Archive for April, 2011

the pursuit of happiness

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

April 25, 2011

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truth to be self evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

How do you pursue happiness though?

An Associated Press story last week reported that there is a “growing band of economists, politicians and academics” launching a new movement in Great Britain to take “Action for Happiness.” The idea is to move from theory to practice and to create a “mass movement for a happier society.” Instead of a growing GDP (gross domestic product), they want to have a growing GWB (general well-being.)

Proponents point out that happiness surveys often find that developing countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria and Bhutan have higher happiness scores than richer European or North American countries. We need to figure our why, and how to make our societies happier as well as richer.

Or maybe the two are antithetical? Richness and happiness, that is. Count me a contrarian on this point.

Ogden Nash pointed out the obvious: “the troubles of the rich are troubles that money can’t cure/which kinds of troubles are even more troublesome if you happen to be poor.” Sophie Tucker had the last word. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor: rich is better.”

Seriously, what does make for happiness?

Many studies have found that the number one predictor of happiness is a good marriage. No other factor comes close. (Unfortunately some studies have also shown there may be more bad marriages than good ones!)

Having had two good marriages, I agree that a good one is tops by a substantial margin. Like Sophie Tucker, however, I have also been poor (very) and been rich (relatively). Rich is better.

The next most important ingredient, I think, is kindness. People who are kind to others are happier. Kindness breeds kindness. Kindness makes friends. Kindness makes a community more livable and people more likable.

The new movement in Great Britain agrees. “It encourages people to perform small acts of generosity—from hugging to holding open a door, saying sorry or giving up a seat on a bus.” I would add, as described in my recent experience with the kindness of strangers,  just a warm smile is often enough to make a person’s day. Both for the smiler and the smilee.

This even has political implications. The new Tea Party, claims social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has two sometimes-conflicting goals. One is freedom. “The freedom to live our lives as we please, so long as we don’t infringe on the same freedom of others.” The other more important goal of Tea Partiers, according to Haidt, is karma.

He explains it this way. “The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskit word for ‘deed’ or ‘action.’ And the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.”

Could karma be a secret recipe for happiness?

Sometimes karma doesn’t seem to work. Sinner’s ways prosper and good people suffer. Eventually can be a long way off. Accidents, depression, growing old; suffering from poor health, bad weather, economic booms and busts; having to toil long hours in a boring or exhausting job; all these and more can bring suffering and unhappiness. Many, if not most, are beyond our control.

More often than not, though, karma has a decent track record. Good health, satisfying work and good friends are high on the list of happiness makers and more often than not they are the fruits of  “kindness, honesty and hard work.”

So, too, with happiness’s close cousin, pleasure. You’ve probably heard the old joke about the ambitious pilgrim who says he is looking for the guy who invented sex—to see what he is working on now.

No doubt number one, when it comes to pleasure, is sex. But close seconds are friends, religion, sports, music, art, literature; collecting stamps, coins or automobiles; bridge, chess, crossword puzzles; even vicarious violence, (sometimes not so vicarious)—the list is endless.

Occasionally we also get a wee bit of pleasure from schadenfreude—that German word for pleasure at the misfortunes of others.

A retired banker friend of mine admitted to having a hint of schadenfreude pleasure while drinking his second cup of coffee in the comfort of his study, watching the snow pile up outside the window, and thinking of former colleagues in Chicago struggling with rush-hour traffic on slick freeways.

A quick look at the gossip magazines on the supermarket lanes will find many juicy examples of how popular schadenfreude is—especially when it comes to the misfortunes of celebrities.

There is the opposite too. When someone or some group you admire succeeds, you feel a burst of pleasure. When your team (say the Green Bay Packers) wins the Super Bowl you feel a mighty surge of pleasure. (Even a prideful kind of empathy for the losers. Tough, Pittsburgh guys, you fought a good battle—even though the best team won.)

So what can we conclude?

We can all agree that everyone is entitled to pursue happiness. And, so long as your pursuit doesn’t interfere with my pursuit, as Cole Porter said, “anything goes.”

