Archive for March, 2012

Let there be light …

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

March 26, 2012

“God said let there be light and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and he divided the light from the darkness.”

Genesis, (4.6 billion BC.)

Most beautiful of things I leave is sunlight.
Then come glazing stars and the moon’s face.
Then ripe cucumbers and apples and pears.

Greek poet, Praxilla, (5th century BC.)

I had the privilege many years ago to meet Buckminster Fuller and spend time with him on his island in Maine with my two sons and friends. One of the events I remember most vividly was walking into his study on a bright August day where he was sketching out a geodesic design for a new school. The sunlight came tumbling through the window and splashed across his sketch. He skipped small talk and pointed to the sunlight, “Beautiful!”

R. Buckminster Fuller, (1895-1983 AD.)

A few years ago we remodeled our house and added a large expanse of south-facing windows in the kitchen. One of our oldest and dearest friends often came to visit and stayed in the room above the kitchen. She died last year. I remember the last time she visited, coming down the stairs in the morning, stopping halfway down, looking out our back windows where the sunlight was streaming in, and remarking, “Beautiful!”

Lainie Taylor, (1921-2011 AD.)

The spring equinox was last week. We had a warm winter in Wisconsin, which was nice. It has brought a lot more sunshine through our kitchen windows. Light, like its companion electricity, is beautiful. Both light and electricity are stronger—and stranger—than most people imagine. Both are electromagnetic waves that are the rock-bottom support for all life on this small planet and perhaps on other planets that we have yet to discover or contact. Light supplies the power and beauty, and electromagnetism supplies the technology and the glue that keeps our bodies and our economies working. Both are most impressive as the days grow longer this spring.

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

Thrush’s eggs look like little low heavens, and thrush

Though the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightings to hear him sing;

The glass peartree leaves and blooms, they brush

The descending blue; that blue is all in a rish

With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889)

It is morning…

I stand by a mirror and comb my hair:

How small and white my face!—

The green earth tilts through a sphere of air

And bathes in a flame of space.

There are houses hanging above the stars

And stars hung under a sea…

And a sun far off in a shell of silence

Dapples my walls for me…

Conrad Aiken (1889-1973)

We are made of dust

And the light of a star.

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

Sunlight is wonderful but when night comes, we seldom realize how lucky we are to have electric lights. For most of human history people had to make do with campfires, moonlight, candles, torches of sticks, ferns, seaweed, dried dung or whatever. By the 19th century people had whale oil lamps, kerosene and gaslights. For indoor living all of these sources gave at best about the amount of illumination we get today opening the refrigerator door in a dark kitchen. When gas streetlights first appeared in the 19th century they gave out the equivalent of one 25-watt incandescent bulb. They were so far apart that they had little effect on curbing brigands, rapists or worse who might be prowling the dark streets at night.

All of us are aware that the most important divide between light and darkness will come when we die.

A dear friend of mine, Paul Boyer, died last week. Paul was an internationally recognized historian here at the University of Wisconsin. The national media often called him upon when there was a news story involving apocalyptic religions. Just by chance I happened to be looking a few days before he died at one of his prophetic books on the subject, When Time Is No More.

Paul Boyer (1935-2012)

Bear with me as I reprint some poems from a last summer’s blog that seem to fit with this early spring of 2012:

When nature’s darkness seems strange to you

And you walk an alien in the streets of cities

Remember, earth breathed you into her with the air

With the sun’s rays

Laid you in her waters asleep

To dream with brown trout among the milfoil roots

From substance of star and ocean fashioned you

At the same source conceived you as sun and foliage,

As fish and stream.

Kathleen Raine (1908-2003)

Buffalo Bill’s

defunct

who used to

ride a watersmooth-silver

stallion

And break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjust like that

Jesus

he was a handsome man

and what I want to know is

How do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)

When I return will the fish still swim

Glide, dive and slowly turn in the far-off

Dark-down sea?

