Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Taming Healthcare Costs

In my last post, I mentioned that the most contentious aspect of the health care debate is costs.  For instance, media groups leaning right as well as the architects of the Republican proposal known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) will tell you in response to the statement that it cuts Medicaid payments, that it in fact increases them, which is true.  Unfortunately, it is also true that this increase is much less than those under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which is why media groups which lean left are emphasizing this reduction, and why many Governors from both parties are nervous about their ability to make up the difference.

My own Senator, Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, from whom I receive a weekly update, makes the former case by emphasizing that it "puts Medicaid on a sustainable path, averting a future fiscal crisis".  In other words, less payments from the federal level, so that we can still afford the program at all.  How Toomey expects states like Pennsylvania to make up the difference is not part of his defense.

And, that is the rub.  Regardless of which side you lean to, costs have been rising, and will continue to rise if we don't examine the facts behind the problem.

America is aging, its population increasing on average by two years every decade, and will continue to do so as a result of the plethora of baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964).  For those 19 years, just about 4 million live births occurred in America every year; that is over 75 million people! In addition to this burst of births, we are living longer as life expectancy for Americans has increased on the average by 9 years (from just under 70 to just under 79) since 1960.

In other words, more people are living longer which produces higher health care costs. But that is just the beginning of the story.  It is not just that there are and will continue to be more older people, but our expectations of the quality of our health have also increased dramatically.  New knees, new hips, new faces, new organs, all extend our lives, but cost much more money. And the incredible boom in the pharmaceutical industry which now provides easy relief for so many real and imagined ailments, adds even more to the rising costs.

We experience pain, no one's favorite feeling, and rush to the local health care provider or upstairs medicine cabinet to ease our suffering.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but not cheap in comparison to understanding and accepting that a little pain is a signal from our body that we are doing something wrong.  Indigestion?  Take a purple pill and eat whatever you like.

It is a bit ironic that we turn to pharmaceuticals for what ails us in record numbers, yet we bemoan the outrageous profits and salaries in the pharma industry, and are aghast at the spreading opioid epidemic.  When the common answer to life's ups and downs is a little yellow pill, then we must expect to pay for all that medication, one way or the other.  But, solving the increasing federal funding morass for health care costs by passing along the responsibility to the next level is less an answer, more a case of passing the buck.

So, what is the answer?

First, we need to admit that we have a spending problem.  The United States spends significantly more money per capita than any other country.  In one of the tables I found, in 2015 we spent two times as much per person, or more, than all but 9 other countries in the world, including Canada, Australia, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom, among others, while attaining only limited benefits from these extra expenditures.  Most rankings of healthcare outcomes by country lists the United States in the middle of the pack  (or lower) in life expectancy, infant mortality, cancer survival rates ,etc.  All which means that we are not getting good value for the money we are spending. Or put another way, too much of the money is being diverted from addressing health problems to maintaining profits, excessive executive salaries, political campaign donations, advertising which convinces consumers that they are sicker than they are, and, most of all, to maintain the medical/pharmaceutical complex at the cost of actually improving wellness.  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_total_health_expenditure_per_capita,

Second, if we are going to continue to be apoplectic in thinking that a single payer/universal health care system is "socialized medicine", then we need to come up with another method of creating the biggest pools possible so as to spread out the higher costs for the elderly and sick among the young and healthy, while maintaining reasonable premiums.  There is not doubt that costs are lower in countries with single payer systems, but perhaps those models don't automatically apply to a country with a higher population and more diverse economic and cultural demographics.

One aspect of the recent GOP proposal isolates the sick into pools outside the mainstream, thereby lowering costs for the majority but forcing those with chronic or fatal diseases to choose between life and money.  Yikes!

Perhaps a better answer lies somewhere in between.  I have often proposed a single payer system run by the states.  The federal requirement of a minimum level of insurance coverage for all would still be law, but each state would be charged with establishing exchanges which feature a variety of health insurance plan options, but still offered by the current health insurance industry.  Remove employers from the equation to eliminate the disadvantage that the self employed currently faces, and include all elected officials who serve that state, regardless if they work in a state capital or Washington thereby making them consumers of the same system they help develop.  (Removing the employer participation may also free up some money, perhaps to invest in more livable wages, and, of course, capital improvements for the business itself).

Certainly, the federal government would still need to provide some funds for this system but the states would be tasked with negotiating the costs and details of the various insurance plans to be offered to its citizens.  Those that qualify for assistance, based on that state's particular demographics, would be eligible, as opposed to making it a federal demographic.

The goals would be to redirect responsibility for health care insurance back to the individual family or person, provide affordable options that balance low premiums with high deductibles for those with few health issues, higher premiums but lower deductibles for those with chronic health issues, caps on yearly and lifetime expenditures regardless of health, and no preexisting conditions clauses. Health care insurance becomes a right but a right that requires individual responsibility to manage.

The good news in all this is that the baby boomer peak will occur and we will reach a point where costs may somewhat flatten on their own.  But that is still 20 years away, if we assume the majority of people born in the baby boomer generation, will be dead by 2037.  

In the meantime, we might also want to remind our elected officials and those we see in the mirror each day, that there is plenty of money in these great United States to pay for better outcomes and provide health insurance for all American citizens.  Considering the $200 million contracts being signed by various athletes, the eight figure salaries being paid to CEO's, the billions of dollars being spent by the American public on entertainment, and the literally, trillions of dollars that are safely tucked offshore by the 1% who value their wealth more than their country's future, it is hard to fathom why we agonize over the costs of providing health insurance and improving health outcomes.

Perhaps a reevaluation of our priorities is the true path to finding a solution.

 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

GOP Healthcare Plan

It appears that the long awaited repeal and replace Obamacare health care bill that was promised will not come to fruition in the near future.  It is truly a sad indicator of how partisan the politics of America has become that we find ourselves in the unenviable position of having a flawed national healthcare program in place as acknowledged by both parties, most Americans, and the majority of health care providers and insurance companies, but do not have the stomach, guts, leadership or whatever other word you might want to use, to fix it.

As far back as I can remember, our collective approach to the problem of providing a reasonable cost for the majority of Americans to pay for their moderate health care costs, while addressing the needs of the minority of Americans who cannot afford to pay for their above average health care costs, has ranged from assuming the heath insurance industry would humanely balance their profit with the well being of their customers, to creating arbitrary affinity groups (through employment, union or other trade or age related membership) to increase the pool thereby spreading out the costs, to the truly horrific idea that sick people deserve to be sick due to their poor lifestyle choices or equally poor luck from the birth lottery.

Mixed in with these inadequate approaches, the specter of America's love affair with individualism and capitalism pretends that health care is a commodity just like a car or a house, so that those with the most money will naturally be able to purchase the best health care, and those with the least will have to make do with the economy version.

And, we eschew the national health care model of most of the rest of the "civilized" world which creates a national pool of customers to lessen the costs of individual sickness or group trends of disease, by asking everyone to pay a little more in taxes.  The fact that this bigger pool is really just an extension of the affinity groups we are using today, is lost in the angst created by those who use the S word (socialism) to belittle the universal health care model that addresses the real issue behind our debate: costs.

The good news is that we should recognize that in their lack of unity, the GOP has done a valuable service to America in their inability to create a better plan.  It is imperative that the liberal media and pundits try to avoid gloating over the fact that they had 8 years to come up with a new plan and failed miserably, and focus on the fact that for whatever reason, concerns over the reduction of insured Americans, concerns over the sky rocketing costs which would have been passed along to the states, or even concerns that the GOP repeal bill did not go far enough to remove government from the heath care morass, whatever the reason, we must praise our GOP controlled legislature for not following through on their repeal and replace mantra by voting for just any new piece of legislation.  I applaud them for finally realizing that it is easy to criticize, but much harder to govern.

Will they merely repeal?  I would like to think that the answer is no, even if only because they are afraid of losing their job when they next run for office.

And who knows, perhaps the loss of the last 8 years, which might have afforded the chance to amend the ACA so that the needs of the truly sick, and those with limited access to health care insurance could have been addressed while balancing the costs to the aforementioned chronically ill along with the majority of Americans who face average and less than average health care needs, will spur us to find common ground across the water cooler, and common ground across the political aisle.

 

      

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Discovery

Slow month in June; less than 20 hits a day on my blog.  It is months like that which make me question why I continue to share my thoughts.  Am I kidding myself to think that anyone cares to read my opinions?  Am I fooling myself to think that my writing is cogent, thoughtful, relevant, or any other term one might consider a compliment?

I rationalize the time I spend in this endeavor with the possibility that someday my posts will be read by someone of influence who will find them important enough to share within their circle of followers.  Or perhaps a particular opinion or thought might inspire someone to act in such a way that the world is better for it.  Or even that in continuing to record my thoughts, small ripples of change might begin their long journey towards an unknown shore, effecting behavior or a future philosophy in a positive way.

