Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The $15 Minimum Wage – Money From Heaven

July 29, 2015

UnknownDo you favor a $15 minimum wage? Nobody asks where the money comes from. Heaven, I guess.

We’re told that if you give low wage workers more cash they’ll spend it, great for the economy. As though it’s free money.

Unknown-2

 

Or else the money is imagined to come out of business profits. When pigs fly. It will actually come from higher prices. And since low wage industries (like fast food) often serve poorer people, the extra money earned by low wage workers will ultimately come from . . . low wage workers.

Economics 101 says that when prices rise, demand falls. Raise the price of low skilled labor, and businesses will buy less of it. They’ll seek ways to automate instead (more self-service checkout machines if cashiers become too expensive, for example), which is already happening. imagesHigher minimum wages can only accelerate that – bad news for low skilled workers – who, once unemployed, often stay unemployed.

People imagine businesses can just pay more because they have profits to spare. In reality, profit margins tend to be pretty thin – like around 3% of sales for supermarkets. There’s no room for fat because in a globalized economy every business competes with every other. McDonald’s doesn’t compete just against Burger King and Wendy’s, but every other food option including home cooking – and indeed against every other conceivable product people could decide to buy in lieu of big macs. So prices must be kept as low as possible. Force prices up, due to higher minimum wages, and a business may become non-competitive. Bye bye jobs.

Yet defying this economic logic, advocates of higher minimum wages claim studies show they don’t actually kill jobs. Maybe so – in the short term at least – and if the rise is small, staying under 50% of median wages. But $15 would double the minimum wage, to 77% of the median. The long term impact on low-skill jobs is frightening.

Unknown-3We’re also told government is in effect subsidizing businesses like McDonald’s, that don’t pay a living wage, with food stamps and so forth filling the gap. That’s twisted logic. After all, plenty of people who get food stamps earn nothing. So you could equally say McDonald’s payrolls actually reduce what government must provide. Anyway, we give food stamps, and other welfare, because we as a society deem it the right thing to do. We shouldn’t expect (or force) private companies to do that for us.

In fact, higher minimum wages are an ineffective way to combat poverty. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 20% of the income benefits would go to those below the poverty line. (Most minimum wage workers are not primary family breadwinners.) So programs like food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, are much better targeted for helping the poor – without pricing low skill workers out of the market.

But New York State is currently in a paroxysm of political pandering on this issue. Governor Cuomo set up a board to assess fast food minimum wages. Legions of workers duly came and testified that $15 would be peachy. The outcome was pre-ordained. Our local Times-Union has denounced it – because the $15 wage will be phased in, not immediate!

Never mind the absurdity of singling out one category of jobs (and, unfairly, only in chain restaurants). Or how “fast food” can actually be defined. Unknown-4Or that New York, due to high taxes, already high unionized wage costs and other costs of all kinds, and the most burdensome bureaucratic regulation, is just about the least economically competitive state in the union, making large swathes of upstate into job deserts.

Politicians in this free-money fantasyland will never have to answer for the economic consequences. Voters won’t connect the $15 minimum wage with unemployment higher than it would otherwise have been. Just as public officials don’t answer for all the other ways they’ve run the state’s economy into a ditch. Indeed, the resulting tough economic conditions just encourage more populist politics, preening “compassion” and doubling down with yet more of the economic follies that got us here.*

I too have compassion for fast food workers, and wish they could earn more. It’s a hard life, and I’m lucky to be spared it. (Though I did work one very crummy job in my teens.) But the answer is not to wave a magic wand and expect Heaven to cough up the cash. Instead it’s to stop making it harder and costlier for businesses to operate. images-1And to make sure more people get the education they need for decent jobs – at least finish high school (too many don’t). A key reason fast food jobs pay so little is because there’s a vast oversupply of poorly educated people to fill them.

* Like rent control — more effective than bombing for destroying affordable housing.

