Archive for January, 2012

Inequality and fair shares

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Jan. 30, 2012

Inequality of wealth is a big issue in the elections of 2012. A spat between envy and greed. At the moment envy seems to be winning.

Seriously, in my view the inequality of wealth in this country is like overpopulation, resource depletion, chemical pollution, and climate change—another non-issue. I have written enough about the others. What about inequality?

The Occupy Wall Street activists are correct—the 1% at the top is a lot richer than the 99% below. And yes, over the past four decades that 1% has become even richer while the middle classes and the poor seem to have hit a plateau. This latter claim is debatable—see below. Nevertheless, the 1% at the top do have more wealth than the bottom 49% of the U.S. population.

They also pay most of the taxes. The top 1%, for instance, pays 38% of the income taxes in America. In 1970 when the top income rate was 70%, the top 1% paid around 19%.

Billionaire Warren Buffett does pay a lower rate than his secretary. That’s because, like millionaire Mitt Romney, most of his income comes from capital gains and dividends, which are taxed at a lower rate to encourage investment in productive job-creating enterprises. This income from investments has already been taxed once at a 28% rate (one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world). In effect the total tax rates for Buffett and Romney are 28% (corporate tax) plus 15% (personal capital gains and dividends tax) for a total of 43%. Their wealth will also be taxed a third time when they die. (Buffett supports laws that would raise his taxes but admits that he, his children and his charitable foundations would invest his profits more wisely than the government would.)

Some, including me, think that it would be fairer and probably bring in more revenue to move toward a flatter tax with fewer loopholes. The rich would still pay the bulk of our taxes but we 99% bottom dwellers would pay a bit more for the benefits we receive. Fair enough.  My wife and I, for instance, receive far more in social security and Medicare benefits than we contributed in our working lifetimes. Most seniors in this country, when you take into account the benefits they receive, are millionaires! This real wealth of seniors (and the disabled) is not included in the statistics that claim the middle class and poor have hit a “plateau.”

The statistics also do not include many other kinds of wealth that the 99% have today that they didn’t have 40 years ago. When I was a young student and teacher cell phones, computers, Google and iPads did not exist. Nor did copy machines, fast-foods, frozen pizza, Air Jordans, many life-saving drugs, cheap but good clothes and who knows what other goodies from China, India, Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific courtesy of supermarkets, Walmart, Penney’s, and Starbucks. All of this real wealth comes courtesy of the private sector and at remarkably low prices.

The statistics also do not include the thousands of other grants and good things and good services we get now from our governments, local, state and federal. Like Medicare and Medicaid; Social Security; better roads and bridges and airports; more national, state and local parks; food stamps, housing and transportation subsidies; environmental protections; better equipped schools (in my day we didn’t have a gym much less a swimming pool, soccer field or tennis court); teachers with fewer students (my sister had 75 students in her 3rd grade class in 1950). All of these are funded in large part from taxes the rich pay. None are counted in the statistics that seek to prove the rich are taking unfair advantage by not paying “their fair share.”

Elizabeth Warren, the consumers advocate running for senator in Massachusetts gives envy a voice: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. … Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea — God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

But wait Ms. Warren—it was the profits of corporations and individuals that provided the taxes to pay for those roads, to hire the teachers to educate, the police and fire forces to protect, etc. etc. Those profits are due to free-market transactions and “the next kid who comes along” can thank the many profit-rich companies and successful individuals who did “pay forward.” Demand still more from these engines that power our entrepreneurial culture and you may end up having a social contract with not enough hunks of money to pay for it.