Or, perhaps, that those in my small circle of influence might feel better for having read them.

A resurgence of interest from Russia has me wondering.  In the past I have received some very nasty comments from a few Russian readers, making me think they might be the source of activity in that country.  Is negative interest better than no interest at all?  Is our president's fascination with Putin generating interest in that country for the opinions of Americans, even someone as obscure as myself?

Just finishing the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Discovery.  As usual, many fascinating articles, essays, thoughts on the subject from the depths of history.  A few that I took note of.

In the opening essay by Lewis Lapham, founder and continued inspiration behind the quarterly, he laments the rise of the machine, and our burgeoning dependence on technology for our information. This is not to say that being able to access Laphams digitally is a problem, but that in our growing dependence on our phones and tablets for information, we too often eschew the knowledge of the past, alluded to in Goethe's observation, that he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth.  Lahpam's further comment that the failure to connect the past to the present, the present to the past, "breeds delusions of omniscience and omnipotence, which lead in turn to factories at Auschwitz and the emptiness of President Donald Trump."

--

A snippet from Vera Rubin's Women's Work, recounts how, as an astronomy student at Vassar College in 1947, she wrote a postcard to Princeton University asking for a catalog of the graduate school.  She received a nice little note in response from the dean of the graduate school that Princeton did not accept women in its graduate physics and astronomy programs, so he would not be sending along a catalog.  It wasn't until the 1970's that such a thing would happen.

Rubin also recounts how in 1976 when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum presented as its first planetarium show a history of American astronomy, only male astronomers, all but one white males, were included.  To Rubin, the thousands of little girls who streamed into the show, in addition to learning about space, learned the limitations of their futures as a result of being born female. Repeated efforts by Rubin to request the addition of female astronomers and their contributions were met with a shrug, presumably by white males.

Stories like this make me laugh at the recent rise in white male angst over the perceived slights that the attempts to even the playing field for women and minorities has generated.  I guess practically forever in recorded history is not long enough for them to be given all the advantages!

--

From the House of Representatives' report on the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, a bill was voted on in the House which would prohibit the administrator of the EPA (that is Environmental Protection Agency, lest you forget, an agency created during Nixon's Administration) from "promulgating any regulation concerning, taking any action relating to, or taking into consideration the emission of greenhouse gas to address climate change".  During the vote, three amendments were offered by the Democratic minority, one which would accept the scientific evidence that climate change is unequivocal, one that would accept scientific evidence that greenhouse gases are the root cause of the observed climate changes, and the third that the public health of current generations ins endangered, and that the threat to public health will continue to increase as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.

Laphams recounts this episode under the heading "Tyranny of the Majority", reflecting that fact that the GOP majority defeated all amendments, and passed the bill as a way of protecting the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of public health.  Fortunately, the bill did not pass in the Senate. Unfortunately, it is not far-fetched to imagine a similar bill passing both houses, and then be certainly signed by President Trump.

It is understandable why so many voters chose to turn over control of both the executive and legislative branches to the GOP, after the stagnation of the political process the last 6 years of the Obama Administration, but there seems to be a precedent which indicates that when a split government is in place, and the voters hold both parties accountable to the concept that common ground must be found to create a government that considers both majority and minority perspectives, then the majority does not operate in a tyrannical fashion, nor does the minority embrace the role of obstructionism to detriment of all.

--

In a 1953 talk General Electric physicist Irving Langmuir, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932, identified several symptoms of what he called pathological science - that is, "the science of things that aren't so".  A few of his 6 symptoms of Fake News include:

Claims are of great accuracy.

Fantastic theories are contrary to experience

Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment

Finally, in reference again to the recollections of Vera Rubin and the open discrimination she fought as a career scientist, one can only wonder how many achievements were delayed or missed throughout history due to the premise that only white males should be given the opportunity to think, to research, to discover.  The good news is that the genie is out of the bottle.  When given the same opportunity and resources as their white male counterparts, similar levels of achievement, success, and innovation are attained by men and women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or any other means by which humans limit those who are different from themselves.  Especially in the case of women, one might say despite the obstacles placed in their path.

The bad news is that we seem to be in the midst of a cycle that finds the pendulum swinging in the wrong direction in this matter.  Let's hope that we can recover from our misdirection, and discover (again) that the nature of inspiration lands equally in the minds of all and every type of human, and that to fully take advantage of that muse we must reject the notion that She prefers one gender, one race, one country over the rest.


    



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Environment vs Economics

There seems to be a belief that we cannot have a strong economy with strong environmental laws. Evidence of this belief is verbalized in most discussions concerning the record low growth rate of the economy coming out of the 2008 recession.  When the discussion involves business friendly participants, too much government regulation is the culprit, including over reaching environmental laws.  The recent decisions by the Trump Administration to opt out of the Paris Accord on climate change, and to roll back and/or negate the Obama Administration's rules for power plant emissions, seem to place him squarely in the camp that says jobs before environment.  

But is it necessarily true that we can't have both?

The May edition of the National Geographic Magazine has an interesting chart which ranks 100 of the world's major cities in three areas; people (social), planet (environmental), and profit (economic health).  It is called the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index.  

Before detailing some of the more interesting findings, I thought it best to research Arcadis, to find the source of the information.  As we all too painfully know, proving a point through scientific study or research is quite easy when the answer is predetermined.  I am sure if one were to look hard enough, "science" which debunks the connection between coal mining and black lung disease can be found.  In the case of Arcadis, it is a global design, engineering and management consulting company based in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with origins dating back to 1868.   While this indicates a bias towards their version of what a sustainable city might look like, now and into the future, they are successful at what they do; 350 offices in 40 countries with revenue of 3.3 billion euro in 2016.  So, factoring in a bias towards "greener" projects, and perhaps European cities, I am comfortable offering the following information from their chart.

Of the three factors, the social aspect ranks lowest for 34 cities.  Sixteen of those are in North America, 16 out of the 23 cities ranked.  For 12 of those 23 cities, profit was the highest of the three factors.   Certainly, a clear indicator of priorities for our continent.

Profit is ranked last in 19 of the 32 European cities while 14 of the 32 rank highest in people.  Again, a clear indicator of priority.

There are three Canadian cities on the chart, and they ranked first, second and fourth overall in North America with New York ranking third between them.  

The highest ranking city in the United States, overall, was New York which also ranked first in Profit, and Environment but in the middle of the pack in People.  The top ranked city in the People category was Boston which was also second overall.  Following New York and Boston, were San Francisco and Seattle.

Zurich was the highest rated city overall, first in planet, top 5 in Profit, mid 20's in People.

Interestingly, of the top 10 ranked cities in the Profit category, eight of them also ranked in the top sixteen overall; Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Paris and Prague, along with the aforementioned Zurich.  Perhaps some evidence that profit need not eliminate all concern for people and environment.

Conversely, of those cities in the top 10 rankings for Environment, all but one were in the top 50, six were in the top 25, three were in the top 10, and two were in the top 5 for Profit. Hmm.

Could there be a correlation between people who feel that when factors such as health, education, income equality, work-life balance, crime, housing and living costs are adequately addressed, profit follows?  It is certainly true that a robust economy does not usually exist when there is chaos, whether politically or socially generated.   The bottom five ranked cities were Kolkata, Cairo, Nairobi, New Delhi and Manila.  None had any factors which placed them in the top 75.  

Certainly, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and London might effect future rankings.  And I doubt we will see a migration of people from North America to Edinburgh or Prague in the near future.  But the point is that profit can exist side by side with a concern for the environment and the people who live there when cities make an effort to consider its inhabitants as more than just income generators. 

Of course, there were some places where the difference between profit ranking and environmental ranking was 65 or more; Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpar.  Hopefully, those who stress the incompatibility between profit and environmental concern are not offering these cities as their model.

In the end, as usual, it comes down to balance.  Certainly, the debate is necessary as to how far the pendulum should swing in any one direction.  Stifling economic growth unless a project or plan perfectly protects all living things is as absurd as approving all business plans as long as one new job is created.  But the premise that we can't have both, in varying degrees is just plain wrong.  It surely belies the belief that by ignoring our responsibility towards keeping our planet and its occupants healthy, America will be great again.         
     

Thursday, June 15, 2017

DC shooting

I thought it important to comment on the horrific shooting which occurred in Washington a few days ago.  Regardless of how we feel about the current direction of the GOP and the Administration, there is absolutely NO justification for this behavior.  When we resort to violence to communicate our displeasure with our elected officials, with our neighbors, with our family or with those who look, worship, or believe differently than ourselves, we spit on the very fabric of our democracy, and move one step closer to being exactly like those we like to call terrorists.

I would also like to call on every liberal, democrat and progressive to make a similar statement, either on Twitter, or Facebook, or on their respective TV, radio or other media outlets.  We MUST not condone this behavior through silence.