America’s Streets Are Not Paved With Gold

July 23, 2015

imagesThis poem came to me during July 4 fireworks surrounded by thousands of fellow citizens of every hue and stripe gathered in joyful celebration of America – right after I heard a radio program about the long desperate struggle of a Somali refugee in Kenya to get a U.S. visa.*

 

 

They said America’s streets are paved with gold.
It wasn’t true; it was a lie.
And even if they had been paved with gold,
What good would that do anyone?Unknown
Walking on golden streets
Won’t make you rich.
It won’t rub off on you.
You couldn’t pick it up and spend it.
Couldn’t eat it.

 

Yet still they come,
Knowing that America’s streets
Are paved instead with good will;
Are paved with live and let live;
With energy, imagination, grit, and spunk.

 

America’s streets are paved
With positive attitudes;
By people who say
The difficult we do at once;
The impossible takes a little longer.

 

America’s streets are pavedUnknown-1
By people who work at paving them
To make their own lives better
Through making life better
For other people,
Giving others roads to travel.

 

America’s streets are paved with mistakes
That we strive always to make right;
Streets where we take one step back,
And then go two steps forward.

 

America’s streets are paved
With Truth, Reason, Freedom, and Justice;
Streets that are full of potholes,
In this imperfect worldimages-1
Of imperfect souls.
Yet these paths will take us far,
Paving the way for all the world,
Paving our way to the stars.

* His name is Abdi Iftin, and if you’d like to contribute toward his college education, here is a Paypal link.
And here’s a picture he sent me, of him in Maine:

Abdi

 

 

What Is a Business For? Is Profit a Dirty Word?

July 15, 2015

UnknownAt a recent social event, most guests sanctimoniously agreed it was somehow disgusting that anyone should make a profit providing health care. One woman said she had no problem with a store profiting from selling sweaters; but no one should profit from people’s hardship or suffering. I frankly thought that bizarre. Isn’t the relief of suffering a greater boon, more worthy of compensation, and incentivizing, than merely supplying sweaters? I sure as heck didn’t begrudge the profit of the dentist who cured my tooth ache; that’s what motivates people to go to dental school, invest in offices and equipment, hire staff, etc., to provide such service. Nor do I resent the profits of the pharmaceutical company producing the medicine that makes my wife’s life livable.

Unknown-1Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.” But what is a business for? There are two schools of thought. One says a business’s only purpose is to make money for shareholders (the owners) and anything detracting from that is indeed a dereliction of its primary duty. The other side says a business should serve the interests of all “stakeholders” affected by its doings – including employees, customers, and the broader public. They note that in olden times a business seeking a corporate charter from the state (allowing limited liability for shareholders) was required in exchange to have a public benefit purpose. But that model was dropped in the 19th century in Britain and America, allowing corporations to be chartered just to do business.

Thus critics of capitalism talk as though the first side won the argument and businesses do exist solely for profit – in disregard of any other consideration – and hence are ipso facto a menace. For example, Naomi Klein, whose recent book I reviewed, seemingly thinks profit is the sole reason energy companies extract fossil fuels – the fact that society uses, needs, fossil fuels doesn’t enter into it. As if, remove the profits, and no extraction would occur.

imagesThis tells us there’s something incomplete in the view of businesses as solely profit maximizing creatures. It leaves out the way they do that – by supplying something beneficial to customers*, creating value greater than what is paid (of course some predatory businesses do the opposite, but that’s cheating). The point is epitomized by Steve Jobs. He made tons of money, but that wasn’t his ultimate objective – rather, the profits were what enabled him to perfect products useful to purchasers. That was his true motivation.

People who bought his products valued them more than the money spent. That difference, or surplus value, created by Jobs, increased societal wealth. Had he never existed, all those people would have been worse off. His wealth would not have been somehow distributed among them; it would never have existed either. This is what the 99%-vs.-1% mentality misses.

Today it’s more true than ever that business is really all about customer value, with the internet leveling the competitive playing field, giving consumers far more choices and access to information. A business whose products aren’t great, that doesn’t satisfy customers, will not survive.