Will life still explode in seed and spore

And decay in time?

Will questions of great moment

Still be settled by childhood dreams

And luck?

I think I shall return as rock

My rhythm shall be paced slow

To the grand tread of the century’s boot.

I will be soil and trees

Sparrows and snakes

Blue-bottomed whales, skyscrapers too

But not too soon.

Then when autumn return again

I will stand by my seat

And yes

I’ll answer

Yes.

Bill Stonebarger (1926-20??)

Why is no one holding hands?

Where do they think we are, in heaven?

Down here

In here

We have more need for keeping in touch.

Bill (1926-20??) and Jane (1923-20??)

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. No postscript today. Going out for a sunny walk with Jane and Frankie (our naughty but loyal Corgi).

How to fix it …

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Last week I claimed that the current welfare state is not well. I suggested that a libertarian social scientist, Charles Murray, had a promising Plan to fix things, preserving freedom while enhancing community. It is detailed in his short 2006 book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. (Murray has a new 2012 bestseller, Coming Apart. He made his name with an influential book in 1984, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980. He also co-authored the controversial book, The Bell Curve. He says In Our Hands is his best effort.)

In Our Hands suggests that we scrap all of our current social welfare and transfer payment programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Aid to Dependent Children, Disability, Housing Assistance, etc., as well as all subsidies to industries and agriculture. All of these programs come with expensive overhead and all have unexpected and undesirable side effects. Instead we should simply give that money to all adult citizens and let them decide what to spend it on. Instead of a few bureaucrats, social workers and policy wonks making the decisions, 200 million-plus individuals will make the choices.

You might object that (1) we can’t afford it. (2) If everyone gets money without working, no one will work. (3) It sounds too simple and won’t work.

As to the first objection, if we take the trillions of dollars we spend now on anti-poverty programs and subsidies to industry and agriculture and give the cash to adult citizens, Murray says it would suffice. The calculations in his book are based on 2002 prices. He suggests a basic grant of $10,000 a year for all adults over 21. Those earning over $25,000 a year would pay some of this back over time and the richer you get, the more and the sooner you would pay it back. (Inflation would increase these figures. By 2011, he claimed—the book was written in 2006—tax revenues, with no new taxes, would bring in enough money to pay all adults the basic grant for life. And the federal budget would balance.)

Every citizen would be required to get a checking account and a passport (to ensure against fraud). The monthly payments would be electronically deposited to his or her checking account. The overhead would be far less than the programs it replaces.

In the past governments did experiment in a few cities with direct cash payments to help cure poverty. It didn’t work. People found that taking a low-paying job required paying back some or all of the government cash as soon as they got a paycheck from the new job. So why work? Most didn’t.

Murray’s plan would correct that flaw. Citizens would only have to “pay back” any of the cash if and when they were making over $25,000 a year. In inflated 2012 dollars each citizen today would have a basic grant of $12,000 and the minimum for payback would be $30,000 a year. By that time, he says, workers would be “hooked” on living at the higher level and the regular pay-back payments would be less onerous than going back to living at a $12,000 a year level.

Retirement:

Social Security is popular but it is not universal. Women typically receive far less than men because they often have not had as much time working at a job where FICA taxes were deducted. The size of your social security check depends on how much money you made in your working lifetime. Some jobs are exempt from FICA taxes, so when workers retire they get nothing from the federal government. Under Murray’s Plan every citizen would receive a minimum of $1,000 a month for life.

Aid to dependent children:

At the present time if an unwed mother with no source of income has a baby, she gets substantial help from the government to fund decent housing, food, health care, etc. There are laws in most states that attempt to get some of that money back from the father but they are difficult to enforce and mostly ignored. Each new baby increases the support payments. The fathers typically get a free ride. They are often poorly educated and unskilled so even if they wanted to help support the child they may be unable to do so at anything like the level she can get from the government. Marriage is a bad deal for both.