Finally, I would ask both sides of the various debates that surround such a shooting, Dem vs GOP, liberal vs conservative, Trump supporter vs non-supporter, more gun control advocate vs less gun control proponent, and any of the other myriad issues which are contributing to such a vitriolic atmosphere that encourages acts such as this latest shooting, to be aware that we are all guilty of inspiring violent outbursts when we exaggerate, misrepresent, stereotype, and outright lie about the actions and beliefs of those with whom we disagree.

Being in the public eye through achievement, intelligence, education, success or fame includes a responsibility to present information that is factually based, perhaps tinged with opinion, but at least founded in provable elements.  There are far too many people who read for content they agree with, and are far too eager to be provided with a rationalization to lash out with violence.  Our right to free speech is precious, but perhaps there are times when we must question whether it should be exercised if the content is inflammatory.  It is far better that we exercise self restraint rather than create a situation where free speech is rationed via a political or institutional filter.

Finally, to all Americans who are involved in the discussions of the day, who feel our country is moving in the wrong direction or finally moving on the correct course, channel your energy to create talking points and common ground with those with whom you differ.  Work with or for an elected official or perhaps even run for office in an effort to better understand how our government works, or volunteer to a particular cause which inspires you.

There is only one other option if we allow our democracy to collapse through skepticism, complacency and the exponential growth of us vs them politics.  Anarchy might make for an entertaining TV show, but it is not a reality we would enjoy.      

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Russian Controversy

I haven't commented on the Trump/Russian controversy yet.  Partly, I have been reticent due to the extremely partisanship nature of the debate.  On the left there is salivating at the idea that Trump might be caught colluding with our most dangerous adversary, and on the right there is rampant amnesia in regards to which country stands to gain the most from western democracies which fall too far down the rabbit hole of nationalism.

At this point, rather than wait for Special Prosecutor Mueller's probe to come to fruition, I thought I would offer my assessment of the situation, and prediction for the outcome.

First, it is certainly true that the Democrats are still reeling from their surprise defeat last November. While calling the investigation a witch hunt is certainly disingenuous coming from a party that held countless Benghazi hearings, I also think that this is more of a red herring, on both sides.  I say red herring, not necessarily because I believe the Russian connection is false, but because there is far bigger fish to fry in reference to the agenda of this president and his (current) allies in the legislative branch.

It seems clear that their is a concerted effort to undo everything President Obama accomplished, either by an ongoing stream of exaggerations and outright lies, or through executive orders and legislative efforts.   From statements referencing the "absolute mess" that Trump inherited, to the constant predictions of the failure of the Affordable Care Act which has its existence controlled by the very people who are eager for its demise, our continued focus on the Russia Controversy seems to be a classic trick of magicians and con men alike.  Look over here while what is really happening occurs over there.

I say this, because in the end, President Trump will not be impeached over this embroilment.  Perhaps a couple of his associates, Manafort and Flynn to name a few, will be found guilty of some sort of misdeed, or Sessions might be forced to resign, but Trump will escape with his supporters in tack. Not necessarily because he is innocent, but because the standard which needs to be attained for obstruction is not reachable.  Clearly, presidential candidate Trump encouraged the hacking of DNC and Clinton emails, perhaps conveniently ignorant of the fact that his election was desired by Putin, but I don't expect there to be any smoking gun to prove that he traded such activity for future easements of the penalties imposed on Russia by the west as a result of the Crimean annexation, as well as those imposed by Obama due to the suspicions of an organized cyber attack during the recent presidential election.

The fact is that Hillary Clinton and the DNC made some critical mistakes in regards to Bernie Sanders during the campaign, provocateurs under the direction of Putin's government disclosed them and Clinton (or Sanders) lost an election she should have won handily.  As a result, there are many democrats looking under any and every rock to delegitimize their loss.

On the other side, we have a president who is such an egoist that he can't fathom the idea that he didn't win the election due to his brilliance.  That he was helped in any way.  It is reflected in his exaggerations about the size of his inaugural crowds, in his constant use of phrases like "the greatest, the best, the most" and in his over riding belief that he alone can solve all the problems that we face. From there, his unwavering supporters quickly move to the premise that anyone against him is against America, any news that contradicts him is fake news.

Sometime I have real sympathy for President Trump.  He won, yet he is constantly on the defense. His attempts to fulfill his campaign promises are thwarted at every turn, and he is expected to be on point at all times, while his tweets are expected to be always factual, more presidential than whatever thought floated into his head at the time.  His behavior is no different from his successful campaign, yet it is no longer working for him.  But then I remember that he spent a number of years questioning the birth nation of ex-President Obama, while he and many of the far right news and media machine took little pains in questioning Obama's love of America in general, and white people in particular. Kharma can be a bitch!!

When it came time to vote last November, I considered Trump and Clinton two sides of the same coin.  Clearly, there is too much money being used to pervert our democracy.  Clinton, as a career politician, represented the perspective that all politicians are self serving, and so many middle class Americans chose to vote for Trump even though, in my mind, he represented the class of rich people who had enabled those greedy politicians to fill their coffers at the expense of the American taxpayer. For me, assuming both had baggage, it came down to the candidate who most shared viewpoints that I deemed most important; climate change, income inequality, access to affordable health insurance and quality health care, and a humane immigration policy.  On those issues, Hillary Clinton was more in line with my values.

Ironically, many Trump supporters thought that electing a successful and rich businessman would help reduce the flow of red ink in Washington and scale back the influence of special interest groups.
Unfortunately, Trump is a novice when it comes to governing, and his many mistakes reflect this learning curve.  Also, he appears to be loyal to those within his circle, but, as they are a reflection of himself, he cannot see their faults.  And, of course, campaigning is far easier than governing.  As a CEO and business icon, Trump is ill prepared to navigate the waters of politics where many opinions and perspectives must be considered when creating policy.

Washington, for all its problems, is not like the business world of a billionaire.  It is not an environment where Trump can "suggest" to an employee that a certain thing must happen without actually saying, knowing it will be "taken care of".  It is not an environment where Trump can dismiss the thoughts of those who disagree with him knowing that, as the boss, it is his way or the highway.  And, even more strangely, it is not an environment where rules can be ignored as long as results are produced.  Perhaps that was one reason that Trump garnered some votes, people tired of politically correct politics and decisions which consider everyone's feelings, but that is precisely the strength of our democracy.  We allow those in the minority, whether it be based on race, religion, political affiliation or gender preference, to have a say.

In the end, the Russian Controversy is just another example of Trump attempting to run America as CEO rather than as president.  We know he had dealings with Russian businesses and Russian banks, just as we know that Exxon Mobil and Rex Tillerson have/had business dealings with Russia.
If there is one thing that is true, it is that the opportunity to make large sums of money trumps politics and national affiliation.  As a private citizen, Donald Trump sought outlets to expand his brand all over the world, Russia included.  If I knew that, through such business ties, Russia would aim their nuclear weapons away from Europe and the United States, I might feel heartened.  But, alas, I think that a win is a win, and if looking away while a foreign entity works to disclose private thoughts of ones' competition while spreading half truths as well, then Machiavelli would be proud.

Sadly, regardless of the outcome of Special Prosecutor Mueller's investigation, both sides will claim victory.  The left will focus on the statement that inappropriate communications did occur but nothing illegal, and the right will celebrate the conclusion that Trump did nothing wrong.  And that is the problem, neither side willing to seek truth regardless of who is at fault, both sides willing to ignore culpability when someone else can be blamed.

Perhaps someday the American voter will stop accepting the concept that it is OK to flaunt the law if you can prove someone else did it as well, will stop believing that our problems can be solved without communication and compromise, and will begin to vote for their interests knowing that no candidate will agree 100% with their perspective, but 7 out of 10 is pretty good.  Of course, telling voters what is in their best interest is the mark of a skilled campaigner, as is connecting with the one issue voter, so actually taking our responsibility more seriously when in the voting booth might be the real, the only answer, to our shared problems.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

America First

The recent decision by President Trump to remove the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, was defended by the President, as well as his supporters, as another example of putting America first.  The specifics of that reasoning seem to center around the requirement for the nations of the developed world to offset the costs of nations in the undeveloped world as they switch from cheaper, but dirtier forms of energy to cleaner but less cost effective methods, as well as the short term cost to the United States for doing the same.  

Strictly speaking, there is logic to such assertions.  Why should the tax payers of Pittsburgh or Des Moines foot the bill for foreign nations to change their energy strategy?  Even more pointedly, why should Americans risk an improving economy by committing to future emission reductions which will harm the existing energy industry, possibly resulting in lost jobs and higher energy costs?

Why indeed?

Perhaps the answer lies in the basis of an America first policy.  Certainly, maintaining the status quo in terms of carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses relieves us from the pressure of thinking about the possible consequences of such actions.  While defending the status quo is not generally a rallying cry for a populist movement, such as the one which resulted in Trump's election, it is certainly easily justifiable if one assumes change will be disruptive.  When America First translates into going it alone, without the cooperation of other countries, then there is very little reason to engage in any cooperative enterprise because cooperation with others necessitates compromise.  