My best advice is to get yourself a good mate. On the other hand one of my literary idols, Henry David Thoreau, did not have a good mate and somehow made out. His advice may be better:

“Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. I can’t claim they will make you happy but they may make you more knowledgeable and wise. Check out the quality DVD programs on our web site: www.hawkhill.com.

contrarian quotes

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

APRIL 18, 2011

Time for another break—let others do the hard pulling.

Friends have asked me recently for quotes to support causes they were interested in. That got me roaming the Internet in search of good quotes from contrarian authors. Here are some samples:

Thomas Sowell is an interesting economist with many solid books to his credit. He is also an African-American who, like Clarence Thomas, does not follow conventional channels.

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”

“The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings.”

“One of the consequences of such notions as ‘entitlements’ is that people who have contributed nothing to society feel that society owes them something, apparently just for being nice enough to grace us with their presence.”

“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”

“The assumption that spending more of the taxpayer’s money will make things better has survived all kinds of evidence that it has made things worse. The black family—which survived slavery, discrimination, poverty, wars and depressions—began to come apart as the federal government moved in with its well-financed programs to ‘help.’”

The late Milton Friedman was another controversial economist. A Jew, he also did not follow progressive wisdom. Often given credit for being the godfather of modern free-market libertarianism, he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976.

“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

“We have a system that increasingly taxes work and subsidizes nonwork.”

“I’m in favor of legalizing drugs. According to my values system, if people want to kill themselves, they have every right to do so. Most of the harm that comes from drugs is because they are illegal.”

“The greatest advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science and literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.”

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Then there is the politician, Ronald Reagan. He was also an actor and (some claim) a lightweight who read the lines his managers gave him. Here are a few I’m betting he made up.

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.”

“Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.”

“How do you tell a communist? Well, it’s someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It’s someone who understands Marx and Lenin.”

“Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.”

“Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement.”

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

Which last reminds me of an in absentia college pal of mine, Henry David Thoreau.

“As for Doing Good that is one of the professions which are full. … If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

“The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest.”

“The savage in man is never quite eradicated.”

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us.”

Finally a potpourri of quotes from celebrities and Mr. and Ms. Anonymous …

“A dog is a dog, until he is facing you. Then he’s Mister Dog.” Haitian proverb.

“A peasant must stand on a hillside with his mouth open for a long time before a roast duck flies in.” Chinese proverb.

Famous last words:

When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau on his death bed and asked “Henry, have you made your peace with God?” Henry answered, “I wasn’t aware we had ever quarreled.”

When a monk saw St. Francis of Assisi out hoeing his beans, he asked him what he would do if he knew he would die in an hour. Francis answered, “I’d go on hoeing my beans.”

Good book review:

Jeanne Kirkpatrick in a review of the contrarian book, The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong: “Ben Wattenberg’s new book is a compelling reminder that we must learn to bear the truth about our society, no matter how pleasant it may be.”

Good arguments against those who think the world is overpopulated:

“The source of improvements in productivity is the human mind, and a human mind is seldom found unaccompanied by the human body.” Contrarian economist, Julian Simon.

Finally there is Emily Dickinson and my mother. Neither was what you would call contrarian. Both were insightful.

“Hope is a thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune—without the words

And never stops at all.”

My mother didn’t make this one up, but she had a needlepoint on the wall and she lived its wisdom.

“There is so much good in the worst of us,

And so much bad in the best of us,

That it little behooves any of us,

To talk about the rest of us.”

I guess the morals are—judge by results, not by intentions; don’t kill squirrels in jest; pay attention to the feathers in your soul; don’t complain about your neighbors; and be kind today to someone you don’t know.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  Last moral. Check out the quality DVD programs on our web site: www.hawkhill.com. As a celebrity friend of mine, Warren Schloat, used to say, “you won’t be sorry. I guarantee it.”

serious business

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

April 11, 2011

The most serious long-range damage from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan may be the ammunition it gives the anti-nuke activists worldwide. Japan survived the worst (and only) nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it will no doubt survive this natural catastrophe. But if it leads to (and sadly, it probably will) a worldwide retreat from nuclear power, it may lead to a much greater disaster.

