17 December 2012

The Tragedy of Sandy Hook

I have no words of wisdom or consolation for those who lost loved ones in the unconscionable massacre at Sandy Hook School. I have no way of imagining their grief, horror, and loss, but my prayers are with them.

The episode has brought new urgency to the matter of gun policy in this country. I would like to add a few words coming from my experience in other countries, which may shed some light on what we need to do here.

I have mentioned that I grew up in Argentina. At the time I was a child and teenager, it was one of the safest countries on earth. I wandered with impunity and safety around the streets of Rosario (Argentina's second city, a thriving industrial and port town), Comodoro Rivadavia (the largest and most important city of the Patagonia), and Buenos Aires (a great world-class metropolis). One could come and go at practically any time of day or night in most places and never fear for one's safety. During that time, there were two factors I could point to that made it so safe. The first was a strong sense of community based around family and the neighborhood where one lived. The second was a strict control of gun ownership. Most people never owned one.

The other country I know which is unusually safe is the United Kingdom. I am relatively familiar with it because my older son and his family live there and because Argentina has close ties to England and I consequently knew growing up and know at present a lot of what goes on there. There, gun ownership is virtually impossible and knives (other than legitimate kitchen and eating knives) are strictly controlled. They have no more than 50 homicides in a year.

Now days, Argentina is very different from what it was when I was growing up. After the terrible seven years of tribulation (1977-1983) during which the military and police illegally arrested, tortured, and killed some 30,000 citizens, prohibiting gun ownership was thought by much of the public to be part and parcel of the ideology of dictatorship. As a reaction, many people considered that owning a gun was equivalent to democracy. Now and for many years before, you cannot go outside dressed well, for fear you will be assaulted and shot and killed, if not for resisting, then merely for fun.

You be the judge. The US constitution was created to "form a more perfect union and provide for the public welfare." I have a very hard time believing that the first amendment was created to ensure that people could have all the guns they want, at the expense of (by now) hundreds and hundreds of precious innocent lives.

Who is responsible for this? You and I are. We have elected for decades governments which represent not us, but rather the interests of those with the most money including those who make from trafficking guns. Is there a solution? The last election showed that money is not everything in getting elected. The plutocrats should know they are now on notice: we can turn you out. What else can we do? Pledge not to watch TV. What is there of value on it anyway? Nothing that I can see. We can learn to read. We can think for ourselves. We can sit back and reflect: things are more complicated than what can fit on bumper sticker or even on the nightly news. Let's take control of our lives and let's make good policy concerning firearms. Owning one only puts us at greater risk.

13 December 2012

The Economics of Growth

Our system of economics in the US is built around an expectation of continual, virtually unbroken growth. Apple, as does every other company that markets consumer electronics, requires constantly increasing profits to keep their major sources of funding, i.e., the investors who buy their stocks, happy. This means that it is not enough merely to keep selling the same phone or computer when your old one breaks down. They have to create new markets constantly. To achieve this, they have to keep coming up with products you never envisioned at all in your life that you would possibly need and that, once they come out, you think you can't live without. The situation is the trap our entire way of life finds itself in.

When I first came to the US (where I was born) from Argentina (where I grew up) for college, I saw that real estate developers, contractors, builders, and construction workers all considered the expansion of the need for housing as a permanent feature of life, rather than a slim, 20 to 30-year window following World War II, when families and the economy were expanding. They never stopped to think that, if unchecked, their way of doing business would cover all available land, destroying forests, waterways, and agriculture, until all land was covered in housing and nothing was left to feed their inhabitants with. The failure to recognize that housing markets expand and contract led to giving mortgages to people whose income could not justify it, otherwise people would not leave rental housing to existing housing, so that the sellers of existing housing could move to new housing and justify continued construction. No more growth could be squeezed from the lemon. If the vast majority of us decided to make do with an existing house or stay in the one we have, the construction sector would collapse.

Instead, house purchasers and sellers were sold the untruth that housing is an investment that always grows. People kept moving into more expensive houses until the ability to buy even more expensive houses was no longer there. Meanwhile, unregulated derivatives made money from selling off their debt. There is something sinister and seriously wrong with the very idea. Now you see where it has landed us: nearly in another Great Depression. And we are still hampered by politicians who cannot understand that in an economic crisis or just a downturn, you must always stimulate the economy, regardless of the deficit.

Every sector of the economy will reach a state of no more growth or of collapse sooner or later if growth is the only goal pursued. Instead, we must all learn to project what will happen if current trends continue. If we don't like what we see, we must then make changes to what we are doing and plan for changing our business model or for changing activities entirely. We can start with the petroleum industry: end all subsidies immediately and, if the Shells and BPs of this world know what is good for them, plan a rapid changeover to renewable, non-polluting, non carbon-releasing energy.

You may wonder what all this has to do with my series of three youth novels centering around Angela Fournier. It is that she has the habit of looking ahead and is becoming aware that big changes are needed in how we live and puzzled at the non-chalance of the adult world.

You can read more about her at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

24 November 2012

The Republicans' Branding Problem

Immediately after their loss in the general election earlier this month, Republican leaders began saying that their problem was in their branding. People did not accept their message, they said, in essence because it was "packaged" wrong.

The Republicans have a brand problem because they have branded being Republican. If that sounds circular, its because the whole concept is tautological. As usual, the explanation lies in the history which brought us to this point. Indulge me in a brief overview.

When I came to the US, where I was born, from Argentina, where I grew up, for college many decades ago, conservative was a bad word among my classmates. This was true even in the reliably ultra-conservative city of Lubbock, Texas. Conservatives were those who preached segregation and opposed integration of schools. Conservatives were those who insisted all those drafted into military service should serve in Viet Nam without questioning authority in any way. Conservatives burnt stacks of Beatles records and were deathly scared of Communism. When questioned for the reasons for sexual morality, they did not explain: they just told their children "Do it because I say so and don't question."

