Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Today's GOP Makes Even George Bush Look Good

I never thought I'd miss the second President Bush, but I do. For all the many horrific and unconstitutional things he did while president, he deserves sincere credit for this much: in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he gave a speech in which he specifically said that America was not at war with "Islam" or "Muslims," only with a small handful of terrorist extremists.

Yes, he was a dishonest idiot for offering the false dichotomy "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," but he never spewed any bigoted blather about how ALL refugees are suspect, or why even preschool-aged orphans deserve to be distrusted, or why we ought to shut down every mosque in America ....

Friday, November 13, 2015

Terrorism in Paris

Terrorists using bombs and guns have killed at least 153 people in hip Parisian neighborhoods Friday night. I hope this does not result in another round of Islamophobia.

Remember: the reason terrorists do the evils they do is that they don't see innocent individuals, only cells in a guilty collective. Responding to terrorism with the same evil blindness is no better.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Technology vs. the economy: only one improved

As an American member of “Generation X,” I've spent pretty much my whole life hearing the glum prediction “Yours is the first generation of Americans who can expect to be worse off than your parents were.” And as bad as my generation had or has it, the generation after mine – the so-called “Millennials” – have it even worse.

Or do they? For as long as I've heard “Americans today are worse off than their predecessors,” there's been the equal reaction “Nonsense! Today's Americans are richer than ever before – trouble is, they just don't appreciate just how good they have it!”

The two sides of the argument usually play out like this: “My generation is poorer than my parents. In their day a single wage-earner with only a high school diploma could earn enough to support a family, buy a house and take a nice vacation every year! But for my generation, high school isn't remotely enough; you need a college degree, and the cost of that degree has risen faster than inflation every year for more than two decades now, so we graduate deep in debt. Meanwhile, housing and medical insurance costs are also much higher than ever before, to the point where two-income families are the norm because an average family can't get by on a single income, and even two-income households often struggle.”

Which inspires the standard counter-argument: “Nonsense. Young Americans today are richer than ever before! Your rented apartment might be smaller than the house we owned at your age, but that  apartment contains a computer with an Internet connection! I never could've had that at your age. And you have smartphones with unlimited long-distance calling, so you can afford to chat with friends and family on the opposite side of the continent, anytime you want. Back in my day, we had to pay long-distance charges by the minute if we wanted to talk to anybody more than a few miles away. And your other appliances are better and cheaper than what we had, too: your refrigerators are more energy-efficient, your television sets are bigger and nicer than anything we had, your personal music and video collection is simultaneously larger than anything I could have afforded at your age, yet small enough to fit on a single device in your pocket.”

Last year I wrote an article for ConsumerAffairs describing how I was “the richest person in history (plus or minus a few billion),” and asking “We're all rich by world historical standards, so why aren't our lives easier?” The article started off like this:
An old proverb says that “The rich man has his ice in the summer, and the poor man gets his in the winter.”
Of course, that proverb predates the Industrial Revolution, discovery of electricity and invention of refrigeration, not to mention the other technological and economic reasons why, in early 21st-century America, things like refrigerator/freezers aren't “rich-person luxury items” but actual legal requirements — if you're a landlord renting out residential properties, local tenant and zoning codes almost certainly require that you equip those apartments with a working refrigerator and the electrical infrastructure to power it, among other things.