This mantra should not be surprising as we try to understand our President's logic; time after time during the campaign and since his inauguration, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he alone could fix our problems.  It is reflected in his comments about the Middle East situation being not that hard to resolve, in his comments about how surprised he was that health care is so complicated, and even his admission that being president is much harder that he thought.  When one is used to making a decision then having zero negative feedback on its merits, when one is used to working with people whose only goal is to tell you how wonderful you and your ideas are, when one is able to fall back on unbalanced tax laws that enable you to write off your mistakes while raking in as much as possible when successful,  America First is just an extension of Donald Trump first.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that this decision is unwise.  The real question is, does reducing greenhouse gasses by moving away from fossil fuels to more greener energy sources, put America first?  

If you believe that climate change is the biggest challenge facing America, and the world, then any program that reduces our carbon emissions places the short and long term interests of America first. Put another way, the costs of doing nothing far outweigh the cost of working gradually, so that short term expenses can be spread out over time and be less intrusive.  What seems ironic to me is that even if you believe that the rising temperature of the earth is natural, part of a cycle beyond the capacity of man to influence, it is still true that the earth is warming.  Again then, wouldn't a plan which helps to minimize the effects of such warming, flooding of coastal cities, changing weather patterns, alterations of growing seasons, etc, place America First?  

Pulling out of the Paris agreement and then proposing a more specifics driven plan to address the changing climate in a way that will be the most beneficial for America and her citizens might be unpopular abroad but, perhaps acceptable to those of us who believe a strategy is required.  But pretending that there is no future cost for our delays, or worse, that the science is not in yet, smacks more of a strategy aimed at rewarding the fossil fuel industry for its campaign donations.  

But there is more to this America First philosophy that troubles me.  Clearly the name itself, America First, is hard to counter.  Why wouldn't we want to place America First?  Of course, actually placing America First and just talking about it are two different things, but perhaps it is the ease at which the America First doctrine is accepted that is the real danger.

History, even recent history in the form of the Patriot Act, teaches us that too large a percentage of the population judges a program or policy based on its name, not its content.  The fact that the Patriot Act, among other things, authorized the interception and accumulation of emails, telephone calls, and other forms of communications of the American people by the government was buried in the vast number of pages of that law.  Perhaps justified in our war on terrorism, but buried nonetheless so as not to glaringly contradict the name of the act.  Had it been called the Advanced Surveillance Act of American Citizens it may not have garnered as much support!

As those born in the early 20th century continue to pass from our lives, we are being inundated with a lot of articles about this "greatest generation" who were called upon to suffer not only the horrible days of the Great Depression, but to actively fight (and die) in the world wide effort to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.  One might argue that they placed America First, if we surmise that they knew that should Europe fall, so then might the United States.  But we call them the greatest generation because they accepted the sacrifices demanded, to save all of humanity; it wasn't in answer to cries of America First that inspired the millions of young men and women to serve in WW2.

America First feeds from the hubris that only America can solve the problems of the world, just as it feeds from the hubris that President Trump knows more about wars than the generals.  Sadly, once the American people fully internalize such a belief, it is easy to appeal to the more damaging concepts of isolationism, nationalism, xenophobia, and outright prejudice against anything not American.

What is truly unfortunate is that we have seen this play before.  It was rampant nationalism that helped fuel the two World Wars.  But it was nations cooperating which produced the defeat of those who, at the time, rallied to one man's views on the superiority of the Aryan race, the greatness of the Fatherland, and the importance of ridding the earth of those he found inferior.

The Paris Climate Accord was not a perfect document, as few, if any documents are that are signed by as varied a group as was represented by the 195 signatories.  But, it is perhaps the first document whose sole aim is to provide an agreed upon set of guidelines for combating a problem that threatens the entire planet.  The first Earth First document, one might say.  

It can be said that the greatest generation understood the challenge, understood the short term costs and sacrifices needed to overcome that challenge, and still rushed headlong into the fray.  I hope that our backwards slide to a more selfish perspective is brief and someday, hopefully soon, the next greatest generation will emerge, a generation able to understand and dismiss the limits of America First, and embrace a larger viewpoint that puts Earth First.                 
 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Zero Gravity and Living Forever

As usual, inspiration from this month's Smithsonian, June edition.

First article called "Up in the Air", about a zero-gravity future where thousands, if not millions of Earthlings live and work in space.  In the article, visionaries like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are actively investing huge sums of money to make the science fiction of the Jetsons the reality of tomorrow.

What is truly inspiring is that there are many men and women, famous and unknown, who encompass a staggering range of interests, from manufacturing in space to providing shelter in space to researching new drugs in space, that are not content with just talking about these advances.  And, thank goodness for the rest of us that they do.  Of course, dreaming about these incredible advances and making them a reality takes not just imagination but real life resources, in other words, lots of money.  Reading about companies like Blue Origin, Made in Space, and SpaceX, makes me proud that such research and commitment still exist in our species.  That there are still so many individuals who seek a better life for themselves, their children, and humanity.

The second article "Life without End", discusses the belief that death can be delayed, perhaps hundreds of years.  It is an incredibly complex issue, fraught with economic, political and religious ramifications.  But it is not just someone's fantasy.  The science behind increasing our mortality is real, involving research into understanding why our cells degenerate over time.

A particularly interesting area of investigation centers around the senescent calls within our bodies. These cells activate during cell division, a time when cells can easily fall victim to mutations.  They act as very powerful tumor suppressant mechanisms which reduce the chance of mutation. Unfortunately, over time, they also contribute to inflammation which itself leads to disease.  From an evolutionary perspective, for the vast majority of history, mankind lived 30-40 years.  One might conclude then, that the senescent cells were only needed for that amount of time, sort of a planned obsolescence.  When we realize that living into one's 50's and 60's, not to mention, 80's and 90's, is a relatively new phenomenon, it makes sense that a mechanism to reduce mutations might evolve but that the mechanism might only be effective for a defined time.

As our ability to reduce the incidence of death from causes that claimed the lives of people from the dawn of history to as recently as the 19th century, mankind's lifespan has jumped astronomically, perhaps surpassing our own bodies ability to keep us healthy.  Understanding the senescent cell and how it works might lead to therapies that keep it active longer, thereby improving the body's chances to live longer, and healthier.

One thing that is clear when reading the article is that there is much debate about how longer life might effect mankind, whether a bridge between a longer life span and a longer health span can be realized, and whether immortality should even be a goal to attain.

That is the real beauty of the article; it asks as many questions as in answers.

In a time when we seem so focused on the perceived problems of our day, when the future is more feared than longed for, it behooves us not to read about people who embrace what is to come, but more than that, work with an open mind and heart to imagine a better world, and then work tirelessly to see it come to fruition.

I often say that if everyone read the Smithsonian, a wider perspective might emerge.  The June edition confirms my belief.  

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Employer vs Employee

I've specifically titled this post using the versus connector between employer and employee as it seems that this important relationship is stuck in this adversarial position, and that my belief is that America will never be "great" again, if that is truly a goal based in reality and not just rhetoric, until the dynamics of employment changes.

Obviously, there has always been friction between employers and employees.  Employers seek the most production possible while paying the least possible compensation, while employees invariably feel underpaid and underappreciated.  In addition, the unfortunate boom and bust cycles of our economy create times when one side has the upper hand over the other.  When the economy is in recession, employers can reduce benefits and/or eliminate wage increases with the veiled threat that an employee can be easily replaced by someone unemployed, someone willing to take almost anything rather than be without work.  Conversely, when the economy is booming, employees are more easily able to find better pay, working conditions and opportunity, putting pressure on the employer to pay, at times, more than the production might be worth.

In both situations, phrases such as disloyalty and profit over people emanate as readily as humidity in the tropics.

Of course, for much of recorded history, men and women worked to live, literally.  From the moment they awoke, to the moment they fell asleep, mankind spent their time searching for food for themselves and those of their group, seeking shelter or improving the condition of said shelter, and avoiding the multitude of dangers that existed, and from which there was scant protection.

As the eons progressed and our ancestors moved from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle, a new relationship began to emerge.  Creating permanent settlements also meant protecting these settlements from those unwelcome, which also inspired the concept of owning the land.  While it was easy to claim new lands in the name of one's home country, as if the land didn't exist before being "discovered", especially since the native inhabitants had a completely different relationship with the land, it became much harder to dismiss inhabitants when they looked and sounded the same as oneself.  Fortunately, those with money and power were able to create concepts like birth rights, aristocracy, divine laws, and other such artificially created distinctions that, along with bigger swords and hired thugs, enabled land barons to own great swaths of territory.  Still, those who worked the land did so mostly for sustenance.