Under Murray’s Plan marriage suddenly looks pretty good. Both father and mother would be getting $1,000 a month each, with no work requirement. Enough to rent an apartment, buy food without food stamp restrictions, pay for transportation, travel, furniture, clothes, even buy their own health insurance (more about this later). If the man (or the woman) were to get even a low-paying job, both could live at a higher level of comfort. If the father (or the mother) still did not want to marry and the dad refused to offer support, the woman would have a much easier time getting money from his bank account.

Heath care:

Until Medicare and Medicaid began in 1965 health care in America was always the responsibility of the individual. You (or the insurance company you paid premiums to) paid the doctor and hospital bills. If you had no insurance—tough luck. Maybe charity or your family would help. In the pure form Murray’s Plan would say, now that you have $12,000 a year you have enough money to purchase health insurance for yourself.

He recognizes that some would be irresponsible and spend the cash on other things. When there was an emergency, old age or chronic disability, they would be have to fall back on family or on charity. He suggests a tweak to his Plan that would make health care universal. You could put in a provision that automatically deducts an amount from the basic grant sufficient to buy a high-deductible health insurance policy from an insurance company. Now the individual citizen would be responsible for ordinary health care expenses, but would be covered by insurance for emergencies or chronic disability.  It would still end up a consumer-dominated health-care system instead of a government-dominated one where the individual has no control over costs or benefits. This emphasis on high-deductible insurance coupled with tort reforms would be powerful tools to control health costs.

Minimum wage and jobs:

Murray would abolish all minimum wage laws. There would be new incentives now for both employer and employee. For employers why not hire someone to do a job for a small wage, rather than automate the job at capital expense. For the employee since he or she already has an income above poverty level, why not take a low-paying job to increase that income, give more meaning to your life, and lay foundations for further advancement. It would be especially helpful to artists, writers, musicians, actors and students of all shapes and sizes.

Subsidies:

Instead of trying to micro-manage the economy, let the public decide which products, which industries, which companies do the best job. It worked pretty well for three hundred years, why change.

Murray admits such a radical scheme is unlikely to get through Congress in the near future. Like me, he is an incurable optimist and claims that in the long run we will be driven to adopt a plan like his. Why? Unlike the zero-sum situation in agricultural times, the free-market—unless it is crippled by too heavy a zero-sum socialist burden—will inevitably create more and more wealth. To preserve our community we will have to “spread the wealth around.” Our present anti-poverty and subsidy policies are counter-productive. If we don’t radically change, we will fall behind and all will end up poor.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  There are many other sides to this Plan that I don’t have space to go into here. Education, transportation, most municipal expenses, and the post office are not included in Murray’s Plan. Education, however, would be affected. If every adult citizen had a minimum income of $12,000 a year this would offer new possibilities for vouchers, for alternative schools as well as more competition, better service and lower costs at both the K-12 and the college level.

What went wrong?

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Mar. 12, 2012

As a young teacher I was a committed liberal and Democrat. I am still a committed liberal but I now lean Republican. How can that be? I thought liberals were always Democrats.

It depends on what you mean by “liberal.” I use liberal as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin understood it—freedom. A strong, but modest, governing body that promotes “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and frees us from clerical and bureaucratic dogma.

Liberalism, as freedom, has worked remarkably well in America. We led the world in turning natural resources into wealth. From just over 3 million mostly poor, mostly illiterate, farmers in 1776, we have grown to over 300 million mostly rich, mostly educated, urbanites in 2012. Almost all of us today consume at a level the original 3 million would find astonishing.

Freedom worked—but not always for everyone. From the beginning we lived with the shameful stain of slavery. We had to go through a bloody civil war in the 19th century, and an equally shameful aftermath—Jim Crow. In abolishing slavery, it was the liberal wing of the new Republican Party that led the way. In crippling Jim Crow with new civil rights laws, it was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that led the way.

