Friday, March 17, 2017

Health Care Summary

A rather thoughtful, complete, and sober assessment of the health care issue in the United States is presented on Patio Boat (link). If you would like to see this subject properly sorted, please follow the link. Here is a carrot in the form of that post’s initial sentence:
If you’re wondering who socialized medicine in the United States, it wasn’t Barack Obama. It was Ronald Reagan.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Know Thy "Self"

That word is in quotes above because that word is taking on new meanings we hadn’t guessed before. Thus, for instance, we now have self-driving cars. How should we understand the self-part of that automobile. Do cars have selves? Is “self” fundamentally that which makes the body a body? Or does the self arise spontaneously when the body (or car) is complex enough? Or is the car’s self there but then not really there? That is, after all, the meaning of an epi-phenomenon—which our souls are supposed to be. As this new “self” is going viral (to use a modern phrase), we can also anticipate other “self”-defining phenomena. Soon to appear at your front door is the self-wearing suit, the self-coiling dress, the self-walking shoe, and perhaps even the self-smoking cigarette?

The tobacco industry would like that last emergent wonder—if only it could also induce an actual self to fork over the high price for that cigarette first.

Above all, and finally, it is high time to know our “self”—or else that ancient phrase might undergo yet other transformations and become “self”-know thy self. And when that day comes, I for one, an absolute believer in Nicotine, will step in and stuff out that self-smoking cigar—so that I can relight it just to smoke it—all by myself.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Attention Deficit Denial (ADD II)

The New York Times ran a story this morning headlined (in the Times Digest) Secretary of State Leads from Shadows. The essence the article tells that Rex Tillerson has avoided media exposure since becoming Secretary of State. “In the light” means being on TV; “in the shadows” spells obscurity and hence, in the eyes of media, a lack of importance.

Years ago, already, it had occurred to me that celebrity is a curse—indeed a burden. And Tillerson, who will turn 65 on March 23, has spent his life in the shadows. He graduated from college in 1975. That same year he joined Exxon as an engineer, and stayed with that employer until his swearing in as Secretary of State in 2017. If experience forms our habits, it must be difficult to become a creature of the limelight overnight. So Tillerson must be comfortable in being invisible—whereas a political animal, like Donald Trump, must wake every morning wondering what he can do to be the center of the news today—rather than what he must do.

Attention is addictive. Once addicted to attention, it must be painful just to be oneself. No crowds of journalists, no flashing lights, no shouted questions. No cameras when one walks to one’s own plane. No need to point a finger at a person (invisible to the camera). What pain to be just human.

But Fame has its benefits. I remember once reading an historian who said that any person, no matter how obscure, observed in public to hold conversation with Louis XIV, was sure to become rich very soon. For me that told the whole story of celebrity. One can work out how that happens—how contact with power can render one powerful. The mystery (and emptiness) of such derived power also struck me at the time, and I made the resolve to avoid Louis XIV if he ever comes into my view. As for Tillerson, it will be interesting to see if he is still in the shadows when his time has come to fade away...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Yellow Water

Donald Trump signed a Congressional resolution, passed February 2, a Thursday, on February 16, another Thursday. This resolution overturns a rule signed by President Obama on December  20, 2016, effective on January 19, 2017. It is known as the Stream Protection Rule†. What did that rule require? The rule required that so-called “excess spoil” (earth material) accumulated to make coal seams accessible, not be deposited near streams and bodies of water.

Mining waste goes by many names. Among these are tailings, (leftovers), spoil (earth materials that do not contain but traces of coal or ore), waste, debris, and residues. But the motivation behind Obama’s Stream Protection Rule was not so much dislike of piles of stuff; rather, it was what happens when such piles come into contact with water and are leached, the leachate then running into creeks and ponds. Since mining residues are often rich in sulfur, contact with water forms sulfuric acid; that acid (known as acid mine runoff) can pick up heavy metals that are injurious to living creatures, humans among them, that drink water polluted by mine drainage.

Initially that runoff, being rich in sulfur, forms yellow water. I show a picture of such a stream from an EPA website (link). Now the mere deposit, on the ground, of spoil, tailings, waste, debris, or residues does not directly cause pollution. But where the waste is placed can do so eventually—especially when placed where rain or snow-melt regularly flows. In those locations, the sulfur and heavy metals will be freed, and the water will eventually reach either streams or aquifers. That’s a rather informative photograph, on the right. At this stage few people will be tempted to drink it. But that stream enters a succession of other waters; the color will disappear; the heavy metals will be distributed all over the total water that flows. And such metals don’t have to be present in thick profusion to cause people to fall ill or eventually to die.

Yellow water today. Should I be writing about yellow hair next? The relationship between the two may not be difficult to document.