Over time, as settlements evolved into people living together as individuals as opposed to chattel, bartering among the tradesmen and businesses and customers became more formalized, and values were placed on goods, services, and ultimately, the labor needed to create or provide those goods and services.  Now, rather than hunting and scavenging for food, people could "buy" their food from someone who specialized in growing it, or perhaps from someone who purchased the goods from many different suppliers then brought it to the customers, in the form of carts, and then centralized the location of the products in stores located where the people lived.  

Those of you who know more history than I, might also know when the terms employee and employer first were coined.  I only spent a few minutes searching and found information suggesting they are from French words originating in the 1820's.  If reasonably accurate, that means that this dynamic relationship which is the basis of the vast majority of work in the "modern" world, is still in its infancy.

To be more specific, if we use 10,000 years as the approximate time when humans began to practice sedentary agriculture, the employee/employer relationship represents 2-5% of that time.  And, if we use 200,000 years as the beginning point of when homo sapiens emerged in Africa, the relationship has been around for .1-.25% of that time.  That is decimal (.1) percent folks.  Or, using an hour as the time since homo sapiens emerged, the relationship is about half a second old.

So, what is my point?

Perhaps that we are still trying figure out this relatively new concept.  We know that we do not want to return to the days when calling out sick might get you fired.  The days of forced child labor, 12, 16 even 18 hours shifts in poorly ventilated sweat shops.  But we also know that businesses can not function with an unreliable work force.  Rules and standards are required on both sides.  A power of balance needs to be established, which, while it might create temporary swings in favor of one or the other, leave room for a return to an even footing as quickly as possible.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to state that the balance of power from the recent recession has not returned to an even keel.  In fact, one might even suggest that the balance of power towards the employer side of the equation has been with us since the 1980's.  Certainly, stagnating middle class wages coupled by the flow of more wealth in the hands of a smaller percentage of people could be interpreted as a consequence of this imbalance.

But that is macroeconomics, the stuff of classroom debates and never ending partisan politics.

What about the everyday relationship that exists in the majority of businesses, big and small.  So often we hear complaints from the business community that there aren't enough qualified people to fill job openings, and that too many of those employed do not work hard enough while expecting more benefits, and more money.  I receive multiple job alerts everyday from Indeed, based on the many different profiles I have created.  Clearly, there are many open jobs out there, and not just $12 per hour and less, jobs.  One of my profiles sets a minimum salary of $50K per year; it produces new jobs everyday.

This seems to verify the employer complaints, while also signalling that our education system is not preparing our youth for today's more specialized job market.  Of course, employers who expect a perfect match for their job requirements, some of which feature so encompassing a list of attributes, that the "perfect" candidate may not exist, or would not consider the job based on the compensation package being offered, sometimes ask for more than they will ever get.  Obviously, all employers expect to engage in some training of a new employee, but perhaps, rather than paper rejecting an applicant because all the boxes aren't checked, employers might evaluate the person as much as the paper.  Is there room in the employee/employer dynamic to value a person's ability to analyze problems, evaluate situations, and prioritize actions?  Perhaps that is a part of the problem as well.  All kinds of jobs, all kinds of applicants, but never the twain shall meet as more and more employers turn to automated searches to sift through the candidates while more and more job seekers blast out resumes.

Also, do employers want YES men who do what they are told, or thinkers who can differentiate between guidelines and rules, and choose the correct course of action even when it differs from an established protocol?  Assuming employers want some from each category, are there conscious choices being made to nurture those who fall into the latter group, or are those people suppressed at every turn while still being counted on to find a new solution to an old problem?  Have we not all seen an employee who ingratiates themselves to their bosses in order to gain a promotion or salary increase while an employee who works to improve the daily processes, is passed over due to a lack of self promotion, or perhaps even a disregard for diplomacy?  When employees feel that merit is not the primary reason for advancement, it leaves personal pride as the drive to continue to do a better job.  When that begins to fade or is crushed, what is left?  Atlas Shrugged?

There are countless millions of Americans who work hard each and every day yet still feel that they exist one mistake at work, one health crisis, one unexpected accident away from financial ruin. Clearly, this angst was one of the forces behind the unexpected result of last November's election.
Only time will tell if a continued transfer of wealth to the top and a reduction in the safety nets will increase the concern of the working class American, or add to his/her dilemma.    

In the meantime, loyalty is a two way street.  Employees who expect job security must work every day to earn their salary.  Employers who expect daily hard work, must treat their employees as people, not just labor costs that can be slashed without considering all other options.

As I said earlier, the employer/employee relationship is relative new.  Yet, at the same time, it is undergoing tremendous change!  We can work remotely from home.  Soon we make even work from space!  If this dynamic is going to work, there must be a trust created from each side.  That is the challenge I see moving forward.  And, frankly, it is a challenge that neither side seems to recognize or value.  Trust that a job is a privilege, not an entitlement.  And trust that without the employee, there is no good or service to be provided.          

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Accumulative Power of Useless Information

I am about half way through the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Discovery.  I have left myself a number of bookmarks so I can review and comment on some of the works that have made an impression on me.  This morning however, I read an excerpt from "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" by Abraham Flexner.  As is true of the Lapham's magazines in general, I am amazed that I have not encountered Flexner before; how I can have lived upwards of 75% of my life, have read so many hundreds of books, and not been familiar with Flexner's brilliant perspective.

Flexner was a prominent education reformer who, after conducting a study of American medical schools for the Carnegie Foundation in 1910, crafted a report which proposed new regulations which helped to revamp all American (and Canadian) medical colleges, addressing problems in curriculum, structure, admission standards, and overall quality of the education being received, and the doctor's being graduated.

In 1929, when asked by a group of philanthropists to help them decide which medical schools to fund, Flexner convinced them instead to support an Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which opened the following year under his leadership.

For those of you who might research Flexner, be advised that held a number of opinions that are not admirable.  He believed that blacks and women were inferior, and advocated that black doctors only treat black patients.  His prejudiced opinions, while certainly a reflection of the time, are still inexcusable to me, considering the philosophy which he so eloquently describes and should, by its universal nature, apply to the work and efforts of all people, with no differentiation for gender or race.

Anyway, the point of the essay was that great discoveries are often the result, not of an eureka moment, but through the incremental work by many unknown researchers and those more curious than most.  That, at times, the accumulation of what might be useless knowledge at the time, useless being defined as not producing information that leads directly to solving a current problem, or producing a useful tool or product, often leads to a future use that effectively provides a solution, or leads to a new tool to fix an enduring problem.  In other words, he believed in research for its own sake, and in the value of being curious, and allowing the curious the time and resources to discover answers.

It is summed up best by this quote.

"..over a period of one of two hundred years, the contribution of professional schools to respective activities will probably be found to lie not so much in the training of men who may tomorrow become practical engineers, or practical lawyers, or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims, an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there comes discoveries that may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishments of the useful ends for which the schools were founded."

When applied to other areas of education, especially how we educate our young people, his viewpoint makes me stop and think if we are encouraging curiosity or stifling it.  Encouraging the freedom to pursue an idea as far as possible, or encouraging the pursuit only of ideas that lead to conformity.  Or, even more simply, elevating the idea that knowledge should not be judged by how it agrees with our religious beliefs or economic fortunes, but should be encouraged, and that the pursuit of knowledge should be nurtured at every level, useful and useless.

And, when applied to other areas of life, especially when we debate how to allocate the resources of America, we might want to rethink our decisions to invest in war and walls rather than compassion and inclusion.  And ultimately, find that the conclusion that those with less deserve their fate, and those with more deserve even more, might lead to the suppression of the accumulation of useless information, and therefore the reduction of innovation and positive discovery.  

  

       

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Nostalgia

"When people are unhappy with the present and fear the future, they embrace the past".

In a spirited conversation my wife and I had recently, (which is really an ongoing series of discussions we have, and for which I am very grateful; thanks Nora), I said the above words, or something to that effect.  We both stopped talking for an instant, a bit surprised at what sounded pretty profound.

Today I typed this phrase into a Google search to see if I had heard or read it before and had just repeated it, not actually made it up in the course of our discussion.   The Google returns I received were chock full of phrases and advice for seeking and finding happiness, but I did not find a phrase similar to the above.  However, I did find an amazing article written by James Feifer on November 30, 2016 for Slate.  A link to it is below.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2016/11/30/nostalgia_narratives_and_the_history_of_the_good_ol_days_we_ve_lamented.html

Feifer's article, written a few weeks after Trump's historic presidential victory, attempts to dissect the popularity of Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan, by asking Trump supporters when they think America was last great, then scanning the news reports and social commentaries of that time to see if those who lived during this perceived time of greatness actually believed in the greatness of the time.

To start, Feifer looked to the 1950's which accounted for about half of the responses to the question, when was America last great.  Unfortunately, Feifer found as much anxiety and unhappiness during that time as today.  And, when theses post WW2 war people were queried about their last perceived time of American greatness, the 1920's were often cited.  But again, evidence taken from comments made during the 20's painted a much more anxious mindset of the people living then than what was believed 30 years later.  In a nutshell, what Feifer found was that "I went looking for the good ole' days.  It took me back 5,000 years".

