31 March 2013

Caveat Homo Sapiens: Politicians and the Economy

I often say that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was considerably more liberal than the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In this post I hope to show why. When I came to the US to college, the country was at the height of its affluence and it has never been that wealthy since. The tax structure developed during the New Deal was still in place, resulting in widespread distribution of wealth, rather than concentration at the top. Everyone benefited, even the rich, when the income gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us was not too wide.

It was also a time of tremendous social unrest driven by the slow response of society to the need of the minorities, especially the African Americans, for acceptance into the wider culture, dignity, jobs, and education. Some of the violent outbursts that occurred made many people recoil: they left the cities and took refuge in wealthy all-white suburbs and turned inward. The resignation of a president and then the shock of sharply increased oil prices on top of the social pressures gave people the sensation that the country was adrift and without purpose.

At the moment things began to turn sour, an intense propaganda campaign began to turn the equation conservative=bad (the opinion of most of my West Texas college classmates when I was an undergraduate) into conservative=good. Arguments that had been cast aside by our parents gained new life: "business friendly" meaning de-regulating and letting business do whatever it wants, and "right to work" meaning I, the employer have the right to hire you or not and you have the right to accept my offer or not; that makes us equal. Of course this is bogus: the employer holds all the cards and the job seeker has no money to get into the game. This is the thinking that created monopolies, horrible working conditions for measly pay, and the robber baron class of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth.

Since Americans abhor the study of history, they were taken in (and are still being taken in) by a totally one-sided view of business: It is always good, it is always right, it is the only model for all of society. It is taking over spaces we never allowed it to before: education, government, the church (all organizations whose purpose is not to make money, but who help the economy by spending).

In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that all regulation became suspect and that we have eliminated most of it. The confusion of free markets for the selling of goods (Adam Smith's free market of the eighteenth century, much like current farmers' markets but with the added feature of haggling for prices) with unregulated financial markets caused the Great Recession of 2008.

We need to relearn what we learned in the 1930's and 40's. We must have reasonable regulation of financial markets, keep banks from growing too large, stimulate the economy during times of recession, and wait to decide on budget changes when the economy is good. Government is not a business. Government spends money, as well it should. Government per se is not bad. It is supposed to be us (or our representatives). If we want to set our house in order, we need to start by agreeing on how to take money of the equation during elections. If there were no paid political propaganda on TV, the influence of money on elections would be severely curtailed and Congress may begin to feel that it can represent us instead of those who bankrolled their election. Let's at least think about this.

Please check out the new edition of Angela 1: Starting Over in paperback and at a much more accessible price: www.amazon.com/author/bedforddavid . Angela is at the beginning of finding out how the world works, a process that will set her at odds with many ordinary people and especially those who profit from our ignorance or inattention.

15 March 2013

Caveat homo sapiens: gun culture

I have good reason to know how ingrained our gun culture is in our country. My mother grew up on a farm in Eastern New Mexico and could handle a .22 with her eyes closed. When she was a child during the Depression and living in what was still essentially a pioneer area, having a gun made sense. She wanted to have a gun in our house but my father refused to have one around. I want to tell you three brief stories about guns.

When we lived in the Patagonia area of Argentina, there was some concern (probably misplaced) for safety. My father had to go to meetings in Buenos Aires occasionally and it would be the three of us, my mother, my sister and I alone while he was 1000 miles away. She begged for a gun. "If an intruder comes in, I can shoot him in the leg," she would say. And she could. Dad did not question that. One day word came that a son of another missionary family in another Argentine city as far away as Buenos Aires was, but to the west of the country, was showing a friend his father's hunting rifle. He was thoroughly convinced that the gun was unloaded. It wasn't. It went off and killed the friend. After that my mother no longer asked to have a gun in our house. We never bought or needed one.

A decade or more later, when my wife was a young teenager, three men entered her house by force. The whole family was there and the men were armed robbers. One of them was injured. They of course ordered everyone to stay put in their chairs. It was clear they were desperate and would gladly shoot anyone who did not comply. A search of the house turned up my father-in-law's revolver. They simply added it to their arsenal. It was of no use whatsoever in defense and could have been used to kill its owner. My mother-in-law is a nurse and she tended to the injured man. That may have saved everyone's lives, while the gun was of no use. The siege ended when the owner of a car parked by the house appeared. The men raced out, ordered the man to turn over the keys, and made their escape. The police caught them soon after.

Last story. This week a member of our church choir reported that his grandson was in the hospital with a broken jaw. Two thugs forced open the back door of his house. The grandson had a gun. If he had run out the front door, nothing would have happened to him. Instead, when he heard the intrusion he reached for his gun and proceeded to load it. Before he could complete the loading, the men wrenched the gun from him and pistol-whipped him.

Clearly, guns are not a good protection but they are extremely dangerous. Most murders are committed by a member of the household using a gun people have in the house. Imagine how many people are angry at a family member and have a gun in the house that has never been used. The image of that unused gun works on the irate family member. What good is it having something if you never use it? You get the picture.

