Archive for the ‘nowadays’ Category

Old Age Should Burn and Rave at Close of Day

October 7, 2011

Back when I was an English teacher, one of the best writing tips I gave my students was to write the last paragraph of an essay first, and the first paragraph last. Remember Benjamin Button (recently played by Brad Pitt)? The guy who was born old, grew younger every year, and finally faded into infancy and unborn-ness? Maybe that’s how most of us live. The teenage brain has no sense of the long term. With most of his three-score and ten years still ahead, the teenager lives as if there were no tomorrow. Developing a sense of the future, and then the ability to plan for it, is the project of young adulthood. Some of us do it better than others. But by the time we reach the post-householder age (as the Hindus define it), there really are very few tomorrows left, but we live as if our future were completely fixed and defined.

Admittedly, the post-householder age is not what it used to be. There’s a lot more of it. When Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, back in the 1880s, introduced government-funded old age pensions, he set them up to begin at age 65—because by that age, the average German citizen was dead. Today, Social Security coverage would have to begin at 80 to accomplish the same goals. And most of us are still in pretty good health until shortly before death. The average American spends half of his total lifetime medical expenditure in the last six months of life. For the 14.5 or so years before that, most of us are in pretty good shape.

So here we are, we older Americans, with 14.5 years of able-bodied life ahead of us, free of workplace obligations, educated by experience to know which way the wind is blowing without the aid of a meteorologist, and, often, more economically secure than we have ever been before. “The last of life for which the first was made,” as Robert Browning presciently called it. We are the natural revolutionary cadre. We can no longer leave it to the college kids, who are overworked and economically terrorized, desperate to build a future they cannot imagine. We have the security. We have the education and experience. Above all, we have the time.

What we don’t have is a romance of revolution. The Arab Spring is rooted in societies where the median age is 30 or under—pretty much like “the ‘60s” in the US and Europe. In 1966, Time Magazine named the youth of the ‘60s its “Person of the Year.” We still think of revolution as the task of youth. That’s a luxury our country as a whole can no longer afford. The median age of the American population is now close to 40. And everybody under 60 or thereabouts is expected to be either working for pay, or trying to find work. We geezers and crones are the only people allowed to do anything else useful with our time, and even availed of the necessities of life while we do it.

My brief perusal of the coverage of Occupy Wall Street in New York and its parallel protests in other cities tells me the media see the protesters as “students” and “youth.” I’m a bit skeptical of this depiction. Back in The Day, I spent a fair amount of time in protests and rallies myself. I was at the time an English teacher, respectably married, and generally went to such events wearing skirt, blouse, and jacket, hose and shoes. Most of the people I hung out with were similarly employed and attired. But we never showed up in the coverage. Had there been one single long-haired scraggly hippie among us, he was, invariably, the one who would turn up on the evening news. So if the media want to define this round of protests as completely youth-oriented, mere facts won’t stop them. And if the Raging Grannies and the Gray Panthers and our other age-mates happen to be turning out in respectable numbers, we will probably be operating under cover of media-generated ignorance for at least the first year or two, and that may be just as well. Invisibility is a useful tool and an excellent weapon. Let’s hold off on public Dodder-Ins for a while yet.

In the meantime, I have just managed to get some assistance with taking care of Mr. Wired, so I will be able to spend more time practicing law and getting to Shabbat services. This is going to be an interesting year. Peace and light to you all.

Red Emma

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The Blockhead’s Market

May 1, 2011

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Samuel Johnson

Arianna Huffington is being sued by some of her former unpaid bloggers. Jonathan Tasini and the other members of his class action against her complain that they created the value of the Huffington Post with their unpaid writing, and she then sold it to AOL for $315M. The bloggers, of course, got none of that money. The plaintiffs want a cut, at least $105M.
(more…)

Surviving in Third-World America

April 12, 2011

Do you ever get tired of hearing that the U.S. is the only western industrialized country that (doesn’t have handgun control/doesn’t have a national health care program/has an infant mortality rate over __%/imprisons more than __% of its citizens/pick one)? After hearing so many of the pronouncements indicating that we trail the industrial West in good stuff and lead them in bad stuff, are you starting to wonder whether the U.S. really is a western industrialized nation any more? Is it possible that we’ve become, or are at least well on the way to becoming, a Third World country? After all, we are no longer the world’s wealthiest nation, nor its healthiest, nor its best educated. Now that the Soviet Union is no longer marking the boundary of the First World, maybe we are. And how long will it be before we mark that boundary from the wrong side?

I’m willing to leave the geopolitical and macroeconomic implications of all that to the politicians. What concerns me is what concerns just about any ordinary person–how to make it from day to day in a Third Wold, or nearly Third World, country. Obviously, the best way to research this question is to ask people who’ve done it, more or less successfully, all their lives–the ordinary, would-be middle-class people from various Third World countries. Or at least to learn as much as possible about them.

