kill people of color, despite evidence that there’s absolutely no genetic link between “race” and intelligence.

That’s also why Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri legislators want women who’ve been raped to have to bear unwanted children, while sending doctors who perform abortions to jail. And, oh, yes, these are the same folks who oppose welfare, health care, and food for poor children, but they don’t seem to consider that “saving the [unwanted] unborn” results in more unwanted poor children that they don’t want to support. And that’s just one of the problems with beliefs that ignore facts.

People Met Almost in Passing

Barbara Howes and Anne McCaffrey had very little in common, except both were writers, one a quiet but excellent poet and the other a commanding, dominating force in the development and history of science fiction. The other commonality is that I met each of them once, the first briefly… and the second, not quite so briefly.

In 1964, I studied poetry under William Jay Smith, who three years later went on to become the nineteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Upon one occasion he had several students to his house in North Pownal, Vermont. There he briefly introduced us to his wife Barbara Howes, by saying she was also a poet.

At that time, I had no idea that I stood before two of the more talented poets of the time, both of whom later had books of poetry that were finalists for the National Book Award. To me, one was my professor, and the other was his wife. While I’d like to think that I made the most of the time I studied with William Jay Smith, the truth is that, while I certainly didn’t blow off the opportunities, I also didn’t take full advantage of them, like all too many students. And I certainly didn’t realize that Barbara Howes was far more than just another poet until years later.

My only personal meeting with Anne McCaffrey was, thankfully, more than a brief encounter, that took place at the World Fantasy Convention in London in 1997. That convention was one of the few where my wife accompanied me, and her presence made all the difference. We had barely arrived at the convention when we were summoned (and Anne did summon) to join Anne. She was seated on a raised long hotel settee and insisted that I sit on one side and that Carol Ann sit on the other. Then she asked me to sign a copy of The Soprano Sorceress, which she had blurbed most favorably. After that, we talked for perhaps ten minutes at most, before she turned to Carol Ann, and the two of them – both sopranos – talked singing for a good half-hour, to the chagrin of my publisher, who waited all that time to get a few minutes to talk to Anne.

Although Anne did offer public fulsome praise for the next Spellsong Cycle book, that time in London was the only time we actually met… and I was very glad for the opportunity.

In retrospect, I only wish I’d had enough sense to spend at least a few minutes talking to Barbara Howes.

The Non-Intuitive Nature of the “Intuitive”

I’m not a computer designer, coder, or programmer, but I have been using computer applications for more than thirty-five years, and I continue to be amazed at how many applications whose use is said to be “intuitive,” and then discovered that I had no “intuition.”

For example, getting to use the flashlight ap on my IPhone. The instructions seem simple enough. Swipe up from the bottom of the main screen. Except that didn’t seem to work, except occasionally, and I almost gave up on trying to use it. Eventually, I figured out why it didn’t usually work for me. For that “swipe” to work reliably, it has to be done holding the phone in one’s right hand. I’m left-handed, and to make that swipe work means either shifting the phone to my right hand, or using two hands in a most awkward and unnatural way. Yes, it’s intuitive… if you’re right-handed.

After more than fifteen years of using Word, I have yet to figure out what combination of keystrokes suddenly resets the page from a single page, centered on the screen, into multiple pages… or separated half-pages. Nor is it clear why if I type too fast and hit three keys, I’ve closed the document I’ve been working on without saving it, despite the fact that I’ve programmed Word to autosave anything I exit. I know it’s a speed key function, and I’m certain there are instructions somewhere, but I’ve never been able to find them.

Nor are improvements always better. In older versions of Word, I can do a keyword search of every file in a directory. Not so in later versions… or at least not so in any way I can discern. For the most part, I’ve had to learn, by experimentation and trial and error, a great many of the capabilities and functions of a great number of programs because very few of those functions can be accessed intuitively – unless you’re a programmer.

So don’t tell me it’s intuitive. Just label it as “requires previous familiarity with precursor or similar systems and considerable trial and error because instructions are either opaque or non-existent.”