I first came across the “rich man's ice” saying as a little girl, during whichever summer I read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. Like most young kids, even those whose parents provide all necessities, I was absolutely rock-bottom “poor” in terms of “How much money do I, personally, have to spend?” (Usual answer: None, unless I'd recently received some as a gift.)
But that summer, reading library books about American pioneer life in the 1870s and '80s, was the first time I ever felt rich. Ice in the summer? Anytime I wanted; I didn't even need to ask permission first. In one scene, Wilder described how excited she and her sisters were the day Pa came home with a very special (and expensive) present for the whole family: little panes of window glass, so natural light could enter the house and the family could see outside even when the weather was too cold or rainy to leave the window open. That was a red-letter day in the Ingalls household, even better than when Pa put smooth wooden boards down over the house's original packed-dirt floor.
Indeed, when I'm feeling down I'll often cheer myself up by reading books about days gone by and comparing my own lot to that of people in previous centuries:
By contemporary American-kid standards my financial status had always been average-to-poorish, but I'd have been the richest character by far in any of my “life in olden times” storybooks. And the further back in time I go, the richer I become. In fact, if you exclude “everyone who lives or has lived these past hundred years or so,” I'm richer than any person who has ever existed.
Consider these random facts: in late Elizabethan England (a peaceful and prosperous period by the standards of the day), a single loaf of bread cost twopence (2d), when the average unskilled laborer's income was only 3 to 4d per day, and 12d per day was the high end of a skilled laborer's pay scale.

Queen Elizabeth I had an enormous income — 60,000 pounds per year (at 240d to the pound) — but for all her wealth she had no access to basic dental care, which is why foreign ambassadors at the time noted that several of the English Queen's teeth were missing, and the remainders rotted to pure black.

As for Elizabeth's subject William Shakespeare, historians think he wrote his plays (at least his early ones) while sitting in a pub — not because writers prefer noisy, distracting environments, not even so he could eat or drink while writing, but because the pubs were illuminated, and lighting was too expensive for ordinary people, let alone struggling writers, to afford much at home.

There's some dispute over exactly when and where “glazed ceramics” and “glassware” were first invented, but everyone agrees they were extremely popular innovations mainly for eating and drinking purposes: when you eat and drink out of unglazed pottery, some of its sediments will blend in with your food.

Everyone who lived in ancient Egypt, even the rich and powerful Pharaohs, had horrible tooth problems because the food-processing methods of the time resulted in bits of sand or stone mixed in with your bread, grinding the teeth down so badly that those of most Egyptian mummies were “worn down to the pulp.”

So, yeah — technology, cheap manufacturing, agricultural innovations and countless other advances since Ye Olden Days mean even a poor American today has what would have been literally impossible luxuries for most of history.

That slummy one-room off-campus apartment where I lived while attending Cheap State U … still bigger than the claim shanties where Laura Ingalls lived with her family of six, and equipped with everything from non-dirt floors and glass windows to indoor plumbing and all the light I wanted.

Paying for my own food was a rude shock after a lifetime of parents providing it — but even the most overpriced loaf of handmade artisan bread wouldn't cost me two-thirds of a day's pay. I bought cheaper bread, still much better than what Pharaoh had because it didn't wear down my tooth enamel. 
I'm not trying to impress you by bragging about my vast wealth, here — glass windows, stone-free bread, a bathroom — because in modern terms they're not really considered “wealth” anymore; you can have all this stuff and still be poor. Your house's being infinity times nicer than any pioneer shack is irrelevant when you can't afford the payments to keep it.
Of course, the material differences between Millennial or Gen X Americans today compared to their parents or grandparents at the same age aren't remotely as stark. Bread and glass windows remain in reach for practically everybody nowadays; the lifestyle debates usually run like this:

“I'm worse off than my parents and grandparents at my age. For starters, they had a house whereas I live in an apartment.”

“No, you're better off than your parents, because your apartment is equipped lots of wonderful things your parents and grandparents never had at your age, including a computer with Internet connection, a telephone with free unlimited long-distance calling, and a microwave oven, too. And you also got far more higher education than those before you, too.”

“Yes, but I need that college degree to get the same jobs Grandpa could get with a high school diploma. And as a result of that degree, I'm up to my neck in an enormous bankruptcy-proof student loan debt.”

At the Washington Post this weekend, Jim Tankersley published an opinion piece saying “Baby boomers are what's wrong with America's economy: they chewed up resources, ran up the debt and escaped responsibility.”