So, based on what we know about real life from Third Worlders, here are some basic suggestions:

* In unity there is strength. Extend your family as far as you can. Begin with real relatives, by blood or marriage, and then quasi-relatives (exes and steps and their families) and then what anthropologists call “fictive kin”–godparents and foster siblings and so on. Cultivate these relationships and use them for the benefit of all concerned.

* One of the most important ways to do this, of course, is to share living space, especially if somebody in the family has a large, fully-paid-for house. This gets everybody economies of scale in housing, utilities, and food. It also puts people who have both jobs and small children within easy reach of potential baby-sitters with neither.

* If you can’t extend your family, you can at least create one. Get married. Form close friendships. Join cooperatives of all kinds. Join the church/ synagogue/mosque/ coven/whatever of your choice. Making it will be hard enough in the company of others. Alone, you’re probably a dead duck.

The only possible exception to this rule is children. Third Worlders typically have them–lots of them, if possible–for retirement insurance. But Third Worlders generally are required to expend fewer resources up front on their kids than American child labor and compulsory education laws allow. Give this one some thought.

* Stay out of the official dollar economy as much as possible. The IRS, of course, frowns on “off the books” income and untaxed barter. But even they have not figured out how to tax you on the value your do-it-yourself activities add to your assets. The official money economy in Third World countries is rigged to underpay the non-rich to the point of starvation while extracting from them in prices and taxes more than they can possibly afford. The only way to survive in such an economy is to stay out of it, both for production and for consumption (including credit–borrow from family, borrow from friends, borrow from your business colleagues, and then let all of them borrow from you, but stay out of the official credit market if you possibly can. Likewise, don’t lend in that market–that is, keep your savings out of banks.)

* Play the lottery–but not very much. It is true, of course, that your chances of winning are slightly less than your chances of getting struck by lightning. But they are also only slightly less than your chances of attaining the American Dream in any of the official legal jobs likely to be open to you. Buying a ticket nearly doubles your chances. It’s hard to beat odds like that. But buying more than a couple of tickets a week is a bad investment of money you should be using elsewhere. By the way, if the prior history of American lotteries is any indication, this batch will be around only another fifteen years or so, so take advantage of them while you can.

* Use public amenities creatively, while there still are any. Their days too are numbered, but while they last, public schools, public libraries, public parks, public hospitals, and similar amenities are usually perks of living in a particular locality. Therefore, given your limited stock of housing dollars, you are usually better off spending them on cramped, shabby accommodations in an affluent town or neighborhood than on a commodious, well-appointed place in the slums. Besides, your well-off neighbors are more likely to have jobs for you–both long-term and free-lance–than slum-dwellers are. And they are usually canny shoppers, so the assortment of merchandise available to you in local stores will be higher quality at lower prices. You and your family will have a much better chance of making good business contacts too. In short, unless you have ambitions in local politics, it is better to be the poorest person in a rich neighborhood than the richest person in a poor neighborhood.

* Education will still pay off, but will be a lot harder to get, and won’t necessarily bring your income above the poverty line. Nevertheless, get as much of it as you can, and try to keep as much of it as possible in four-year colleges, which produce slightly more respectable credentials than community colleges. You may want to consider going outside the U.S., at least for your bachelor’s degree–it could be cheaper.

* Don’t plan to retire. You will probably never get a private pension, and the value of your Social Security grant will almost certainly diminish rapidly. So be prepared to look for the odd jobs you are still physically capable of doing, most notably childcare and other home help for employed family members.

* Stay healthy. If you can’t stay healthy, at least try to stay out of the official health-care system, which you probably can’t afford, and which probably can’t do much for you anyway. Better you should spend your health care dollars on (a) studying self-care; (b) alternative practitioners recommended by people you trust who have not yet died of their own health problems; or (c) if you must use “official” practitioners, use the lowest professional level available to you–that is, better a Physician’s Assistant than a physician; better a Nurse Practitioner than a PA; better a Registered Nurse than a NP; better a Licensed Practical Nurse than an RN. The lower down on the professional scale you go, the more personal attention you are likely to get. Whenever possible, stick with practitioners you pay out of your own pocket–they’re cheaper, they are accountable directly to you rather than some insurance company, and they still realize you have the option of not coming back next time if they screw up this time.

* Stay morally connected. Be active in religious, neighborhood, civic, and volunteer organizations. They will remind you–when it is very easy to forget–that there is more to life than survival, and that, even if the big corporations that control the few remaining permanent full-time secure jobs consider you less than the dust beneath their big wheels, there are plenty of people around you to whom you are not merely valuable but essential.