In both cases freedom won, but government help was critical. As I was starting my career in the 1950s and 60s many of us realized that important as freedom was, it was not enough.

Despite our progress and international leadership we had serious community problems. The middle class was thriving but we had a growing underclass of poverty and crime. Europe, recovering from WW2, became a model for welfare state remedies. An American socialist, Michael Harrington, published a book in 1962, The Other America: Poverty in the United States. It played a major role in President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious efforts to massively expand on the New Deal of FDR and to wage “war on poverty.” I wholeheartedly supported that war.

Now after half a century and trillions of dollars, poverty has won. We are much richer today than we were 50 years ago. Poverty around the world has gone down dramatically. But here in the U.S. we have more inequality, more children without fathers, more people with inadequate health care, more debt, more homeless, more unemployment, and more people in prison. (Many of these same backward trends are happening in Europe as well.)

What went wrong?

Today’s progressive Democrats say we didn’t go far enough. We need to tax the rich more. We need to spend more money creating jobs, providing health care, fighting poverty, closing the gaps in education and protecting the environment (especially when it comes to climate change).

We’ve been there, done that. We found that the noblest intentions and the best-laid plans had unexpected and bitterly undesirable outcomes.

We wanted to help poor unwed mothers. We got an epidemic of children without fathers. When the fatherless children grew up, they often (not always but often) turned to drugs, crime and ended up in prison. We also got an epidemic of irresponsible unwed fathers, who often (not always but often) turned to drugs, crime and ended up in prison.

We raised the minimum wage because we wanted people who worked at lowly jobs to make more money for their work and so escape poverty. Instead we found that most of the lowly jobs disappeared as employers turned to automation. Today the poorly educated and unskilled have many fewer jobs to fill and they sink deeper into poverty and crime.

We poured more money into schools and colleges. Teachers became better paid but students learning gaps didn’t budge. A college education became so expensive graduates had to struggle for twenty or thirty years to pay off the loans for an increasingly worthless diploma.

We subsidized green energy and restricted oil drilling to reduce our carbon footprints. Green companies went bankrupt, gasoline prices soared and carbon footprints barely noticed. We decided that farmers needed generous subsidies. We got more millionaire farmers, fewer family farms, and higher food prices. We wanted better schools, better police and firefighters, better civil servants so we gave overgenerous benefits to satisfy government union demands. We got skyrocketing property taxes and municipal bankruptcies. We subsidized mortgage insurance and overregulated banks to help poor people buy homes. We got a housing bubble, a market crash and a near depression. We put a moratorium on nuclear power plants. We can’t get the energy we need without polluting the atmosphere. We subsidize high-speed trains. We get few riders, more debt and heavier taxes.

No wonder polls show the public faith in government is at an all-time low.

No one person or legislative committee or executive branch has enough information or wisdom to create productive jobs, to decide who gets what in health care, to decide which industry or which company is most likely to be productive, which kind of automobile, form of housing, children’s toy, factory site, school, food or neighborhood is best for all.

For most of our history we let the free market make these decisions—millions of people voting with their own money. Slavery and Jim Crow were important exceptions but as for the rest, the free market worked remarkably well. Once you cut back on freedom you risk getting undesired outcomes. You also risk crippling the geese that lay the golden eggs—entrepreneurial wizards, hard working professionals, profitable small and large companies and creative playing-by-the-rules workers.

Of course freedom is not the only important value.

Community and concern for your fellows are also important. In the past Christian charity stepped in to soften the harsh demands of the free market—to help the elderly, the child, the disabled, the dropout, the poor—and to make sure we did not foul our nest while filling it with wealth. In our day and age charity can’t do the job alone. The government too must have a role.

So what is a liberal to do? How can we reconcile the demands of freedom and of community?

The Democrats today seem united in continuing, and intensifying, the kind of programs that failed in the past—to follow the European lead and make the U.S. a stronger welfare state. The Republicans resist, sort of, and lean in the direction of freedom but few seem to have dramatically new ideas for progress in community.