Acid rain, by the way, is formed from sulfur-containing coal. When it is burned, the off-gases, unless scrubbed clean, will contain the sulfur. The sulfur will combine with water in the atmosphere and, eventually, return to earth as acid rain.
—————
†This is a rule published in the Federal Register, untitled, officially 81 FR 93066; you can examine its 380 pages by following this link. The title assigned to it was taken by journalists and others from the text of the first paragraph of the Executive Summary.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Misleading Old Ideas

Let’s take a fairly simple idea. The one that follows is often heard repeated as the justification for cutting taxes. The idea: cutting taxes leads to investment; investment leads to hiring; therefore cutting taxes creates new jobs. Does this idea have actual merit? Well, it all depends on what you mean by the word “investment.”

Investment can mean buying newly issued stock, the corporation issuing them intent on raising capital for a new factory, say. If that is the “investment,” it may well eventually result in people being hired—for building the factory and then for staffing it. But most purchases of stock are not of this sort. We buy stocks already on the market. The result is that the price of the stock rises or falls.

Another kind of investment is when capital is expended on a merger or acquisition (M&A). When companies merge or acquire each other, the usual motivation is negative. The buyer’s growth or profits has been lagging. It acquires another company to get access to its market. That might restore growth—and also result in higher profits by laying off people who are no longer needed. This is often possible if services common to both organizations can be combined. In most M&A cases, job are lost, not created.

Now let us take a look at these two cases. In 2015, total US M&A activity was valued at $2.413 trillion (link), thus, to underline it, 2+ trillion dollars was spent on companies buying companies.  In the same year, total venture capital expenditures were valued at $77.3 billion (link) in the United States. If we add those two numbers, we get $2.49 trillion; of that total, venture capital expenditures were 3.1 percent.  The net result is that of 100 percent of corporate investment, nearly 97 percent was spent on activities most likely not to change employment at all or to reduce it—the reduction coming from the staff reduction as the two parties to the merger make it more efficient. Only 3 percent went toward activities highly likely to be translated to new jobs.

It’s dangerous to put one’s faith in simple ideas taught in Economics 101. In the age we live in, where M&A activity globally has averaged $3.85 trillion every years since 2007, the concept of “investment” has lost all meaning. And to that large average number must be added the totals of every year’s stock market transaction—which have virtually nothing to do with job creation.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Buster Bunker

The new product that I propose somebody should bring to market would be made of very thick concrete. It would be shaped like a telephone booth, but lower in height. Inside it would consist of a decent light and a comfortable seat. The purpose of this bunker will be to accommodate people over a certain age; it would be wide enough to allow them comfortably to read a newspaper. If, reading the morning papers, the occupant  suddenly burst apart from rage, skin, skull, heart, and lungs all spattering in every direction with enormous force, the thick walls of the Buster Bunker would keep all this bio-debris contained. Upscale models would also come with a built-in CPM (that stands for “corpse collecting module”); it would wash down all this debris with alcohol and burn the whole mess. Fine-tuned automated bottling and sacking machinery would collect gases and solids and prepare them for shipment to one of several Fortune 500 companies pre-selected by the former owner. Yet another special feature would be a flashing light on the outside, green for women, red for men. If the green light flashes, you’ll know that grandma is no more—but the little place where she lived is still as spic and span as it was when she got up that morning to read the paper.

Motivation for this invention? Well, today’s headlines are a good example. Today we learned that along with such things as Social Security and Medicare, our newly minted Administration’s budget would also eliminate Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, AmeriCorps (community services), and Legal Services Corporation (legal aid for the poor), and other valuable if small agencies that help those potential green and red lights. We don’t own a Buster Bunker yet, hence we’ve had to contain our rage at these proposals.

Come to think of it, Buster Bunkers ought to be built and distributed, and their operations subsidized by Federal Dollars. That would also help with freeing up a lot of housing and control population growth. The cost of a Buster Bunker should be kept to about $13,130—with an additional $500 for a CPM. Let those who’d have to clean up the mess pay for that additional but obviously useful component.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Unholy Sanction

For what will be obvious reasons today, the word “sanction” caught our attention. To be sure, this piece may be read three or four years from now, its context completely forgotten, so here is the context: General Flynn, Trump’s National Security Adviser, resigned last night, evidently over accusations that he had discussed “sanctions” with the Russian Ambassador. The resignation was announced by the New York Times at 11:06 pm, whereupon the cable media went into a kind of melt-down trying to process the sudden, alarming, and indeed seemingly EXPLOSIVE news. This kept Brigitte and me up later than usually. In three years all this will all seem weird at best.

But back to that word. In a nut shell, the word can have two meanings: (1) it is a decree or ordinance which permits something to be done—as in “You have our sanction to proceed”; and (2) a negative order or laws (along with consequences) which penalizes something that has been done—as in “The United States has passed sanctions against Russia for its Crimean invasion.”

