Ring of Dogma

Algerian writer Kamel Daoud gained world-wide fame as the author of a novel—The Meursault Investigation—that acts as a sequel to Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, but one told from an Arab viewpoint. In the October 14, 2019 issue of The Nation magazine, Robyn Cresswell reviewed a collection of Daoud essays, in part providing this summary:

Islamism, for Daoud, is an especially joyless version of Platonism, morbidly suspicious

of the body and its pleasures, intolerant of dissent, and disdainful of the world’s actual,

teeming diversity. The Islamist is “unsettled by difference,” Daoud writes. “He dreams

of a world that is uniform, unanimous.” Islamism is “an affliction of Islam,” a death-

haunted cult spread by Saudi-funded media, cable-tv theologians, and a lack of

ideological alternatives. “Islamism is a kind of Fascism, he concludes, “a kind of

muffled totalitarianism [that] can’t be moderated.”

Daoud was, of course, criticizing a modern form of extreme expression within his own religion. As I followed this paragraph, however, my thoughts reflected on how well the same generalizations could be applied to modern Christian extremism. Fundamentalist Christians in the United States can also be said to be “joyless” in that they misunderstand and reject a great deal of humor in their serious devotion to their doctrines. Their dogmatic rejection of sex outside of marriage, of non-standard sexual practices, and of sex enablers such as birth control and abortion, indicates that they are also “suspicious of the body and its pleasures.” They are threatened by people from other cultures, those who speak other languages, those whose physical appearance is not similar to theirs, and especially those who believe in other religious systems. It is accurate, if a bit generous, to say they are “unsettled by difference.” The fundamentalist Christian movement is varied, but a common theme supports imposition of a “uniform, unanimous” culture sustained by Christian prayer in schools and in public events, by public services and accommodations that reinforce church dogma, and by laws based on biblical passages and fundamentalist interpretations. Under Dominion Theology, the logical extension of their efforts, the United States would become a “Christian Nation” governed by biblical law as defined and reconstructed by religious leaders.

In regions where modern Christian fundamental politics are popular, the leadership tends to support posting the phrase “In God We Trust” everywhere and placing crosses and monuments displaying the ten commandments (generally the Protestant King James version) on public property. They pass laws imposing severe limits on abortion and other behaviors and allowing both public and private service providers to discriminate against LGBTQ and non-Christian individuals if the providers profess “personal religious beliefs” that require such avoidance. In such areas it is also common to hear politicians rail against “sharia law,” but it is not difficult to see that with government in the hands of fundamentalist Christians about the only difference between biblical law and sharia law would be the choice of source documents. The similarity between Islamist and fundamentalist Christian attitudes carries over into the behaviors as well as the doctrines of the adherents.

The other similarity between Christian and Islamist extremes is the tendency toward authoritarian rule. Much has been written in recent years about excessive laws and punishments under Islamist rule by Afghanistan’s Taliban, Syria’s ISIS, and Saudi Arabia’s monarchy. The punitive actions of these regimes might be compared to Spain during the Inquisition, but much more recent examples of despotic pro-Christian regimes include Spain under Francisco Franco, Chile under Augusto Pinochet, and current governments such as the Phillipines under Rodrigo Duterte and Uganda under Yoweri Museveni and his primary opposition, the Lord’s Resistance Army under Joseph Kony. In the Unite States, the full implementation of the philosophy of Christian Dominionism would require nothing less than the end of democratic decision-making and the reversal of decades of legislative and judicial progress toward the protection of minority groups. Nor is religious authoritarianism limited to Christian and Muslim extremists; Israel has become an increasingly authoritarian apartheid state, with much of government policy driven by the most dogmatic zionist theocrats.

The religious tendency outlined above may be simply one form of a broader pattern, one that also appears in the political realm. The most extreme political factions range from fascists, nationalists, and racists on the right to anarchists and stalinists on the left. All of them tend to authoritarian solutions enforced by violent domination. At the farthest extension both the right and the left, as with the religious extremes, create populations that are intolerant of differences and dedicated to the imposition of uniformity. The two sides are still philosophically opposed to each other, but are united in that and in their methodology.

The whole of human philosophy might be visualized as one of those large ceremonial rings used to commemorate graduations and other significant events. The top side, the one that is normally visible to the public, is large and decorated with common cultural symbols and decorations. That, one hopes, represents the vast majority of the population. To either side of that mass the ring thins out, becoming smaller and losing most of the decorative veneer. On the back end of the ring, where it (and with any luck, the population it represents) reaches its smallest mass, the two opposites rejoin in functional similarity, representative of a small population united in rejection and subjugation of any individuals who do not conform to the preferred philosophy. Capitalism and Communism alike become Fascism. Christianity and Islam and Judaism and Atheism all take the form of single-dogma repressive regimes.

There are lower-level threats arising from such religious and political extremism. The most common of these come in the form of everyday individual discriminatory actions against “the other,” actions by the people who believe in a philosophy that may not be in total control, but who make decisions affecting services and necessary materials. There are pharmacists who refuse to sell many birth-control medications, doctors and nurses who will not treat LGBTQ patients, county clerks who withhold licenses for mixed-race marriages, audience members who refuse to allow lecturers to speak, individuals who use violence against. Those are the minor offenses. There are also more serious individual offenses; islamists who perform suicide bombings in crowded locations, Christians who bomb women’s clinics, the two Muslims who killed 14 people in a San Bernadino County Department of Public Health meeting in California, the Christian who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. There are too many of these incidents to remember or list.

But the ultimate danger of extremism comes at the point when such a group takes full control of a government or a region. The representatives who met to write the United States Constitution in the late eighteenth century were very familiar with the misuse of governmental power by one faction, by monarchical power or by official state religions. Their efforts to avoid consolidation of power included the formation of an elaborate system of separation of powers and a first amendment that promotes both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In this way they intended not only to limit the executive excesses of government, but to avoid, as much as possible, the control of all of the vast governmental powers by a single extreme faction. We should do whatever we can to maintain those protections.

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unSAD Climate

There are some human compulsions that I recognize and understand, but not entirely; how could I, given that I do not personally experience them. This includes the more extreme expressions of individual need, the many addictions and competitive excesses and manic drives, but I am not addressing those at this time, although I try to empathize with the victims of those as well. No, this essay is about one of the lesser compulsions, one that you might never notice unless you know a person well, the kind of thing that they themselves might not even recognize, or might not consider abnormal. This particular syndrome was first introduced to me through the actions of a person I shared an apartment with briefly after I graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

To understand this story you need to know that Santa Cruz suffers—or benefits, depending on your preferences—from atmospheric characteristics common to much of the coast of northern California. Frequently, in most months of each year, there are long periods of overcast; multiple days with gray mottled layers above, from the evergreen hills in the east to the flat ocean horizon to the west, and variable downpours reaching every surface below. In the summer months there are fewer overcast days, but most afternoons it is common for a thick bank of surface clouds to form off shore and gradually move inland, enclosing most of the city in a thin fog. Seattle may have earned infamy for lengthy periods of separation from direct sunlight, but it is far from being the only northwest coast city with that condition. It was an environmental condition familiar to me, as I had spent my entire life up to that point in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A well-known columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen, once wrote that it was common for summer tourists to arrive in the city and ask why there were no sidewalk cafés. He then noted that they tended to drop the question after they had experienced the almost inevitable appearance of the thick damp blanket of fog, and the accompanying drop in temperature, that would roll in almost every afternoon. In Santa Cruz there was a large pier reaching out westward into Monterey Bay, the perfect staging point for a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, that annual event almost always had to be delayed for days because of the thick afternoon cloud cover, a condition that often remained in place until late in the night.