Anyhow, it’s too simplistic to say (legitimate) businesses are only concerned with profit. The real world isn’t like that. It’s certainly untrue to say they care only about shareholder returns. Shareholder ownership is merely notional; in reality a corporation owns itself, buying shares merely entitles one to certain rights, while management isn’t meaningfully beholden or accountable to shareholders, instead running the company for its own purposes. And while a firm’s profitability does benefit managers, mainly they care about profits because profits advance their other agendas (a la Steve Jobs).

Unknown-2Also, speaking of the real world, corporate denizens are human beings, and while money is surely a big motivator, nobody is exclusively mercenary. Another big motivator is how one appears to other people – and in the mirror. Most of us want to be seen as doing good, and even to actually do it. Back in the ‘70s I was a regulatory lawyer battling Con Edison over its rates. The company was in financial trouble; and I actually felt management was betraying shareholder interests to bend over backward for consumers.

images-2Corporate greed? It’s not so simple.

At the end of the day, the most successful and profitable businesses are those that are best at creating customer value – which of course means societal value. Adam Smith wrote of the market’s “invisible hand” thusly benefiting society. I heard a radio commentator say Smith might have been right in his simpler time (1700s) but not in today’s world rife with inequality. Really? In Smith’s day, the great mass of humanity everywhere lived in squalid poverty – whereas in the last century, worldwide average real dollar incomes quintupled. That colossal fact is not negated by the inequality of the few with great wealth. They haven’t stopped billions of people from seeing a quantum leap in living standards in modern times. And that vast enrichment is nothing other than the cumulation of customer value created by businesses seeking to profit thereby – i.e., free market capitalism. A stunning vindication of Adam Smith and his invisible hand.images-1

* To quote management guru Peter Drucker, “There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer.”

Pope Francis: Is Consumerism Bad?

July 11, 2015

imagesPope Francis has denounced consumerism as a “poison” that threatens true happiness, and is an assault upon the poor. What does he say does bring true happiness? Faith in a nonexistent deity. The bit about the poor is equally fallacious.

I’m going to repeat here what turned out to be one of my most-visited blog posts ever, from December 2008, titled “Is Consumerism Bad?” —

Ellen Goodman, in her 12/15 column, is one of those rejoicing that materialist consumerism, at which they’ve always sneered, is falling victim to the recession, as people cut back spending. They applaud this as a simply wonderful retrenchment, a return to sanity and virtue.

But why are we in a recession? Because people are cutting back spending. None of the other factors would actually cause a recession if they weren’t causing spending cutbacks. When people buy less, businesses need to produce less, so they need fewer employees. So people lose their jobs; then they too will spend less; so then even more people lose their jobs. And Ellen Goodman thinks this is a good thing?

“Materialist consumerism” is people buying stuff that other people think they shouldn’t. But a free society has to mean people pursuing happiness by doing things–like spending their own money as they choose–that others disapprove. Some social critics just hate this. They’d prefer it if right-thinking moralists like them got to tell everyone else how to live.

Such people, like Goodman, do believe that an economy based on consumerism is somehow an offense against virtue. But what else, actually, could any economy be based on? The “economy” means you produce goods and services that I buy, and I produce stuff that you buy; which makes us both better off. That production of things people want is the source of all wealth and income, our entire standard of living. It doesn’t come from heaven, or “society,” or government. You may sneer at consumerism, but you don’t want consumers to stop buying what you yourself are employed to produce; you’d be out of a job. And if all consumerism stopped, we’d all be out of jobs.

Christians, Gays, and Sin

July 5, 2015

UnknownEven before the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, I wrote that gays (and the left in general), having basically won this fight, should ease up and be magnanimous, allowing their beaten foes some space for living their beliefs – just as, for years, gays begged for that themselves. The principles of tolerance and pluralism run both ways. But many on the left act as though only their freedoms matter.