* Similarly, if you have some sort of artistic or intellectual talent and can’t get the official purveyors of culture to take notice of it, don’t let that stop you from putting it to work in blogs, local newsletters, murals, amateur theatricals or whatever, which are probably the only art your friends can afford. Who knows–someday it may get noticed by the official critics. But even if it doesn’t, you have given and received pleasure.

* You may have to do a lot more groveling than you are used to. It is possible to be marketably obsequious and still keep your self-respect, simply by maintaining your objectivity behind your mask (see W.E.B. DuBois.). We Americans have long believed that people who have attained wealth and prominence must be more deserving than the rest of us. As long as ordinary people had a reasonably decent chance of achieving some wealth and prominence of their own, that was a harmless delusion. Now, however, it is dysfunctional and can even be deadly. The only way to survive psychologically and morally in a Third World United States is to be absolutely certain that, as a human being and a citizen, you have the same ultimate value as any other human being and citizen. Do not allow yourself to become part of any institution that undermines that conviction, unless it pays you relatively well. And withdraw your attention and your allegiance from the artifacts of commercial culture that undermine your sense of your own value as a human being. Nobody, after all, is paying you to watch television, so your family loses nothing if you stop watching.

* Do your homework–speculative fiction is rich in models for the world we are moving into, from the novels of John Brunner (The Sheep Look Up, Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider) to Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” to Robert Heinlein’s future histories. Not to mention, of course, Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. See also Strieber and Kunietka’s Warday and Nature’s End. These are just my particular favorites–there are lots more where they came from. If there is one thing we have learned in the past fifty years, it is that if the warped mind of a speculative fiction writer can imagine a shape for a future dystopia, the grasping hands of a political or economic establishment can implement it.

* Furthermore, there are plenty of ways to learn more about how today’s real-life Third-Worlders are managing. Among the goodies available in public libraries are magazines and newspapers from such places, many of them in English (which is, after all, one of the official languages of India, the Philippines, and many African countries.) Much of the fiction of modern India, the West Indies, and Africa was written in English, and much of it is richly informative.

* And note, by the way, that used books are probably one of the cheapest forms of recreation available. The only thing cheaper are the public domain books available for free on your computer or iPhone.

* Learn to like rice and beans. Together they make up the complete protein necessary for good nutrition, as well as containing lots of fiber. With a little celery, onion, and garlic, they can provide most of your nutritional needs for literally pennies a day. They’re probably healthier than whatever you’re eating now.

* Don’t drink the water. Not unfiltered, anyway, and not bottled—that’s just a waste of money and of valuable natural water imported from many places that need it badly themselves, like Florida. Pick up a used scouting handbook and find out all the cheap and quick methods to purify questionable drinking water. Note that, if you live in the country, the air may smell better, but your drinking water may already be dangerously contaminated with pesticide and chemical fertilizer runoff. Urban problems will be different, but just as serious.

I am not suggesting that the ThirdWorldization of the United States is a good thing, or only trivially harmful. On the contrary, for most ordinary people, it can mean perpetually living on the edge of catastrophe and occasionally slipping over it. But it is time we started getting prepared for it, while we still can.

Red Emma

Same Old Song II; or Some Dilemmas of Democracy

April 5, 2011

We have never established a rule for when a reply is long enough to become a post, but I suspect this one may reach that limit. It is not merely the “defense” establishment that stays while presidents come and go, but a few other eternal verities.

One is that, while the House of Representatives is constitutionally entrusted with both the power of the purse and the power to make war, it has had no serious chance to use the two in tandem as the Framers intended for well over a century. This is partly a technological problem. As every grade-schooler who paid attention in American History knows, the Battle of New Orleans was fought well after the War of 1812 had ended in a peace treaty, simply because, at the time, communications were limited by the speed of horse and sail. Now, wars can happen, and be ended, literally in a blink of an eye. The power of the purse becomes merely the power to pay the debts already incurred during that blink. That’s the theoretical limit.

In real life, wars take a bit longer to get started, but nowhere near as long as getting a declaration of war through Congress. And the power of the purse becomes a nullity if we already have “boots on the ground” and Congress could accomplish nothing by refusing to fund them except to leave the boots on the ground with no resources to maintain or defend themselves or even catch the next flight home.

The second problem became apparent in the run-up to the First Gulf War. Amazingly, both houses of Congress seriously debated our entry into that war for several days, before actually embarking on it. The ultimate result was, of course, a nearly unanimous vote in favor of the war (see the next paragraph for explanation.) But a good deal of time was consumed by war advocates proclaiming that such debate was “premature” since the war had not yet broken out. Debate over the Vietnam War, which took place almost entirely after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, involved at least the same amount of argument that it was “too late” to deliberate whether the war was a Good Thing, since we were already in it. Apparently there is a split-second in time, known only to Stephen Hawking, when it is neither too early nor too late to debate entering a war. It probably happens at 4:30 AM Eastern time, when both houses of Congress are asleep in their beds.