After quoting and criticizing politicians such as Marco Rubio for offering to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for future generations while keeping benefits intact for current beneficiaries, Tankersley said:
That’s smart politics: The biggest generational voting bloc by far in the upcoming election will be baby boomers, a group that is just starting to draw its first Medicare and Social Security benefits — and does not want anyone messing with those benefits, thank you very much.
It’s also bad economics.

Boomers soaked up a lot of economic opportunity without bothering to preserve much for the generations to come. They burned a lot of cheap fossil fuels, filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases, and will probably never pay the costs of averting catastrophic climate change or helping their grandchildren adapt to a warmer world. They took control of Washington at the turn of the millennium, and they used it to rack up a lot of federal debt, even before the Great Recession hit.
If anyone deserves to pay more to shore up the federal safety net, either through higher taxes or lower benefits, it’s boomers — the generation that was born into some of the strongest job growth in the history of America, gobbled up the best parts, and left its children and grandchildren with some bones to pick through and a big bill to pay.

Politicians shouldn’t be talking about holding that generation harmless. They should be asking how future workers can claw back some of the spoils that the “Me Generation” hoarded for itself....
Naturally, this inspired an outpouring of outraged emails, which Tankersley shared two days later. The first one, presumably written by a Baby Boomer who grew up in a family of six children, indignantly listed all the wonderful technologies which today's young people are the first in history to enjoy:
"I will be the first to admit the selfishness and self-centered attitudes of my generation.  But we passed those traits on to the X'ers and the Millenials in spades...your generation and what followed took greed and the desire for material things off the charts. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, in a middle class environment, we had 1 family car for 8 people.  One tv, one family stereo, one vacation a year.  No computers, cell phones, suv's, microwaves, big screen tvs, video games, dvd  players, netflix, and the list goes on and on.  I could still live without the latter list, but I wonder if your generation could...when economies go bad, you can't cope as well because you refuse any sacrifice of consumer products.  Then comes your bitching and blame games."
Of course, in today's economy a computer with Internet connection isn't really a “luxury,” any more than a car is a luxury in American suburbs laid out to make walking impossible. As for other items on the list: my DVD player cost me $60 several years ago. Today's I've seen players on sale for as little as $19. My current apartment came equipped with a microwave oven; the apartments where I lived before did not, but buying a countertop microwave only cost me $50, and it lasted more than 10 years until I discarded it upon moving here. Microwave-oven owners in bad financial straits could not have avoided them if only they'd known better than to buy an electricity-saving microwave oven at an amortized cost of under five dollars per year.

And so on. It's practically a tautology: technological improvements mean each generation enjoys  technological benefits previous generations didn't have. Today's kids grow up with smartphones, the Internet, free realtime worldwide communication, and music and video formats that make it unbelievably cheap to amass a personal music and movie collection larger than anything previous generations could dream of having. Before them, Generation X was the first to grow up with color television, cable TV, microwave ovens, video games, VCRs, plus the first primitive home computers and home gaming systems. The Boomers were the first kids to grow up with black-and-white television, portable transistor radios, cheap pre-recorded music (on vinyl records), and cheap and abundant canned and frozen food, among other things. And the Boomers' parents were the first to grow up with radio, moving pictures, telephones ….

There's no denying that all of these things are wonderful. But how relevant are they to discussions about the economy? Even during the Great Depression, Americans enjoyed technologies which earlier generations would've envied: “Stop complaining about your low-paying jobs and high cost of living, young people! Here you are with radio, glass windows, moving pictures with sound, and other luxuries your great-grandcestors never could've afforded! Then when economies go bad, you can't cope as well because you refuse to sacrifice any of your consumer products. Then comes your bitching and your blame games.”