On the other hand, some anti-gay and Christian advocates seem to have become unhinged. Listening to them you’d think anti-gayness is the very heart of their religion. As if the Bible’s main message is gay-bashing.

imagesMore generally, the Christian side in the “culture wars” of recent decades seems to exhibit an obsession with sex (as David Brooks discusses in an excellent recent column). These folks do a great disservice to their faith. No wonder younger people, with more relaxed attitudes, are abandoning traditional religion in droves.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m no fan of religion, but surely it has a better story to tell that is getting lost in all the noise about gay sex. This meshugass makes religion even more absurd than it was already.

The Obergefell gay marriage decision is not going to become another divisive Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t surprising that Roe provoked a huge backlash, since that ruling was legally, culturally, and morally weak. Legally, because its dicey “privacy” theory was not in the Constitution; culturally because the country wasn’t ready for it; and morally there were reasonable, deeply felt arguments against it.

Unknown-4In contrast, there are no good moral arguments against gay marriage. Just because the Bible says something is wrong doesn’t make it so. Christians choose to ignore many of the Bible’s outlandish, atavistic pronouncements (like gathering sticks on the Sabbath also being a sin punishable by death). The true moral criterion (rationally speaking) is whether anyone is harmed, and gay sex and marriage harm no one.

I do not dismiss the dissenters’ contention that this should have been decided by democratic processes, not judicial fiat; I so argued myself, a few years ago. However, I have come around to the Court majority’s view that “equal protection of the laws” properly applies here. Thus Obergefell has much stronger legal legitimacy than Roe did. As for democracy, it seems more like the court was bending to popular opinion than defying it. The nation was ready for this.

images-1The argument that it opens the door to polygamy and so forth is ridiculous. There are sound social policy reasons to ban polygamy (we wouldn’t want Donald Trump hogging all the women – though perhaps any who would join his harem are best left out of the marriage pool anyway). Gay marriage, in contrast, is a positive societal good, with no downsides. More child-friendly two-parent families will help counter the decline of traditional marriage and the resulting social dysfunction.

All this suggests that Christian resistance is not only a lost cause* but a very bad one. Surely religious believers can find better things to talk about than what married people do in bed. Aren’t there worse sins in the world to get upset about than (a small minority of) people loving the “wrong” partners?

Unknown-3I’ve never understood anyway why Christians get so manic about other people’s sins. If they truly are sinful, they’ll simply go to Hell, no? Why isn’t that the end of the story?

Worry about your own sins.

* Who are they kidding, talking of a constitutional amendment? Hello, it would need ratification by 38 states – whereas nationwide public opinion goes the other way.

Introverts versus Extroverts – A Personal Take

July 1, 2015

imagesAre you an introvert or extrovert? I sure know which I am. (Why do you think I’m sitting here by myself writing a blog?)

One of my book groups has read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The basic theme is that introverts aren’t defective, just different, indeed in some ways superior, and the world can benefit from that. There are more introverts than you think; many hide it.

I believe we read books like this to better understand people, but especially to find ourselves in their pages, and ponder the comparisons and contrasts with others. Certainly true for me. I had many flashes of recognition reading Cain’s book.

A repeated motif is how introverted children and youths suffer, trying to fit in. This I did not experience at all. Why? I think I was such an extreme introvert, so socially isolated, that other kids, and their attitude toward me, just didn’t matter to me; hardly even registered with me. Maybe that was good because I grew up uninjured. Albeit socially clueless.

UnknownOne take-away from the book is that it’s complicated. There are so many convoluted and seemingly contradictory points about intro/extroversion that one’s head spins. It’s no clear-cut, either/or thing. It’s a spectrum, and moreover, what Cain calls intro- and extroversion each entails such a host of disparate characteristics that any given person can mix-and-match.

Surely true of me, despite my childhood. I’m not a down-the-line introvert (or libertarian or conservative). But I do tick a lot of the boxes. One in the book that really rang my bell: “I often prefer to express myself in writing.” images-1Bingo! E.g., this blog again. But it also brought to mind how often in my romantic history I’d felt compelled to take pen to paper, composing some immensely long screed trying to set things right with a woman. (It never worked, except for the last time.)