In earlier days there were much greater differences between the 1% and the 99% than there are today (for a vivid picture see the current PBS hit show, Downton Abbey). Sure the 1% today can afford to travel first class anytime and anywhere by private jet, helicopter, yacht or chauffeured auto. Most middle class folks do okay travelling anywhere and everywhere on comfortable jetliners, trains, buses, pickup trucks, SUV’s and RVs. Sure the rich can buy a luxury box to watch the Super Bowl or a season ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. The middle class (and the poor) can watch the same games and the same operas with better seats and better views on their TV sets. The rich can get a heart bypass or a hip replacement. So can the middle class and the poor. The rich can go to Harvard or Yale or Princeton—if they are talented enough. The middle class and the poor can go to Harvard or Yale or Princeton—if they are talented enough.  (See the current occupants of the White House.)

Leftists and OWW protesters will drown you in cherry-picked statistics to prove the rich are taking unfair advantage of us poor middle class oafs. Don’t buy it. I have lived a long time and I know from personal experience that the middle class and the poor (and I have spent a lot of time in both) are far better off today than they were in the 50s or the 60s, those golden years our President and his more left-wing followers wax enthusiastic about. Believe me, it’s not even close.

Most countries in the developed world have been growing more unequal in wealth in the last 30 years. (Interesting enough, the exceptions like Greece, Ireland, Spain, France and Italy are the ones in most trouble today.) Most developed countries, like the U.S., have increased their spending on social services far more than they have increased expenditures on everything else including the military. In many countries, including the U.S., the national debts to pay for these generous social services have soared to levels that threaten to bring down the whole social contract.

Does that mean that no one in the middle class is hurting today? Of course not. Does that mean no one today in this country is poor? Of course not. Does that mean the government has no role in making things better? Of course not.

But we need to face reality and that reality says—well, the truth is it doesn’t speak very clearly. It does caution that soaking the rich is unlikely to cure what ails us. In fact it warns that too much reliance on this Robin Hood strategy might make it worse.

Growing the economy is basic. Cutting back on debt and borrowing will help. Increasing our energy supply and our efficiency is essential. Reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security is a must to ensure they will be there to help young people when they get to my age.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  Don’t forget out January and February sale of Hawkhill DVDs. Dirt cheap. $9.50 apiece for programs to entertain and educate. See Hawkhill.com or Amazon.com.

The 3-second rule

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Jan. 23, 2012

Despite my affection for the long view and the heavy thinking I realize that what happens in the next 3 seconds is what really matters.

Henry David Thoreau put it this way, “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

It takes about 3 seconds for a smile to brighten your day. Or to say Hello, or Thank you, or You’re welcome, or I love you. The time it takes to hug a friend. The time it takes to take a really deep breath, or to listen to a song in your head or a beat in your heart. The time it takes to “improve the nick of time … to tow that line.”

For most of my life I have been a future planner. I have not given much time to dwelling on the past and I think now not enough effort to the present either.  Now that I am old I am beginning to realize how important the next 3 seconds are.

A scientist agrees.

Emese Nagy, a developmental psychologist at the University of Dundee claims, “What we have is very broad research showing that we experience the world in about these 3 second time frames.”

The “3-second rule” came to its greatest prominence in basketball. The rule there says you cannot stay in the free-throw lane under the opponent’s basket for more than 3 seconds. Another version says that for safe driving you should keep at least 3 seconds worth of driving time between you and the car ahead of you. Still another applies to dating. If you see a girl (or a guy) you think you might like to date, you have 3 seconds to make up your mind to approach her (or him). If you delay more than that, your chances of connecting fall off by powers of 10.

I don’t think this means you should never plan, or read, or work, or engage in a conversation that takes more than 3 seconds. Just pay more attention and punctuate your longer periods with 3 second phrases.

In my retirement years my wife and I get our exercise walking the dog and going swimming at a nearby indoor pool devoted to seniors. I never was a very good swimmer and still am not. But I enjoy and profit from the 3-second rule by swimming laps with a leisurely back stroke. I coordinate my arm and leg movements to deep breaths. Breathe in, reach-kick, breathe out; breathe in, reach-kick, breathe out; breathe in, reach-kick, breathe out. Every deep breath and cool glide takes about 3 seconds. Enough time to sneak in a bit of meditation and idea generation for the next week’s blog! It’s the time of day I feel most healthy.