My belief is that there is a clear connection between a person's age and their fondest memories.  It should be no surprise to any adult who, while perhaps mostly happy with their lives, deals with the multitude of stresses and anxieties that we encounter, and so, in the majority of cases, remembers their childhood and/or young adulthood as a time with little or no stress.  Call it an unconscious realization that with each passing year we are one step closer to our mortal end, call it a longing for the energy and pure joyfulness of youth, or call it the little bit of jealousy that makes each aging generation look down their collective noses as the generation which follows, but it seems obvious, even natural, that advancing age might make one engage in "nostalgic narratives", as Feifer calls them.

A detailed analysis of which demographics led President Trump's advantage over the two previous GOP candidates, and ultimately, his victory over his democratic rival, and it is easy to conclude that white males, especially those with less education, contributed mightily to his victory, and indeed might find a call to past times an attractive narrative.  Certainly, those who cited the 1950's as America's last great time might only remember the clear superiority of the white male in terms of accomplishments, power and wealth.  The fact that this dominance was as much a result of prejudice, both racial and gender, social norms, and actual legal obstacles to those not white or male, is of no concern to those who recall a time when they were the only game in town.

What is more revealing to me, and more concerning, is that one might also conclude that America as a whole is adopting a mindset similar to one who is aging, who faces their imminent death, and so is nostalgic for a time when they were young, energetic and, perhaps, without understanding it fully, oblivious to the stresses of the times around them.  Because, isn't that really the crux of it.  We endeavor to shield our children from the problems of life, if only for a little while.  So, while one's early memories are filled with good times and pleasantness, it is not because there was no bad times and unpleasantness.

America is aging.  Since 1970, the average age of an American has increased a couple of years every ten.  In another few decades, as the baby boomers continue to reach retirement age, our country will be as "old" as it has ever been.  And that includes the influx of immigrants, which tend to be younger.
Are we experiencing, on a national level, the same inclinations that lead to reminiscences around the coffee table by those among us of maturing age?  Does it explain some of our anxiety about the changing demographics of our country, and the call for a return to a past that exists mostly in the memories of those who were shielded by the adults of the time from the problems of the day?

There is no way that life will ever be like it was in 1950, or 1920, or 1880, or in the Garden of Eden, or whatever time you might wistfully long for.  First, because time moves forward, and with it, mankind's understanding of life.  Certainly, it might be exciting to be catapulted back to 1776 when America gained our independence from England, but not if you are a women or a person of color because you were, for the most part, not a part of the excitement of that time.
 
But more important, the future is the only time frame that we can control.  The past is defined, the present only a fleeting moment, then it is a part of the past.  It is only in the future that we can create the best possible outcomes of our decisions, provide the best possible situations for our children, and enable those who live in those years, adults as well as children to, perhaps, actually believe that they lived in a remarkable time.

 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Science vs Religion

"...it is agreed that Scripture, in order to be understood by the multitude, says many things which are apparently and in the literal sense of the words at variance with the absolute truth."

"If I were allowed to give my opinion, I would say that it might be more appropriate, and more befitting the dignity of Holy Writ, to stop every lightweight popular writer from trying to lend authority to their writings, often based on empty fancies, by quoting verses from Scripture, which they interpret or rather force into saying things that are as far from the true meaning of the Scripture as they are near to making complete fools of themselves when they parade their biblical knowledge in this way."

Both these quote are from a letter sent to the Grand Duchess Christina in March 1610 from Galileo whose scientific research supported Copernican heliocentrism but which were attacked in sermons and at society parties, which one might call the internet chat centers of the day.

Unfortunately, as time passed, Galileo was tried by the Church, forced to recant his "errors' and died in 1642, blind and under house arrest.

I found this quote in the Spring Edition of Lapham's Quarterly, titled Discovery, which I just began reading this past week.  It struck me as incredibly relevant today, and incredibly sad that over 400 years after such a brilliant man was pilloried for his intellect, and ability to advance man's understanding of the world, we still find ourselves at the mercy of those who insist that the Bible is a science book, those who justify their beliefs under the guise of "alternative facts", and those who question climate science research in order to justify a status quo that maintains economic power in the fossil fuel industry which just coincidentally heaps huge campaign donations on our elected officials.

And, of course, the equally insidious practice of manipulating the masses with anti-elitist rhetoric, and a rose colored nostalgia for the perfect past, all the while further empowering the 21st century's version of the papacy of Galileo's time.

I expect it naive of me to imagine that the battle between science and religion might one day end in a mutual acceptance of each other's importance.  Perhaps it is human nature to resist change when that change contradicts the interpreted foundations of one's holy book or sacred beliefs.  While Galileo may be the most famous, perhaps even most talented person to ever be persecuted for his challenges to the status quo of his time, his tragic end is certainly not unique.

What is both amazing and irritating is that some might rate Jesus of Nazareth as the person most harmed by his attempt to educate his contemporaries, as I would expect that were his teachings being followed today by those who lead us politically, economically, and socially, our debates concerning income inequality, immigration, religious intolerance, gender identification, and equating money to free speech, might have a completely different tone, or might even be unnecessary.

Science vs Religion, logic vs spirituality, believing in what you can see and quantify vs belief in what is beyond your ability to understand.  Perhaps the problem is that, while there are surely battles that must be waged, the war is not needed.

We need people who have been blessed with an insatiable desire to understand the phenomena of our existence, just as we need people who are blessed with the ability to make sense of the randomness of disaster and death.  Both help the rest of us stay focused on living our lives with less fear of the uncertainty of life, and death, and more joy in the time we have to experience life as we move towards the inevitable end.

Science gives us a method to uncover the dangers and the wonders of the natural world.  To fashion a better world for our children and grand children.  Religion gives us a method to accept the things we have not yet uncovered as part of humanity's travels down the path of life.  Denying that some things have yet to be divined can be just as limiting as denying that some things have been figured out through the use of the tools given to us by the creator.    

I hope that as I continue to read Discovery, I might stay open minded to perspectives that I may not have encountered to date, or that I have dismissed in the past.  In is certainly not an easy philosophy to maintain, and I expect to fall short more often than I succeed.  But isn't that what discovery is about; recognizing and exceeding ones limitations whether personal or as a community?



 

Monday, April 17, 2017

The First 100 Days

As we close in on the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency, I imagine there will be much commentary. pro and con, as to how President Trump has performed.  Of course, the tone of those opinions will vary widely, depending on the news source one is inclined to follow.  I have been attempting, lately, to watch such a variety of news channels, from BBC America to MSNBC to Fox News, and have found it an interesting experiment in how the various news/opinion outlets choose their news topics, report on said topics, gather "experts" to convey certain spins on these topics, and even what news "crawls" accompany the reporting of these topics.  I would imagine that if, as it is believed, our TV and radio signals are circulating throughout the solar system, and beyond, there may be some rather confused aliens trying to figure the happenings on the third rock from our sun.

For me, it has been not as bad as I imagined, and far worse than I expected.

On the positive side, the sun continues to rise in the east, and set in the west, although I think it safe to predict that Sean Spicer may disagree with that "fact" at some future point in his tortured reign as White House press secretary.  Other positives include Trump's choice of retired General James Mattis as Defense Secretary, H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, John Kelley as Homeland Security Secretary, Elaine Chao as Transportation Secretary, and Linda McMahon (despite my belief that wrestling is an entertainment sport, not a competitive one) to head the Small Business Administration.

I am especially happy, and hopeful, that Mattis and McMaster will provide the adult viewpoint in the room when truly serious and consequential discussions take place about the use of military and nuclear force to resolve our problems.

As an investor in Wall Street to fund my retirement, it has been a nice run up since the election, as most of our portfolios should demonstrate.  Of course, Wall Street generally favors a GOP president under the guise that the GOP is more business friendly than the Dems, but history shows that the stock market does not perform better with a republican in the White House.  In this case, however, it is clear that Trump's campaign rhetoric excoriating job killing regulation, and his cabinet choices which represent a slice of the richest men and women in America, makes Wall Street more inclined to expect a more business friendly administration, hence the 15% improvement since the November election.  While I hope that stocks might, if not continue their incredible rebound since the low of 6626 on March 9, 2009, at least mostly maintain their value, it is hard to imagine that an over 300% increase in 8 years is not bound to hit a speed bump sometime soon.

Lastly, it appears that President Trump's foreign affairs inexperience, and overall reactionary modus operandi may be serving him well.  As opposed to Obama's more thoughtful and calculated approach to handling crisis situations, Trump seems to have generated more attention from our enemies with his willingness to use military force to send a message.  Perhaps it is merely because the victims of his decisions had grown used to getting away with atrocities, perhaps because the only way to fight fire is with fire, but Trump has gained some credibility, domestically as well as internationally, with his latest decisions.  Hopefully, those who were on the receiving end of our big stick will not choose to continue to test his resolve, and up the ante, banking on our reluctance to use the ultimate weapons of mass destruction at his fingertips.  