One introvert profiled in the book, who experienced childhood agony, but wound up successful and happy, says he frequently imagines going back to tell his nine-year-old self how well it will all turn out. Another flash of recognition for me: I do this too. But for my self in my twenties. If I didn’t suffer as a kid, I did then – over women. images-2So I like to go back and tell that earlier self about the fantastic wife he’ll wind up with. I even show him a photo. (But, unlike the guy in the book, I don’t think the message actually got through.)

Another profile, of an introvert-and-extrovert married couple, also gave me an aha! moment, and fresh insight concerning my relationship with Pam, who lived with me unhappily and finally left after twelve years. She was initially attracted to me because I did something much out of character (as a “bad boy;” I’ve written about this), but I didn’t live up to the promise of that episode, and she came to peg me, understandably, at the wrong end of the cold/hot spectrum. Interestingly, that needle moved in my favor (temporarily) when, toward the end, I again did something uncharacteristically hot blooded – a play for another woman. But meantime, our frequent quarrels much resembled those of the couple in the book. Pam was a volatile let-loose type, whereas I, always futilely seeking to dampen conflict, would try to be as restrained as possible in responding. This actually drove her nuts – just like the husband in the book.

So – how did the ultra-introvert child become a seemingly more or less almost normal adult? The book talks a lot about the coping strategies of introverts for achieving their goals, mostly faking extroversion at times. But in my own case, my saving grace was ultra-rationalism. Whereas the book portrays introverts as often struggling with fears, phobias, and anxieties, I never did. Unknown-1A salient example is the extremely common fear of appearing in public. I’ve done it fairly often; I know I’m okay at it; so I’ve never had any stage fright. I think I’m really good at sizing up risks rationally and seeing them in proper perspective.

(Not that I claim perfect, consistent rationality. E.g., with Pam; and (see below) my career choice.)

The book makes a strong case for free will – emotions may be hard to control, but we can and do control our behavior. Introverts especially, tending to be sensitive and reflective. When I finally got out of school (and, importantly, my parents’ home), like many introverts I changed my behavior to get what I wanted. It wasn’t a social life, exactly; what I wanted was girls. Unknown-2So I started doing social things, to meet them (this was pre-Tinder); and brazenly asking out any girl on any pretext. If she laughed in my face (it happened), would it be The End Of The World? That was again my ultra-rationalism at work, figuring the potential gains outweighed the costs. (Though it did take persistence, it paid off in the end, with a jackpot.)

Career is a particular problem for introverts, in a world where “hail fellow well met” is the ideal and flash often trumps substance. While one can, again, fake it, up to a point, the book emphasizes that there are actually a lot of ways for introverts to succeed. It profiles one classic introvert who became a super salesman – basically by perfecting the art of listening to customers. The thing is to seek a career path that actually fits one’s personality type. imagesI became a lawyer – a big mistake of my clueless youth – yet luckily stumbled into a job where most of my work was solitary. (No law firm would hire me; I must have been abysmal in interviews.) Later I stumbled into a different remunerative career (coin dealer) where I rarely even have to encounter other humans in the flesh. Perfect!

The End of (Working Class) Men*

June 23, 2015

UnknownAmerican women earn only 78% of what men do. We’ve all heard this cause celebre. It’s utterly bogus. Women’s pay averages less than men’s because they do different jobs. But for comparable jobs, women who work as long as men earn virtually the same. And women tend to have different careers not because of discrimination but mainly because they’re different from men, with different temperaments, proclivities, talents, and goals. (If businesses really could hire equally qualified women cheaper than men, why would they employ any men?)

Meantime, all the nonsense about underpaid women misses something very important happening to men: their elimination from working class families.

imagesAnother cause celebre is inequality. But resentment against the 1% similarly misses the real problem, the growing societal divide between the well educated and the less educated. The former group tends to be affluent, and married, with stable families whose children repeat this. The less educated do not.** There’s your real inequality.