The third problem is that, once the executive branch has decided on a war, they become not merely the object of patriotism but its voice, and anyone who disagrees becomes, at best, the loyal opposition or the honored but ignored voice of an outworn pacifism (like Jeanette Rankin, bless her soul), and at worst a pack of traitors. Often, even those who argued against the war in the early part of the debate end up voting for it in the end, to provide a show of “unanimity” in support of national goals.

The first thing those arguing against the war have to do is disclaim pacifism. Senator Obama himself did a fine job of this in his speech opposing the Iraq War, when he stated that he wasn’t against all wars, just against dumb wars. Being against all wars renders an American politician permanently unfit for office, since a pacifist Commander in Chief is a contradiction in terms. Being against unjust wars might leave a Catholic politician among the legitimate competitors, except that it has been a long time since the US was involved in a war that plausibly met the Augustinian qualifications for justice. Or, for that matter, an intelligent war.

The next thing an opponent of the currently debated war has to do is proclaim his loyalty to and support for our brave men and women in the field, no matter how pointless and iniquitous the task they are commanded to accomplish. As pointed out earlier, this utterly precludes using the power of the purse to stop the war, and thereby turns the constitution into a nullity.

Only then can the opponent start talking about the merits. One of the few issues that is still a matter for legitimate disagreement in such debates is whether we go to war alone or with allies. Bush Senior gets a lot less praise than he deserves for his coalition-building in the First Gulf War, which enabled him to fight that war mostly on other people’s money, and with no foot-dragging by the UN or NATO. It put us in the position of being a mercenary army for the Europeans and Japanese, who needed Kuwaiti oil a lot more than we did. But it left us in a considerably better financial position than Bush Junior’s device of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq “off the books.” These days, “multilateralism” has a bad name in some quarters. Real macho nations go it on their own—and on their own money, which they then borrow from the Chinese. This issue needs revisiting, preferably before we go to war with the Chinese.

The financial issue is rarely raised until the war is actually over. By that time, it is too late to ask whether we can afford it. All we can do is try to figure out how to pay for it. The last time we looked at the money issue up front was in World War II, when Roosevelt had already decided we had bloody well better pay for it. He spent most of the war borrowing the money from American citizens. Wars are not paid for out of discretionary income, because wars, once decided on, are not discretionary. The Vietnam War was paid for by short-circuiting the War on Poverty, and by inflating the currency, rather than by raising taxes as we had done during WWII. Shortly thereafter, we decided that inflation, like raising taxes, was a bad thing. Now we pay for wars by viewing every other item in the budget (now, apparently, including even Social Security and Medicare) as discretionary, and by not noticing inflation as long as it affects only ordinary working people.

The one great force of modern economics to which even the “defense” establishment is not immune is privatization of governmental functions. So far, it extends only to what would otherwise be considered “staff” and “logistics” functions of the military, such as food, housing, transportation, and intelligence. Oddly, the private-sector jobs thereby created don’t seem to make a dent in the unemployment statistics—is this another idea worth revisiting? Could we balance the economy by putting 5 million unemployed civilians to work peeling potatoes in Kabul, suffering all the dangers and difficulties of military service at minimum wage with no benefits, no job security, and no legal rights except those provided by the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Donald Trump, call your office.

And finally, the “defense” establishment has to deal with the problem posed by a former Secretary of Defense: you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Now, that apparently means that you go to war with a bunch of overfed, overweight, undereducated, unhealthy people, many of them with minor criminal records, who can’t find jobs in the civilian sector. Watch this space for announcements that Boot Camp has now become a Fat Farm, and Advanced Individual Training now starts with basic literacy. You heard it here first, folks.

Red Emma, with assistance from her beloved brother, Ben Trovato

Poverty Ain’t What It Used To Be

March 22, 2011

This is not the first time the Family Wired has been broke. The most stellar episode was back in the 1970s. In many ways, it wasn’t that different from now. Our income was roughly two times our housing cost, but low enough to occasionally qualify us for food stamps. The differences mostly had to do with what we could do on no discretionary income whatever:

Go to museums and the two local zoos
Get a drink of water in a public place
Go out to the airport and watch the planes come in
Watch television

On the other hand, there are a few things we can do for free now that we couldn’t then, most notably (at least until this coming September) ride public transportation over the entire Chicago metro area.

We welcome additions to both these lists.

CynThesis

Kids Having Kids, Grannies Raising Kids; or Leapfrog Parenting in Our Future?

February 7, 2011

The River City Syndrome

“Friends, we got trouble
Right here in River City,
And that starts with T, and that rhymes with P
And that stands for….Pregnancy?”