Translation: if you hadn't blown that fifty dollars on a microwave oven, you could've invested it responsibly and retired on the proceeds by now, you greedy slacker.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Geneva Conventions, Shmeneva Conventions

As an American citizen born-n-bred, I do have the occasional tendency to view history through a rather narrow, America-specific window. Here's what the historic timeline of the so-called “Geneva Conventions” regarding civilized wartime behavior looks like, when viewed through that window:

1864: The Geneva Convention's “Rule 25” regarding doctors and hospital workers states: “Rule 25. Medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.”

Source: The International Committee of the Red Cross, which says that this rule
was repeated in the subsequent Geneva Conventions of 1906 and 1929.[1]  It is now set forth in the First, Second and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949. Its scope was expanded in Article 15 of Additional Protocol I to cover civilian medical personnel in addition to military medical personnel in all circumstances …. Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “intentionally directing attacks against … personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts.
Korean War: American army doctors perform surgery in mobile hospital units, usually in tents decorated with giant red cross logos visible from the air, thus letting enemy forces know not to deliberately target those facilities. Apparently, even the evil North Koreans respected the symbol enough to generally leave the mobile army surgical hospitals alone.

Source: the opening credits of the M*A*S*H sitcom reruns I watched as a kid.

2015: The United States knowingly bombs a Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) hospital in Afghanistan.

Source: MSF plus pretty much every reputable media outlet on the planet.

The MSF also reports that a U.S. warplane shot at people running away from the burning facility. MSF director Christopher Stokes said that “Thirty of our patients and medical staff died. Some of them lost their limbs and were decapitated in the explosions. Others were shot by the circling gunship while fleeing the burning building.”

Why would our forces knowingly bomb a hospital? “The view from inside the hospital is that this attack was conducted with a purpose to kill and destroy,” Stokes said. “But we don’t know why. We neither have the view from the cockpit, nor the knowledge of what happened within the U.S. and Afghan military chains of command. Some public reports are circulating that the attack on our hospital could be justified because we were treating Taliban.” 

So: does the US and whatever noble allies we have no longer subscribe to old-school rules of war deeming clearly labeled medical facilities and personnel, even those of the enemy, off-limits? Or do we still pay lip service to that rule, but invoke the post-Nynaleaven  “It's not a war crime when we do it” exemption?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

When Freedom Means Mindless Obedience

Where news headlines are concerned, "video shows out-of-control police behavior" has become the new "pregnant woman gives birth": this happens all the time, so unless you're personally acquainted with one or more of the actors involved, all those different stories start blending together after awhile.

The most recent video as I type this, a snippet of cell phone footage out of a high school in South Carolina, shows former Deputy Ben Fields having an apparent roid-rage tantrum: a teenage girl refused to put away her cell phone when ordered, and then continued sitting at her desk after being asked to leave, so Fields flipped her right out of her chair, injuring her in the process. (Yes, the girl was being willfully disobedient and did break more than one school rule. Teenagers are wont to do that -- if you don't believe me, check any adolescent-psychology textbook of the sort which high school employees are supposed to read before starting the job -- and if you can't respond to a non-violent but disobedient kid without escalating into violence yourself, you have no business working in a school. Or being any sort of cop, for that matter. But I digress.)

What makes matters worse is that the poor girl was already in a dark place: she'd recently moved into a foster home and enrolled in a new school after being orphaned. Everything familiar in her life had already vanished and then, in the depths of her depression, she was violently assaulted by someone who, in theory, was supposed to be her protector.

And her classmates -- who, in theory, are there not just for the academics, but the all-important process of "socialization" -- are learning that authorities will respond to even the slightest hint of disobedience from them with a disproportionate show of force. Which, admittedly, is an important life lesson for anybody coming of age in modern America, especially if they're poor, black or any combination thereof.

And plenty of my fellow Americans appear fine with this status quo. Check any mainstream news websites covering this or any other police-misbehavior story, and in the comment thread you'll find plenty of people, some of whom even post under their own genuine names, siding with the police and pointing out that this could've been avoided if only the girl had immediately obeyed orders without any backtalk or slightest hint of attitude.

