Why do we expect stuff to be free? (part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about my frustration with so many people who seem to believe that all taxation is bad. I listed three major social benefits gained by paying taxes: economy of scale, adjusting for flaws in the economic system (without destroying the entire economy), and the ability to better achieve long range plans. Having written about economy of scale, I want to look at the latter two.

If a society is to address the flaws in its economic system, it first must admit that flaws exist. I believe in a system founded on capitalism, but even it has massive imperfections. I don’t mean the problems that result from greed and unethical people; greed and lack of ethics can derail any economic system. I’m referring to the flaws that arise in capitalism, regardless of how well-behaved its participants are; often, these flaws are byproducts of what makes capitalism function in the first place.

We all should know the fundamentals of the market system. The price paid by a consumer for a final product or service, or by a firm for the components needed to manufacture the product or service, is where demand and supply curves intersect. For instance, a farmer would love to charge $5 per pound for apples and a customer would like to pay 1¢ per pound, so the market price represents the price at which farmers are willing to sell their apples and that customers will purchase apples available for that price. The system has many advantages, but the most important for society in general is that the best people will end up supplying particular products and skills. I, for instance, am a terrible plumber, terribly inefficient, so the money I would have to charge for me to make a living would draw no customers, discouraging me from entering the profession. The system means that we obtain the best results for the money we spend and, in doing so, means that we can purchase the maximum amounts of goods and services with our available incomes.

How, then, can something go wrong? The most obvious one is that the very success of capitalism can lead to its own downfall. Remember, the system depends upon there being competition among various suppliers to keep prices at the level that is best for consumers. What happens, though, when one producer is so efficient that all of the competitors are forced out of business? Obviously, the one remaining supplier no longer has any incentive to keep prices at a level that is optimal for society in general. This may not seem like a big deal, but what if that product is something that is essential, like water or basic food? If government doesn’t intervene well….does the name “Marie Antoinette” ring a bell?

So, unless you want the system to be totally overthrown, government has to intervene in cases like this, and government intervention requires tax dollars to fund whatever programs are created, and this is what Ayn Rand disciples just don’t get. They scream for deregulation, that government destroys the incentive for people to create. An overly-oppressive government does destroy that, but they believe that any amount of regulation is overly-oppressive. Baloney.

Another example is the use of subsidies. Subsidies have gotten a bad name in recent years, deservedly so. The specific programs are flawed and there are people who receive monies who have no business getting them. However, we should never assume that a flawed program means that there should be no program at all. Subsidies are especially useful if the product is essential and there forces that are beyond human control that affect supply.

When I was in high school, my classmates and I looked on in horror at a film clip that showed dozens of milk trucks backing up into a field and dumping out hundreds of thousands of gallons of milk into a field. They were doing this because the market price of milk had plunged so low that dairy farmers couldn’t even recover their production costs, due to an oversupply of milk. Granted, part of our horror was based on what was then the universal belief that milk was almost as essential as water for children, but the basic point remains. Sometimes, suppliers of essentials, through no fault of their own, find that the market price of their products is too low for them to stay in business; if that isn’t bad enough, imagine what happens when the market recovers and there aren’t enough products to meet need.

These are just the crises that result from the success of the market system. No one is evil or conspiratorial; everyone is acting as she or he should. In these cases, a well-funded government is needed for our good, and it is further called upon for those cases where people do misbehave.



Some reflections upon grief

About ten days ago, my younger brother died, unexpectedly. He and my wife are my two best friends; as you can imagine, this derailed me. Fortunately, because of my past experience as a hospice volunteer, I have received training in grief counseling, and this has kept me sane and stable.

I have been more introspective than usual these past ten days and have drawn some conclusions that I would like to share. I know that most of us will go through a similar experience, and I would like to help those who face this challenge in the future.

My two major observations have to do with the grieving process itself. Many of you are familiar with Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. First, I learned in my training that this is not a linear process; that is, almost no one goes through these stages in a direct sequence at anything resembling a standard pace. More commonly, people will slide back and forth a bit and, even more commonly, people will tend to get stuck in one of these stages.

This brings me to the next observation. Two or more of these stages can combine into one. For me, bargaining and depression have combined to form guilt. My brother was a much-beloved icon of our community, so much so that the executive director of our largest local theater made the 750-seat facility available for his memorial service, without any request from the family. That pretty much tells you all that you need to know about him. I have been told by, literally, hundreds of people that my brother’s death is a huge loss and that he was the kindest man they had ever known. Consequently, I am dealing with a strong sense of “why him, and not me?”

Obviously, this would be a frightening and unhealthy attitude to have. Fortunately, I know that this feeling is an outgrowth of the grieving process and that the guilt is irrational, and that irrational thoughts are perfectly normal at a time like this. Certainly, the hundreds of people who love my brother are not wishing me to die.