Everybody talks about teen pregnancy, but nobody can figure out what to do about it. Newt Gingrich had it figured out 17 years ago or so—take the babies away from their mothers and raise them in orphanages. Then he looked at the price tag. Modern standards for what we now call group homes would turn his plan into a bigger entitlement program than Social Security or MediCare. Forget that.

They have it figured out in continental Europe. Teens there actually have more sex than American teens. But they are diligent about contraception, and have no problem resorting to abortion as a back-up if necessary. So their teen pregnancy rate is much lower than ours. This is not to be confused with their out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate, which is really high in Scandinavia, but not among teenagers. Middle-class American girls operate pretty much the same way.

They had it figured out in the 1950s in the US. I remember that system very well. It was the reason I didn’t go to the local public high school. The year before I would have started there, half the girls in the graduating class were pregnant. Most of them got married, very quietly, and then lied about the date. The young men involved all got the satisfaction of having done the honorable thing. The girls got the wedding ring. The babies got their legitimacy. There may have been a couple of girls whose partners did not do the honorable thing, so instead they took a six-month vacation with an aunt in some other state. Most of the girls in question hadn’t planned on college anyway.

The Maternity Dress with the Blue Collar

So far as I know, almost nobody operates that way any more. Blue-collar girls, regardless of race, creed, or color, just stay home (and stay in school as long as it isn’t too much trouble) and have the baby. What has made the difference? Two things, as nearly as I can tell. One is that nobody approves of “shotgun weddings” any more. Even the Catholic Church is reluctant to perform marriages where the bride is pregnant. The statistics on such marriages are discouraging. Both abuse and divorce are much more likely than in the general population of married couples. So the young man in question is under absolutely no pressure to marry the girl. It is no longer considered “the honorable thing.”

The second thing, counter-intuitively enough, is Roe v. Wade. Yes, I know blue-collar girls are very unlikely even to consider abortion. (This is not necessarily because of parental pressure. Indeed, sometimes it is despite parental pressure. When I worked at juvenile court, I once represented a girl whose father had thrown her out of the house for refusing to get an abortion.) But the fact that, in spite of the legality and availability of abortion, they don’t get one, marks them as “good girls,” in their own eyes and those of their peers, in spite of having gotten pregnant. It gives them some moral leverage they would not otherwise have. The Catholic Church recognizes, with a surprising degree of rationality, that anything that makes unmarried pregnancy more difficult makes abortion more likely. So Catholic schools go out of their way to make life easy for pregnant students. Public schools do too, though for different reasons—they just really want to keep the girls in school as long as possible. See http://www.city-journal.org/2011/21_1_teen-pregnancy.html. A pregnant teen who finishes high school is in a much solider situation than one who drops out. Many of the bad things that happen to single mothers and their children are less likely to happen when the mother finishes high school, or better still, goes on to college, at least for a year or two.

All in the Family Way

Most of the pregnant teens who manage this do so only with the help of major parental (mostly maternal) support. If mother and daughter can remain on good terms for the duration (which is not always easy for either one), the baby will have the benefit of two adults caring for her, and often, of two incomes supporting her, just like the child of a properly married couple. I know of no source for statistics on the prevalence of split-ups between mother and daughter in this situation, compared with the stats on divorce after a shotgun marriage, but my guess is that it is somewhat less frequent.

According to AARP, one in every twelve children in the US is being raised in a household with one or more grandparents. These statistics do not distinguish between households in which the child’s mother is also residing and caring for the child, and households in which the mother is for some reason absent (death, incarceration, drug addiction, general flakiness, military service, or single-minded pursuit of education and career goals.) Nor do they provide any information on the increasing number of children being raised by their great-grandparents. But they do suggest a solution to some of the problems besetting the modern family.

The Murphy Brown Syndrome

In blue-collar families, pregnancy happens “too early”, all too often. By “too early,” we mean before socioeconomic maturity, often before finishing school, or even instead of finishing school. In white-collar families (regardless of race, by the way—professionally-educated African-American women have the lowest birth rate in the country), pregnancy often happens “too late.” By “too late”, we mean after socioeconomic maturity, after finishing one’s education and getting established in a career, and after the height of female fertility in the late teens and early twenties. Often, we mean after the precipitous decline of female fertility in the mid- or late thirties. In which case, “too late” may mean not at all. But even if it doesn’t, it often means having children who will be starting college just as the parents would otherwise be starting to think about retirement.

New Supporters of Early Marriage

Early marriage by choice rather than because of an unplanned pregnancy is occasionally discussed among religious groups that frown upon premarital sex (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/august/16.22.html?start=1), and presumed among others such as the Amish who discourage post-high school education anyway, as well as among some immigrant groups. For the rest of us, it seems to further complicate what is already the most complicated period of most people’s life, from age 12 through 25.