On the negative side is virtually every other cabinet pick.  From climate change denier Scott Pruitt heading the EPA to school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as head of the Department of Education to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price who has publicly decried the Affordable Care Act but was not able to present a replacement that his own party could pass to foreclosure king Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, the Trump cabinet is loaded with people whose perspective of the direction America must take is virtually the exact opposite of my own.

And, to top it off, Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.  Zero diplomatic experience, serious business ties with Russia, whom in case you forgot, is the money behind Bashar Al-Assad, Syria's president and competition (in Spicer's world) for worst man in history.  At this point, no one really knows if there was any quid pro quo between some of Trump's campaign officers and the Russian government, but it is certainly not in question that there is some lots of circumstantial evidence as well as a serious of suspicious coincidences.

But worse, if we accept the fact that foreign forces attempt to influence elections in America, just as we have influenced as well as created regime change in multiple countries around the world, it is the White House budget proposal that cause the most concern.  Massive cuts in programs that help real Americans will be tossed aside like an old shoe, should anything resembling the proposed budget get passed.  The list is gargantuan, too large to even begin to detail here.  It it clear that in the name of making America Great Again, President Trump's vision is more weapons, a bigger stick to wave at our enemies, and less federal support for those not born with his silver spoon.  Fortunately, we know the budget won't pass in its current form, but we also know that many important programs will be axed, many safety nets will be cut, and many more decisions that place short term economic growth over the long term health of American citizens and our environment will be proposed and passed.

So often in life, we are unable to understand when pivotal moments occur.  Later, with the advantage of hindsight we may shake our heads in understanding, but usually the moments pass without our recognition of their importance.

Electing Donald Trump as President, along with granting him a GOP majority in Congress may well be one of those moments marked by history as a watershed.  But, and this is the critical understanding, it does not have to be interpreted as a negative moment.

Our sun, a star, will eventually experience an explosive death, a supernova.  Generally, just before this event, the star obtains the brightness of 100 suns, for a short time.  Perhaps this election, and the years which are to come, will be marked by history as the last great burst of activity which is characterized by greed, selfishness, and short sighted decisions.  Perhaps future historians will note with pride that this election galvanized the movement which shattered the belief that electing the rich will uplift the citizenry, that destroying the environment to justify job creation is myopic, that dehumanizing our enemies to justify their killing is still murder, that material wealth is only as good as the ways it is used to end poverty, hunger, and need, and that cooperation is the foundation upon which humanity's spiritual evolution was built.  


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Seeking Hope

Just finished reading the April issue of National Geographic.  Amazing edition, cover to cover!!

Four articles in particular blew me away.

Two articles referenced climate change, one from the perspective of a rational explanation of the science behind the assertions that climate change is real, and the activities of the human race is behind the shift, and the second from the viewpoint of real life people who live in Alaska and are experiencing the change in climate first hand.

The initial article details the evidence.  Three consecutive years of a new record for the highest average global temperature since records have been kept.  Last year's average was 1.69 degrees warmer than the 20th century average.  No natural cause explains the change.  Human emitted greenhouse gases form a steadily thickening blanket that traps hear at the Earth’s surface.  More than 9 out of 10 climate scientists agree that carbon emissions cause global warming.  Its real, and it is dangerous.

From dwindling acrtic ice to more intense weather to the reduction of wildlife species with even more (one is six) in danger of extinction in the next 80 years, the negative consequences of climate change will not go away despite the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to cast doubt, and the current administration’s head in the sand attitude.

With reference to the Alaskans already experiencing the effects, it only takes a trip to the lower half of this huge state to spend time with those who see the change first hand to know it is real.  In “Racing the Thaw”, the reduction of the permafrost is creating a frantic rush to save the artifacts now being revealed, artifacts that had been frozen in the ground for hundreds, even thousands of years.   As only Nat Geo can, we read about the Yupik people and their struggle to adapt to changes which are slowly, inexorably, preventing them from continuing the tradition of their ancestors.

But, as is the thinking at Nat Geo, there are many ways to address the issue.  The advances in wind and solar power technologies have resulted in clean energy becoming cheaper than fossil fuel sources.  It is now just the will to begin the switch to cleaner energy that stand in the way of an eventual changeover from oil, natural gas and coal.  Of course, it is a process, a process than can take years, even decades, but the longer we delay making that concerted effort to change, the more damage we do to our environment.  Damage that may not be reversible if we wait too long.

The third article is called Beyond Human.  It describes man’s efforts to take evolution into our own hands, through enhancement of our bodies.  It is a fascinating depiction of how various subsets of our species have evolved in specific ways to adapt to an environmental challenge.  A trait that allows for high altitude breathing, and one that enables living in deserts by modulating the excess energy produced when body temperature rises, demonstrate that our species is always adapting.  Now, medical advances have provided over 20,000 people with implants that have enabled them to not only hear or see as if they had the working organs that we take for granted, but at times, provide a hearing or seeing function that is an improvement over the standard abilities.  Cyborgs among us!

Reading this article after the lead article about climate change, expands one’s viewpoint to think that, in addition to the everyday changes that we can make to counter the effects of climate change, perhaps there will be evolutionary tweaks that the coming generations of humans will also use to survive, and even thrive, on a planet that we have altered.

Finally, there was “Life After ISIS”, which detailed the horrific crimes against humanity and the environment that have been perpetrated in Iran and Syria.  The sadness of lives lost and families blown apart, in addition to the won ton disregard for culture, and for the environment, is depicted in all too stark reality.  Last week’s revelation of civilian deaths via chemical weapons in Syria demonstrates that it is not just extreme fundamentalism but governmental thirst for power that can lead to man’s cruelty against man.  But again, within the destruction and inhumanity, examples of hope are still to be found.  Men and women striving to create some sense of normalcy for their children within such carnage.  

If you get a chance, and have the resources, pick up the April edition of National Geographic.  While it may disturb you, it may also help you focus your understanding of what is truly important.  Not who wins the next sports championship, or the next reality show contest, or any of the dozens of distractions that are being used to keep us from thinking about and discussing the real issues which will shape the future for the Earth as well as mankind.                 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Home

I finished the Winter Edition of the Lapham's Quarterly, called Home, last week.  As I was reading it, I bookmarked a few entries with the intention of commenting upon them after I was finished the entire edition.  So, here goes.

Floor Plans, from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo begins with the question, do you greet your house?  It reflects her belief that in the process of her job as a "decluttering consultant" she feels it important to establish a connection with the house itself, along the lines of acknowledging that by showing respect for the house, the process of making the house more of a home for its inhabitants will be revealed naturally.  Kondo also comments positively on the act of tidying up, as a way of not only making one's shelter cleaner and more organized, but as a sort of worship towards the house, and consequently the inhabitants.  Her words struck me as I have more than once told people that sweeping the floor is good for the soul.  To me, it provides a break from the thinking part of one's day, yet still produces a positive effect.

Collectibles, from Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto Eco, discusses the need for people in general, but Americans in specific, to fill every space in their home with an object, especially an object that of itself represents something, usually glorious or revered, from the past.  Eco demonstrates his disdain for this practice in very clear terms, especially when the collections contain mostly fake or faux objects of antiquity.  He understands why someone might want to visit a house with objects d'art from various points in history but considers the homes themselves as unlivable, garish and pathetic.

Betty Friedan Reads the Labels from The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan is a remarkable reflection by Friedan concerning women as housewives.  Friedan, who cofounded the National Organization for Women, kept house and raised her children while taking freelance writing jobs on the side.  As the result of a questionnaire from her alma mater, Smith College, Friedan found that many of her college educated classmates were similarly dissatisfied by the lack of opportunity for women with brains, as well as the societal assumptions that women were still defined by the upkeep and appearance of their homes and children.

What is especially interesting about this essay is Friedan''s research into the marketing methods of the business world which had determined that women purchased a majority of their products.  Her investigation into how these companies perceived women, how they manipulated advertisements to present women with products and services that would provide the satisfaction that their lives lacked was fascinating.  Ultimately, women were separated into three groups; the True Housewife, the Career Woman, and the Balanced Homemaker, each targeted with a different marketing plan to produce more sales.  I have never read the Feminine Mystique, but if this is the type of information contained, perhaps I should.

At Grandmother's House, from Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson would interest anyone who spent any time visiting or living with their grandmother.  It touches on the the differing cultural attitudes towards housework, (in Mendelson's case, one Italian, one English/Scottish/Irish), as well as the "feel" that a home should or shouldn't have, depending on one's tradition and experience.  She also makes a wonderful point about how some consider housework a never ending chore while others find a gratification in daily housework in that routine tasks can be determined and completed.  A closed circle as opposed to the tasks of the business world that can last for weeks and months.