In 1972 in Santa Cruz I had a roommate, one of the four of us who shared a four-bedroom unit, who had a problematic relationship with clouds and fog. In his defense, he had grown up in the Los Angeles area, the very region that inspired the concept of “sunny California”. Santa Cruz was not the best environment for him. On the days when the sun rose into an empty blue sky he could be found reclining on the south-facing porch soaking up the warmth of unobstructed photons, while they remained available. At the time I hadn’t yet heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the depressive malady with the somewhat appropriate acronym SAD, but now I recognize that my roommate may have had a mild version. As I noted earlier, I sort of understood his compulsion to sunbathe, but not entirely.

Today, however, experience with very a very different climate has given me a greater empathy for my sun-deprived roommate. More than forty years ago, for a variety of reasons largely related to my career and marital choices, I relocated from central California to the great American Southwest, more specifically to the two border states at the southern end of the continental divide. This required a number of relatively minor adjustments, adaptations to different cultural norms and colder winters, to significantly higher altitudes and lower populations. On balance, after decades of self-imposed exile, I now view these as positive changes, an assessment that is largely reinforced whenever I revisit the cities by the bay in which I grew up.

Yet there is one element of my current life that does bother me intermittently, and it could be interpreted as a SAD-comparable mental condition. It is, however, a reversal of the problem my roommate experienced. In my case the problem is that my adopted state of New Mexico has an annual average precipitation rate of less than nine inches. The majority of that falling water comes in the summer months of July, August, and September; the rest of the months average less than half an inch each, most often provided by brief light drizzles produced by scattered clouds. Most of these minimal bouts of cloudfall would hardly count as rain by California coastal standards. Fog is virtually unheard of. California-style storms in which the entire sky is overcast for days at a time almost never occur in Albuquerque.

That is the problem, although it’s not really like a reversal of SAD. It’s not as if I get depressed or riddled with anxiety or desperation because the skies are endlessly an invariant shade of blue, horizon to horizon. And let’s face it, how could I seriously be upset that the sky is clear and the sun is visible for nearly eighty percent of all annual daylight hours? In my home town of Oakland the summers were like that, relatively hot and clear and dry day after day. The late-day fogs that so often covered much of San Francisco hardly ever reached all the way eastward across the bay. But the rest of Oakland’s year was much wetter, adding up to an average annual rainfall of nearly 25 inches, and there were many times when we didn’t see the sun for three or four days in a row. In fact, the December holiday season never seemed complete until I had walked around downtown Oakland on a night when the lights of the municipal street decorations and the store windows were enhanced by the added sparkle from thousands of droplets deposited by a cold light rain.

I really don’t, and shouldn’t, complain that our outdoor activities in Albuquerque are almost never interrupted or delayed by precipitation—at least not often. It’s a common assumption here that if it’s raining, we need only wait a few minutes to go outside. As if to verify such attitudes, any cloud producing even a heavy monsoon downpour will usually be only one of several, each surrounded by a visible azure background, and the heaviest rain can be soaking downtown Albuquerque while the trucks enjoy dry pavement on Interstate 40 only a couple of miles to the north. Wherever we are, very soon the rain moves on and we can continue whatever we were doing. In strictly personal terms I must admit that any unbroken run of blue skies, even weeks or months on end, doesn’t cause me any significant discomfort. I don’t feel deprived in any way waiting to see one of the rare overcast days. Or maybe I’m in denial. I must admit that when that uncommon stretch of cool gray hours arrives, those times when we can smell the rain from miles away, it does call me outside to walk around, to breathe deeply, and to revel in the feel of slightly-higher-than-average humidity and the tingle of drops hitting exposed skin. It is precisely those rare hours that tell me that I could be, indeed, just as much a product of my childhood experiences as my 1970s roommate.

Having said that, New Mexico’s sun-drenched climate is not anything that will cause me to abandon the many environmental and cultural benefits of living in Albuquerque for a cottage in Santa Cruz or Mendocino or Astoria, as much as I’ve enjoyed visiting all of those locations. That would be true even if I could get anywhere close to affording any kind of adequate lodging on the west coast. No, I’ll stay where I am and remind myself that there are advantages to a generally boring climate, and that I can travel elsewhere on occasion if I want to experience salt-infused fog or waves crashing against a rocky shoreline or thick conifer forests or snow that remains on the ground longer than three hours. It is a compromise I am happy to live with.

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Meat for Thought

I understand the concept, and the importance, of trademark protection. Like most people, I depend on words to make decisions, and the words used in trademarks—brand names, model designations, specialized descriptive terms—often have more significance than the average. We depend on such things to guide our everyday purchases, and companies often jealously guard the words they have developed into markers for their own products. In that way, trademark protection can protect both ordinary consumers and manufacturers from fraud and misuse. But very often, companies, and the relevant enforcing powers (primarily the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the courts), have been known to overreact.

One small example occurred last year here in Albuquerque. A strip-mall bakery opened up under the name Doughboy Donuts, a title the owner chose to honor her grandfather, who was in the infantry in the first World War. The nickname doughboy was commonly used to refer to men who fought on the ground in that war, a carryover from similar usage throughout most of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the name had also been registered by Pillsbury as one name for the puffy little spokeslump that has appeared in their commercials since 1965. That corporate trademark registration conveniently ignored the long previous history of other uses for the term, eventually allowing Pillsbury to successfully sue our local donut shop for trademark infringement, forcing them out of business. We can, perhaps, take some consolation that this year Ohio State University made an attempt to trademark the word “the” (yes, “the” by itself) for their exclusive use in marketing, and thir request was refused.

In the past few years there has been a more widespread questionable use of trademark rights in a variety of sports-related sweepstakes in the fall months in the United States. You probably have seen notices offering you a chance to win a trip to “the ultimate football game” or “the final game of the season” or some other strained euphemism. The operators of these contests have been forced to use such odd circumlocutions because the NFL has trademarked the term “Super Bowl” and refuses to allow use of that phrase in any advertisements that they don’t produce or specifically authorize. This particular trademark registration may have been reasonable, but it has produced two effects that would seem to be counterproductive for the NFL and its message: Confusion in the minds of consumers and reduced promotional references for their singular “Super Bowl”.

Misuse of the concept of protected words, however, may soon be coming to two broader applications, this time related to food. The trade associations representing producers of meat and dairy items are trying to figure out how to respond to the increased competition they’re getting from vegetables. They have proposed new regulations which would prohibit the use of the words “meat” and “milk” for any product that is not produced by a … well, defining a source category may be difficult in both cases. Roughly, they want to limit the use of those words to foods produced by animals.

Admittedly, the consumption of animal meat and animal milk has declined significantly in recent years. This is in part due to increased information from vegetarian and vegan promoters and in part due to competition from alternative products, primarily meat substitutes such as vegetable and soy burgers and the plethora of “milk” drinks made from soybeans, almonds, peas, and oats. For those not inclined to be vegan, these alternative products promise a variety of promotional health benefits, some recognized and some not yet proven. The producers of plant-based “meat” and non-dairy “milk” are getting more creative every day, adding to the anxieties of those who produce the traditional versions.

There are already some types of food name protections that are active today. Margarine was developed to alleviate shortages during the Napoleonic wars in 1869, but the closest it has come to using the word “butter” (as in “corn butter” or “soy butter”, perhaps?) is in the modern product I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. In fact, for most of the decades that margarine was available, its producers were prohibited from adding the yellow food color that is now used to mask its natural unattractive whiteness. And for fruit drinks, the use of the word “juice” is strictly regulated. Note: Anything that is labelled “juice drink” most likely does not contain much real fruit juice.