How often do we really look at one another? Or really listen?

Thoreau wrote, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us too look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! —I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.”

In my teaching days I once directed the perennially popular play Our Town. I still have to hold back a tear when Emily who died in childbirth in an earlier scene comes back from the dead in the final act to see what life was really like when she was living on earth.

“Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. … Let’s really look at one another! … I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners … Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute? … if only we really looked at one another! … People just don’t realize what a wonderful life this is.”

I hinted at this mystery of looking and listening when I quoted Samuel Beckett before the title page of my new book. As the first act of Waiting for Godot ends, a boy comes onstage to bring a message from Mr. Godot (who never appears). Didi is one of the two homeless tramps who are the main characters in the play.

(boy) “What shall I tell Mr. Godot, Sir?”

(Didi) “Tell him you saw us … (long pause)

You did see us, didn’t you?”

Then there is the story of Michael Gates Gill who had it all, an Ivy League education, a creative director at the world’s largest ad agency, a house in the Hamptons and a six-figure salary. After setbacks and nearing retirement age he ended up taking a job serving coffee at Starbucks where his boss was a young African-American woman, the daughter of a drug addict. According to him his unlikely descent in status and money turned out to be the thing that “saved his life.” Not sure he calls it that but one of the things he learned was the importance of living in the 3 second zone. Serving customers with a smile, relating to fellow employees and bosses with attention and humility, producing goods and services that customers liked, discovering a new respect for hard work.

Pleasure often comes in 3 second intervals. So does pain. Shakespeare, as always, knew what we are talking about when he wrote in Much Ado About Nothing, “There was never yet a philosopher who could endure the toothache patiently.”

There is always the agony and the ecstasy. The pain of a migraine headache. The delight in a vase of flowers. The chagrin when the other team completes a Hail-Mary pass in the last second. The pleasure when your team completes a Hail-Mary pass in the last second. The bitterness of a divorce. The view out the window in the morning after the first snow of the season. The loneliness of a dark night. The shiver when you hear a phrase of music you love. The desperation of unrequited love. The ecstasy of an orgasm.

I think part of my respect for the 3-second rule comes from age. In our long-ago nightclub act Jane and I included a poem by Helen Hoyt called RAIN AT NIGHT. Especially now as we touch in bed the last lines of that poem haunt me.

“One day it will be raining as it rains tonight; the same wind blow—

Raining and blowing on this house wherein we lie: but you and I—

We shall not hear, we shall not ever know,

O love, I had forgot that we must die.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. With affection, this effort is dedicated to long-time readers and good friends Ann and Paul Boyer.

What don’t we know?

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Jan. 16, 2012

Last week I featured big things we know but don’t pay enough attention to. Like the things Newton and Darwin taught us hundreds of years ago. I even claimed we don’t pay enough attention to my eye-opener—that we are at the dawn not the twilight of a new scientific-industrial-democratic age.

What about things we don’t know?

We know next to nothing about our place in the vast ocean of space. Are we alone or are there other intelligent creatures out there? Very recently astronomers have found that many, probably most, stars have planets. Since there are billions of stars, there must be billions of planets in our universe. Some of them probably have life. Intelligent life? We don’t know.

There is much we don’t know about energy, resources and climate.

Physicists tell us that there is a dark energy pervading space that so far we know nothing about. Current theory has it that the universe is expanding at a rapid rate. This expansion cannot be explained using current ideas about energy. It must be powered by a mysterious unknown kind of dark energy. Current experiments with the Large Hadron Collider (LHD) in Switzerland may give us some clues. Could it help with our local energy problems here on earth?