In 1968, the Republicans captured the White House only because of three factors: first, the Viet Nam war had become Lyndon Johnson's war and, by extension, Hubert Humphrey's. Second, George Wallace ran a strong third party campaign, taking votes from the Democratic candidate in the Southern States, which still voted Democrat. Finally, the strongest candidate, who would surely have won, had been assassinated. I'm speaking of Robert Kennedy. That put Nixon in the White House, but he was an unsavory, grouchy, depressive representative for the Republicans.

When I started graduate school, for the first time I saw Republicans showing up for a citizenship emphasis at our church. They were, though I did not fully realize it at the time, on a propaganda campaign which consisted of repeating tirelessly conservative = good; liberal = bad. I clearly remember pointing out to the middle aged woman who came to talk to us that conservative comes from the word to conserve and had always characterized people who want keep things as they are. They would be the royalists at the time of the American Revolution, the supporters of slavery against the abolitionists, and of Jim Crow against the civil rights movement. She said she had never heard of such a thing. That was not the point. The point was to change perceptions.

To a populace mesmerized by TV and conditioned to take as true anything repeated sufficiently in commercials, accepting the relentless mantra of conservative = good, American, enterprise and liberal = bad, anti-American, socialist came naturally. It had roots in the McCarthyist propaganda of the 50's and felt comfortable to a new mentality which fled social responsibility and threw itself into working and spending, working and spending, and filling up lives with things rather than people and issues.

Now things have changed. Young people wish to serve the community and to find meaning beyond consumer items. They long for relationship, for accomplishment, for dealing with the great problems of inequality, injustice, wars, and the depredation of the environment. The country is rapidly becoming a minority-majority country, therefore the base to which the Republican brand is meaningful is shrinking. The "angry old white men" which form their base are the same people who marched against the Viet Nam war in the 60's. That insubstantial show is over.

Precisely because Republicans gained power through branding, their discourse has been all perception, all talking points, and no essence. We elected an actor for president. What was really happening, the return of the robber baron mentality and the dismantling of the protections that had been built over the decades, was masked by propaganda. But since democracy is neither a product nor a business, because real problems cannot be solved by propaganda, because the particular kind of economy conceived of as perennial "growth" is unsustainable, reality has been asserting itself and the Republican project, long on ideology and short on engagement with the society, has fallen apart.

The point is not that Democrats should gloat. The point is that all of us, of whatever political persuasion, had better ditch propaganda and get to work.

11 November 2012

Fallout from the Election

Here are my thoughts on the results of last Tuesday's national election.

The interests of big money were resoundingly defeated. The president was elected and seats were picked up in both houses of Congress by the Democrats. The Democrats won almost every swing state. This happened in the face of unprecedented amounts of money and an unethical campaign of lies and misrepresentations against them. For now, elections still cannot be bought when there are such major issues at stake.

Exit polls showed that the majority (that is, those who voted Democrat) wanted primarily to keep the Affordable Care Act and many of them wish us to go further in reforming health care. Apparently we feel that the health care system, left to its own devices, is about to fail us if we do not do something about it.

We cannot go back to the 50's. The Republicans seemed to paint a nostalgic picture of a bygone America, in tune with older white people and various religious groups who had a hold on the culture back then. This election showed that those are shrinking populations and that we are heading quickly to being a minority-majority country, as Texas already is.

The Republicans are heading for a split. The "Tea Party" is completely instransigent in its positions because they are ideologically driven. If they take over the party, it will most certainly lose miserably. Other Republicans have the option of seeing their party go down or to split off. It doesn't bode well for them. The country needs to keep two strong parties. Now all this is part of a historical pattern. Jefferson's party, then called the Republican party, came to be known later as the Democractic Republicans and then the Democratic Party, the one we know today. It has always been a party with a broader umbrella and a sense of what it can do to make this a great country. It was the principal mover for the creation of the two most important institutions that created our prosperity: free highways paid through taxes and free universal education. We are at present in a long trend which, if not stopped, will end in losing both. The Federalists in the late 18th century represented the interests of the aristocrats. When it folded, it was replaced by the Whigs. When they in turn folded, their interests were taken up by the Republican party, which is really the not-so-Grand (any more) New Party.

I do not believe that parties, politics, or politicians will save us. However, it is incumbent on all of us to choose and this time, one side was clearly better than the other.

A word to the Evangelical Christians. I am one of you. If you want the church to grow, as I do, and for it to influence society to the good, as I do, then preach the Gospel. We cannot and should not force people to our way of thinking through the government. That, my friends, would be big government indeed and would only repeat what Emperor Constantine did.

My Angela Fournier series of three books, of which only the first is out for now, is about how young people can become responsible citizens and what it will cost them to stand up to entrenched interests. You can read about it and purchase it at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

04 November 2012

More on Health Care

My older son, who lives in the UK, read my post and would like to add the following:

"The NHS was formally founded by a Labour politician (Aneurin Bevan) in 1948, although the Conservatives produced the first white paper on the viability of it in 1944. Good history of it can be found here:


Also, Labour greatly increased funding the NHS and improved a number of issues - the issue many people have is whether that money was well spent and if we got value for money as there were a number of schemes, such as private finance initiatives (PFIs) which were good for drawing in private investment but not good value for the public purse.

Even now the NHS budget is increasing more or less in line with inflation but costs are increasing as more and more people get diseases of wealth such as heart disease and diabetes and as the population ages. This has combined with recent studies following some poor heath outcomes which have concluded that care, especially specialised care units such as neurology or neonatal care, is better in large centralised "centres of excellence". These two factors have driven some of the closures of some local hospitals with services being moved to larger ones.