But now the food label police could be coming after two of the staples of the modern diet. I’m not sure I see the point—perhaps it’s simple desperation. Somehow I don’t believe that forcing the makers of soy milk to call their product “white soy drink” or some other non-milk title will stop its devotees from drinking it. In fact, the company that sells Silk soy milk has done quite well despite the fact that the word milk is not prominently featured on its label. So unless the dairy consortium can come up with a deeply unappealing alternative work and can force it to be used—something like vegemurk or soy slurry or something latin-derived like “oleo” for margarine—there doesn’t seem to be any way for them to encourage people to give up the use of alternatives to milk. No offense meant, but the fact is that most of the makers of soy milk and oat milk have already done what they could to make their products as un-milk-like as possible, sweeter and more viscous than the real cow product, and there’s little likelihood that those who drink them are mistaking their pseudo-milk for the real thing.

The same probably can be said about alternative meats, althogh in this case the newest offenders such as the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, are doing their best to make their product as indistinguishable from real ground beef as possible, even at the risk of making them less . Still, we must recognize that virtually all of the options commercially available at this time are being promoted as “burgers”, not as meat. So is the effort to restrict the word “meat” an advance warning against those lab rats who are developing chicken nuggets and solid “real-beef” muscle tissue from stem cells? It will probably be a while before we find out. In the meantime, a trademark registration for “meat” will probably do very little to slow down the transition to veggie substitutes.

There’s also a historical note to the idea of a meat trademark. The word itself is derived, with minimal change in pronunciation, from the Old English word “mete”, a synonym for food. It retains much of this early definition in references to the edible parts of some non-muscular foods, as in references to “nut meats” or the meat of an egg. It also is used to refer to the central portion of a concept or an experience, as in the phrase “the meat of the issue”. The industry that wants to control the word we use to refer to animal flesh, interestingly, is simultaneously applying the same word to something they call “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) or “boneless lean beef trimmings” (BLBT), a melange of pulverized beef byproducts that is often added to ground beef. If you haven’t heard of this additive, look it up under the less positive term “pink slime”. It is obvious that the representatives of the meat industries are not always acting in the best interests of the consumer.

Our national trademark system is not broken, but there are many cases in which it has been misapplied and misused. Unfortunately, the process is a relatively closed one that we cannot influence directly. We must rely on the views and actions of the appointed leadership of the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the employees they hire to advise them. This is just another example demonstrating that we should be concerned about who we elect as president of these United States.

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Religious Reversal

The phrase “freedom of religion” has long been used as a substitute, of sorts, for the protections included in the first amendment to the United States Constitution. As such, it has always been considered to describe a positive concept, a contrast to the undemocratic and often despotic systems that the English colonists rejected when they wrote that document. The wording of the first amendment proscribes the government from “establishing” an official religion and “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Prior to the adoption of the constitution in 1789 the thirteen original colonies had held a mixed record regarding religion, most of them enforcing bans on anything other than Anglican or Congregational practices. Only one (Pennsylvania) had maintained an unbroken record of religious freedom and many had repeatedly prosecuted members of unapproved religions. The First Amendment was viewed by its authors as a solution for colonial persecution as much as European.

The United States has not always lived up to the ideal set out in the first amendment’s establishment clause. Official policies often have negatively targeted the customs of minority religions, including those of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, and Native Americans. Many government bodies at all levels have carried on a tradition of beginning their meetings with a Christian prayer. When government-funded schools were established across the country after the civil war almost all of them were saturated with Protestant assumptions and doctrines; that is why the Catholic Church soon established its own widespread educational system. Creeping secularism, largely enforced by legal challenges and the resulting court decisions, has gradually removed the most blatant of these examples of Christian preference. But there has always been, and continues to be, a backlash from some elements of the Christian majority.

In most cases the resistance has come from local opponents, groups that resent losing the sectarian prayers that had “always” preceded their city council meeting or that were broadcast daily over the intercom with the morning classroom announcements. In their summation the courts are chasing God out of our public spaces and accelerating moral decay within our society. They have often threatened and shunned anyone who insisted on removing “their” prayers or other religious displays. At times, as now, these local efforts become part of a nationalized movement and obtain support from nationally-funded legal and propaganda organizations.

Resistance to a secularized government reached a high point during the first decade of the cold war, a dogmatic battle often framed as being against “godless Communism”. Much of the early rhetoric emphasized religion, and especially Christianity, as a primary weapon against the enemy. The pledge of allegiance to the United States flag was adopted by Congress at the beginning of World War II, but that version did not contain the two words “under God” until 12 years later, in 1954. Although the phrase “In God We Trust” had been added to some coins during the civil war in an effort to demonstrate that the supreme being was, indeed, on the side of the Union, it did not become the official motto of the United States until 1956, and was not universally applied to all currency until one year after that. This burst of pro-religious fervor subsided somewhat after the collapse of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the exposure of Senator Joe McCarthy, but it was soon revived and nurtured by the rise of the Christian Right movement.

The United States now finds itself in another active period of pro-Christian intrusiveness. We have well-funded organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council that use media and legislative lobbying and legal challenges to promote what they view as Christian policies in government. Conservative television and radio outlets reinforce such efforts, pushing a narrow sectarian doctrine in verbal crusades ranging from attempting to ban abortion and gay marriage to expanding public prayer to the posting of the Protestant Ten Commandments and the phrase “In God We Trust” in government buildings. In most cases, their efforts take form in laws passed by state legislatures, laws which have been almost universally challenged in court and rejected as being unconstitutional.

With the election of President Trump, however, the agenda of the Christian Right has expanded upward into the federal system. The Republican-led Senate has prioritized the appointment of federal judges who are approved by the Federalist Society, an arch-conservative organization. This preference began in the late Reagan years, but appointments of conservative judges has exploded with the elimination of the filibuster rules that used to control judicial approvals. Five members of the current Supreme Court (Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts) are, or have been, members of the Society, a fact that has newly inspired those who believe in enforcing extreme religious doctrines in the form of reversing the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and many of the recent expansions of LGBTQ protections.

The Christian right agenda has also moved into the federal bureaucracy. Most recently, a rule promulgated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has turned the concept of religious freedom on its head. It is titled “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care,” and it states that any health care worker can refuse treatment to anyone who offends their own personal religious or moral beliefs. The HHS rule places no limits on what would constitute a religious or moral objection. It also states that any medical facilities that try to keep their employees in line by enforcing their own non-discrimination policies may be subject to loss of any federal funding. This is an agency of the federal government, in effect, promoting specific sectarian doctrines by encouraging health-care employees to apply them to any patient who requires their services, whether that patient believes in that doctrine or not.

We must recognize that there is potential for conflict here. Government efforts to reduce discrimination in commerce and services have increased enormously in recent decades. Where once it was common-place for people to refuse services to a variety of minorities—Jews, Muslims, black people, LGTBQ people, and even, further back, Irish and Italians—it is now largely illegal to do so. The conflict can come from the part of the First Amendment that says “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Does a person’s religious freedom imply the right to apply their preferred doctrine or sectarian interpretation to the detriment of others who do not share their preferences? Is the government constrained from enforcing a non-discrimination statute if it conflicts with the personal religious preferences of a person who wants to discriminate? This is a serious question, especially in health care, a field in which the very lives of patients can be endangered by the decisions of individual workers. What if an ambulance driver refuses to transport a trans or LGBTQ person? What if a hospital refuses to treat a woman with an ectopic pregnancy because it would end the life of the fetus? Some pharmacists have refused to dispense specific birth control drugs that they regard as abortifacients, even to customers for whom that drug is prescribed for unrelated medicinal purposes. What if that pharmacist is the only one available in a small town?

The HHS denial of service rule is a threat to the lives of many different people whenever they interact with any aspect of our health care system. It is wrong to allow any people who are tasked with providing a public service—of any type—to discriminate on the basis of race or sex or religion or sexual preference. It is especially wrong, and especially dangerous, to allow someone in the health care business to do so. Yet this is what the leaders of the HHS are planning to do. Freedom of religion is a vitally important concept, but it should not be twisted into a freedom to discriminate against others.