Fictional Heroes and Heroines

The other day, I came across a reader comment that suggested that I’d bowed to the “PC censors” and made the protagonist of a recent book into a “beta male,” because he actually listened to women, rather than a “real hero.” The reader then went on to suggest I should go back to writing “real heroes” as in the old days and “shock the sour PC fantasy killers.”

Outside of the fact that no one gets a look at my books before they go to my editors, let alone a P.C. or any other censor, or the fact that I don’t write to please either the politically correct or the politically incorrect, the comment raises a number of preconceptions that readers have, such as the fact that there’s some small cadre of PC types who decree what books get published or that a hero or a protagonist has to fit a specific mold. While there are certainly readers, reviewers, and even some editors who push the extremes of the PC mindset, what still determines what gets published is what readers will buy. And that is why Larry Correia, Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin, Patricia Briggs, N.K Jemison, Ann Leckie, Charlie Jane Anders, and I all sell a significant number of books – and we all write very differently.

There are all kinds of readers in the F&SF field, and while there’s still a large contingent of readers, mostly white males, from what I can tell, who prefer the traditional, “take-no-prisoners” male hero who loves weapons and gadgets more than women, and who expects women to know their place, I think it’s fair to say, although most of my main protagonists are male, that very few, if any, of them fall in lockstep into that stereotype. And, of course, there’s also the fact that, at last count, I’ve written something like 11 books where the main protagonist is female.

That reader comment raises the question, of course, about what a “real hero” should be in fiction. Obviously, there’s quite a range of qualities in fictional heroes in F&SF books being written and published today, and some of the ones I’ve liked the best in recent years have been heroines. For every reader, however, the “real” hero or heroine is the one with whom they can identify, or at least appreciate and come to understand.

Personally, as should be obvious from my books, I’ve always had trouble (and more as I’ve grown older) with the “take-no-prisoners” protagonist, even as I’ve written about people who’ve had to do just that, because, from what I know of history and personally witnessed and experienced, those kinds of “heroes” invariably wind up creating a massive body count, and either end up as dead or tormented for the rest of their lives. To my way of thinking, anyone who piles up bodies like that and remains unmoved and untouched isn’t so much a hero or heroine as a sociopath or psychopath.

That’s why, again in my opinion, Charyn in Endgames is more of a “real” hero, because he makes hard choices with a high personal cost and avoids the massive body count to forge a working consensus among warring classes… but that’s my view, and readers who prefer something else can certainly find it, because, despite that reader comment, there aren’t any PC censors out there. The growth of more diverse heroes and heroines with different thoughts and viewpoints just reflects a widening of those who read F&SF as well as a change in the views held by many readers.

Trump… and Ducks and Smoke

There’s an old saying along the lines of “if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and swims like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” There’s also the one about “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

President Trump has not only now uttered something like 10,000 statements that are false, misleading or outright lies, but gone far beyond that. Following the duck analogy, it strikes me that it’s more than fair to call him a brazen liar. As for smoke, there’s smoke everywhere. Even from what’s been made public from the Mueller report, and from all the indictments and guilty pleas from Trump associates, it’s pretty clear that there are a number of fires, some of which, such as Russian inference in our elections, are still burning.

And the fact that Trump doesn’t want anyone to see the full Mueller report, or his taxes, or even have Mueller, or Donald, Jr., testify before Congress look like the acts of a guilty man trying to hide his crimes. He’s even saying that he’ll fight any possible impeachment all the way to the Supreme Court. Why would he even need to do that when Republicans control the Senate – unless he really is so guilty that he fears his own party will disavow him if all the facts come out?

Trump isn’t acting like an innocent man wronged by the opposing political party. He’s acting like a very guilty man, who’s using every possible stratagem to keep all the facts from becoming public.

Like I said above… if it quacks like a duck… or in this case, behaves like a guilty man…

Ethics, Greed, and Corruption

There is often a significant difference between an ethical action and a legal action. Under current U.S. law, it’s obviously not illegal to raise the price of a drug that a child needs to stay alive from $40 to nearly $40,000, but is it ethical? I’d say it’s not, especially given the record level of profits reaped by the pharmaceutical industry. I’d even claim it’s a form of medical/health blackmail.