This brings me to my concluding observation. Besides me, my brother’s widow and children have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. We calculated that inviting all of the people who wanted to talk or sing for my brother’s memorial would lead to a six hour-long service. Personally, I have struggled to avoid aggressively turning well-wishers away, to cite the difficulty all of the offers can pose. For me to do this, though, would be the epitome of selfishness. When loving people offer condolences, they are not only seeking to ease your pain, but are also dealing with their own grief. Regardless of my relationship to my brother, it would be extraordinarily unkind to minimize the grieving of others.

Why the arts and humanities need MORE promotion, not less.

Cutting the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is aiming at low-hanging fruit. I know that a lot of people don’t appreciate what these groups do, and that a lot of Americans find that the grants they award support causes and projects with which they disagree. But, here is a brief list of why I take issue with this thinking:
1. Take a look at the budgets for these programs. Cutting them doesn’t come close to solving deficits. This is especially true when public schools aim their first cuts at these same areas at the local level. Yes, I am a teacher, but I have always taught in private schools that are unaffected by public budget cuts. I don’t want to see a two-tiered society in which young people have to attend schools like mine just to get a fully-rounded education.
2. The United States already ranks at the very bottom when it comes to per capita spending on arts and humanities among industrial nations, and the gap between the US and the second-lowest country is greater than that between the #2 country and the #40 country*. Is this really the sort of American Exceptionalism” that we want to be known for?
3. Promoting the arts and humanities advances our culture and, by supporting ideas that contradict the status quo, make us all aware that there are other possibilities in our thinking. If we are presented with only one line of thinking, how do we develop strategies to change? Given the shift in attitudes that mad the election of Donald Trump possible, I would think that these are areas that he should want to protect.
4. I know that there are a lot of people who complain that PBS is some sort of left-wing conspiracy designed to undermine the majority will of the people, and that these same people would lump in the NEH and the NEA. How many of these people have taken the time to watch the programs that are broadcast, especially the news? Do they conclude that PBS is biased simply because it doesn’t push their point of view on its viewers? I find PBS to be national treasure, in part, because its news shows present information that is ignored or covered up by both the left- and the right-wing media, and they do so with respect for all of the opinions that are raised.
Let us not forget that a major step towards either left-wing or right wing totalitarianism is to silence voices of dissent. In a world in which the oversimplified data we find on social media have become the norm, and are used by all sides to further political agendas, the NEA, NEH, and PBS are more important than ever.
*UPDATE: According to the Arts Council of England, Policy Research

and Planning Department, Research Report, the gap between the U.S. and that of the #2 country (Ireland) is no longer greater than the gap between Ireland and Germany (#40).
 Nevertheless, even with the economic crises in Ireland, far more severe than we have faced in the United States, Ireland still outspends the U.S. by over 250%. In my humble opinion, we should also keep in mind that support for the arts and humanities is considered a patriotic duty in the Republic of Ireland (the only country to feature a musical instrument on its coins) so the demand for taxpayer support is less pressing.

The Change in Media Effect (part one)

It is no secret that there is a lot of hostility directed at the news media. Immediately following the disclosures of Watergate in the 1970’s, there were few careers that seemed more heroic than being an investigative journalist. How times have changed…but why?

There seem to be four primary elements that have led to this shift. In chronological order, they are:

  1. The elimination of the wall between news and entertainment.
  2. The suspension of the Fairness Doctrine.
  3. The increased concentration of media ownership among fewer and fewer people.
  4. Allowing the disadvantages of high technology to prevail over the advantages.

Let’s look at the first two.

According to Harvard’s Nieman Institute, the late 1970’s saw a global shift in the expectations held for news organizations. Hardly noticed by the general public, the late 1970’s marked the first time that news organizations, usually connected to or co-owned by entertainment organizations, were expected to be profitable ventures. Prior to that time, networks saw news coverage as the responsibility of being a citizen of the community, In fact, news stations are still required to allow the public access to write commentaries about a network’s success or failure as a prerequisite to renewing a broadcast license. Unfortunately, few citizens realize that they have the opportunity to comment, opening the door for “infomercials” and other pseudo-news shows that draw high ratings.

Oh, but there are two ways to in crease profits! In addition to increasing revenues, agencies started cutting costs. Typically, a U.S.-based news agency covers the entirety of Africa, a continent with a land mass and a population nearly four times the size of the United States, with just two reporters, usually based in Egypt and South Africa. Whether one is a Republican or a Democrat, does anyone really believe that the Benghazi incident would have happened if there had been prior journalistic scrutiny? Or, going back in time, what about blood diamonds? Rwanda genocide?

When those of us old enough to remember journalism at its peak recall the stories, we remember them both for being truly newsworthy and unbiased. Unfortunately, the biggest blockade to violence has been eliminated: the Fairness Doctrine. Created in 1949 by the FCC, it was eviscerated in 1987 when Congress refused to continue to fund its enforcement.

The Fairness Doctrine required a number of criteria to be met for a radio or television source could broadcast a story. The most significant were that a story had to present all major ideological perspectives, if called for, that editorials be clearly designated as such when broadcast, and that call-in shows could not screen out callers based on their political views. While some challenged the Fairness Doctrine or any attempt to restore it as a First Amendment violation, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, since broadcast stations occupied a portion of the finite amount of electromagnetic bandwidth, the government was within its rights to place stipulations upon its use.