However, now a number of trusts are going bankrupt now under the burden of PFI debts which were set up mostly by the previous Labour government, although the practice first stated under the last Conservative government which went out in 1997. This is also allowing administrators to consolidate services in novel ways, including contracting in the private sector, which is generating a lot of controversy over here, as is the implementation of the Health Bill which is a massive and fundamental change to how the NHS is structured, which passed only this year.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested - I should point out that while things here are not ideal, there is still no question of how superior the system, however flawed, is to the US one. Here you will never go bankrupt for having the audacity to catch cancer, or get hit by a car. My kids will live without knowing that fear and I greatly value this and am constantly reminding people here to appreciate what they have."
  There it is, folks. Please mull it over dispassionately and see how far we have to go to catch up with our "Mother Country."   Finally in expectation of the election, I will not tell you how to vote but, urged by my son, who thinks it would be a good idea, I will tell you whom I will vote for and why. I am voting for President Obama. He has put through a reluctant Congress a significant improvement to our health care system. We still have far to go on it, and nothing more will be done if we let money interests control our government to the exclusion of "we the people," but we have a start. The Congress has blocked his way at every turn, but the economic measures he was able to put through in spite of Republican opposition kept us from going into a second Great Depression. He rescued the auto industry and has received preciously little thanks for it. He has done much to begin to heal the damage done in the last sixty years to American standing around the world by our blundering, uninformed, and hegemonic foreign policy. He has put an end to the war in Iraq, which began under false pretenses and has accomplished nothing to increase world security. He has shown solid, mature leadership in the wake of horrible Hurricane Sandy. He is a professed Christian believer. I have been disappointed by his weakness for the perks of power, which have led him to persecute breaches of "security" which have revealed nothing that would put our country in danger, only matters that embarrass those in power. I am also alarmed that under his administration we still hold Americans indefinitely and deny them, if accused of terrorism, the rights guaranteed under the constitution. This is extremely dangerous ground as it can lead to your or my being imprisoned for political reasons merely by virtue of being classed as terrorism suspects. This has happened over and over in other countries and it can happen here.   His opponent, however, will clearly do nothing to address those problems just mentioned, but the President may in his second term. Govern Romney's prescription for dealing with the housing issue, which precipitated the crisis under the Bush administration, was to "do nothing and let the market hit bottom." That was essentially Herbert Hoover's response to the crisis of 1930, which was very similar in nature and that's what they did. Result: the Great Depression. Romney has said practically nothing of what he will do to accomplish his promises. He has changed positions on many issues 180º. This means that no one can have any idea of what he will actually do if elected. Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee, promises to take a high profile role. He belongs to the extreme right, which is every bit as lacking a hold on reality and every bit as dangerous, as any extreme left faction (of which we have none at present in our country). What will happen if the current trend of concentrating all the country's wealth in the 1% is that the middle class will dry up and most of us will slide into the lower class. The ultra rich account for very little job creation. It's small business that is our biggest employer, followed by local governments and then the federal government. All these people pay taxes and buy big and small ticket items. Eliminate these sources of work and we will become a poor populace.   All I ask you is to think about these matters as you cast your vote and then vote as you wish. It is your right and the right of every American.  

03 November 2012

Election issues: Health care

Health care is a hot-button issue which most people, rather than examining rationally and analytically, react to emotionally. This state of affairs helps no one and ensures that we will make the wrong decisions. I will not tell you whom you should vote for nor where you should come down on health care, but I really must tell you a little of what I know about the issue.

I grew up in Argentina, which has a mixed health care system: public hospitals which take any and everyone and charge nothing, but which most Argentines consider sub-par and not clean enough. In addition there is health care insurance provided through the employer, much as in the US. Most people were traditionally covered in that manner, though now it is questionable if even half have such coverage. These people have access to more desirable hospitals, named clínicas. If you are wealthy you can pay for the best private hospitals and have access to health care equal to the best anywhere in the world. The inequalities of such a system are glaring, but let me tell you a story about my family.

When my wife and I were relatively recently married and our first son was 18 months old, I took advantage of two months' accumulated vacation to spend an extended time in Argentina with them. My parents met us at the Buenos Aires airport and we set out by car to La Falda, in the Córdoba province hill country, some 800 kilometers away. As we neared Rosario (a little over a third of the way), our son developed a high fever. Since we had lived in Rosario and knew it well, we stopped at a public hospital. It did not match US standards of visible "cleanliness", but you can be sure there was no methycillin-resistant staphylococcus aureous (MERSA) there. They diagnosed him accurately very quickly, gave him the correct prescription, handed us the medicine (no hunting for an open pharmacy), and charged us nothing even though he was not a citizen of Argentina or even a resident. When we got to my parent's house my son was feeling much better. As we gave him his medicine that night, he said his first word: Gracias, which means "thank you." In two days he was back to normal. This would never happen in the USA.

Bear with me for just one more story. After this very selfsame son of ours graduated from college, he married a wonderful British girl in England (where they now live). Since the wedding day was 21 December, we stayed for Christmas and my father- and mother-in-law came from Argentina. My mother-in-law developed a potentially serious eye ailment the day before Christmas. On Christmas day I took her to a beautiful hospital in a village in West Sussex, where they took her information, diagnosed her eye disease, and handed her a eye pomade. My mother-in-law is a nurse and she knew exactly what her eye infection was and she knew they had given her the right medicine. They did not charge her a penny. The referred her to an eye hospital in Brighton and told her to go the next day, which she did. They looked her over and made sure things were going well and she cured quickly. Again, they charged her nothing. This would never happen in the USA.