The Japanese government cannot be accused of imprecision.

Here is the way they told their citizens of the dangers of radiation from the current disasters. In a liter of drinking water for people next to the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima, the government advised, you would get the equivalent of 1/88th of a chest X-ray. In Tokyo, 238 kilometers away, the air had 0.155 of a microsievert. This is also equivalent to a chest X-ray–if you breathed the air for one month at that level.

It is under dispute, but most scientists say radiation at this tiny level is not harmful. In fact some studies show it may even be good for you. Certainly chest X-rays and dental X-rays (hundreds, if not thousands of times, more powerful than the radiation we are talking about in Japan, much less in California!) give far more benefits than possible harm. Just walking down the street or living in most houses in the U.S. will lead to thirty or forty times as much radiation exposure from naturally occurring radon in the air. As will taking a cross-country airline flight, or living in Colorado or Utah. Either of these will expose you to far more radiation than those measured at Fukushima or Tokyo.

Medical radiation accounts for roughly 48% of the average exposure in the U.S.; naturally occurring radon gives 37%; you get 5% from the sun and space; another 5% from within your own body; and the final 5% from unknown sources (most of that probably comes from coal-fired plants which do emit substantial amounts of radiation, along with carbon-based, sulfur-containing, and other noxious chemicals. You get none of these from nuclear power plants.).

No one has yet died (or so far as we know been injured) from the current nuclear plant failures in Japan. There were no fatalities in the nuclear plant meltdown at Three Mile Island, and no injuries. A respected Harvard study claims that 10,000 people die in the U.S. every year from the long run effects of inhaling polluted air from coal-fired power plants. There have been zero deaths in the United States from nuclear power.

The disaster at Chernobyl was indeed a different story—thirty-one workers died and quite a few thousand citizens later developed thyroid cancer (the easiest cancer to cure). This is hardly on the same scale as the 1984 chemical explosion at Bhopal in India (10,000 or so dead and over 500,000 serious injuries). Or for that matter the thousands of other man-made and nature-made disasters of the 20th century.

Chernobyl was a horrible example of botched design and shoddy negligence by Soviet engineers and administrators. Their reactors had no containment structures at all, none. Engineering and routine maintenance in Japan, France, Germany and the United States have nothing in common with Soviet malpractice. The safety record over half a century of operation attests to this fact.

Nevertheless western environmentalists continue to spread the lie that “no nukes is good nukes.” They insist that all radiation is dangerous and that nuclear power is an absolute no-no. Sadly, the public believes them. Or at the least they agree—NIMBY—not in my backyard.

This crude irrational dismissal of what could be our most powerful, proven and effective source of energy for the future is tragic, almost criminal. I’m a skeptic on global warming, but I am not a skeptic on the need for energy today—in massive quantities.

Energy is the very life-blood of our civilization. Without it, or even with slowly diminishing quantities of it, we will regress back into barbarism. This is serious stuff. With all the good will and innovation in the world, alternative energy sources like solar, wind and biofuels just cannot cut it. At least not right now. Nuclear power today is our only proven source of serious massive power once we cut back seriously on fossil fuels—which we should do. But not yet.

Recent stories about the increasing use of biofuels should also give us pause. Last year, reported the NY Times, Thailand exported 98% of its edible cassava crop to China to make biofuel.  The problem is, the more you use edible crops to make biofuel, the more difficult it will be to feed people. In America virtually no one worries that we won’t have enough food, but if we cut back severely on energy production, and try to make up for it by a major switch to biofuels, we may have to worry not only about higher prices for food, but even about getting enough on our supermarket shelves.

Few remember that one of the root causes of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, that brought us into the horrors of World War Two, was their desperate fear they could not get enough oil to power their economy. All the windmills and solar cells we can build will not save us in time. Nuclear energy already supplies about 20% of our electrical power. In Japan over 30%, and in France it provides close to 80%.