Dark energy is one part. Dark matter is also a problem with no answers at present. Einstein showed that energy and matter are interchangeable—e=mc2. Scientists tell us now that all of the matter-energy stuff we see and know—that means every thing on earth and in the universe—is only 4% of what actually exists! Will the LHD or some new Einstein find hints on the other 96%? Will it make a difference? Einstein’s equations certainly did.

With some resource issues the story is promising. Doctors and nurses a hundred years ago had pitifully few resources available to cure anything that ailed us. If you broke your hip, as I did a few years ago, tough. You would probably die. At best it might heal itself after months of terrible pain and leave you a cripple. Metal was available, but the metal alloy that replaced my broken hip joint was not. Nor was the knowledge and skill needed to put it in.

The insulin needed to keep diabetes in control was not available. The story is told that children in dying comas from diabetes were kept often in large wards with their parents and grieving family members nearby. In the late 1920s (I was born in 1926) research pioneers Frederick Banting, Charles Best and James Collip went from child to child in one such ward, injecting each child with newly discovered insulin extracts. Before they finished with the last child of fifty, the first to be injected came out of a coma to the ineffable joy of the family.

Insulin to save diabetics was first produced from cows, a widely available natural resource. Later chemists learned how to make cow insulin artificially in labs. Still later they found ways to genetically engineer recombinant human insulin. That is the kind used today to control diabetes in millions of children and adults worldwide.

A similar story with infections. Because operations a hundred years ago usually led to deadly infections, people rarely chose elective surgery (not to mention the lack of effective and safe anesthetics). Antibiotics to control and cure infections were unknown until my WW2 days in the Navy. This was so even though molds and bacteria, the prime source of most antibiotics, are one of most common living things on earth.

If you got tuberculosis (as one out of every three middle-age adults in Europe and the U.S. did) you might get some help in the cool air of a TB sanitarium (like the one where we walk our dog nowadays, long ago closed for lack of patients). Even so you would in all likelihood die (as did my grandmother in her early 30s, leaving my father-to-be a motherless little boy. Which made a big difference in his life and in mine).

Cancer is still a mystery. We now know how to control the kind my wife Jane has, CML (chronic mylegenous leukemia). She is in remission because of 21st century advances in biotechnology. Will future advances provide the resources to control other varieties of this dreaded scourge? Will scientists find the resources to make an AIDS vaccine; a malaria vaccine; to regenerate limbs; to prolong the life-span; to prevent or cure Lou Gehrig’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases; a better way to prevent and treat mental disease; and a thousand other resource challenges in our age-old quest for health? Probably yes. Will we find better ways to pay for it? That is another question and the answers are not clear.

I emphasize here resources needed for health but much the same story holds for other natural resources like oil, minerals, forest products and food. Take note that available resources here, as with health, depend far more on human skill and knowledge than they do on raw stuff in the ground, air and water. Sand is plentiful. It took brains, education and freedom to make Silicon Valley. Resource availability depends far more on the quality of our educational and political system than it does on finding more stuff under the ground, in the water or in the air.

Even on the raw stuff level, we have only begun to search and retrieve what might be there. Not only on our planet but on satellites like the moon, the asteroid belts, Mars, wherever. And what about that 96% of energy-matter that we have never seen? All things considered the likelihood we will run out of energy and matter resources in the near or distant future is nil.

Lastly, what about the much talked about climate change? What do we or don’t we know about climate change? Is global warming (or cooling) going to do in our civilization as some claim?

“Climate change and global warming are topics that should be treated with extreme caution,” says UN environmental expert Steven Gorzula “… the short-term fluctuations in global climate are not a new discovery. What is new is that global warming has replaced nuclear winter, acid rain and saving the whales as the must-have buzz phrases for many scientific grant applications.”