One more thing you need to know which may surprise you. The British National Health Service was created by the Conservative Party. During WWII many people were evacuated from London to the countryside. The government set up field hospitals to care for the displaced people. After the war, the government found itself paying for health care for the population, so they made the system official. Now the system is in financial trouble because the Labour Party (primarily) has been taking away national funding for the system. They argue that rich shires should pay for health care so West Sussex and Oxfordshire have had their national health care monies curtailed severely. That wonderful hospital I took my mother-in-law to has been closed as a result. That makes me sick. My son and daughter-in-law seriously considered moving to the US. However, after adding up all the various factors, they have decided to make a permanent life in England. One of the main factors in their decision is the inordinate cost of health care in this country.

We have the most expensive health care system in the world by a factor of 10 in the US, but of all the industrialized countries, we have the lowest quality of health care by all accounts. This is a scandal. We must address it as a nation and do so informed and dispassionately.

30 October 2012

As I was saying about global warming

This week two huge storms hit the Western Hemisphere's two signature cities, New York and Buenos Aires, with unprecedented deluges. New York, Atlantic City and nearby cities were by far hit worse, the Frankenstorm being, by all accounts, unprecedented in the history of the city and of a nature never before seen (a post-tropical cyclone encountering a polar mass). I don't have to go into details, as they are all over the news. My thoughts go with all the hapless people who have been displaced, who have lost their houses, who have lost a loved one, who face months of recovery efforts.

Buenos Aires was hit with a lesser storm two days before. The winds, flooding, and damage were nonetheless without precedent. In the last decade or so, for the first time, tornadoes have formed in varioius part of the country. Argentina never before had tornadoes. That part of the globe having much more water than land, the temperature differentials necessary for creating twisters were absent.

Global warming has already changed that. Scientists have said all along that warmer air holds more water, and that the warming trends would bring massive rain and snow events on a scale we could not imagine. They are not surprised by what is happening, only that it is happening much sooner than they expected. Our future is very grim and I fear for the world my granddaughters will have to live in. Can't  we decide now to stop whatever we are doing to contribute to global warming?

25 October 2012

One Glaring Omission

The two presidential candidates did not mention global warming even once in the three debates. The climate is the biggest problem we face and it is closely linked to our economies and our lifestyles, but neither man has the guts to say so. I can only assume they have no intention of doing anything about it if elected.

I use the term global warming as opposed to climate change because the earth is warming and it augurs more than just a natural change. Careful measurements show that the average temperature of the earth as a whole has been rising steadily and precipitously since the beginning of industrialization based on petrochemical power. This warming in unmistakable and undeniable.

Already there are troubling consequences, the biggest of which is the near disappearance of sea ice in the Arctic during the summers. Ice reflects sunlight back into space but the lack of ice heats up the water, which in turn heats up the air. This heat gets trapped by the greenhouse gases which we are pouring into the atmosphere at alarming rate. We are already in a feedback loop that threatens severe and accelerated warming.

There are other consequences. Tropical life-forms are moving into Texas and the Southern states, bringing with them diseases that formerly did not affect us. The best known of these is West Nile Fever, a virus-caused disease transmitted by mosquitoes. It has no cure. The heating and increasing acidification of the ocean is killing the coral reef off the Texas coast. The reef is at the base of the feeding chain of a rich bio-system which will die without it. The sea level is beginning to rise and increasingly intense storms buffet populations in summer and in winter. The warmer atmosphere holds much more water, so precipitation, whether as rain or snow, is more intense and damaging.

You must not be lulled by any spells of cooler weather. The warming of the globe will lead to localized cooling in some areas. Besides, the weather always fluctuates, but now it is fluctuating along an ascending curve of temperature. Things will become more drastic than any of us imagine if we do not stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Whatever the underlying natural climate variation may be, we are magnifying it many times over by all the activities that put carbon into the air.

The only people who benefit from this state of affairs are the oil companies and their investors. They will not change what they do of their own volition and the government clearly will not tackle them. There is to much money involved in the process of getting elected and our elected "representatives" are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them.

You and I are the only ones who can do anything about it. We must stop buying petroleum-based products: gasoline and plastics (which are highly toxic, by the way) primarily. We do this by moving entirely to electrical cars as quickly as possible. We can refuse to buy plastics to the fullest extent possible as we speak. Such measures are just a band aid, however. On a longer term basis we must redesign our cities so that soon we can walk or bike to where we shop and work and use public transportation to places further away. Starting now we can eat all natural, organic foods and put industrialized farming and cattle raising to a permanent rest, along with processed foods. Finally we can change from an economy based on consumerism and "growth" to one based on small business, the professions, and the arts. We can't all do all of this at once, but we must get a start on whatever of it we can now. You will be healthier and feel happier for it.

22 October 2012

Presidential Debates and Political Advertising

By now the presidential debates are useless, simply because the real issues, if mentioned at all, get no thoughtful consideration. Instead the candidates accuse each other over their respective positions, call each other "liar," and try to come across as the toughest. It is no more than kiddie playground argument:

"You're a liar!"
"Am not!"
"Are, too"
"Well, you're dumb!"
"Am not!"

And so on.

Many, if not most people are disgusted with the political ads on TV as well. I know I am.

I have a solution: turn off the TV. Don't watch any ads, news programs or entertainment; just use it to watch your movies or hook it up to your computer and stream solid informational material. There is a wealth of documentaries out there that are an effective antidote to advertising.