The Republican Congressman Paul Ryan is an exception. And the libertarian social scientist Charles Murray is another. Murray, especially, has a radical plan for future freedom and community. We are rich enough as a nation, Murray claims, to support everyone in this country at a decent standard of living. The best way to make sure this happens, he says, is stunningly simple—give people money!

Seriously.

Murray suggests we scrap all of our poverty and subsidy programs and replace them with a single basic cash grant to every adult citizen over 21. Instead of food stamps, aid to dependent children, disability checks, tuition grants, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, subsidies to industries and agriculture—all of which come with complicated and expensive overhead and unexpected and undesirable side effects—let’s simply give that money to individual people and let them decide what to spend it on. Instead of a relatively few bureaucrats, social workers and policy wonks making the decisions, 200 million-plus adult citizens will have the power to make the choices for themselves.

I realize when you first hear this you will be skeptical. I was. But when you take a second closer look and consider the details of Murray’s Plan, in my humble opinion, it is a real winner. It may turn out to be the spark that ignites a new war on poverty that wins this time.

I plan to devote next week’s blog to some of the details. If you would like to get it from the horse’s mouth I highly recommend Charles Murray’s 2006 short book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  Don’t forget our sale of Hawkhill DVDs. Dirt cheap. $9.50 apiece for programs to entertain and educate. We have decided to continue the sale until Easter this year. Go to www.hawkhill.com or to www.amazon.com .

Good News and Bad News

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Mar. 5, 2012

My mother had a needlepoint in our hallway that read, “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.”

On the other hand there is the story of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

I’m afraid the sentiments of Alice are closer to most of us than the needlepoint of my mother. Bad news usually trumps good news. One of the best educational programs we ever produced was The Good News from Earth. It was also one of the least popular. The bad news was we lost a good chunk of money.

The supermarket checkout lines are a good example. People are eager to read of the inane antics of Charlie Sheen, the dietary struggles of Oprah Winfrey, or the marital woes of Mel Gibson or Arnold Schwarzenegger. In our darkest hearts most of us will confess to a bit of Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others) even when it comes to our friends, not to mention our neighbors or Lindsay Lohan.

This prejudice for bad news is probably harmless most of the time but it has unfortunate consequences when it comes to major social, scientific and political issues. For instance:

The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 killed 11 men and injured 17 others, all in the original oil platform fire. The oil spill that followed damaged some wildlife and some beaches. It also led to a bad news overkill that caused more damage than the fire or the oil. In our Florida trip last winter, we stopped for a few days on the Emerald Coast near Destin and Fort Walton. The beaches there were squeaky clean but almost empty of people. Stories of exaggerated damage from the oil spill devastated entire communities in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, and cost seafood companies, banks, motels, restaurants, suppliers, employees, managers and families billions of dollars.

At the time President Obama called it “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” Louis Miller of the Mississippi Sierra Club claimed, “This is going to destroy the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast as we know it.” Richard Charter of the Defenders of Wildlife said, “It is so big and expanding so fast that it’s pretty much beyond human response that can be effective. … You’re looking at a long-term poisoning of the area. Ultimately, this will have a multi-decade impact.” BP and other oil-support companies were pilloried for the accident and forced to pay billions of dollars in reparation.

Two years later, in January 2012, a report from the National Academy of Scientists said that experts studying the gulf were surprised to find that the “vast underwater plume of methane, plus other gases, had all but disappeared. By the end of October, a significant amount of the underwater offshore oil … had vanished as well.” It seems that 52 species of bacteria had done what humans had found difficult, if not impossible—purged the Gulf waters of almost all of the remaining oil, gas and chemicals. The Gulf Coast was back to normal.