Alternative #1: Leapfrog Parenting

But there are a couple of alternatives worth considering. The obvious one, already discussed above, is for women to bear their children early, raise them with the assistance of their mothers, complete their education, start their careers, and then marry. This could even be organized so that grandmother, having finished raising her daughter’s children, would be able to retire just as the daughter is ready to start raising her daughter’s children. Think of it as “leapfrog parenting.” Biologically, we are told, the best age for women to conceive is from 18 to 25. Socioeconomically, the best age for a person, male or female, to raise children is from 35 to 55. The numbers point to one ideal conclusion: bear your own children at 18, and start raising your daughter’s children at 36.

Make Room for Daddy

What place does this scheme leave for the fathers of all these children? I am tempted to say, whatever place the particular man in question wants, since that seems to be what happens anyway. Not being forced (sometimes at gunpoint) to do “the honorable thing” is probably an improvement in our ideas about family life. Not knowing quite what to do when one’s girlfriend gets pregnant definitely isn’t. Fortunately, the country is rife these days with all kinds of projects and programs for, and studies of, teenage fathers. Lots of us are looking for answers to this question, and with any luck, we may find one. (more…)

The Sign of the M

December 24, 2010

Many years ago, I started work on a speculative fiction short story about a dystopic world in which a sizeable portion of the population worshipped Murphy, as in Murphy’s Law (whatever can possibly go wrong, will.) The public demonstration of their faith was the Sign of the M, made by holding either hand with three fingers extended downward. Usually this was an apotropaic sign, as the anthropologists say, to ward off the nastier consequences of Murphy’s Law. I never finished writing the story (which involved psychedelic experiences caused by claustrophobia in a windowless world, among other things), but the cult of Murphy stuck with me.

It revisited my head yesterday, when I heard on the radio one of numerous stories about people who are now suing various banks and mortgage agencies. About a year and a half ago, the feds came up with a program to help people get their mortgages modified and avoid foreclosure. In practice, the program, and those trying to avail themselves of its benefits, have been thwarted by a pattern of bumbling and non-responsiveness on the part of the mortgagors that could be explained only as (a) conspiracy, or (b) Murphy’s Law at its apocalyptic worst. As I understand it (and what do I know, I’m just a lawyer?), to get your mortgage modified (to lower either the monthly payments, the rate of interest, the total amount owed, or more than one of the above), you have to contact whoever holds your mortgage and “work it out” with them. Naturally, they will want documentation both of the existence and terms of the current mortgage, and the problems that now lead you to want it modified. Usually that means lots of financial documentation, roughly parallel to a tax audit. The uninitiated may find this to be unnecessarily intrusive or just too damn much trouble to bother with. But we more sophisticated white-collar types figure it’s perfectly fair, and generally manage to comply with these demands, albeit with some difficulty because (a) nobody ever remembers exactly when something happened, and (b) most people don’t know exactly where anything is.

The plaintiff in one of these lawsuits explained that she kept contacting the bank to find out what documentation they needed, and sending it in. Each time, she would then find out they either needed one more piece of paper, or that they hadn’t received the last piece of paper she had sent them. Every time she called, a different person would answer, and would have to find her file and ascertain what had previously happened in her case. Eventually, it all came down to a single tax document. She sent it in, and then called to see whether they had received it. They hadn’t. Lather, rinse, repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Next thing she knew, some stranger was standing on her front lawn auctioning off her house on behalf of the bank, which had foreclosed, because, they claimed, they had never received that single last tax document. The semi-happy semi-ending in this case is that the court ultimately suspended the foreclosure, and is now graciously permitting her to live in her home and continue to make the payments on her mortgage pending resolution of the lawsuit.

But think about it, gentle reader. How different is this cycle of misfortune from what most of us deal with at least once a week, with somewhat easier and more favorable resolutions? The difference between us (so far, anyway) and the unlucky Ms. Plaintiff is all in the relative competence of the bureaucracy on the other end of the process. Eventually, they usually get it right.

Let’s leave aside, for another day’s posting, the question of whether there really is a conspiracy involved in the mortgage modification mess. It wouldn’t surprise me, but Murphy is perfectly capable of messing up transactions like this on his/its own. My brother and my daughter, who both do astrological charts, would attribute a lot of this stuff to Mercury being retrograde. I actually know realtors (mostly of Asian ancestry) who won’t schedule a closing when Mercury is retrograde.*

Anyway, while listening to Ms. Plaintiff, it occurred to me to wonder whether there is anybody out there who doesn’t have to deal with this kind of administrative bumbling. See http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/maxine-waters-cannot-drown-bureaucracy/, on roughly the same subject, only with the congressional representative of a fairly important district as the protagonist.