This story is complex. The pill, and entering the workforce, freed women from a lot of social and economic constraints toward getting and staying married. Unwed motherhood lost its stigma. Divorce got easier. And, while among the educated affluent, men remained attractive marriage partners, working class men did not. Indeed, lower income women can lose government benefits if they marry.

Unknown-1More: with educational opportunities equalized, females are proving better than males at school. That difference of temperament again. And a recent piece in The Economist showed how misleading is the idea of a pro-male pay gap, when it comes to the blue collar world. It profiled a Louisiana town where a lot of conventional “man jobs” have disappeared, leaving many males as unemployed layabouts. Yet, The Economist observes, plenty of the town’s women are working (and getting by, with no help from men): in motels, restaurants, shops, clinics, hair salons, government offices, etc. Unskilled, poorly educated men are unlikely to get, or even seek, many such jobs; less apt to be punctual, or pleasant to customers.

images-2This drains the pool of marriageable blue collar men. Jail drains it further (especially among blacks). And that marriage market imbalance between the sexes gets magnified because “when women outnumber men, men become cads” (according to a study quoted by The Economist). That is, men in this social milieu, in a seller’s market, sensing they have the upper hand and access to sex, tend to treat women more abusively and less faithfully.

Further, whereas educated affluent males have gotten with the program of gender equality, helping with housework and child care, typical blue collar guys haven’t received this memo.

images-3All this makes working class women get fed up with them (recalling Gloria Steinem’s line, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”). Even when they do marry, they report significantly less marital happiness than better educated and affluent couples, hence they’re more likely to split.

So it becomes a vicious circle in which mothers without husbands raise sons to predictably repeat the syndrome: no education, no job, no wife, no family, no nothin’. A much bigger societal problem than that phony 78% pay gap.

What can be done? The Economist suggests making school more boy-friendly. Certainly it’s criminal how many don’t even finish high school. For those, all other public policy ideas are probably futile. I’ve noted, too, how kids can be educated to pass the marshmallow test – imbuing a personality trait shown to be critical for life success. And, of course, we could at least correct the daft welfare and tax policies that, to this day, still penalize marriage.

But in the long run, men are probably doomed, with science enabling women to procreate without them.

Unknown-2* Hanna Rosin has authored a book called The End of Men. This recalls a riff in David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, chronicling the rise of an imagined public intellectual, whose first book is always titled “The End of” something. It’s indeed remarkable how many there are: The End of History; Faith; Blackness; Plenty; College; Poverty; Self-Help; Stress; America; Nature; Fashion; Socialism; The Suburbs; Normal; Science; War; Dieting; Illness; Everything. That’s just a sampling.

** A recent news story reported data showing marriage raises incomes, with married men earning much more than bachelors. Surely this has causation backwards: higher earning men are the more likely to be married.

Charleston

June 23, 2015

The irony of such blows for “white supremacy” is their demonstrating its fallacy — showing what better people the blacks are than the shooter. (Also, he might have finally succeeded in getting his beloved Confederate flag removed from the state capitol.)

America’s Political Decay

June 19, 2015

UnknownA favorite book of mine is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992). He argued that centuries of ideological conflict had essentially ended with the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets — because they fulfill deeply felt needs for self-realization and dignity. A beautiful story.

Unknown-1Not so fast, says . . . Francis Fukuyama, in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay. Not that we’re going back to tyranny or socialism. But there’s trouble in paradise, and it’s right here in River City (America), poster boy for the political decay of the title.

Our political divide is between government lovers and haters – big government “progressives” versus small government conservatives. Yet the size and scope of government is not the whole story; quality matters. Big government wouldn’t be so bad if it were good government. imagesBut what gets lost between the two camps is that, as Fukuyama explicates, America’s quality of government has deteriorated steadily and markedly over the last half century.