Is it legal for police to be stricter in enforcing the law on minorities than on Caucasians? So far, in most cases, it’s been held to be legal, but is it ethical?

Is it legal for a professional basketball team with a losing record not to play as hard near the end of the season… and possibly gain a higher draft pick? Again… so far it appears to be.

Is it legal for members of a given faith to prefer hiring those of the same faith? Or giving preference in promotions or bonuses? While discriminating by race is illegal, discrimination by faith appears to be alive and well, at least in certain parts of the U.S.

The list of such instances in the United States is long, and from what I can see, it’s getting longer. So why do I care?

Because ethics are the foundation of a healthy society. All one has to do is look around to see that. One of the reasons why tens of thousands of immigrants struggle out of certain central and Latin American countries is because of corruption and violence, and that corruption and violence are the result of totally unchecked greed on the part of governments, so-called law enforcement agencies, and even of large corporations and wealthy individuals.

One cannot instill law-abiding behavior through law enforcement. The police should represent and personify ethics through their actions, and I believe the majority do – but far from all of them. Even so, with a few exceptions, the best that law enforcement can do as an institution is to catch and remove law-breakers.

When legality is the rule, rather than ethics, more and more people do what they can, rather than what they should, and this leads to more and more corruption because no code of law can cover everything.

As a side note, this is a particular problem with corporations, because law has essentially held that a corporation’s greatest obligation is to maximize profits for the shareholders, within the confines of the law, regardless of the impact on people, on society, or on the environment. And when corporations use their revenues in support of political actions to whittle away legal protections on health and environment, in order to increase profits that are already at historical all-time highs, isn’t this greed a form of corruption?

When people see that the wealthy and the powerful can get away with anything, why should they be ethical and obey the law? And when the wealthy and powerful get more wealthy and more powerful, and it gets harder and harder for the poorer segments of society to make a living, there’s an ever-growing temptation for the non-wealthy to follow the example of the wealthy. And in countries like Honduras or Guatemala and a score of others, there’s too much violence for underpaid law enforcement to handle, partly if not largely, because the poor don’t have enough money to pay taxes, and the wealthy control the system and ensure that they’re not taxed enough to pay for public services.

Aren’t we already seeing those sorts of trends here?

Equally important… if your standard for ethical behavior is what the law allows you to get away with, you may consider yourself a law-abiding citizen, but are you really an ethical individual?

Monopoly, Monopsony, and Shortsightedness

Some readers may recall that in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the major U.S. publishers because, as a group, they refused to discount ebooks to Amazon, and that practice was considered a restraint of trade [it was far more complicated than that but since that’s not the point of this blog, that summary will do], and all of them eventually capitulated, even Apple, and paid fines of various amounts, none of which were insubstantial.

At that time, I wrote a letter to DOJ protesting the Department’s action because I felt that DOJ was in fact enabling not only a monopsony but a monopolistic practice where, in the end, after Amazon drove out or weakened a great number of brick and mortar bookstores and bookstore chains, Amazon would essentially replace them and prices would rise.

And what happened? The entire Borders chain went out of business; Barnes and Noble has been closing stores and cutting back on books in stock in the remaining stores; and a great number of independent bookstores closed, far more than have opened in a recent small resurgence of smaller bookstores. In addition, in effect, Amazon is also now effectively dictating some terms of sale to the publishers, which it is able to do because it’s the single largest sales outlet in the book business, and that, in effect, illustrates that Amazon is in point of fact the textbook case of a monopsony.

Even more interestingly, Amazon now has brick and mortar stores and is planning more, although the Amazon experiment with “pop-up kiosks” just ended with the closure of all 87 kiosks and an Amazon statement to the effect that Amazon would be concentrating on the more permanent Amazon bookstores.