Clearly, the purpose of the second amendment to the US constitution was not to put us in this sort of danger. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court doesn't seem to care or to understand the constitution.

Responsible citizenship is the theme of my Angela series of novels for young (and not so young) readers: www.amazon.com/author/bedforddavid

12 March 2013

Caveat homo sapiens: Waterways

It is well known that our waterways are in trouble: stinking rivers that catch on fire, invisible and tasteless toxins that build up geometrically in fish, oil sheens, visible and invisible plastics, and garbage of all kinds. Fresh water is a tiny portion of the water on the earth. Already its availability does not meet the needs of people: just ask the western and northwestern US states about their conflicts over water use. The still growing world population will need more fresh water at a time when it is dwindling. Warmer temperatures cause droughts because of reduced rainfall. When it does rain, the amount and violence of rainfall means that much of it is lost in runoff and does not penetrate the ground. If current trends are not reversed, the next wars will be over water and the losers will likely die (literally) of thirst.

As if all those factors were not enough, hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) for yet more oil with which to produce more global warming, uses large amounts of water, subtracting from that available for personal use and for growing crops. Along with the water, other chemicals and some solids are pumped into the ground. Some of the chemicals are known to be toxic. The companies assure us that the liquid is injected so far below the water table that there is no possibility of the mix entering the aquifers. But we all have heard such assurances before. The pipelines that carry the fracking water break from time to time (not maybe: they do break), leaking the mixture at times into the aquifers. Moreover, it is highly likely that fracking liquids will eventfully percolate upward into the groundwater. The only people who benefit from fracking are oil company executives and large investors. When fracking befouls a large enough amount of fresh water, all that money will do them no good.

You and I are responsible for another major danger: the acidification of the oceans. Warmer temperatures and increased loading of carbon into the ocean makes the ocean more acid, to the point that already, the organisms that store carbon by using it to build their shells are dying off: the carbon exceeds their ability to absorb. It's not just that we are quickly losing the natural sequestering of carbon. The dying foraminiferans release the carbon they have stored. We are in big trouble.

One thing we can do about it is to call on our governments to outlaw fracking, to stop subsidizing oil companies, and to invest money in a national network of electrical charging stations for cars and in the production of hydrogen fuel cells small and efficient enough to power our cars and public transportation. Let's do something, rather than nothing, about all this.

My character Angela Fournier is just beginning to learn about these issues. If interested, please go to www.amazon.com/author/bedforddavid

08 March 2013

Caveat homo sapiens

Humans everywhere, beware! That is the meaning of the title.

I have written before about the collapse of the modern world around 100 years ago, when, owing to developments in science and technology, it could no longer account for the reality on the ground. Cultures change slowly however. Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medieval people saw themselves as Roman, while the people of the modern period saw themselves as medieval. It's no wonder, then that now we think of ourselves as modern. Said another way, most people are chronically behind the curve at any given point in human history.

The modern world view, with its emphasis on the here-and-now, its faith in reason, and its addiction to "progress," is alarmingly inadequate for dealing with the dangers we face: global warming, the toxification of our seas and fresh waterways, the gun culture, the mishandling of the economy by politicians, and assaults on our constitutional protection against unlawful search and seizure.

I'd like to deal with each of these in turn, taking global warming first. We should call it by its real name, global warming and not by the euphemism "climate change." The scientists all agree: the planet is warming more quickly than it ever has. This warming coincides with industrialization and the mechanisms are well known. The role of carbon has been discussed at length, but methane is barely on our radars. Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon. Unfortunately, inconsiderate human activity is causing an accelerating rise in atmospheric methane, primarily by the prevalence of feedlots and indirectly by the warming process itself: melting permafrost and ice cover is releasing methane which had been trapped.

These trends are continuing and accelerating and our activities are the principal driver. We must change. Individuals can make these changes and encourage others to do the same. For example, we can switch modes of transportation. Riding a bus which runs on natural gas instead of a car with a gasoline engine will reduce carbon production as a first step. Saving up the money we would use to operate a car will enable us eventually to purchase and all electrical vehicle, which we can use until fuel cell technology can make electrical production relatively harmless. We can eat grass-fed beef and refuse to eat meat raised in feedlots. It will cost more, so we will eat less, improving our diet. When enough people join in, methane production will start to fall.

Beginning this process is an urgent need. We are unlikely to feel sufficiently motivated unless we take seriously the post-modern time we live in. What we did before 1900 (and continued to do in the 20th century) will not help us now. This is what Einstein meant when he said that "you cannot solve problems if we remain at the same level of thinking that created them." Will you be willing to go to that next level and help rescue us from the Age of the Machine?

In my three-novel series on Angela, the main character and her friends are beginning to grapple with these questions. Angela 1: Starting Over now has a new publisher, Progressive Rising Phoenix, and is priced at a much more reasonable $9.50. You can get it on Kindle even cheaper. Check it out at http://www.amazon.com/author/bedforddavid .