In The Mechanical Bride Marshall McLuhan said, with reference to print advertising, that it is destructive of all traditional cultures. We have plenty of evidence of that all around the world. He also said something that most people have taken little notice of: that advertising is totalitarian in nature. It no longer seeks to present the qualities of the product for our consideration. Instead, it appeals to our emotions: if we buy the product we will feel happy, have inner peace, be among the beautiful people. No one in the ads is sad (unless you are pushing anti-depressant drugs). Television is the medium par excellence for advertising, as it holds us in its mesmerizing power. George Orwell understood this perfectly and showed us a chilling vision of what TV can do. We are every bit as mesmerized by the screen as the characters in 1984 are and we do not have to be reminded to keep the machine on: we gladly do that ourselves.

In the novel, the programming shown on screen was designed to keep people adolescent by using the compelling but fictional figure of Big Brother to make people compliant and obedient to the government. We have gone one better. The relentless commercial propaganda has turned out to considerably more effective than Big Brother at controlling us and bending our wills to the large corporations. We watch our hearts' desires displayed on screen, we go out and buy, return and find ourselves dissatisfied, so we go out and buy more. We have conditioned ourselves to consider what appears on our TV, computer, tablet, and phone screens as reality and use them to shield ourselves from the real world and its complexities. In so doing, we also miss the richness of life and its true rewards coming from relationships.

The overall effect is to deaden our capacity to think, consider, analyze, and come to conclusions which can in turn be subjected to more thought and analysis when warranted. We are afraid to be alone with our thoughts in silence with no machines on. So we turn the TV back on and what it tells us becomes our world.

Democracy cannot survive the relentless onslaught of frantic advertising and programming. We would do well to turn off the TV until the election, minimize our consulting of the Internet for political discussion, and THINK. What is happening in Europe, exactly? Why? Is cutting government programs drastically helping their economies recover? If not, will doing that here help ours recover? Do we need austerity (cutting government spending) or stimulus (increasing spending so that more people get jobs and pay taxes and buy houses and cars and so on)? Which is best? How do we make American democracy relevant now that the world view and values of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries are no longer relevant to the reality on the ground? As a society we have turned completely inward since the early 70's but, listen to the young people! They want something different and they are finding meaning in service.

12 October 2012

Election-Year Issues: More on the Economy

In an earlier post I discussed how austerity measures bury economies and impoverish nations and how stimulation of the economy is needed in times of recession. This is the "big-picture" or macroeconomic view of the issue.

There is another side, however, that of the individual family. This is one kind of microeconomics. When I arrived in college in the late sixties, from Argentina where I grew up to Texas where I was born from a family with roots all the way back to the Mayflower, I observed a situation which was not apparent to most people. At the time Argentina was rich and stable, with a standard of living approaching the richest countries and a life expectancy exceeding that of the the US. There were storm clouds on the horizon, but I was too young and inexperienced to see them.

The US was nevertheless at the historical peak of its prosperity. But I could see that this prosperity was unsustainable. There were two major trends visible to anyone paying attention, both dealing with lifestyle expectations. In general, everyone expected to live as richly as everyone else. To me, coming from a different country, the expectation seemed unrealistic. If construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and others providing services to owners of houses lived at the same level of prosperity as those paying for the services, the charges would soon be out of reach for the buyers. No one providing a service can charge as much as per hour (much less more per hour) than what those paying for the service make. Soon the owners of the houses would be unable to hire anyone to work on the house.

The other trend was households with two incomes. When I arrived in college, many households lived very well with one income, especially those of doctors, college professors, and other professionals. However, other families thought that they should be able to live just as prosperously as the professionals. If both spouses worked, they could live as well as anyone else. Now, women have every right to work, just as men do, and to make the same salary for the same work. In fact, during World War II many women did just that and were understandably unhappy after the war to be expected to sit at home. The only problem was that, as two-income households became more and more common, inflation from demand caused prices to go up. Soon it became necessary for both spouses to work in order to cover all the expenses and have a little left over.

By the nineties it became clear that, though we had more gadgets than ever before and our salaries were higher than ever before, no one had reached the combination of prosperity and stability we enjoyed in the 1960's. We had lots of money, yes, but it bought very little by comparison. We had to resort to sending almost all manufacturing to other countries with low industrial wages in order to be able to buy what we wanted reasonably cheaply. Still it cost more to buy anything than it did in the 60's to buy the same product made in the USA. The ideology said that by sending manufacturing to other countries they would become as rich as we are. (Of course that never happened.) If they did manage to be as rich as we are, they would make as much as we do, and then we could not afford to buy their products or services. Everyone's standard of living would inevitably collapse. We are nearing that situation now.

The US economy continued to grow primarily on consumer spending. But since our money did not buy anywhere near what it used to, we resorted to credit cards. We indebted ourselves far beyond our ability to pay. Put another way, the limits of growth, as defined by ever increasing profits for investors, have been reached.

The economy is flat because families have realized that they can no longer live on credit. Millions of people have destroyed their credit cards and have no intention of getting in debt again. We will be undergoing a huge adjustment. Which party, if any, is saying anything about this? Are they aware of it? Are they listening? Where is anyone questioning the candidates about this? How do we redo our economy on another basis and not on consumerism? Because the time for that is over.

The hope is that the young people will come along with better values than we had. In part that is what I write about in my novels. You may want to take a look at Angela 1: Starting Over at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

06 October 2012

Democracy Is a Culture

As a country we have been singularly unsuccessful at creating democracy in countries we have occupied. The exceptions were Germany, Japan and South Korea, which had enjoyed a vigorous culture of democracy before being taken over by extremist ideologies. After the respective wars, they had that culture to draw on.

The story is very different elsewhere. Whether it was Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic or, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, democracy has been fragile or nonexistent. Everywhere we have encouraged the right kind of institutions (legislatures, elections, courts, etc.), but problems, from instability to dictatorship have been endemic. We scratch our heads and wonder why.