The Wired family is actually caught in a similar bind at the moment, unable to pay for a very necessary medication until the New Year. This happens because the insurance program which provides Part D coverage has decided this is the time for the deductible to kick in, but the various assistance programs for the pharmaceutical companies are available only to people who don’t have medication insurance coverage. And the reason for this inability to pay is that a bunch of clients who owe me roughly a year’s income between them haven’t paid, and most of them really can’t pay, for reasons very similar to my own.

All I need, perhaps all most people need, is for the system to work properly by its own standards. This would entail the people who owe me money paying on time, the people I send documents to not losing them, the people I talk to on the phone on various important matters either being available the next time I call, or at least taking good notes so the next person I talk to there will be able to find the file and then get up to speed on the case while I am on the phone with him/her. Judging by the experience of Maxine Waters, getting elected to Congress wouldn’t entitle me to this. Probably being POTUS or very rich would. Which makes it not only a privilege, but a really rare one.

In some situations, the M Factor can be literally deadly. The procedural histories of most of the death penalty cases that find their way to the Supreme Court are swamps of the M Factor. It is no coincidence that most of the defendants in these cases are poor, poorly-educated, and poorly represented. It is probably no coincidence that so much of the Supreme Court’s wisdom is expended on deciding whether a particular occurrence of the M Factor is serious enough to justify overturning a guilty verdict or a death sentence.

On the other hand, POTUS, and the very rich, are not necessarily exempt from these hassles. What their privilege generally gets them is the services of somebody else, usually somebody reasonably competent, to resolve them. There is actually a job title for this: Personal Assistant. Arguably, there may even be a career path for it: wife. President George H.W. Bush was famously enthralled by the electronic gizmos at grocery checkout counters, not because no grocery store was involved in the purchasing of his daily bread, but because somebody else had always been the one to stand in the checkout lines for it. Does this mean that the M Factor (let’s call it that for the purposes of this discussion), like matter and energy, cannot be eliminated, but only moved around, delegated, transformed?

I don’t know if anyone has actually done a systematic study of the M Factor as such, under any name.. Hamlet calls it “the law’s delay,” and cites it as one good reason for suicide. It gets examined for other purposes under other names, for instance, in the study of Third World systems and why they work so badly. Corruption is merely a subspecies of the M Factor—it is the money one pays to various functionaries to keep the M Factor from totally destroying a transaction. Various hierarchies of public and domestic service exist mainly both to create the M Factor, and to keep it under control.

The M Factor raises some great politico-philosophical questions. Is it inherent in the human condition? Are those who either try to eliminate it or try to avoid dealing with it in their own lives guilty of hubris? Is a life free from the depredations of the M Factor, a life where everything works the way it is supposed to, a privilege everybody should have, or a privilege nobody should have? Most of us perceive rich people as having to deal with less of the M Factor than poor people, and people in rich countries dealing with less of it than people in poor countries. Is this reality, or appearance? Is the amount of the M Factor per person constant, subject only to being delegated or moved around? Or can affluence actually get rid of at least some of it? And if so, is affluence necessary for that purpose, or merely sufficient? Is there some other way to do the job?

Until we get a better handle on the workings of the M Factor, maybe worshipping it is the best we can do. Ommmmmm’s the word.

CynThesis

If It Were Not Written…

December 6, 2010

The rabbis who put the Talmud together used to say, when they mentioned something especially weird or counterintuitive, “If it were not written, it would be impossible to believe it.” I guess that’s Aramaic for “Honest! No kidding!”

Every now and then, we run into a whole bunch of counterintuitive stuff at once. This has been one of those weeks. For instance, a psychologist, at http://www.mendeley.com /research/proposal-classify-happiness-psychiatric-disorder/, is proposing to designate happiness as a mental disorder. Presumably it should turn up in DSM-X or whatever as Inappropriate Euphoric Disorder. This is not totally out of step with what we know about happiness and its opposite. Depressed people, we have known for a long time, have a more accurate perception of reality than non-depressed people (See http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/ Depressive_realism) This suggests that happiness causes a distorted view of reality. Surely that should qualify it as a mental disorder.

And then there’s the influence of mercury poisoning on avian sexual orientation. See http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2010/11/24//rspb.2010.2189.abstract?sid=4af1b3c8-d24a-4801-bba4-0e3860dae99a, for the original study. This one is interesting because it may provide an explanation for declining sperm counts in human males (see http://www.cqs.com/esperm.htm) and perhaps also for the increasing visibility of human homosexual behavior. In which case, no, people aren’t born with it, but they don’t choose it either.