I agree with Dr. Gorzula that climate change is a much-exaggerated threat today. We don’t know anywhere near as much about the earth’s climate as many are claiming. To me it looks suspiciously close to the population bomb threat a few decades ago. That scare turned out to be more a pop than an explosion. Or the resource depletion worry that is turning out to be another problem that isn’t. Scientists have a well-deserved reputation for scrupulous honesty, intelligent questioning and reasoned conclusions. But they are not much better than historians, poets, or religious zealots when it comes to extrapolating their findings into predictions for the future. Especially when it comes to incredibly complicated issues with millions of variables, like population, peak oil, economic trends, social programs and climate change.

True, we have to take care and we have to plan for a future no one can be certain of. The wisest course is to do the best we can in the short run, and hope for the best in the long run. When and if the worst happens, we will have to, as humans have always done, do our best to cope. The most promising short and long run strategy in my view is to stick with science and technology, freedom of religion and free-markets in a nurturing environment of democracy. It will be our best insurance policy. It has worked remarkably well for two hundred years. It would be foolish to abandon or weaken it now when we have only just begun to harvest its fruits.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Naturally I am going to recommend my new book, TWILIGHT OR DAWN? a Traveler’s Guide to Free-Market Liberal Democracy, for your detailed consideration. You can get it on a Kindle for only 99 cents. If you prefer print copy you will find it listed on www.amazon.com and on www.hawkhill.com for a modest price.

P.P.S. I welcome feedback. Send your comments to billjane@hawkhill.com.

“… a glorious day, like giving sight to a blind man’s eyes”

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Jan. 9, 2012

On first seeing tropical vegetation on his round-the-world trip Charles Darwin wrote, “It has been for me a glorious day, like giving sight to a blind man’s eyes. He is overwhelmed by what he sees and cannot justly comprehend it.”

Ah, if only we could experience such a sight as we awake to each New Year!

Isaac Newton must have had similar thoughts when he watched the apple fall from a tree outside his home in Woolsthorpe, England. He tells us it gave him the idea that later became a theory of gravitation and laws of motion which explained not only why the apple fell but also how the earth goes around the sun, how cannon balls, moons, stars, spaceships, and in fact how any and all objects in the universe move.

That apple fell from Newton’s tree three hundred years ago. We live today in a new world of science and technology that owes much of its existence to his discoveries. But alas, three centuries later his insights have not radically changed the way most people look at the planet and at the universe.

We know the earth is moving around the sun. But we still say it is the sun and moon that are rising and setting. We know we live on a spherical globe moving through an immensity of space where there is no up or down. But we still say we go up a mountain and down a river, as if the earth is flat and the sky is up there instead of out there. Many people still look at the earth as the center of the universe and believe someone up there will rescue us when we are in trouble down here and eventually will welcome us into a better place that, of course, is up there.

It is the same story with evolution. Darwin was overwhelmed by the diversity of the living world and in time he used his insights to create basic foundation stones for modern science. His insights, however, are less widely accepted today than Newton’s. Even otherwise well-educated people on the far right and the far left actively oppose evolution when it comes to sensitive issues in religion, education, race and economics.

I don’t claim to be a Newton or a Darwin but I did have my eyes opened wider to societal evolution after a heavy bout of traveling and reading in history and science. Here is a brief summary of what I saw.

We’ve only just begun. We are still at the dawn, not the twilight, of a new era. As with the laws of motion and the evolution of living things, popular thought and practice has not kept pace with what historians and scientists know. Hangover memes from earlier ages populate, proliferate and often dominate our choices today.

For example …

We feel an organic need for wilderness—for living a life free of modern technology and anxiety. As a young man I too waxed poetic about a life of primitive simplicity and adventure. Maybe like the Nav’vi people in the movie Avatar. We resist facing reality—that primitive hunting/gathering life was a daily struggle to survive and extreme violence was the norm not the exception. As Thomas Hobbes put it, life in those long-ago days was “nasty, brutish, and short.”