The answer lies in the centuries of history of each country and the resultant culture. Let us take the US as an example. The first British colony, Virginia, was a publicly traded corporation whose purpose was to make money for its investors by growing cash crops and selling them. At first the colony was governed by directors elected by a periodic meeting of the Shareholders' Assembly, which also established policies. Each share in the company commanded one vote. The second colony, Massachusetts, was also a corporation, in which the settlers owned the controlling shares. Both colonies became accustomed to governing themselves, sharing a common commercial (and in the case of Massachusetts also a religious) purpose. In the latter colony local governance of towns by a meeting of all the adult males was dominant, while in Virginia it became the House of Burgesses, a legislature which grew out of the Shareholders' Assembly. The colony also gave land and some shares to all the indentured servants once they had served their seven years of work for the company.

The natural result was that voting was connected to land ownership, representative government at the state level was firmly established, and local governance was especially connected with religion in the north. (We have been like that ever since.) The colonies were so successful economically that the British Crown understandably established taxes on the activities across the ocean. The colonists responded with rage.

That response lies, again, was due to a long history which created a culture, in the sense of commonly held values and ways of doing things. One of the effects of the Magna Charta, signed in the fourteenth century between King John and the nobles, was that no new taxes could be levied without the consent of the latter, as represented in Parliament. With time this principle applied to all British citizens: one could not be taxed without the consent of Parliament and all the men got to vote for their representative in the House of Commons.

The residents of the, by then thirteen, colonies had no representation in Parliament. That is why they responded to new taxation with rebellion. By the way, the famous Tea Party was a protest against a tax established without representation, not a protest against any and all takes. We are now all represented on the bodies that tax us.

Once independent, the governance of the colonies drew on these experiences and also on the values of the time, that is, of the Enlightenment: equality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. It took all that and more to create our culture of democracy, which subsequently was forced to deal with the grave inequality created by the slavery system and by 20th-century discriminatory laws.

Iraq and Afghanistan share none of this history. They have their own (much longer) history, which in turn creates their cultures, vastly different from ours. Those cultures will not be ignored. If you try to go against them, they will block your way. This is why we can set up the institution we consider democratic (a congress, courts, and an executive) but democracy does not happen. That is not to say that they cannot become democratic with time. It is to say that we are not equipped to tell them how to accomplish it and we should not even try.

One last thought. Cultures change slowly, but their constructive aspects can collapse rapidly, leaving primarily the negative side of the culture. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by our worst impulses. We have chosen not to educate our people except for the children of the most privileged classes. We have turned our noses up at history and opted for bread (consumerism) and circuses (entertainment). As Ernesto Sabato said, it has "the whiff of decadence." We had better wake up. As for voting, I hold little hope that anyone in either party has any idea of where we are headed. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility to try to discern which party is more likely to learn what is needed and vote accordingly.

I invite any of you who enjoy youth literature to read my Angela 1: Starting Over in which the young protagonists are discovering some of what I discuss above and grappling with what it may mean to them. You can check it out, if you wish, at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

23 September 2012

Addendum to last post

One more thing concerning the economy. When I returned for college from Argentina, where I grew up, to the US, where I was born, I noticed something profoundly unsustainable about the American economy. Everyone took it for granted that everyone could be almost equally wealthy. Construction workers, electricians, and plumbers were as affluent as their customers. It was clear to me that such a situation could not continue indefinitely. People who provide services cannot make as much per hour, much less more per hour than their customers. How can I pay someone for services more per hour than I make? It works for a twice-a-year service of the pool, but that's about it.

I pointed out to some plumbers who were working on my house how they were overpriced and how I could not as a rule afford their services. Their answer was "Well, you don't want to mess with this kind of dirty work, do you?" In fact, no, I don't. But that avoids the question. If you price yourself out of the market, you will not get clients.

So what have we done? We have sent almost all our manufacturing to other countries, often at slave labor wages, so we can still get our consumer products cheaply. We hire immigrants from very hard-working countries like Mexico who are glad to work on our yards and houses much more cheaply than non-immigrants would and they take pride in what they do and are thankful for the work.

We need to learn from them. Joy in life does not come from how much we make, regardless of how ingrained an axiom that is of American "culture." It comes first from being a good parent, spouse, and son or daughter and from taking pride in a job well done. Accumulating money and/or consumer goods bring no lasting satisfaction whatsoever.

The idea that money can save us comes from the earliest part of the modern period (1450 to 1700, more or less). We are now well into a post-modern era which has no name as of yet. Let's put that one to rest and set our sights on what is good and lasting.

19 September 2012

Election-year issues: the economy

My blog has not been, is not, and will not be political. I will not tell you which party or ideology to support or turn against. That is not my intent.

In the absence of any meaningful dialogue between the parties, however, I would like to offer up some thoughts on some of the issues facing us at present and let you decide which candidate is more likely to do something positive and lasting about it.

The economy is, of course, a major issue. Unemployment is too high and spending is sluggish. The price of houses is depressed. In 2008 there was such an implosion in the financial markets that we nearly went into a second Great Depression. Some people advocate austerity measures to get us out of the current recession, or sluggish recovery, whichever you want to call it. The idea is that if government spends less and collects fewer taxes, employers have more money to hire people with. Others say that the economy should be stimulated: the more people there are working, the more taxes the government gathers, allowing the deficit to be reduced drastically and with it the need for government borrowing. We hear these arguments laid out as if we had no experience to go on which could guide our decision.