As a result of all this, publishing margins dropped, and when those margins fell, publishers stopped publishing, or published less frequently mid-list authors or authors who had something new or different to offer but who did not sell as well. Even the incomes of many best-selling authors dropped, particularly those without an “outside” media presence.

Through its marketplace, Amazon is also doing much of the same thing to retailers across the entire United States, using lure of lower prices in the present to obtain a market position that enables it to eventually control the market and raise prices.

But that’s what Americans get for always focusing on price… even when it’s clear they’ll pay more in the long run, both in consumer prices and in jobs.

The Muzzling of Science

The latest edition of Scientific American printed a table from the Silencing Science Tracker, created and maintained by the Columbia University Law School, which listed almost 200 actions by the federal government to cut off scientific research and muzzle the reporting of scientific findings.

The federal agencies most involved in muzzling science were the U.S. EPA, the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy, HHS, and the Department of Agriculture. The forms such actions took include distorting or destroying data, restricting government scientists from attending conferences, closing down science advisory groups, removing scientists from such boards, and replacing scientists on science boards.

The vast majority of these actions appear to have been taken to suppress scientific information or expertise contrary to the political agenda of the White House, such as air pollution health data, occupational health exposures, climate change data, and pesticide exposure data. Apparently, when the White House cannot find studies or data to support its political agenda, it just restricts the dissemination of data, muzzles government scientists, or replaces scientists with industry lobbyists… and then ignores any scientist – or anyone else — who suggests that the administration’s actions were motivated for business or political ends.

Those who agree with the administration’s actions seem to believe that scientific findings can be changed by wishing otherwise, or ignored with no impact. In addition to that, it seems as though almost no one outside the science community seems to care about the need for impartial scientific findings, or that science is being muzzled or distorted… and that public health, education, and the environment are being sacrificed to political expediency on the largest scale in U.S. history.

Knowing… and Knowing

There are many ways to classify knowledge, but, in the end, what each of us knows is based on one of two methods… and sometimes a combination of both.

The first way of knowing is through observation, including experimentation and evidence-based and peer-reviewed knowledge gathered by others.

The second is belief based on faith.

Now, admittedly, if I accept the conclusions or findings of a historian or a scientist, there is an element of faith in the individual and the field, and sometimes a great deal of faith is required, especially if it’s a field with which I have little experience. In science, however, virtually all theories and findings are scrutinized by a great number of other scientists, as are the facts employed, the various kinds of supporting evidence, and the methodologies.

So… when someone says, “I don’t believe in global warming,” or “in human caused global warming”, or “I think vaccines are more dangerous than the disease,” that belief isn’t based on knowledge, but on belief… and upon the conviction that they are right against the weight of evidence and expertise. Now, as science has advanced, some older theories have been modified, and a few even disproved, but in the last century, very few of the current theories have been disproved outright, although a number have been modified or extended as technology has made it possible to test theories and theorems to greater extents.

I’ll also make the point that, at least so far, in areas where science and religion have conflicted in the material world [I’m not discussing the metaphysical world], religious faith has an abysmal record as far as being accurate.

As an interesting aspect of the fact/belief conflict, a recent article in New Scientist pointed out that, after massive river floods in Europe over the past millennium, after two generations, people went back to building houses and structures in the areas that were bound to be flooded – generation after generation. The study concluded that once those people who had suffered the devastations died off it only took another generation or two before their descendants disregarded the historical accounts. The study authors also suggested that the same lack of first-hand experience might explain why there is now a growing number of anti-vaxxers in the U.S. – because these individuals have no personal experience of the ravages of “childhood diseases.

I’m old enough to remember those diseases. I had contemporaries who suffered through polio and who ended up wearing leg-braces and/or in wheelchairs. A young woman I knew was born without a lower arm because her mother had measles when pregnant. Someone in my family had severe vision damage from measles. My uncle died from long-term complications from strep. And even now, over 1,100 children have died from measles so far this year in Madagascar.

Yet we have people in the U.S. who absolutely know that measles is a comparatively harmless childhood disease.