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Census-ship

As I write this, the media is proclaiming that President Trump has backtracked on his various plans to include a specific question on the official 2020 census form. The item the Trump administration wanted would ask respondents if they were born in the United States. If not, it further would ask if they were born in specific United States overseas territories or to parents who were U.S. citizens—these options would make them citizens at birth. Then there was an option that asked if they were naturalized and what year that occurred. The final choice on the list was “No, not a U.S. citizen.” The administration wanted this question so much that they took their argument to the Supreme Court, and after the Court turned them down the president continued for a while to insist that he would find a way to bypass that decision. Therefore, in a sense, the president’s team did back down, meaning that they accepted the reality that they would not be able to put their citizenship question on the census form. They did not, however, reverse course on the questionable purposes that the question was designed to achieve.

To understand this fact we have to briefly review the background of the census and the citizenship question. The broad purpose of the census, as defined by the Constitution and a number of laws passed by congress, is to provide generalized population data for use by government agencies. Most notably, census data is used to apportion federal funds and to determine the size of congressional districts for members of the House of Representatives. The census bureau only provides this data in anonymized form; any individually identifiable information is restricted by a rule that prohibits public disclosure of any such data for 72 years after it is collected.

One of the problems with the census is that many people do not know about the 72-year rule or do not believe it can be trusted. The rule was, in fact, violated during World War II, allowing the government to identify and round up Italian nationals and citizens of Japanese descent to move them into detention centers. That was a rare exception. But mistrust of the census has increased since the beginning of the Trump administration because of well-publicized policies such as the immigrant crackdowns and the Muslim ban. A Census Bureau memorandum from September 2017 noted an “increase in respondents spontaneously expressing concerns about confidentiality.” Any specific question that would seem to feed into Trumpian anti-immigrant tendencies could be expected to add to this level of mistrust, especially if it was one that was added by the same administration.

There have been many recent arguments about whether a citizenship question has been previously included in the census, and the rough answer to that is that it has, but only on a partial basis. The historical record is complex, as you can see by referring to an article on the NPR website. After reviewing the history of the census, that same article concludes that “if the 2020 census form does ultimately ask about citizenship status, it will be the first time the U.S. census has directly asked for the citizenship status of every person living in every household.” The first time. The Census Bureau resisted breaking with their lengthy tradition, arguing that adding the citizenship question would increase mistrust of the motives of the census process and would decrease participation among households containing non-citizens.

The question then becomes, why does the current administration so desperately want to include this question? They wouldn’t be able to make use of individual data to deport non-citizens unless they could convince the Census Bureau and the courts that it was justified by a significant national security crisis. That would be unlikely. But that was never their intent. The actual intent was disclosed by opponents during court proceedings, and it ties in with the larger long-standing Republican strategy to win elections by restricting and otherwise reducing participation by voters who favor Democrats.

In testimony and documents presented in three court cases and before the Supreme Court, the Trump administration argued that the citizenship question was needed to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act (1965). That by itself would be a suspect statement because the primary individuals involved in promoting the citizenship question included Wilbur Ross, Steve Bannon, and Kris Kobach, men known for opposing the provisions of that very act. The background information provided by opponents of the question made it clear that the motives of the Trump administration were, in fact, to do exactly what the Census Bureau had warned against; to reduce participation in the census and in that way to reduce official population levels in regions with high percentages of minorities, with the specific goal of reducing their voting power in congress. Opponents also provided evidence that the Trump administration wanted to use granular citizenship data to support Republicans during the redistricting process (i.e., gerrymandering). Trump administration witnesses had concealed all of these motives. New York Judge Jesse Furman noted that the administration’s arguments were “the acts and statements of officials with something to hide.”

In the Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision Chief Justice Roberts unexpectedly turned against the administration’s strategy. In his written conclusions, Roberts noted that “The evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) gave for his decision. The sole stated reason seems to have been contrived.” He further implied that he might otherwise have approved including the citizenship question on the census, noting, “We do not hold that the agency decision here was substantively invalid. But agencies must pursue their goals reasonably. Reasoned decision-making under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”

Following the Supreme Court decision, President Trump initially signaled defiance, saying that he would find a way, perhaps through executive orders, to get the question back on the census form. After a few days he relented. As I noted above, the media characterized this as a concession, a reversal. But it wasn’t, as was made clear in the statements of President Trump and Attorney General William Barr in the press conference they called to announce their decision. Instead of using a citizenship question on the census form, they said they are authorizing a broad interchange of data from all relvant federal agencies to compile citizenship data. The results, Attorney General Barr noted, will be used for “apportionment purposes,” in other words to determine the size of districts for congressional representation. That is a potentially sinister comment, given that prominent Republicans have frequently proposed changes that would base apportionment not on the total population, but on the number of eligible voters in a district. A current lawsuit in Alabama argues that non-citizens can’t be counted in determining apportionment. The purpose, once again, is to reduce the number of congressional representatives coming from regions with high percentages of undocumented residents, districts in states such as California, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, most of them districts that generally vote for Democrats.

In short, the citizenship question was simply another ploy in the overall Republican strategy that is dedicated to disenfranchising Democratic voters, the wide-reaching plan that includes partisan gerrymandering, voter ID requirements, intentionally inaccurate voter purges, and reductions in voting hours, locations, or available voting booths in Democratic precincts. Unfortunately, all of the media coverage about the Trump plans, with no mention of the 72-year rule, may have partially succeeded in this effort by making more people nervous about the census and about the ways their census data might be used. In any case, the Trump administration is planning to continue with their voting restrictions with whatever citizenship data they can obtain.

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Endless Growth

Two months ago my post discussed one of the major failings of economic analysis and media coverage in the United States: The reverential myth of the powerful leader. By itself, that tendency has created dangerous misinterpretations of economic and regulatory trends and, therefore, badly skewed policy prescriptions for the country. Among other things, it has inspired laws and regulations that effectively limit increases in average wages and benefits, corporate board structures that reinforce the power and income of leading CEOs, and tax policies that favor the most wealthy among us. Unfortunately, there is another common set of assumptions that also distorts our analytical processes and reduces our ability to plan for a sustainable future. This is the doctrine of perpetual growth, in which we assume that it is not only good, but necessary, to expand the economy by a certain percentage every year, and that the larger that percentage is, the better.

In the life of our economy there are arguably some reasons why growth could be useful. First, of course, is the fact that the country’s population continues to grow, which means that the gross domestic product (GDP) must increase at least at the same rate just to maintain the same share of resources to each individual. The expectation, in fact, has always been that each succeeding generation would be better off than their parents, which implies not just stasis, but a GDP growth rate that is adequate to provide an increased share of resources for each individual. Never mind that that expectation hasn’t been met for most of the population since the mid 1970s, when average income stopped growing despite continuing increases in GDP and productivity. The ideal of generational improvement may have collapsed, but the population argument is still used to justify economic growth.

The population argument is also part of a curiously circular system. We have, on the one hand, the ubiquitous assumption that in order to keep up with population growth we need to constantly expand our economy. At the same time, there are widespread expressions of concern that in most developed countries the “fertility rate” has dropped below the “replacement rate” that we assume is needed. In short, as an article in The Economist (August 22, 2015) noted, “The net effect is a ‘perfect demographic storm’ that will imperil economic growth.” So what is it? Do we need to increase the population to keep the economy growing, or do we need to grow the economy to compensate for any increases in population?

Admittedly, there are some valid concerns in that national economies must manage to support aging populations with fewer new births to create active workers to pay taxes, but such analyses generally fail to note two current statistics: In much of Europe the unemployment rate among young people is often above ten percent, and in the United States the labor participation rate, the percentage of working-age individuals actually in the labor market, has declined to just above 60 percent. It seems as if there might be a cushion of available workers who could take the place of the missing births even if developed countries continue to discourage immigration. If not, with our current level of income inequality we could easily support our less-affluent aging populations through progressive tax policies.