The Old Neighborhood, from Pseudo-Lot, or Concerning Patriotism, by Karel Capek is an interesting take on the bible story of Sodom.  Capek's version features Lot as unhappy that God is going to destroy his home, to the point where he attempts to convince the angel tasked with warning Lot that there is good in Sodom and that perhaps God might reconsider his decision.  Capek's Lot indicates that his love of the Lord is connected with his love of Sodom and its people.  In light of the extreme partisanship of our politics today, where it seems that party is more important than country, I found it interesting that Capek seems to value patriotism over religion.  The fact that Capek died soon after the Munich Agreement granted part of the original Czechoslovak Republic to Nazi Germany, and that Capek was number three on the Gestapo's arrest list demonstrates that he put his money where his mouth was, so to speak.

Lastly, Whistling in the Dark, an essay by Renata Adler discusses the flow of refugees and immigrants into Germany from the viewpoint of a woman whose parents fled Nazi Germany in 1933, who was born in Italy, then moved with her family as a child to New York in 1939.  The essay touches on many aspects of the decision by Angela Merkel to accommodate tens of thousands of people from the Middle East.  It recalls Adler's trip to Germany to visit one small town that had been assigned a consignment of migrants, detailing the wide reaction of the townspeople, the preconceptions and disappointments of the migrants, and, Adler's own opinions as to whether such a plan could work.  It is a compelling essay in that Adler does not sugarcoat the problems, does not demonstrate prejudice against the migrants, does not convey the all or nothing reporting that seems so common in the media today.  Unfortunately, there is not a happy ending, in that those consigned to the small town she visits are determined not to qualify as refugees, and must leave Germany. Additionally, there is an air of doom about Adler's final paragraph which reflects the opinion of some of those asked to take in people from a completely different culture, a doom aptly reflected in the title of her essay.

For much of our early history, men did not establish homes. as much as shelters.  It has only been the last 10,000 years or so that we began the slow cycle away from hunter-gatherers to a rural, agrarian society to, just in the last few hundred years, more urban in our settings.  During such a journey, home has meant a myriad of things to humans.  Today, with the prevalence of instant communication, the sense of home is both less important and more critical to our self perception.  We change homes multiple times in our lives, sometimes even changing citizenship.  We are so much more global, yet at the same time, a nationalism has taken hold of the world.

If home is still, "where the heart is", let's hope that are perception of home continues to expand so that one day we will all consider Earth our common home, and treat it, as well as each other, with the love and respect that coincides with the sharing of the place where our heart resides.                      

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bottom up Economics

Before starting this post, I spent some time researching information found when I Googled "bottom up economics"; specifically I looked for articles that advocated for it using logic and examples showing successful applications, and articles that disagreed with the concept, preferring a supply side, or trickle down economic approach as is generally associated with President Reagan.

As is the case in almost any topic one might want to discuss, there are cogent assertions for both theories, as well as specific examples cited proving each is more correct than the other.  Additionally, there was some comments about a mixed approach, the theory being that neither can work all the time, neither will fail all the time, and, that both can work some of the time.  In other words, there are circumstances where each one can be applied, successfully, to produce positive results.  Which also means that when you see an expert citing the advantage of one over the other by using past examples, that expert MUST detail how the conditions of the time mirror the conditions of today.  Merely citing an example when something once worked, certainly does not guarantee it will work now.

The real trick then, is deciding when to apply one over the other.  I say trick because, with macroeconomics, it is very difficult to easily assess the current conditions while still involved in those conditions.  It is generally only afterwards that a true assessment can be made as to how a change in economic theory and application worked, and even then, it is still only guesswork.

For instance, did the economic bail out of the banking system in 2008 work?  I could argue that based on the fact that since 2008, unemployment has dropped significantly, the stock market is at an all time high, and the dollar is as strong as ever, it was a successful strategy.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to know what would have happened if the Bush/Obama Administrations had not provided monetary relief.  Same with the auto industry.  Would it have recovered on its own, or would it still be recovering, which means those thousands of jobs, both direct and indirect, may not be there today.

If we decide that, all in all, our economy today is better off than it was in 2008, then, despite some assertions that it MAY be better had nothing been done, it seems reasonable to conclude that top down economics in this situation worked.  Large employers were saved from bankruptcy, which meant that thousands of jobs were saved, which meant that more money was spent for goods and services, which ultimately produced an environment where more jobs could be created to respond to that increase in demand.

One might argue, that the depression of the 1930's may have occurred, or one could say been made worse, by the approach at the time to allow the market to operate without government intervention. Now, I know that is only a theory because, again, one does not know if an approach similar to what was done in 2008 would have worked in 1929.  Again, only theory, but certainly some logic to it.

But government provided handouts is not really what top down or bottom up economics is about, even though I found it cited in most of the arguments against bottom up economics.  In those discussions, handouts to the poor in the form of welfare and anti-poverty programs was often cited as the essence of bottom up economics, along with the proof that since the United States has spent billions of dollars in this manner and there are still poor people, then bottom up economics is a failure.

A better explanation of bottom up economics was provided by an author who compared, in generalities, Wal-Mart and Google.  Wal-Mart is notorious for its poor record in the area of providing health benefits and a livable wage, while Google goes out of their way to pamper their employees.
Of course, it is not strictly fair to compare the necessary work skills required by employees of these two companies.  One could easily say that Wal-Mart treats their employees similarly than all other retail employees while Google must offer more incentives to get the best people as do all tech companies.

Still, whether we isolate Wal-Mart and Google or just generalize by referring to retail, fast food, and other service industries when compared to industries that require more educated, and/or more specifically trained employees, the facts remain that a larger percentage of the employees of those Wal-Mart like companies require government assistance for health care, shelter and food, than for those companies more like Google.  Which means the American taxpayer foots the bill so that industries that do not provide basic wage and benefits can maintain their profit margin, and their low prices.  Which also means that those employed in those industries along with other lower wage earners, have little choice but to patronize those establishments, thus creating a perfect circle of low pay, cheap goods, trapped consumers.

While employers who provide better wages and benefits, create citizens who have their own money to spend on goods and services, not government provided money.

For me, bottom up economics has little to do with government handouts, and everything to do with employers who understand that employees work the hardest when paid a livable wage with decent benefits, just like supply side economics is not usually associated with government bailouts but is more about creating an environment where innovators and job creators are encouraged, not stifled.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co, was in the news recently after lamenting that there was something wrong with the United States.  He cited a number of issues, all legitimate, but listed tax overhaul, regulation reduction and infrastructure spending as solutions.  But what he didn't say, to me, was the problem.

Income inequality, especially when we examine the wages of those in the top 5% as compared to those in the bottom 50%, must be addressed.  The median AGI (Adjusted Gross Income) as detailed from the 2015 tax returns of all American households was approximately $35,000.  The bottom 50% of all 2015 returns paid less than 5% of the taxes collected.  As long as we continue to tolerate
non-livable wages, especially as paid by the largest of our employers, our economy will continue to be dependent on artificial stimuli, government provided or otherwise.

Perhaps if Dimon lead by example and took a pay cut, let's say from his current $35 million salary to only $25 million, and then encouraged other CEO's to do the same, and then perhaps if those making only $25 million could get by with $20 million, and those making $20 million might struggle through with only $15 million, and so on, perhaps there would be room to give raises to the everyday people who perform the everyday functions of those companies.  And this goes for entertainers, sports stars, etc, because that same IRA data shows that the top 5% earned one out of every 3 dollars, the top 10% almost one out of every two.  Put another way, the bottom 50% of households earned only one in nine dollars.

Shifting compensation will provide more money for those who earn the least, with little effect on the standards of living of those at the top.  Shifting compensation to those who earn the least will remove some from welfare and other government subsidy programs.  Shifting money to those who earn the least will provide that little extra that may result in a new purchase.

That is what I think of as bottom up economics, and it doesn't require a price in increase on products or services, just a more equitable distribution of salaries.

Bottom up economics, as I see it, has very little to do with government spending and virtually everything to do with private business compensation and benefits packages.  It has everything to do with the belief that the rich, the really super rich, do very little for improving the economy via purchases, as they buy products only meant to convey status or improve an already luxurious lifestyle, when they aren't guarding their wealth, while the everyday workers spend their money in their local economies which improve their communities, and create the need for more employees.  No big corporation or company hires new workers unless in response to the need to increase production, yet it is only when more money is in the hands of the everyday people that more goods and services need to be provided.

Somewhere down the line, I have faith that the American voter will realize that electing rich people will not result in a more equitable income distribution.  Somewhere down the line, business men and women with vision will realize that unless the bottom 50% of wage earners have money to spend, their businesses will see limited growth.  Somewhere down the line, government and business cooperation, not in the form of rigged tax laws and special interest influences, will emerge to create an economic environment that encourages innovation over monopoly, equitable income over greed, and the proper balance that rejects short term solutions that sacrifice our natural environment.

I only hope that somewhere down the line occurs before we have traveled too far in the opposite direction.