So… why do some people insist on holding to beliefs that are proven inaccurate? Is it because those beliefs are so central to their religious faith or their self-image that they cannot accept something that goes against facts and evidence? Or because they cannot believe something that goes against those beliefs unless or until they personally experience something drastic that changes those beliefs? Or because changing or adjusting their beliefs will alienate them from their faith or “tribal affiliation”? Or because they just have to be “right”?

Guarantee?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the local university is transitioning to a trimester system so that students can theoretically obtain their bachelor’s degree in three years. This is a bit of a misnomer, because there are certain degrees where that’s likely to be impossible, given the technical content and other requirements, and the university is soft-pedalling those possibilities for the moment.

One of the other aspects of this “degree speed up” that bothers me, and more than a few in the higher education community, is that the push for getting degrees faster represents the commodification of higher education and the fact that the emphasis is getting to be more and more upon the degree as a credential. In turn, these forces represent a growing mindset that having that degree is a guarantee of a better job and higher income.

While statistics show that this correlation was true in the past, there’s an old saying that correlation is not causation.

The fact is that higher education represents an opportunity for economic and personal improvement, but even in the past it was not an absolute guarantee of either, or necessarily of economic success. Today, and in the years to come, with the growing glut of college degrees among the younger generation, blanket economic opportunity for degree holders is certainly not guaranteed. Some studies indicate that, today, there are twice as many college graduates each year as there are jobs for them that require a college degree. After WW II, by comparison, only about ten percent of high school graduates received a degree, while now seventy percent of all high school graduates go to college, and four in ten Americans have at least an undergraduate degree.

The one guarantee that does exist is that those Americans without either higher education or specialized technical or trade training will be largely frozen out of decent-paying occupations, but with the growing number of college graduates, the increase in computerization and automation of many former white collar jobs, the number of higher paying jobs is not growing nearly as fast as the number of graduates seeking those jobs.

And that means that a college education isn’t nearly the guarantee of economic and professional success it once was, and far less of a guarantee than people now believe. It’s more like a high-priced gamble where the odds are only slightly in favor of the degree holder.

If This Keeps Up…

Trump will win re-election. What do I mean by “this”? It’s not any one thing, but a combination of factors.

First, Trump is solidifying his base into an immovable monolith. Admittedly, that “monolith” amounts to “only” 36-46% of the electorate, depending on how it’s measured, but for voting purposes, I’d submit it’s 45-48% of likely voters, and a large percentage of this group consistently votes, and that’s more than enough to win with a “fragmented” electorate.

Second, the Democrats are splintering and arguing over which liberal “theme” is most important and which will galvanize their supporters.

Third, anything that’s radical enough to electrify or galvanize a particular group of supporters won’t be of paramount interest to the rest of Democratic voters and will alienate some, while galvanizing Trump supporters in opposition.

Fourth, with something like fourteen different candidates with considerably different priorities, the media will have a field day targeting or trumpeting those differences, which will in turn create an impression of incompetence and disorganization among Democrats, and that will reduce support and interest by independent voters.

Fifth, the proliferation of specific interests will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Democrats to come up with a single, meaningful, and unifying theme and to unite enthusiastically behind a single candidate.

Sixth, unless the Democrats in the House can come up with factual, indisputable, and hard evidence that Trump, or someone in the Trump family, did something that was criminal and major – and soon – any continued pursuit of Trump and his family will eventually be regarded as the “witch hunt” Trump claims it already is and will discredit the Democrats.

Seventh, because of the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, Democrats believe Trump is so vulnerable that any Democratic candidate can win. What they don’t want to acknowledge is that they won because most of their candidates were tailored to win in those specific districts. While this is a viable and successful Congressional strategy, it doesn’t translate to a national presidential strategy, especially since too many of those running are assuming they have or can obtain national mandate, which they don’t have and mostly like won’t obtain.

Eighth, none of the Democratic candidates seem to realize any of the above, and while Nancy Pelosi does, her influence over who runs and what they say is limited to advice and counsel, which none of the young hotshots are likely to heed.