A different factor pushing for GDP growth is the demand by investors for increasingly higher profits and dividends. One way for profits to grow is for corporations to grow. They can do this in a zero-sum economy by taking market share from their competitors, but it is easier if the overall market pool increases. This is one expectation that hasn’t failed in the past five decades. Whatever growth there has been in productivity and GDP has gone almost entirely into profits and dividends, not into wages. In fact, for the vast majority of people in the United States none of the GDP growth in the past five decades has “trickled down” to them, and any future improvements in their personal economic situation may be expected to come only through tax and regulatory policy, not through greater GDP growth.

Assuming, therefore, that a constantly growing GDP may be neither necessary nor meaningful, why can’t we simply assume that it is a positive goal that is largely harmless? Why can’t the economy of the United States continue to grow at three percent every year simply because we would like it to?

The answer comes, in large part, from resource limits. We live in a finite world. The warnings are all around us. I know that the Malthusians have been predicting overpopulation doom for more than 200 years, and somehow we have, thus far, managed to avoid most of the disasters they predicted, largely through advances in technology. They were correct to the degree that we have had serious famines, but these have been relatively limited in impact, confined to specific geographic regions and populations. If it seems like I’m minimizing this problem, as we often do, my apologies to the chronic sufferers in places such as Bangladesh and northern Africa.

Neither am I talking about the repeated predictions about coming shortages in fossil energy supplies—oil and natural gas and coal. We have, again, managed to discover more and more untapped reserves, often through the application of new extraction techniques like fracking. The fact is, the problem with carbon-source energy is not that it threatens to become scarce, but that it threatens to continue being all too abundant and available for the usual applications. That threat now comes from the relationship between fossil fuel use and the true shortages that we do need to worry about as a result of continued growth. The true limits involve, simply, the vital three resources of air, water, and land. Specifically, clean air, potable water, and unpolluted land.

Begin by going back to the Malthusian argument. One of the ways we avoided widespread famine was by redistributing clean water. Now, of course, that resource is reaching limits in many places, and cities like Cape Town and Phoenix are reporting svere shortages. We also intensified the use of fossil resources in food production. Prior to 1940 we grew 6 units of agricultural output energy using only about 1 unit of fossil energy inputs. Today, following generalized soil depletion and the increased use of fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and mechanized processing, it takes as much as 10 units of fossil-derived energy to produce one unit of output. Meat production has been centralized in giant feed lots and animal warehouses also requiring significant increases in artificial nutrients and antibiotics. Both plant and meat production use large amounts of water and create massive amounts of waste liquids that are allowed to run off or improperly contained, adding agrochemicals to surface water and ground water across entire watersheds and creating large dead zones in near-coastal waters like the Gulf of Mexico.

Mining, extraction of the minerals used to satisfy our growth in consumer goods, continues to create ever-larger holes in the ground adjacent to even larger piles of tailings contaminated with the chemicals used to separate the small percentages of the useful elements we need. Subsequent industrial processing of these and other inputs adds yet more pollutants to local water and the atmosphere. Packaging, transport, and disposal of replaced items add resource costs and waste materials to the expanded amounts of consumer goods, an often unnecessary impulse fueled by demand created by advertising as producers try to induce more growth in saturated markets. In the name of growth we are increasingly trashing our land, water, and air, in many locations and in many ways that may be irreversible.

Many of the impacts of our growth are not localized. The increased presence of plastic wastes in the oceans attests to that. But the ultimate ubiquitous impact of human activity is the collection of phenomena known either as climate change or global warming. Greenhouse gases are the ultimate universal pollutant with the ultimate destructive force. Every one of the processes listed above, to include the manufacture of “green” devices used to produce and distribute solar and wind alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels, involves the release of one or several greenhouse gases.

We can, to some degree, substitute processes that use fewer scarce resources and that release fewer pollutants. But the more we grow, either in population or in economic activity, the more shortages and waste materials we will create. From the point of view of our finite earth, continued growth of any kind is not sustainable.

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One Man’s Opinion

Eddie assumed that it would be an ordinary day, and at first it seemed that it would be. Eddie got up on the right side of the bed—he usually avoided the left side, he wasn’t sure why, but he had noticed the pattern. Patterns and consistency were important, he knew, because they reduced unnecessary effort and eliminated confusion and indecision. Keeping his toothpaste and mouthwash in the same location on the bathroom counter, eating the same cereal for breakfast, the cereal that was always on the same shelf in the pantry, with the milk that was always on the lower shelf on the inside of the door of the refrigerator, all of that avoided wasting time making decisions and looking for things. He realized that he hadn’t noticed which leg he normally put into his pants first, only remembering that he once tried to put both legs in at the same time, a method that he knew would have been more efficient. He tried sitting on the bathroom counter as he simultaneously raised both legs and lifted his trousers. It proved too difficult to retain his balance as he performed the motions that had seemed so effortless and rapid in his mental image of the attempt. Maybe the idea wasn’t reasonable. That fact was disappointing.

Efficiency was important, he remarked to the person in his mirror. That person was of average height, relatively slim, with an oval face framed by dark brown hair with just a touch of gray streaks above the ears. His dark brown eyes and straight-line lips portrayed a stance of critical appraisal. The image appeared older than he had only a few years earlier, and that also disappointed Eddie. Aging is also inefficient, Eddie recognized, and was suddenly struck by the impression that this particular insight was important, perhaps even revolutionary. Like many other forms of inefficiency, aging was inefficient in two ways. It was, first, a waste of new and youthful resources, the people and objects that were deteriorating and becoming less—less effective, less attractive, less useful, less important. And second, aging forced everyone to expend other resources in an attempt to counter its effects. We exercise to avoid declining muscle strength, we apply creams to smooth aging and drying skin and add on ointments to reduce pain, we endure surgical procedures to get rid of wrinkles and flabby skin and failing knees and hips. All of this could be avoided if we could simply halt the aging process. Eddie resolved to do that, to start immediately. He took another good long look at the image in the mirror. From now on it should not change, althought he dicided he wouldn’t expend any extra effort to make that happen.

As he pulled his car out of the garage his GPS system indicated a slow-down caused by a waterline break on Fifth Avenue. He decided to use his predetermined alternate route going north on Third instead. The slight alteration would add about a tenth of a mile and almost a minute to his commute, assuming that there wouldn’t be a great deal of additional traffic caused by other people avoiding the Fifth Avenue delays. Such variations, too, were inefficient. Unfortunately Eddie had no influence in city government; otherwise he could require the Public Works Department to begin a more proactive strategy that would identify potential problem areas in advance so they could schedule repairs on the weekends and holidays to avoid inefficient inconveniences during the weekday commutes. As he approached the parking lot for Camdex Strategies, his place of work, his primary concern was that the morning’s slight delay would have allowed someone else to take his usual parking location. He was relieved to see that that hadn’t happened. He always tried to arrive and clock in half an hour earlier than most anyone else, both to avoid the heavier commute rush and to ensure access to this slot. Parking in the same position every day eliminated the inefficiency of trying to remember and locate his car at the end of the workday. He tried to do something similar in the large lots at the supermarket and the shopping center and the airport. He obviously couldn’t take the same parking space in those locations, but he did leave his car in the same row every time.