Which in itself is sad, but not surprising. What does surprise me is this: among those people who can be reliably counted upon to side with the police anytime such a story comes up, almost all of them can be found in other contexts insisting that America is the Greatest Place in the World because we are a FreeCountry™.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Gun Control Debate: America's Real-World "Trolley Problem"

Face it: there are extremists and outright bigots to be found on both sides of the gun-control debate (though of course, I consider myself and [most of] my friends on both sides to rank amongst the reasonable moderates).

Personally, I favor the interpretation which says that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to self-defense, so when certain of my friends suggest we ban guns, or at least subject them to expensive regulations which poor people could not feasibly meet, I'll usually counter with anecdotes such as the Detroit mother of two who last year successfully used her gun to scare off the three male home invaders who'd kicked in her door.

Then my anti-gun friends will offer the (presumably sincere) counterpoint that yes, it would be unfortunate for such people if they were legally rendered defenseless, but overall that will be more than offset by the number of people who will thus be saved from gun violence.

Perhaps the whole debate is merely a modern, real-world version of the famous "trolley problem" in ethics textbooks. The version I first heard went like this: imagine a trolley (or a bus, or other from of mass transit) with five passengers is on some sort of collision corse, and if it stays on its current track it will crash, and all five people will die.

But you, a bystander, have the option to make the trolley switch tracks, or swerve the bus off the road onto a pedestrian walkway, or otherwise make the vehicle change course to avoid the crash. You save those five people ... except that in doing so, you make the vehicle hit and kill an innocent pedestrian who would've been perfectly safe, had the vehicle stayed on its original course. Which is the ethical choice: leave the trolley on the track and let those people die, or change course and kill the one person who would have been perfectly safe, if not for your intervention? 

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Hajj is Mathematically Impossible

As of this writing, the death toll for the Hajj stampede in Mecca is 717; hopefully, that won't get any higher. But after crunching a few numbers, I realized that Mecca (or the world's Muslim population, however you choose to view it) has long-since passed the point where it is not mathematically possible for all, or even most, of the world's Muslims to meet this obligation.

You surely know already that the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam: every adult who is physically and financially capable is expected to make the trip at least once. The idea that every Muslim on the planet must visit Mecca isn't a problem, but the idea that those visits must take place during one specific week of the year is.

Here's some random statistics gleaned from Google: in 2014, the Saudis allowed 2.1 million Muslims to make the Hajj. The world's Muslim population is 1.57 billion. The age of majority in Islam is 15 -- which, presumably, means a pilgrimage to Mecca doesn't "count" if you made the trip with your family before that age.

I don't know what percentage of Muslims are adults versus under-15s; the American census says that America's under-18 population is 23 percent. Of course, "Americans" have a much lower average birthrate, and thus a lower percentage of young people, than do "Muslims throughout the world."

What percentage of Muslims are under 15? Dunno, but I'll generously guess 40 percent -- which leaves 60 percent adults who are now obligated to do the Hajj if they can. That's roughly 942 million people. Of course, not all of them are physically or financially capable of making the pilgrimage, ever -- though more and more are able to every year, since a modern pilgrimage on an airplane is still considerably cheaper, quicker and easier than old-school treks across the seas and through the desert. How many of the world's 942 million Muslim adults cannot make the Hajj (and are exempted from the obligation) for health or financial reasons? I'll make a conservative estimate of 20 percent (though I suspect it's probably lower). That leaves 753.6 million adults expected to make the trip at least once.

Let's say an average death age of 70 (that's a worldwide average, including poor countries with much lower lifespans than ours) -- so, once Muslims turn 15 and reach adulthood, they have an average of 55 years, or rather 55 annual chances, to make the trip. But 753.6 million people divided by 2.1 million people whom the Saudis allow into Mecca for each Hajj means it'll take 359 years for every healthy and financially stable Muslim adult currently alive to get the chance to meet their obligation -- and even that's assuming every pilgrim is older than 15 and nobody ever makes the trip more than once.
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