So brace yourselves for a second Trump term, unless his health fails suddenly… and that might not even keep him from winning, so long as he’s alive and able to tweet.

Not Listening, Not Being Taught… or Not Caring?

The 1960s, and especially 1968, were a tumultuous time in U.S. culture and history. In the middle of the Vietnam War, there were continual protests and flag burning and draft card burnings across the country. Students attacked nearly 200 ROTC buildings on college campuses, and there were violent protests against the war at more than 250 colleges. There were protests everywhere, especially in Washington, D.C. At one protest at Kent State, actually in 1970, National Guardsmen shot student protesters, killing four and wounding nine others. Between 30,000 and 40,000 young men fled to Canada, rather than be drafted into the army and fight in Vietnam.

There were more political killings and attempts than at any other time in U.S. history. President Kennedy was killed; Texas Governor John Connally was wounded in the same attack; Senator Robert Kennedy was killed while running for the Presidency. George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, was assassinated. Numerous black leaders were killed: Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and James Chaney are the most notable, but the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, lists 41 civil rights workers who were killed because of their efforts to obtain civil rights.

After Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, riots erupted across the nation in more than 100 cities, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit, Louisville, New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati. More than 40 people died, and over 1500 were injured, with more than 15,000 people being arrested.

The beating of an African American motorist by LAPD officers in August 1965 set off riots in the Watts area of LA that lasted six days, with 34 deaths, over a thousand serious injuries, more than 3,400 arrests, and property damage in excess of $40 million [roughly $300 million in today’s dollars].

When my wife the professor brings this up to her students, most of them look blank. When she pointed out to her female students out that little more than a century ago women were essentially property and couldn’t vote in most of the U.S. until 1920, or that women couldn’t get credit cards without the approval of husband or father until the late 1950s, they didn’t believe her initially. Then they just shrugged.

The other day, I got an email from a young woman, an educated young woman in her late twenties, who asked me why I’d said the 1960s were as more turbulent time than the present. So I started asking other educators I know about this, wondering if what we’d seen was just an outlying oddity. It might still be, but the half-dozen other educators I talked to had similar stories.

From what I’ve seen, it’s almost as if the younger generation doesn’t know recent U.S. history, and, to me, at least, this seems to be a recent phenomenon. I was taught about World War I, the Great Depression, and other historic events that occurred in the generation before I was born. What bothers me about this is that there seems to be an assumption on the part of the younger generation that progress is a given. A study of history shows it’s not, but those who don’t know history won’t see what can and has happened. Rome did fall. So did the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, not to mention the British Empire (although it didn’t fall so much as was relinquished because of economic and political pressures), and a lot of others. Germany went from being a comparatively open and free nation into Nazism. For centuries, Europe was racked by wars and uncounted deaths because religion dominated politics.

In some ways, there’s nothing new under the sun, that is, if you know what came before. If not, you’ll get what you deserve. The problem is that so will those of us who saw what could happen and were ignored because the majority believed progress would continue without work and without an understanding of the past.

So You Want to Be A College Professor?

Once upon a time, being a college professor was thought to be an existence of intellectual pursuits and the imparting of knowledge to students who truly wanted to learn. Like all fairy tales, or nostalgia for the past, it has never been that ideal or idyllic, but the impact of the current world on collegiate teaching has been significant… and often brutal.

A generation ago, and certainly two generations back, if you were financially and intellectually able to obtain a doctorate, your odds of obtaining a full-time, tenure track position were far, far better than now, given that in the immediate post-World War II period, close to eighty percent of teaching faculty were in full-time positions. Today, 73% of all college instructors or professors are part-time adjuncts without benefits, a high percentage of whom have doctorates and are unable to find a full-time position with benefits. Part of the reason for this is that more and more students have gone on to gain terminal professional degrees – far more than there are full-time academic positions. At the same time, the massive demand for college degrees has coincided with a growing reluctance of state governments to support higher education. Two very predictable results have been the massive hiring of cheaper adjunct instructors and the burgeoning amounts of student debt.