Why? Ironically, a big factor is the distrust of government built into America’s DNA, which actually makes it hard for government to function well (thus fueling more distrust). Born of revolt against an imperious king, we created a cat’s cradle of checks and balances. That was fine as long as government didn’t do very much. But as its remits proliferated in the modern era, so have the societal interests wanting a say and making demands. The result is what Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy” – a system with so many points where one force can block others that meaningful action becomes impossible.Unknown-2

A related problem is that, by way of example, the relatively few farmers who gain greatly from farm subsidies will fight hard for them, while the mass of consumers and taxpayers, each harmed only a little, do nothing. Bad programs become impervious to change because someone always benefits.

Unknown-3Also, things weren’t too bad when one party had clear dominance and could, within limits, work its will. But now America is closely riven between two parties, each more ideologically cohesive than ever and ruled by activists seeing the other as satanic. Forget about conciliation and compromise.

Distrust of government furthermore leads us to circumscribe the actions of bureaucrats by a welter of rules, curbing their discretion. This produces exactly what we hate – a bureaucratic bureaucracy so tangled in overly complex red tape that common sense is lost.

images-1The U.S. Forest Service illustrates the syndrome. Fukuyama discusses how it began as a model for effective government during the Progressive era, led by the great reformer Gifford Pinchot. But gradually its mission got confused by layers of congressional mandates (often contradicting each other) and submerged under increasingly inflexible administrative procedures; all worsened by pressures from disparate interest groups with conflicting agendas. Our guide on our recent Yosemite tour remarked that the Forest Service doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing anymore. (See also my post about the TSA, whose mission quickly degenerated into one of following dumb procedures rather than actually targeting threats.)

Unknown-4Then there’s something unique to America. Our separation of powers gives a bigger role to courts than in any other country. This has made us peculiarly a nation of lawyers and litigation; exacerbated by legislation that often effectively delegates policy initiatives to implementation through litigation by private parties. (A good example, not mentioned by Fukuyama, is the Americans With Disabilities Act. Lawyers are a major interest group.) This is cumbersome, costly, and opaque, not very efficacious, and lacking in democratic accountability. No other country operates like this. They think it’s bonkers.

All these factors lead Fukuyama to deem America an outlier on the spectrum of difficulty of decision making. We have the most rigid, ineffectual, and reform-proof governmental model of any advanced democracy. This is why so many problems cry out for action – crumbling infrastructure, the immigration mess, and our glide path toward fiscal ruin, to name a few – but nothing can get done. (See my review of That Used to Be Us.)

Is there any hope of fixing this? No. (Sorry – I am an optimist, but a rational one.) Fukuyama pretty much agrees. Americans revere our constitution but frankly, while it worked great for most of our history, now it’s broken. But given that reverence, radical change (like switching to a parliamentary type system where government is much more able to accomplish things*) is inconceivable. (Yet a conceivable and important reform would be to eliminate the Senate filibuster rule and consequent need for 60 votes, not in the Constitution.)

For all I’ve written here, America’s saving grace is that government isn’t everything. Thank God for the private sector. Unknown-5This country’s dynamism is rooted in the energies and imaginations of its people, finding ways of getting on with things, regardless of bad government. Fukuyama, in the end, recognizes this; and moreover concludes by saying that despite the problems of democratic government, it still feeds the basic human hunger for agency – control over our lives. If government transmogrifies into controlling too much**, the remedy isn’t authoritarian rule, which controls even more; and those countries retaining it are still on the wrong side of history.

I can only sadly shake my head when people blithely talk of turning over yet more responsibilities, like health care, to government. “Progressives” never seem to learn from how often government tramples their professed values. There’s a wide gap between their lofty ideal of government and its reality.

* It does work well with a strong two-party system like Britain’s; but with fractured politics like Israel’s, not so much.

** I recently attended a talk about negotiating the bureaucratic gauntlet to move a patient from hospital to long term care. I asked, when and how did this stop being the exclusive province of family members? “I don’t know,” the speaker said, “but it isn’t right.”

Yosemite Rocks

June 15, 2015

IMG_5255California is full of exceptionally cheerful people – judging from our recent trip there. Store clerks, flight attendants, passers-by, etc., all over.