In fact, I can offer two examples from recent times that can help us understand what is at stake. After the stock market crash in 1929 there were numerous runs on banks. The government in power took the position that if some banks failed, it would be a good thing: bad, poorly run banks would fold, while strong banks would remain. This situation would benefit depositors. In fact what happened was that more than 9,000 banks failed and money stopped circulating. The next government reaction was to cut spending and so the economy collapsed. The next government stimulated the economy to the extent allowed. There was intense opposition in Congress and blockage by the Supreme Court. Eventually, what stimulation the government was allowed to do began to improve the economy. In 1937, as the economy was growing, the government decided to cut back on spending and the country went back into economic depression. It wasn't until World War II required the issuance of war bonds in huge numbers (i.e. going into debt) that money began to circulate again. The US came out of the war with a vigorous economy that lasted into the 60's. It was the period in which the wealth of the country was most evenly distributed and in which the majority of Americans shared an unprecedented prosperity. That was the real rising of the waters that lifted almost all the boats, though pockets of poverty persisted.

Another case: In the mid-60's Argentina had the highest level of prosperity and the most widespread sharing of the wealth in its history, approaching that of the US. However, in 1966 the military toppled the democratically elected government and in the early 1970's secured huge loans from the IMF. This organization required the government to implement progressively strong austerity measures in order to be repaid. The government spent less and less stimulating the economy and more and more on repaying the debt. Argentina went into an economic slide that by the 90's destroyed its middle class and left business at the mercy of foreign companies which took out more than they put into the economy. Poverty spread to half the population. In the early 21st century, a new government defaulted on the debt, threw out the austerity measures, and set to stimulating the economy. In short order economic activity revived, so much so that in three years enough taxes were taken in to pay off the "unpayable and uncontrolled" debt with the IMF and to free the country of its heavy hand.

It becomes clear that cutting back government spending shrinks the economy and that austerity invariably brings about intense economic recessions or worse. If you're still not convinced, just take a look at what is happening to Europe. Stimulating the economy brings about increased tax revenue that allows governments to pay off debts and keep a balanced budget. During the last 12 years we have waged two wars without either raising taxes to pay for them or issuing war bonds to cover them. At the same time we cut taxes and spending in education, art, humanities, infrastructure, and all the other productive kinds of spending. The result: an aging infrastructure that makes us look poor in comparison say, to the UK, a huge budget deficit (we had a surplus at the end of the Clinton administration), and a collapse in the housing market caused by inadequate regulation.

True, we should never overstimulate the economy to the point of creating rampant inflation. However, more dangerous to the economy are unrestrained financial speculation and government austerity measures.

30 March 2012

The Hunger Games

I started The Hunger Games just before spring break and finished it the first evening I was in Pensacola, accompanying a group of college students on the Habitat for Humanity Collegiate Challenge. In three and one-half days we built a house, from slab to walls with the outside OSB, roof (minus shingling) and windows. It is an exciting, rewarding, and of course physically tiring experience, but not enough to keep me from finishing the book.

In previous blogs I have complained about present-tense narration. Most people who do it have no compelling narrative reason to, and so it becomes tiresome. In The Hunger Games, on the other hand, Collins has used present-tense narration to good effect. The book is narrated in first person, which is essential to the plot and intensity of the story. Accordingly, present tense is indispensable to keep from revealing the fate of the main character. Past tense is used for when Katniss (the narrator and main character) remembers past events. This is an example of effective use of present tense narration: when the story will not work as well without it.

The book is both a dystopia (a future of difficult, even dire, living conditions and breakdown of society and technology) and a work of science fiction, deftly used to criticize society. Science fiction seeks to extrapolate from present trends in technology to warn of what may happen if it is not controlled. The classic example is H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods. In The Hunger Games, technology has continued to advance, but it is the privilege of those who live in Capitol, the gleaming city which controls the 12 districts. Rising sea levels have destroyed the coastal cities and reduced the land area. In the districts, people are poor and lead hand-to-mouth lives. Each district is assigned an agricultural or industrial function to support the Capitol. District 12 is mining. Katniss and her friend Gale hunt surreptitiously, because hunting is prohibited, to provide a livable diet for their respective families.

The Hunger Games themselves were instituted seven decades previously, following a rebellion by the districts against the Capitol. After losing, each district was forced to provide each year a male and female young person as a tribute. The 24 tributes must fight to the death until one is left. The games are a yearly reminder of who is in control and what will happen if the districts rebel again. They are a huge entertainment event for the residents of Capitol and the entire country is obligated to watch on TV. Usually electrical service is spotty and infrequent, but during the games there is electricity all around the clock.

The technology described is just barely beyond what we know: enough to provide surprises and to serve the plot and not so much as to make it unbelievable or fantastic. It is strong enough to be horrific at times and to serve the Capitol in controlling the districts. The practice of games in which people must kill each other off is not at all far-fetched. In ancient Rome the games in the Coliseum were exactly that. The authorities in The Hunger Games are merely behaving to type. The availability of power in a situation in which climate change has impoverished the majority of people could very easily come about. If we in the US, who in panic after the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center have been willing to allow invasion of other countries without declaring war (as the Constitution prescribes), to torture prisoners, and to hold even American citizens indefinitely without charges, trial, or any semblance of due process, so easily give up our Constitutionally granted rights in such a brief time, we cannot characterize Collins' dystopia as far-fetched. It is scarifyingly possible.

Everyone should read this book and think about it. The Constitution was created in full knowledge of the hunger for power and the unreliability of political leaders. It was designed to neutralize these tendencies by distributing power over many different sections of government. It worked well until advertising on TV became indispensable for getting politicians elected. The huge amounts of money needed to pay for ads were gladly given by corporations and the wealthiest individuals, making the successful candidates debtors to them rather than representatives for us. Combined with our willingness to give up our tangible rights in exchange for an elusive security which can never be guaranteed, we have stressed the political system beyond what it can withstand. Can we restore it? That remains to be seen but it is certain to be a long and bruising fight. The alternative is to become a society which resembles that of The Hunger Games.