There was another aspect of going to the supermarket that Eddie also tried to control, but that could at times be particularly annoying. He always went to the same store every time because it helped him get in and out as efficiently as possible; he generally knew where all of the items on his list could be found. The trouble was that every month or so the store rearranged the shelves. Most often it was simply changing the position of specific items on their aisles, so, for example, after their efforts he had to scan virtually the entire cereal section to find his Sugar-coated Cornpuffs. At other times, though, they moved entire categories, transferring the peanut butter and jam from aisle 12 to aisle 2 opposite the produce section. Eddie knew that they did this to force customers to browse aisles that they normally would not have entered, in effect wasting a great deal of employee time shifting entire shelves around for the sole purpose of making shopping less efficient. At those times his initial impulse was always to boycott, to start shopping at another store, but the thought of switching to an entirely new marketing and organizational system, with a giant floor full of unfamiliar aisles and signs and brand names, always stopped him. Again, if only he worked as a district manager for his chosen store he could easily and quickly avoid this insanity.

No, the only places in which he could improve efficiency were in his home and at work. In the former case, of course, he was the sole occupant and had full control. He had his rooms and his closet and his filing cabinet organized and standardized in the most efficient manner. He minimized the colors of his suits and shirts and ties so that pretty much everything matched, reducing his options in favor of avoiding the necessity of deciding which specific tie to wear with which specific shirt, and which shirt to go with which suit. Everything was solid tones of gray and blue, inherently compatible. All his work shoes were black lace-up oxfords. He never altered his outfit for casual Friday—he had considered simply leaving off the tie for the day, but that also seemed like yet another unnecessary decision. On weekends he wore casual light gray chinos and a polo shirt, even when he planned to work in the yard.

Eddie knew that his standardization of clothing choices was a source of amusement among his co-workers. They kidded him about it and they probably joked about it behind his back. He didn’t care. He had tried explaining his theory to three of them, the ones he thought might be most receptive to it, but he’d noticed no effect. So he had decided to ignore questions of personal options to concentrate on improving the efficiency of company operations. This particular morning offered another opportunity in that his division was holding another of their regularly scheduled biweekly staff meetings, and he had two memos ready to hand out describing changes in daily procedures that would reduce redundant or superfluous actions. He was a bit disappointed that as meeting memos go, this was slightly below his average, which, he guessed, would probably be somewhere between three and four. He had kept copies of all of them, of course, and maintained a list of the memo topics and the dates on which he’d introduced them, but felt it was unnecessary to keep a running total or calculate an average. Sometimes he thought he should have included, on that list, some kind of notation about which proposals had been implemented, but he hadn’t managed to add that information. Part of the reason for that was that nobody had ever told him that his ideas had been used. He suspected that many of his suggestions had been adopted, but only after being modified and after a delay and without recognizing his contribution, subterfuges undoubtedly employed to allow others to take credit for his input. Any complaints or questions that Eddie had brought up about such diversions, or indeed any of his follow-up requests for information about his memos, had been given the same treatment as his suggestions about wardrobe options, so he had mostly given up asking.

When Eddie arrived at the room where the day’s meeting was being held he first reviewed the agenda. Normally there was an entry for “Staff Input”, which was understood to be time set aside for comments that had not been pre-scheduled—a category that always included Eddie’s memos. This time that entry had not been included. After the reading of the minutes of the past meeting, which he noted did not mention the four memos he had provided at that event, he held up his stack of new memos and asked, “Is there an input segment today? I have a couple of suggestions here.” Roger Carlson, the department manager, replied that because of time constraints there would not be any open-ended input period this time. After momentarily freezing in place, then glancing at the faces around the table, Eddie began passing out the copies of his memos while telling everyone how important they were. He then told everyone to look at the first memo as he began describing it. To his surprise, all of the people at the table left their copies on the table and directed their attention toward Roger. He stopped talking in mid-sentence.

“Thank you, Eddie. Have a seat, please,” Roger said in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. “I think we’ll begin with the first agenda item.” Eddie tossed the remaining memos into the middle of the table and walked out. That afternoon he offered his resignation, and it was accepted.

As he drove home from Camdex for the last time, Eddie reviewed the narrative he would use from then on to describe the reason he had left his job, if anyone asked. It was obvious, after all, that his manager, Mr. Carlson, had become increasingly threatened by Eddie’s managerial suggestions and had decided to force Eddie out before somebody noticed and promoted him into Carlson’s job; before somebody realized that Carlson’s best ideas were really Eddie’s. It was unfair, but it was, after all, Camdex’s loss, not his. Someday they would recognize how incompetent Roger Carlson was, but it would be too late.

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Trickle-Up Time

The philosophy of Economics has developed in odd ways in the past five decades, especially in the popular mind. In the academic world it remains a complex system bound by esoteric mathematics and subdivided into a number of different denominations—I was going to call them sects, and sometimes it seems as if that’s what they are, but let’s go with the word that has fewer religious connotations.

Start with the modern popular cult surrounding Friedrich Hayek. As David Sloan Wilson noted in an article in Evonomics, Hayek has been turned into a simplistic monster. His books could fill a bookshelf and the commentary could fill a small library, but the monstrous version can only speak in two-word sentences: ‘Government bad! Market good!’ Likewise, the monstrous version of Adam Smith, the father of economics, can only say, ‘Invisible hand!’” Extreme simplification might enhance the broad acceptance of a doctrine, but it should not, in anything similar to that form, be used as a guide for government policy. Unfortunately, that’s often what has happened.

Likewise, the philosophy of Ayn Rand continues to raise its libertarian influence in the economic and political life of the United States. Among others, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and many members of the House “Freedom Caucus” (née the Tea Party) are known to be acolytes of both Hayek and Rand. In Rand’s case, however, we cannot complain that her philosophy has been greatly simplified. It always was an unsophisticated vision of economic systems, one that glorified the twin myths of the free market and the successful entrepreneur. In one novel, Atlas Shrugged, she even fantasizes about how economic “prime movers” or “creative minds” could cause a widespread collapse if they went “on strike”, thus fatally removing their unique and rare talents from the marketplace.

A modern example of Randian excess is our current idol-worship regarding business leaders. The media coverage of CEOs like Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is generally reverent, with stories of their fiduciary and managerial successes far exceeding any mention of their significant faults. And, as befits coverage of what might be termed secular saints, the power of these men to influence events, and the positive outcomes of their executive efforts, are both highly exaggerated.

Let’s look, for example, at Microsoft and the continuing cult of Bill Gates, a devotion now transferred to the Gates Foundation. Gates is given credit for innovative excellence and creativity because his company, Microsoft, became a software industry powerhouse. However, Microsoft only succeeded because in the early days of microcomputers the business mainframe (and typewriter) hegemon IBM needed an operating system for their new desktop products. They wanted their own version of a system called CP/M. Digital Research, which developed CP/M, wanted to charge a royalty for it. So IBM turned instead to Microsoft, which modified CP/M and renamed it “PC DOS” (later to become MS-DOS). The fact is that IBM microcomputers using PC DOS were far from being the best options available at the time, but the IBM name and sales network quickly made the IBM PC the standard in the business world, which made Microsoft the leader in early operating systems.

That gave Microsoft both near-monopoly power in the industry and ample funding to extend it. In the first two decades of personal computers other companies developed several excellent and popular software products, including the word processor Wordperfect, spreadsheets Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3, and the internet browser Netscape, among others. Following the strategy it used with CP/M, Microsoft copied these programs. They were not content with mere competition, however. They sabotaged Wordperfect and Lotus by making frequent changes in their operating system that interfered with the operation of those programs, encouraging users to switch to the Microsoft products Word and Excel. After they morphed from MS-DOS to Windows, which was a bad copy of the Macintosh interface, they undercut Netscape by offering their own browser, Explorer, for free with all new systems.

In short, the successes of Bill Gates and Microsoft did not occur because they were innovators or leading creative minds or because their product were superior. They simply parlayed an initial stroke of good fortune with IBM into a dominant position, one that they then used to steal market share from software produced by some of the best innovators. Yes, eventually their products did improve, but the status of Word and Excel and Explorer and Windows as industry leaders was always more a result of IBM’s market dominance than Microsoft/Gates supremacy.