Richard Lester, head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT points out in a recent article that, “today’s most advanced designs move toward the goal of ‘walk-away safety’—reactors that shut down and cool themselves without electricity or any human intervention. … This is not the time for the nuclear industry to circle the wagons. The need for intellectual vitality, flexibility and creativity [in nuclear engineering design] has never been greater. An already safe technology must be made demonstrably safer—and less expensive, more secure against the threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorism and more compatible with the capabilities of electric power systems and the utilities that run them. The advantages of nuclear power in displacing fossil fuels are simply too great to ignore. ”

This is serious business. As Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of the environmental leaders of the 20th century said, “we are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.” Today Brand has not lost his enthusiasm for the environment, nor for technology. Recently he came out strongly for reviving nuclear power and for using more genetic engineering, both technologies being in his opinion, essential tools for helping to slow global warming and “making the world work for 100% of humanity.”

He is today is advocating a science-based “whole Earth discipline” he calls “ecopragmatism.” He rejects the  attitudes of many leaders and rank and file fellow travellers in the environmentalist movement that he helped to create and inspire. Their opposition to “factory” foods, genetic engineering and nuclear power, Brand says, is anti-science, anti-intellectual and counter-productive, especially to the most serious environmental challenge of our lifetime, climate change. He goes even further and says to environmentalists today “you’re harmful.”

I agree. This is serious business.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more detail on the pros and cons of nuclear power see my programs Nuclear Power and Radiation. You can find them on www.hawkhill.com or on amazon.com.

Here is how Jim McClosky, Minnesota State Department of Safety describes them: “The more I view the videos on Radiation and Nuclear Power the more I appreciate them. I’ve trained workers in nuclear plants and the emergency responders in radiation protection for ten years. I just love the unbiased approach taken in these DVDs. Good work. Thank you.”

be careful what you wish for

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

April 4, 2011

When I was a boy in the Great Depression of the 1930s our family, like many others, was always hurting for money. I remember asking my father what I thought was a sensible question. “Why doesn’t President Roosevelt just print more money and give us some?”

My father didn’t seem to have an answer.

Some people today seem to think along the same lines I did as a boy. The government should provide. Maybe most realize that simply printing more paper bills is not such a good idea, but how about taking it from the people who have it in abundance—that is, soaking the rich.

One problem many states are now having with that idea is the well is running dry. States like California, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York rely on the top one percent of earners to provide half or more of their income. (As does the U.S. government.) That works out okay in a boom time. When a recession comes along the income of the top one percent declines precipitously, and the state is starved for revenue.

Soaking the rich is tempting and popular. It’s the Robin Hood principle in modern dress. Or as a loyal reader, Jeannie Harrison, pointed out in response to my last News, it is children’s stories, like The Little Red Hen and the Grain of Wheat or The Three Little Pigs on steroids. And it has been tried over and over again in human history, always with the same results. The rich find a way to escape the most onerous taxes (except for the French Revolution when they lost their heads). After the initial surge of money has run out, the poor and the middle class end up with the short end of the stick. It is classical zero-sum economics. One person’s gain is another person’s loss. This was the system that lasted for thousands of years in agricultural and hunting/gathering societies. Some people think it still works like this today.

When free-market capitalism, along with the scientific and industrial revolution, came along a couple hundred years ago, the rules changed. Wealth could now be a win-win proposition. If I get wealthy, it is because I helped others get wealthy too.  If I start a new business and it prospers, not only do I prosper, so do my new employees, so do the people I sell my goods or services to, and so does the government.

If General Motors or McDonald’s or Wal-Mart makes a nice profit, so do its workers, its shareholders, its customers, and the government that provided the security and rules of engagement.

In fact, in a long-term way, if a school or college provides good services, the teachers, the librarians, the school secretaries prosper—as do the students, the economy and the civilization. A nice bundle of win/wins.