The famous 1989 Exxon oil spill in Valdez, Alaska was much the same story. There were no human casualties in Valdez. As in the Gulf, the ocean waters, fisheries, wildlife ecosystems and rocky shores near Valdez for the most part have recovered and are back to normal.

On reading newspaper accounts of his own demise Mark Twain wrote that, “the reports of my death are much exaggerated.” Oil spills are not the only environmental disasters that turned out to be much exaggerated. On second look the stories of unprecedented catastrophe from the nuclear accidents of Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl were not nearly as bad as first claimed.

In 1979 the most trusted newsman in America, Walter Cronkite, reported that Three Mile Island was a “horror” that “could get much worse.” Twelve days before Three Mile Island a scary Hollywood movie about a nuclear meltdown, The China Syndrome with Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, was released and combined with the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island stoked a media-whipped epidemic of fear. President Jimmy Carter, a former nuclear engineer, visited the site and tried to calm the epidemic.

Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon led worldwide demonstrations against nuclear power. Some of the passion and demonstrations continue today. Just last year the environmental group Earth First listed Three Mile Island as the fifth worst environmental disaster of our century. Environmental activists today are adamant in opposing the only presently available energy source that could give us a fighting chance to slow possible climate change.

Yet the Three-Mile nuclear accident had zero human casualties. No one died and no one was injured. Nearby communities got an additional radiation dose about the same as you would get from flying cross-country in a commercial jet or getting a chest x-ray.

Fukushima was more serious, but not much. The nuclear failure there was caused by a tsunami that might happen once a century. The death toll from the earthquake and the tsunami were serious—20,000 people died. Despite the damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactor though, there were zero casualties due its meltdown and failure. Two workers were put in the hospital because of radiation exposure after their clothes were soaked while standing in contaminated water. They were released after four days. No effects on health or significant contamination have been identified among the general public evacuated from the area.

Shoddy design and near-criminal negligence by Soviet Union engineers and maintenance people in 1986 made Chernobyl the world standard for nuclear fear mongering. Yet even here the devastation caused by the Chernobyl meltdown has been vastly exaggerated. A United Nations study 20 years later found that 56 people died from causes related to the accident. 47 of them were plant personnel killed by the original blast or in fighting the fire that resulted. 4,000 children got thyroid cancer from the fallout radiation. All but nine were cured. The study projects 4,000 more cancers over time.  Note that these figures, unfortunate as they may be, are a far cry from the estimates made at the time that 800,000 people in Europe would get cancer because of the Chernobyl-released radiation.

Even the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were not as deadly as other WW2  carpet bombings of Dresden and other German cities. And scientists were surprised to find very little long-term damage from the immense amount of radiation released in this first military use of nuclear bombs. Today both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are vibrant healthy cities.

All of these environmental catastrophes pale when compared to the damage from normal use of coal-fired power plants in the U.S. The resulting atmospheric pollution is estimated to cause about 24,000 deaths a year in this country.

They are also less destructive than many recent train accidents. In China last summer one of their new high-speed bullet trains crashed and killed 43 people, injured 210. The week before last the commuter trains crash in Argentina killed 49 people and injured over 600. These disasters barely made the inside pages of most U.S. newspapers.

And if you want to talk about dangers from technology, consider the worst offenders of all—autos, trucks and buses. These common machines claim the lives of over 30,000 Americans every year! More than 30 people every day! (Even the currently fashionable bicycle killed over 600 people in the U.S.A. last year.)

Maybe we should ban bicycles, automobiles, buses, trains and coal-made electricity.

The mix of good news and bad news will no doubt continue. Being an optimistic fellow I keep my antennae alert for good news. I recognize the pessimists have a right to their antennae too. They don’t suffer as many disappointments.

James Branch Cabell pointed out, “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  Don’t forget our sale of Hawkhill DVDs. Dirt cheap. $9.50 apiece for programs to entertain and educate. We have decided to continue the sale until Easter this year. Go to www.hawkhill.com or to www.amazon.com .