The same pattern has been repeated throughout the history of capitalistic expansion. Anyone familiar with the biographies of our titans of industry—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, Jay Cooke, Leland Stanford, among others—knows that their success was not a result of the uniqueness and creativity of their business plan, but because they benefited from a combination of factors like timing, political influence, luck, and, very often, a Microsoft-style model involving deliberate sabotage of both the infrastructure and the reputations of their competitors.

But as the Microsoft example shows us, we don’t have to look back to the nineteenth century to find examples of CEO “expertise” that was not beneficial. Look to the leadership of the dominant financial services in the first decade of this millennium and the rock-star CEOs who created the Great Worldwide Recession of 2008, including not only the ill-fated Lehman Brothers and AIG, but also Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and others. The leaders of these institutions initiated the disaster decades before the collapse by advising (lobbying) the federal government to deregulate their industry, that is, to apply the Ayn-Randian solution by removing most of the depression-era controls that had successfully stabilized economic and financial markets for more than fifty years. Their advice, involvement, and campaign donations influenced Congress and the administrations of presidents Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton. And their efforts led us to disaster.

None of them were deterred by the warning signs provided by events such as the savings and loan collapse of the late 1980s and the Enron scandal of 2000, both of which were made possible (perhaps inevitable) by deregulation. After even more restrictions had been cleared away, they vastly expanded questionable (and often previously illegal) activities—promoting risky mortgage and loan packages, bundling such packages into often mislabelled securities, purchasing investments with uncertain short-term financing, and expanding financial leveraging to extreme multiples. In most cases they continued this behavior for months after they knew that the system was seriously unstable, often promoting securities that they knew would soon be worthless. Would we really have been worse off if these economic leaders had gone on strike instead? Perhaps we should have followed the example of Iceland and prosecuted our financial wizards for fraud. Instead we encouraged their destructive behavior by treating CEOs with reverence and providing them with bailouts and exorbitant rewards.

No, it’s even worse than that, and it continues. By venerating the supposed genius at the top and giving them undue credit for the successes of their enterprises, we are not only encouraging the risky behavior of irresponsible egomaniacs. We are also ignoring the many layers of employees, all of whom also were involved in, and responsible for, the success of their corporation. Instead the CEO gets the credit and the massive rewards. The underlings? Their contributions are both unrecognized and inadequately compensated. During Jack Welch’s tenure as CEO of General Electric, more than 100,000 of them, a quarter of the GE work force, were fired. Meanwhile the congressional believers in the monstrous simplicity of Hayek/Rand pseudo-economic philosophy exacerbate the problem by giving the “prime movers” massive tax breaks and arguing, against all precedent, that the benefits will “trickle down” to the rest of us.

In this way we justify taking our societal resources and directing almost all of them toward the top strata. As a result upward mobility has virtually disappeared and the income gap, the economic divide between the upper ten percent and the rest of us, has gone from excessive to extreme. By the way, Friedrich Hayek predicted that would happen and did not consider it a positive outcome. It is past time for us to recognize that the truly essential members in our economy are the ordinary workers—from mid-level management down to the janitors, both in their roles as workers and as consumers—and to increase their incomes so that such people can survive and support a family without working two jobs at a time, as is now common. In short, it is time to try a “trickle-up” strategy.

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Job Errors

I don’t often buy things online. Maybe a book I can’t get anywhere else, but most often coffee I can’t get locally. That, of course, makes me feel like an outsider in this world in which everything seems to be available from internet sources and a huge majority of people seem to be members of Amazon Prime and there are ads on TV that tell me “you already buy almost everything online”. Well, I don’t, and I refuse to. The way I see it, I have a choice between two options:

(a) Ordering from home “in my pajamas” and having the items delivered to my porch, in two or three days, and possibly stolen from there, and potentially having to send them back if they aren’t what I expected.

(b) Driving to a local store, actually seeing and feeling what I’m buying before I pay for it, and taking it home immediately.

Of these, I prefer the second option (b), even if it costs a little bit more (it doesn’t always). That choice also has the added benefit of keeping more of my money here in our community. Some things are more important than getting the lowest price.*

However, there are some things that cannot be purchased in a local store. In the past few years, that has made me aware of two more reasons to avoid ordering something that has to be individually shipped. I’ve heard people complain about both of these problems and I’ve experienced both myself, but I’ll describe each of them separately, then bring them back together because they both stem from the same cause, a modern and increasingly troublesome trend.

Have you ever ordered something online, carefully picking out the specific item you want, only to open the box when it arrives and find that they sent you the wrong color or size or flavor? I’m not talking about ordering a size 6 petite and discovering that it is both smaller and longer than you expected. What I’m referring to is when you order a size 6 and the invoice says size 6 but the warehouse has put a size 10 in the box. Either way, you have to send the item back, but in the first case it was because of a common problem with sizing (because, of course, you couldn’t try it on before you bought it) and in the second case it was an outright error. It could be characterized as, in essence, sloppy work. Oh, and it really does occur often in warehouses, even if the corporate image masters have decided to call the buildings “fulfillment centers”.

Another problem does not happen at the warehouse. It occurs when your package doesn’t end up at your house because it is delivered to someone else. The driver, of course, marks it as delivered because they placed it at the door and rang the doorbell. I have “completed” the delivery of boxes to neighbors when they were put on our porch by mistake, and once, when I didn’t get a package I expected, I walked down the street and found it stuffed behind the screen door of a house three doors away. In all these cases the correct address was clearly visible on both the package and the house. Once again, it was just sloppy work.

It’s not just me. I’ve heard complaints about warehouse workers and delivery truck drivers, about the frustrations that come from returning or reordering or dealing with that automated phone menu and the semi-clueless “customer support” person. Almost inevitably these people blame the worker, or the entire generation of workers, as in “people these days really have no work ethic.” It may be the current equivalent of the long-standing remonstrance “it’s so hard to find good help these days.”

Now, if you are at all familiar with dramas or stories in which the above “good help” complaint is used, you know that the person who says it is generally someone who doesn’t really deserve good help, and the reason they have trouble finding it is they’ve chased away all the good help they’ve hired. The “help” is usually relatively blameless.

Admittedly, the help is sometimes at fault, and in this era of very low unemployment it can be difficult to find good workers. But even that problem is very often overstated. You’ve probably heard some breathless news reports about how millennials are lacking a work ethic that emphasizes quality or loyalty, or how so many younger workers are taking time off from work for a year in Costa Rica, or how women are giving up lucrative careers to concentrate on motherhood. Such stories tend to be little more than “our reporter found a group of friends who decided to do this and went ahead with calling it a widespread movement despite a total lack of statistical evidence.” A few vignettes do not signal the existence of a major national trend affecting corporate productivity.

No, in the case of warehouse errors or delivery misdirection the problem does not stem from the expectations of the people who order the goods or the workers who handle them. It comes from a much more insidious source, one that also often affects the kind of service you get in some local corporate outlets. That source is a new collection of computerized efficiency tools promoting what is commonly called time management.

How does this work? The workers in the warehouse are constantly observed and timed and are expected to “fulfill” a certain number of orders each hour. The driver of the delivery truck is expected to meet a specific schedule based on the route and the number of deliveries. All of this goes into a database that tracks employee performance and produces reports showing which ones are keeping up with the expectations. Those that aren’t are encouraged to improve with the obvious threat that they might lose their job. The corporate goal is to reduce the amount of unproductive downtime and thus avoid paying for more employee hours, and more employees, than they deem necessary. The actual result, however, is that none of these workers have any extra time for such unnecessary tasks as double-checking for accuracy. The warehouse worker packs the box and moves on; the driver drops the box, rings the doorbell, and leaves. In the rush, errors are to be expected.