And then there’s what I just heard on our local public radio station, on “To the Best of Our Knowledge”, which this week is discussing the human soul (or lack thereof.) In the course of this discussion, one of the interlocutors, Parker Palmer (I think), said that a more scientific society is likely to be more authoritarian because it leads us to be more dependent on “experts.” Once again I had to restrain myself from leaping up and shouting “This is bullsh*t.” The only difference between “scientifically advanced” cultures and “primitive” ones is that our “experts” are somewhat more likely to know what they are talking about than their “experts.” But humans, at any level of scientific advancement, will rely on the available “experts” to resolve uncertainties. In fact, a case can be made that human culture creates “experts” in order to be able to rely on them. And we make our “experts” out of the currently available material, regardless of its fallibility. The fallibility may vary; the reliance does not.

And then there’s the Unintended Consequences problem. For instance, Israel encourages some Palestinians to emigrate. Like migrant populations from anyplace, they are most likely to want to immigrate to the United States. Some of them succeed. A lot of them end up moving to the Detroit area. This creates at least one and probably a couple of congressional districts that take some hardline anti-Israel positions, and perhaps move the US Congress as a whole a squinch more in that direction. And, more recently (speaking of public radio), as public radio budgets get cut (even though they have not yet lost all federal funding, which hasn’t been a large part of their budgets in the last decade or so anyway), they find that one of the cheapest ways to get programming their audiences will enjoy is to buy them from the Brits and the Canadians. Which may encourage our “cultural elite” to adopt a more European, or leftist, or blue-state point of view.

CynThesis

America Needs Better Political Theater

December 3, 2010

Today, Rep. Charles Rangel stood in the well of the House Chamber while Speaker Pelosi read out a resolution of censure.

All three of the Wired Sisters had questions about the proceeding. Jane, being both the most literary and the most easily shocked, kept thinking about King Lear and Oedipus Rex and other fallen monarchs, possibly even including Milton’s Lucifer.

Cyn merely wondered at the apparent disproportionality of the punishment to the alleged misdeeds, and finally concluded that, behind the scenes, Rangel must have been really unpleasant to a lot of his colleagues who welcomed the chance for revenge.

But Emma, who is fond of political theater, found the whole thing boring. The Japanese used to be really good at this stuff, which generally concluded with seppuku. Pope Gregory got to put on a good show at Canossa, with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow to apologize (okay, it doesn’t snow very often in Washington, and probably nobody was willing to wait that long.) King Henry II of England got scourged by monks at Canterbury for having encouraged the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Those guys had style. Washington has a perfectly good theatrical community, and could always bring in outside talent if necessary, so why put on what looked like nothing so much as a petulant schoolboy being scolded by his teacher? Congress needs to retain a dramaturge or a ritualist or something, to put some zing into its routines. Slogan for the next election: If you can’t stun, don’t run.

The Wired Sisters, collectively

Risk Aversion

November 26, 2010

We are, no doubt, doomed to go on hearing about how extraordinarily risk-averse we foolish ordinary Americans are, until the end of this year’s holiday flying season. We will also, no doubt, get to hear from all the usual “expert” risk assessors, who just can’t understand why we ordinary mopes worry more about flying than about driving, more about nuclear power than about peanut butter.

The answer, which most of the “experts” can’t be bothered to consider, lies in the variable most ordinary people consider most important–they worry less about voluntarily assumed risks than about those imposed by circumstance.

Of course, one of the reasons people prefer chosen risks to those imposed from outside is that freedom of choice is a traditional, well-nigh sanctified American value. But in addition, a person who chooses to smoke cigarettes or live in L.A. or eat peanut butter or drive a car, has already at some level done his or her own risk-benefit calculation, and has decided that the benefit, in terms of what s/he personally values, is greater than the risk of loss in the same terms.

Where the risk is imposed from outside, on the other hand, the social risk-benefit equation may actually look a lot better–but the ordinary person on the street is being asked to assume some proportion of the risk while not necessarily being personally offered what s/he would consider enough benefit to compensate. For instance, living next door to a toxic waste dump may create less risk than smoking cigarettes–but what benefit can I derive from my poisonous neighbor? Quite aside from the health risk, it probably reduces the resale value of my home. The same goes for nuclear power, which offers very little in the way of benefits to anyone, except the people who sell it. The cheaper electric power we consumers were originally promised (“too cheap to meter”) has not materialized. On the contrary, Illinois, the most highly nuclearized state in the Union, also has some of the highest electricity rates in the country. I’m not sure any risk, however small, is justified by higher light bills. Smoking, on the other hand, to those who do it (especially these days, in the light of all those warnings on cigarette packs), has already passed the risk-benefit test; smokers honestly believe they get more out of it than they stand to lose, in terms of what they personally value.

So if we ordinary mopes don’t know enough to accept the experts’ risk-benefit calculations, merely because they often involve our taking the risks while someone else, often someone already much better off than we are, gets most of the benefits, too bad for the experts. Of necessity, our vision may be narrow–but it is not as clouded as the folks on the mountaintop like to think.

Red Emma