We visited my mom, a Costco fan, so we made the obligatory expedition. It’s fun because of all the free samples given out. One big promotion was for a line of health drinks. The colors looked like you might want to paint military vehicles with, but not put in your mouth. However, an attractive young black gal was so upbeat about it, assuring me the drinks are “really really good,” that I agreed to a sip. “’Really really good’ is not the phrase that comes to mind,” I said. “Maybe ‘barely palatable.’”

IMG_5212Even the woman behind us in line with children seemed cheery in saying, “Don’t ask about my troubles.”

So of course I asked, “What are your troubles?”

“Too many kids.”

“How many is that?”

“Five.”

“I agree, too many. How old are you?”

“That’s an inappropriate question!”

“Well, seems relevant to having five kids.”

“Thirty six.”

IMG_4949Maybe it’s the weather out there that makes people extra cheerful (despite all the problems, like a major drought, or five kids). But one reason I love America is that a positive attitude is a part of our culture. This includes black people who we’re told are (or should be) full of resentment against whites. Not in my experience; to the contrary, blacks (like that Costco gal) seem perfectly cordial and often smile at me. Maybe it’s my fuzzy beard.

IMG_5159Then we went to Yosemite; my wife made all the arrangements, booking a suite at the lodge so our daughter (this was our last trip with her before she goes up over Jordan) could have her own room. At check-in we were given a map to find our unit. Perusing it, I remarked, “This seems to show we have a private pool.” And we did – a beautiful full-size resort pool, with patio, deck chairs, umbrellas, hot tub, and even a barbecue installation. The house – our “suite” was a house – was as big as our home – and much nicer.

IMG_5040After oohing and aahing, I finally said to my wife, “Um – how much are we paying for this?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess I forgot to ask.”

Uh-oh.

Back at the front desk, I said, “Ahem, there seems to have been a wee misunderstanding . . . . ” Naturally, no other rooms were available just then. However, our luxury suite turned out to cost much less than I’d guessed, so we agreed to stay two nights there before switching to more plebeian digs.

Yosemite is basically just a valley that was reamed out by a giant glacier. But what a valley. And what an artistic glacier.

IMG_4913We didn’t see the companion park, Antisemite. Actually, the continuation is Hetch Hetchy which, controversially, was flooded a century ago to create a reservoir. John Muir fought it. Yet life is all about trade-offs. People need Yosemites; but also reservoirs. Now California has both, and I think Yosemite is big enough. In four days we didn’t nearly see it all.

IMG_4905We started with an excellent one-day van tour with Close-Up Tours. The guide, Ira Estin, was yet another cheerful fellow, and we liked him enough to hire him for two more days as our private guide. Ira was very knowledgeable about the best spots, especially for photography. (Check out his own beautiful work at his website.)

IMG_5071Yosemite has a lot of rocks. Big ones. Truly big, tossed about by that glacier. Gives you a real respect for glaciers. If you like rocks, this is the place for you.

There are also a lot of trees, and some of those are pretty humongous too. But as Ronald Reagan said (quoted by Ira, though I assured him Reagan was being facetious), “If you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all.” However, one spot Ira took us to was a recently burned forest, which was different, and very cool. (Cooled, at least.)

bearWe also saw waterfalls, deer, bears, a coyote, daredevil climbers (through Ira’s telescope), whitewater, squirrels, ducks, lots of Chinese tourists, and so forth.

I recently reviewed Sam Harris’s Waking Up; “mindfulness” and losing the self feature prominently. In Yosemite I overheard a woman tell her little boy, “ . . . I meant losing yourself in the scenery – not getting lost literally.” (She enjoyed my laughter.) But the scenic surroundings were indeed so awesome that it was just about possible at times to lose myself and just be “in the moment.” Our Vernal Fall hike was like that. But even while being “in the moment” there, I was still conscious of anticipating the cold coke I’d have afterwards.

IMG_5134Anyhow, it’s a spectacular place. We give Yosemite five stars.

(The Yosemite photos here were all by Elizabeth Robinson, except those with her in them, taken by Ira.)


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