Similar strategies are used in stores operated as part of many large corporate retail systems. Predictable tasks such as receiving shipments and stocking shelves are timed and recorded. Unpredictable tasks such as answering customer questions and relocating items that customers have moved and mislaid on shelves are given low priority, if any time is allotted at all for them. Some stores monitor customer traffic and send workers home early or call them in on short notice if conditions change. The result of all this is that the minimal number of employees are available to actually provide services to customers (other than taking their money, of course, and with self-checkout lanes they’re doing their best to reduce that, too).

The point is this: You’ve likely experienced a delivery that didn’t arrive or that was not what you ordered and you called customer service and had to wait half an hour on hold, or you went to a store and could find neither what you wanted nor a worker to help you find it, or you found it but couldn’t figure out how much it cost because the price label on the shelf didn’t match the products. All of these problems could, perhaps, have happened because the employees are slackers, but not likely. Don’t blame them. The most likely culprit is the continuing effort by the companies we depend on to do everything they can to reduce their labor costs.

*On a related topic, now that we’ve cleared that up, maybe I should tell you what I think about the idiots who go to a local store, browse the items on sale, then pull out their phones and order the item they’ve selected from the internet instead of the local store because the online price is 86 cents less. Or maybe I should focus on the TV news reports that gush about such behavior as if it were an example of “smart shopping”? Clueless!

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Macho Excess

In our culture we tend to idolize macho—probably too much. There have been some discussions recently about what some have called “toxic masculinity,” the specific attitudes and behaviors that are associated with the male image and that we now recognize as anti-social and potentially destructive. Certainly there are elements within the macho cluster, including protective, defensive, competitive, and possessive impulses, that have been misinterpreted and pushed to extremes such as domestic violence and rape. This essay is not about those factors. It is, rather, about hubris.

I have lived in Albuquerque, home of the University of New Mexico, for most of the past forty years. In that time there have been repeated financial scandals in which one subdivision within the University has significantly misused funds or overspent its budget. Has the Engineering Department cooked its books and run up huge unapproved expenses? Biological Sciences? Education or Philosophy? No, in virtually all cases, the profligate subdivision has been the UNM Athletics Department.

In eight of the past ten years UNM Athletics has posted deficits, exceeding a budget that now stands at about 33 million dollars a year. It currently owes the main campus more than 4.4 million dollars. The former Athletic Director resigned under a cloud in June of 2017, after 11 years in office. The State Attorney General has now charged him with various crimes, including using school funds to take six donors and employees on a golf junket to Scotland, massively overpaying the basketball coach, allowing others to misuse UNM purchasing accounts, failing to charge friends and supporters for the use of luxury suites in the basketball arena, and attempting to cover up most of the above actions against an expected audit. There does not seem to be any similar legal liability anticipated for the higher-level UNM administrators who have apparently looked the other way for a decade or more. UNM has a collection of historical internal audit reports that goes back to at least 2003, a history that does not include any comprehensive financial and operational audits of UNM Athletics. In the meantime, UNM is constructing a 50,000 square-foot, 35 million dollar upgrade to its main gym.

In case you’re thinking that I am making my point by focusing on the one university most familiar to me personally, let me expand the example by referring to a study by Stephanie Hughes and Matt Shank, published in the International Journal of Sport Marketing and Management in 2008. The article was titled “Assessing the Impact of NCAA Scandals: An Exploratory Analysis”, and the first sentence is damning: “It is difficult to open up the daily newspaper without finding mention of some type of scandalous behavior being exhibited by individuals associated with athletic departments on college campuses.” In case this wording only reminds you about the athletic scandals that most often reach the national media, the ones involving violent misbehavior by individual athletes, you should know that those events are less common than scandals involving misuse of university or donor funds. This study provides a good analysis of the types of financial and social pressures that might lead many athletic administrators to violate the law or NCAA rules, and that likewise might encourage general college administrators to ignore athletic infractions (not evem mentioning providing common excesses such as seven-figure salaries for coaches while they reduce academic professors to underpaid adjunct status).

Oddly, the report ends with the recommendation that “college administrators must reconsider the adoption of a ‘win at all cost’ mentality which encourages member NCAA schools to recycle athletically successful coaches and administrators who have previously been associated with inappropriate or unethical behavior at other institutions.” We might wonder why the study would bother to make such an obvious suggestion, but anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the history of athletic competition knows that such logic is all-too-often ignored. In the bigger picture, the situation at UNM Athletics is not an uncommon outlier in the university athletic world.

In the economic life of the United States there is another macho establishment that is even larger than our entire national involvement with athletics. That is what President Eisenhower referred to, in his famous farewell speech, as the “military-industrial complex”. It is understandable that what we call our defense budget would increase during any period of war, as it did, by a multiple of four, in 1942, the first year of our involvement in World War II. As that example demonstrates, a rise in the defense budget can even be a positive thing in some ways—the massive 1942 jump in federal spending is almost universally credited with pulling the United States out of the Great Depression. It also made it possible for us to prevail against the expansive axis powers.

With such caveats recognized, it is clear that we haven’t paid much attention to our four-star president’s admonition since 1961, when he publicly and clearly warned us to guard against the influence and growth of the defense complex. By that time the military budget had experienced two expected declines, the largest by far after the end of World War II and a much smaller one after the Korean War. Then the so-called Cold War began and the military industrial complex hit its stride, realizing the usefulness of an unending external and poorly-defined threat. In 1956 spending was back to Korean War levels.

Since then the war budget has continued an almost unbroken and often inexplicable growth, declining only during three brief periods. There was a minimal decline in the early 1970s as the War in Vietnam was winding down and some politicians tried talking about a “peace dividend”. All that proved illusory, of course. A peace dividend was even more anticipated when the USSR collapsed in 1989, removing our primary Cold War adversary, and over the next six years defense funding declined by the enormous amount of almost 14 percent. That’s down 14 percent total, not the annual rate. Then it started rising again, and then the Bush administration and the War on Terror began. After that growth averaged 9.6 percent per year for the next nine years. This was a new unending and poorly-defined threat, and it has served the defense establishment well.

There was one more period of decline after that, an overall period of government austerity enforced by the standoff between the Obama administration and a GOP-majority congress. That was the budget sequestration arranged in January of 2013 to satisfy the demands of the Budget Control Act of 2011—I’d rather not have to deal with the details of that! The end result was two-year reductions in both non-defense and defense spending, the latter dropping by almost 3 percent a year, a reduction so huge that defense lobbyists and their allies in Congress complained incessantly about being starved almost to death, despite defense industry profits remaining very high. Note: all of the above numbers are based on figures adjusted to current dollars by the federal Office of Management and Budget

What’s clear is that our Department of Defense is like a university athletic department, only to an extreme, constantly demanding more income, and famous for stories of financial mismanagement and, shall we say, excessive contractor reimbursements. Yet, there’s more. In 1990 the Congress of the United States, which theoretically controls all federal expenditures, passed the Chief Financial Officers Act. This law requires all federal department and agencies to develop auditable accounting systems and to submit to annual audits. Every federal department and agency has since complied with that law—except the Department of Defense. And yet, there’s even more. The January 7, 2019 issue of The Nation magazine published its detailed report about what it calls the Pentagon’s accounting scam, in which Defense has developed an elaborate system of shifting funds from one cost account to another in ways that defy recording systems and, therefore, audits. That way, when defense lobbyists repeatedly raise the threat level and request funding, Congress has no way to evaluate current spending or future need. Such funding shifts also happen to be illegal. And yet, or because of this, Congress continues to vote to raise Defense funding.

Remember, all other federal agencies now have the required auditable financial systems. The Pentagon scam is not used by HUD or Justice or Interior or Agriculture or Treasury or Education. The Department of Defense is the ultimate macho unit, the ultimate athletics department. The only question is why the authorities in charge of Defense let them get away with their financial scam, just like university administrators allow athletics to get away with their intentional mismanagement. We need to hold our macho institutions to the same standards as any others.

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