Then there’s the problem of how students have changed. Undergraduate degrees are now regarded as “credentials,” particularly by politicians, parents, and even students. The combination of skyrocketing tuition, the consumerism of student evaluations, and the need for credentials have taken a huge toll on academic rigor. For their money, most students expect to receive a grade of A, and they’re disappointed, if not angry, if they don’t get it, and they’ll take that anger out through evaluations of any professor who denies them the grade they think they deserve. All too many of them are also ultra-sensitive, and any professor who uses sarcasm, particularly in written form, is risking disciplinary action in many universities. And in this age of educational consumerism, colleges and universities are factoring in student evaluations into decisions on faculty raises, tenure, and promotion. The predictable result is less academic rigor and a gradual dumbing down of course content.

Recent studies have also shown that students now entering college have a social and emotional maturity some 3-5 years less than students of a generation ago, which is why teaching courses taken in the first two years of college is often more like teaching high school used to be – especially in state universities and colleges. In addition, because of the proliferation of electronic devices, especially I-phones, most college students today have difficulty concentrating and maintaining a focus on anything – except electronics – for more than a few minutes. This combination, along with increased student fragility and sensitivity, is another reason why university after university has had to hire more and more counselors and psychologists. Too many of these students literally do not know how to learn on their own, or to handle the smallest adversity, and they’re overwhelmed.

To cope with all of this, administrators and politicians keep looking for the Holy Grail of education, trying new methods, new means of teaching, reinventing a new wheel, so to speak, even before they can determine whether the last wheel they tried really worked.

One local university here has announced just last week that it is going to a new “trimester” system, starting next January, so that students can graduate in three years. This will shorten each semester from 15 academic weeks to 12 weeks, which will likely result in more dumbing down of course content because teaching is not like higher speed automation. Cutting out roughly twenty percent of teaching time will mean less will be taught, and less will be learned. The university faculty is aghast at the timetable, because none of this was discussed with faculty. Higher level courses aren’t developed in cookie-cutter fashion. It takes time to develop an effective way to present material, and there isn’t time to carefully redo every course all in a few months, especially while teaching a full load at the same time. The impact will be even worse for adjunct faculty, because they don’t get paid for course development, and most are barely making ends meet anyway.

The result will likely be a disaster, and will take several years to straighten out, if it even can be, but the university president is clearly responding to parental and political pressure to make education quicker and more affordable so that students can get that “credential” sooner and cheaper. No one is talking about whether they’ll learn as much.

Now… do you really want to be a university professor?

Priority By Budget

In early March, President Trump released his budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, a proposal that would set federal research spending at $151 billion, or roughly 3% of total federal spending, which would cut overall federal research spending by 11%, or almost $17 billion. Now, that’s only his proposal, and the final say on federal spending lies with the Congress, but proposals do indicate the President’s priorities. Under Trump’s priorities, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science would all face cuts of more than 12%, while science funding at the Environmental Protection Agency would drop by 40%.

After World War II, the U.S. funded almost 70% of research and development funding world-wide. Today, that figure is 28%, and while that shift can be partly explained by the ability of the rest of the world to be able to fund research, the fact is that the U.S. is being badly outspent, particularly in the area of basic research.

At present, total U.S. spending on basic research comprises less than 17% of all U.S. R&D spending. About three-quarters of U.S. basic research is funded by the federal government (44%), state governments (3%), institutions of higher education (13%), and other non-profits (13%).

To make matters worse, the majority of R&D spending by U.S. businesses goes toward product development, with only about six percent of business R&D funds going to basic research, and over the last four decades, the contribution of U.S. corporations to new basic research has dropped from 30% of published research to less than 10%. This isn’t surprising, because basic research is unpredictable and often expensive, but without basic research, in time, product development will slow dramatically, if not come to a virtual halt. That’s why federal support of basic research is absolutely necessary if U.S. industry is to continue to compete in a global market.

Then add to that the fact that climate change and its environmental effects are a persistent and real future problem… and Trump wants to cut environment research by 40%?

All that suggests that the President’s priorities are anything but for the future.