Angela 1: Starting Over and its sequels deal with the exercise of responsible citizenship. Please check it out at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angel1.html

03 February 2012

Machines we Love

Sherry Turkle in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011) gives us what is probably the best picture of what we are doing to ourselves with our machines. It is divided into two major sections: Robotics and Social Networking.

Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and a practicing psychotherapist. This means that she is both an academic and a professional. She stared out optimistic about the promise and potential of digital technology and has come, through careful research, to a very different view. In Alone Together she has marshalled a selection of examples from her research and presented them in a clearly written work of persuasion about what we do to ourselves when we rely more and more on technology.

What is striking about the application of computer technology to robotics is that people of all ages long to interact with robotic animals and humanoids. We all seem to suscribe to the idea, in the words of one of the children studied, that the better robots are "alive enough" to care about. The examples deal with the AIBO (a robotic dog), My Real Baby (a robotic infant), Cog (robotic "infant"), and Kismet (a human-like torso and head programmed to interact with people). These are all efforts of the artificial intelligence labs in Japan and the US. People quickly realize that these are not toys and begin to bond with them in a relationship. For some people, the robots are better than real in that they do not die. People assume that these machines will be eternally loyal. These features are so reliable that people are willing to lower their expectations from the "relationship" in return for perceived security and stability. Put another way, robots have a strong tendency to make us become less human and more robot-like. Given that the technology of simulating intelligence in nearly convincing humanoid forms is developing quickly, this could be a daunting prospect for us. To what point will we limit ourselves so we can interact with robots and to what extent will they come to interfere in human relationships? One can envision a scenario in which people never learn to deal well with each other because it is so much easier to deal with a robot.

The second part of the book covers digital social media and texting. The social media encourage the development of an online persona that is not authentic. People make themselves more interesting and better looking on line than they really are. This means that they will not want to meet their online "friends" in person, as they would be certain to disappoint. In addition, some people become much more aggressive on line or engage in other inappropriate social behaviors in the absence of real-life social constraints. People really get hurt. E-mail, Facebook, and texting allow people to avoid other people. Many young people would much rather text than call. There are two big problems which ensue. First, misunderstandings and relational problems are far more common with the digital world running interference and the absence of voice inflection and facial expression integral to full communication. Second, so long as people mediate communication and relationship through social media and texting to avoid person-to-person interaction, they will not grow socially and therefore not personally.

Of course all this is fine with the purveyors of technology and social media. Teenagers are compulsive buyers, and adults who never mature are life-long compulsive buyers. Now who benefits from this? Not you or me.

Finally I wish to answer the opinion of some people who dismiss Alone Together as anecdotal and therefore not scientific. The book is made up of many stories which illustrate the points Turkle wishes to make, true. But Turkle is an academic and a professional. She has been studying the effect of technology on people for a long time. Her research cannot proceed otherwise than by watching people interact with media. These observations are her raw data, her first sources. She has discovered predictable patterns of interaction. The book is a work of persuasion for a large public, not a scientific treatise. But the stories she tells illustrate significant patterns derived carefully and scientifically from a purposefully designed and validated observation protocol. I strongly recommend reading Alone Together.

Angela Fournier, the main character in my current novel series, is not on social media, is bored by television, and prefers talking in person over calling or texting. I based her on some young adults I know who are bucking the trends and are therefore way ahead of the curve. You can find out more about her at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

26 January 2012

The Singularity

I'm back after winter vacation and getting my affairs in order at my college teaching job. Since the last post, I have been reading a great deal on the digital flood. I call it a flood because it is an unstoppable force that threatens to overwhelm us and take away our lives as we know them.

Don't get me wrong. I rely on computers to write, for communication of all kinds, for my car to run properly, and so on. I am the web master for my university department and I have two Facebook accounts: my regular one and a fan page for Angela 1. I am not a technophobe nor do I fear an apocalypse.

Ray Kurzweil is the high priest of the Singularity religion. You can get a full, and hair-raising, account by reading The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, which he wrote. It rests on two assumptions. The first is that information is the basic nature of the universe. Its corollary is that computers, being able to store far more information than humans can and to access it and transmit at speeds we cannot even imagine, are the next step in our evolution. Biological evolution is too slow for Kurzweil and the brain we have as its result does not work fast enough.

The other assumption is that the breathtaking speed and acceleration of computer technology will make machines totally reliable and miniaturized to the point of becoming part of our cell structure. Computer techs will become able to reverse engineer the brain and we will be able to merge with our machines. In the same way that we have pacemakers and brain implants to treat certain conditions, we will be able eventually to replace all this slow biology destined to die with machines that will live forever. If we could do all that, I find it scarifying. Kurzweil and all the technology apocalyptic apologists seem to think it will be a great thing. I say it would mean that machines will dominate and replace humans. That is, we all die. It is not the path to eternal life.

Don't fear. Both assumptions are highly questionable. No human, animal, plant, or even bacterium is reducible to a code of 1's and 0's (=yes/no). Humans are learning, emotional, spiritual, and social beings endowed with the ability to evaluate information, develop connections, create a world view involving all of the above and expressed in literature, art, music, science, and religion. We can communicate at levels different from and higher than information. Computers cannot come close to simulating that. Beyond that, we know what we know but a computer doesn't: it is not conscious. It is just a machine running routines as programmed. We are capable of achieving wisdom but machines only process data. Even smart, self-replicating nanobots.

The real danger is that we will accept any and everything that the digital flood throws at us. "If it's computer technology, it must be good for us," we seem to say. The time has come when we can and must evaluate what computer technology can and cannot do and, most importantly, should and should not do. If we do not take charge, all these things will be decided for us, not by machines, but by the Kurzweils of this world who make and program them.

In my Angela series I celebrate what makes us human. To find out more about it, go to www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html