By 1987, political pressure and changes in broadcast technology gave opponents of the Fairness Doctrine the ammunition that they needed to render it useless. The proliferation of cable broadcasting, followed later by digitization, meant that there was so much bandwidth available that the argument that one station’s broadcast would keep another off the air was no longer valid. With media becoming more and more corporate, there was little incentive to enforce a policy that would allow anti-corporate interests to be represented. The emergence of commentators such as Rush Limbaugh reinforced this, since their anger and other style elements attracted new listeners, usually disaffected workers, like flies to honey. Cracks about the “mainstream liberal media,” “femiNazis,” and comparing teenager Chelsea Clinton to a dog may have been unfair and terribly shallow, but there was nothing to stand in the way of his remarks. Finally, to this day, staff members are taught routinely to block anyone who has a point of view that contradicts the star of the show.

Since 2007, there have been efforts to restore the Fairness Doctrine but, besides the fact that one side of the debate has tremendous incentive to block it, two other obstacles remain. One is that the United States has become rabidly anti-taxation in recent years,  making it hard to sell any regulatory legislation. The other is the Internet; due to its nature, all Internet news falls into a gray area that is neither broadcast nor print. Could it be regulated?
































































































































































































The Electoral College: should it be abolished?

Not surprisingly, millions of Americans are angry at the Electoral College right now, especially Democrats; the 2016 Presidential election marks the second time in less than 20 years that the Democratic candidate received more votes than the winning Republican candidate. Before reacting in anger, though, we should all look at why the Electoral College was created.

In the Federalist Papers, #68, Alexander Hamilton wrote about his fears of having the president directly elected by the people. At the time, only about 10% of Americans were literate, and Hamilton felt that many people would respond based on emotional appeals. What most of us do not realize is that, at the time the Electoral College was created, it was left to each state to determine how it would choose its electors; today, of course, all 50 states have chosen to let its voters determine who the electors would be. This is the primary reason that has been cited for having the Electoral College.

However, there are two additional arguments that support the Electoral College. The first is that, when the Constitution was drafted, the 13 states regarded themselves as autonomous entities. In other words (avoiding political science geek speak), the 13 states were much closer to today’s European Union than the country we know today. In getting the Constitutional framers to compromise successfully, it was vital that each state be allowed to maintain at least some of its autonomy; this was well-accomplished by allowing the individual states to proclaim which candidate they supported.

The other supporting argument emerged as the country’s history unfolded. The tendency of the Electoral College, statistically, was to exaggerate the margin of victory of the winning candidate. While that may not seem advantageous, it meant that the losing side would be more likely to accept the results of the election and to support the incoming president.

So, should we abolish the Electoral College and replace it with the popular vote, given the three arguments above? Let’s look at the three arguments.

In response to Alexander Hamilton’s fears, we are already more democratic than he wanted the country to be, and our literacy rate is well over 98%. Does this mean that voters are less likely to respond to emotional appeals, given the prevalence of social media and the lack of limitations that candidates have in their campaigns?

In response to the second concern, we are no longer a country of autonomous states…at least not officially. I would argue that we still, at the cultural level, have a divide that seems to be growing and that the Electoral College is one of the direct causes of exaggerating that divide, perhaps even cause it. For instance, Oregon is labelled a “blue state,” and Texas a “red state,” but a closer look shows that the difference in registered Democrats and Republicans is less than 2% in both states.

The final concern, of course, has blown up in our faces in both 2000 and 2016. George W. Bush’s administration was weakened by the disparity between the electoral and popular votes, and we are already seeing widespread refusals to accept president-elect Trump. So much for exaggerating the size of the victory and generating extra support for the winner!

So, I would lean toward abolishing the Electoral College, given what is described above. The remaining question is how a popular vote would be conducted. Most people believe that there are greater opportunities for third parties under a popular vote system, with the possibility that, if no party received a majority of the vote, two or more parties would be forced to work together to create a majority. Such a system is used in the majority of parliamentary democracies. Another possibility would be to force a run-off if there was no clear majority; and there are many other possibilities to consider.

Here is a link to an excellent article on the Electoral College, whose author takes the opposite side from my conclusion:


Please note that I am not the one who is referring to Trump as a demagogue.

Writer’s Block

I never quite understood writer’s block. True, of all the writing I’ve done in my life (papers, essays, columns), there were times when I just cranked out what I needed to do to fulfill my commitment.

Well, this has been my first experience with it. There are two things that seem to be at work here (careful…remember that the analyst who treats himself has a fool for a patient!):

1. Rather than being unable to think of what to write about, I feel overloaded. Too many things going through my mind at once for me to decide what I should tackle first.

2. Directly related to the previous problem is that, the longer I wait to write something, the more guilty I feel about not writing, and that makes me want to avoid writing.

So, to anyone reading this, dos this sound familiar? I know what I have always told students finding themselves in this spot, which is to just start writing ANYTHING. Funny how much easier it is to give advice than to take it!