When the government, however, tries to do more than provide the security and the rules of engagement, problems often arise.

The government, for instance, decides that all people should have a “living wage,” so it enacts laws that require employers to pay a minimum wage to all workers. Sounds simple and fair. As it works out, people at the low end of the education and skill pool now cannot find an employer to hire them. Their skills are not worth enough to justify a win-win exchange. Some of these disappointed workers decide that crime is more attractive, and end up in prison where taxpayers have to support them in a still more expensive environment. It all turns out to be a lose-lose proposition—the government loses, the taxpayers lose, and the prisoners lose.

The government decides that young women who have babies, with no means of support, will be supported by the taxpayer. Again, sounds compassionate and fair. After all, it’s not the baby’s fault. When you subsidize one-parent families, you get more of them—and you make it difficult, if not impossible, for the responsible fathers (usually of the minimal education and low skill variety, who have already been cut out of the work force by minimum wage laws) to take responsibility.

The government decides that anyone who works for the government should be able to retire early after twenty or thirty years of service, with a generous lifetime pension. Sounds wonderful. As time goes on, the money to pay these guaranteed pensions runs short, and the only way to stay solvent is to take more money from young workers. That is, to make them work harder. Instead of a win-win deal, the equation becomes win-lose. Pensioners win, but young workers lose.

Fortunately, in modern free-market capitalist times there is another possibility. Instead of working harder, the young workers can work more efficiently, that is produce more goods or more services with fewer people, less effort and less time on the job. This is actually what has been happening for the last two hundred years. But today this solution, too, is being sabotaged by unions, politicians, trial lawyers and environmental activists.

To do the job with less effort, less time and fewer workers, we need breakthroughs, small and large, in efficiency. Scientists, engineers, managers, and workers can do their part in inventing, administering and operating in more efficient ways. Today, however, governments, national and local, pass laws with hundreds of thousands of rules and regulations that often cancel out the efficiency gains. Instead of win-win transactions, we get win-lose ones, or even lose-lose ones.

Nuclear power could provide safe and plentiful electricity in an efficient win-win way (with no carbon footprint). But environmentalists have convinced the public that any radiation is a calamity and that nuclear plants are an absolute no-no. The public agrees, not in my backyard.

Genetically engineered crops can help farmers produce food more efficiently, making higher profits for the farmers (win-win), as well as helping consumers get more good food at less cost (win-win). Environmentalists fight like cats and dogs against what they call “frankenfoods” and preach the virtues of “organic” instead. Whole Foods wins, McDonald’s loses. Organic enthusiasts win. Most of the rest of the world’s people lose. Many of them starve to death.

Schools that take vouchers produce results equal to (or superior) to schools controlled by teacher unions, at half the cost. Unions fight back, efficiency suffers, and we get less education at higher cost.

China, India, Indonesia, South America, Mexico and Africa can provide many goods and services to Americans in economical, quality, win-win transactions that help poor countries emerge from poverty and help us live better for less money (win-win). Unions and environmentalists unite to oppose the free-trade pacts that bring these advantages. Unions and environmentalists win. Poor countries lose. American consumers lose.

The list gets longer. High-speed trains that use more resources to attract fewer riders; solar, windmill and biofuel subsidies that create less energy but cost more; subsidies for recycling programs that use more energy to produce inferior goods; “cash for clunkers” that subsidize new car production, while penalizing thrift, auto repair shops and taxpayers; subsidies for public housing that encourage dependency, crime and irresponsibility; an explosion of government workers, along with hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations and a glut of law suits penalize risk-taking and encourage mediocrity in new drugs, health care, education, agriculture, plastics, mining, oil exploration, natural gas production, manufacturing, and just about all productive enterprises. (Stephen Moore claims that “more Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined.”)

I’ll give economist Thomas Sowell the last word, “One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Look for more examples of win-win transactions and their sometimes extra dividends in my new book, The Road to a Tea Party: a Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. You can find it this summer on www.hawkhill.com or on amazon.com.