It took the human species a few hundred thousand years to make the transition from hunting/gathering into the Agricultural Age. There was a more reliable food supply. Populations exploded. But for 99% of human beings the quality of life did not improve much. It was still nasty, brutish and short for the next ten thousand years. Only in the last few hundred years (led by the birth of a new country, the United States of America) have we emerged into a relatively prosperous modern era where science and technology, freedom of religion and win-win market forces have begun to provide an abundance of food, shelter and health for the 99%. Along with a vast improvement in quality of life and potential for happiness.

As a new book by the Harvard scholar Stephen Pinker points out, the world is much less violent now than it was in past ages. (It is even less violent than it was twenty or fifty years ago!) This is, in part, because supernatural religious memes are fading. We in the West no longer burn witches or go to war with our neighbors because they are Protestant and we are Catholic. Or vice versa. Unfortunately much of the Islamic world is still mired in that ten-thousand-year-old ditch. The terrorists of 9/11 were convinced they were doing the work of Allah and would be rewarded up there in heaven. Just as the Christian warmongers and heretic-burners of five hundred years ago thought they were doing God’s work and saving humans from the hell-fires down there.

Religion was important, but probably the more important reason we are less violent and more prosperous today is that the 99% of us no longer live in a zero-sum economy. For hundreds of thousands of years wealth and security depended on land, gold, and the work of slaves, serfs, or peasants. Since there was only so much land, so much gold, and so many human beings you could make into slaves, serfs, or peasants—violence was king. It was the only way an individual, tribe, family or kingdom could get rich or even survive.

Memes last a long time. We are living now in a new age where the absolute truths of religions and the zero-sum economics of feudal and hunting/gathering days no longer apply. But hangovers and destructive memes from earlier ages still retard our progress.

For instance …

Male supremacy and female submission; divisions of class and caste, lord and commoner, priest and laymen, subject and citizen; fighting to prove honor; violence to settle disputes, theft and murder to gain wealth; class wars with Robin Hood attacks on the rich; imperialist wars to gain land and resources; civil wars over religion and race; harsh punishment of losers and heretics; obeisance to heroes, artists and celebrities; overestimation of the virtues of good intentions and charity; underestimation of the virtues of self-interest and business; suspicion of science, technology and intellectual endeavors; security and comfort from a firm belief in absolute truths supplied by all-seeing and all-powerful religions. All these and more are in retreat today. They have not disappeared. Most are irrelevant, though, in a scientific-industrial-democratic world where families, individuals, communities and countries—if they are free—can win riches and security without harming others.

I realize this is taking the long view and does not on the face of it offer much help with specific problems today. We are still fumbling around at the dawn, not the twilight, of a new era. We’ll manage. Our best days are still to come.

The best example of major progress in the 20th century was the post WW2 Marshall Plan. After WW1 the winning allies (still handicapped by outdated and destructive memes) imposed harsh punishment on the losers, Germany and Italy. The result was Hitler, Mussolini and WW2. After WW2 the United States led the way to help Germany and Italy recover. The result today is a prosperous Europe composed of valued trading partners, not bitter enemies.

One important ally in WW2 did not participate in that progressive plan, the Soviet Union. They stuck with zero-sum economic and absolute religious ideas (secular, not supernatural). They were the losers. As Ronald Reagan said prophetically, “I believe that Communism is a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”

Substitute Radical Islam for Communism, and you have a clue how we can prevail in one major challenge today. Substitute left-over Marxism married (uncomfortably) to the new secular religion of Radical Environmentalism and you have clues for prevailing in another major challenge, what I call the Second Cold War.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. If you got a Kindle for Christmas your best post-New Years bargain might be my new book, TWILIGHT OR DAWN? a Traveler’s Guide to Free Market Liberal Democracy. It takes this longer view and explains in more detail the evidence that supports it. You can get it in e-book form now on sale on www.amazon.com for only 99 cents!

Jan. 2, 2012

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

JANUARY 2, 2012

OK so far.

Happy New Year

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Good luck to the Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl this P.M. See next week for a full blog.