Both meanings are reported by Online Etymology Dictionary. The second (negative) sanction is there said to have been first used in 1956. Nothing more is said. But the date has puzzled many word lovers before it puzzled me this morning. 1956? Come on. So what is the root of that date—never mind the word sanction.

The big global event in 1956 was the Suez Crisis. It began in 1956 when Egypt’s Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. In response, Israel, joined by England and France, invaded Egypt. The United States under Eisenhower, joined by the Soviet Union and the United Nations, opposed this move (or let’s say that they failed to sanction the invasion). This failed sanction may be at the root of dating negative sanctions as first entering the dictionaries of the English language. The history is not cited by linguists; what they have to say is presented at this interesting place (link). In his 1956 State of the Union Message, however, Eisenhower did use the following words:

In all things, change is the inexorable law of life. In much of the world the ferment of change is working strongly; but grave injustices are still uncorrected. We must not, by any sanction of ours, help to perpetuate these wrongs.

Could that be the original framing of a negative sanction made some time before Eisenhower actually used such a sanction against the Israeli-English-French invasion of Egypt?

Sanction derives from the Latin sanctionem meaning “act of decreeing or ordaining” and confirming the enactment of a law. The application of this word in ecclesiastical decrees, not least the bestowal of sainthood on the deserving, gives us the sense that sanction is somehow related to sainthood and the sacred. That sense is more or less correct. We certainly have a holy sanction which makes the saint—and the unholy sanction which can cost a general his job.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Remembering my Etiquette

When you ponder it a little more than superficially, the phrase political correctness is a tautology. Thus the word “political,” by itself, already contains the sense of “correctness.” Deep down the two words mean “the same” (tauto in Greek). But let me extend this by looking at two words that seem to be related: political and polite. Political is rooted in the word “citizen,” polites in Latin; and that last word derives from polis, “city.” At this point “political” is not in any genuine sense equivalent to “correctness,” of course, but let us plow this furrow deeper. One idea might be to check if the words politic and polite both come from the same root; but that turns out to be wrong. Polite comes from the Latin politus; in spelling that word is almost identical to “citizen” (polites) but its meaning is “polished,” refined, hence elegant and  accomplished. The word politic, however, despite its strong linkage to citizen in Latin, had acquired the meaning of “prudent, judicious,” by the 15th century, no doubt because a citizen must have those characteristics in order to get things done. In English, as well, we get the word “civil” from citizen; and civility relies on prudent and judicious behavior. Polite behavior, although derived from polishing rough things until they’re smooth, has functionally the same meaning. A polite person will always be politic, civil, thoughtful, and considerate. Tautology.

Now we could take this even further (always true where language is involved). The hardnosed critic of political correctness will point out that “correctness,” as used in that phrase, does not mean adherence to truth, necessarily; rather, it means obedience to a ideology, whether that ideology is true or not. And that’s also true. The phrase came into use for that reason, I think: to enforce an ideology. An alternative was already available when it was introduced: it was  etiquette. Etiquette retains, to this day, the meaning of “correct behavior” whether in politics or other spheres of life.

Etiquette literally means a small slip of paper, a ticket, you might say. It comes from Old French estiquette, which simply meant a label. Etiquette, in the sense of “prescribed behavior” (notice behavior, not belief in anything) developed from “label” because people visiting courts (be they in France (étiquette), Italy (etichetta), or Spain (etiquette) were handed little cards on which the basic right behavior was printed to be learned. Similarly, soldiers assigned to be lodged in a village, temporarily, were issued a similar ticket with similar instructions on how to behave.

Etiquette is about such things as rising when a lady or elderly person needs a seat, which spoon to use, when to bow, when to speak, who goes first, what words may or may not be used (and here we are approaching but not reaching political correctness)—and never mind what you would rather do—like putting your muddy boots up on that beautifully laid Downton Abbey dinner table.

By combining “right behavior” with “prudent and judicious” speech, we might get political etiquette, a nice correction in the course on which we are now headed—a rough beaching on some arid sandbank or worse. No one possesses etiquette automatically; I remember my childhood. To do so you have to be brought up right. One has to have acquired manners—and education enough to understand the meaning of correct behavior until it becomes instinctive. And it doesn’t harm you if you read and study a fair amount to discover that you’re not born wise.

My source for etymologies and historical precedents comes, as always, from Oonline Etymology Dictionary (link).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Sun is Shining!

The good Lord has decided to do the unusual. He waved a finger ever so slightly so that something we haven’t experienced in what seems like a month, but was surely at least three weeks, the grey skies have vanished and a bright sun shines this morning in celebration of Brigitte’s birthday. Not a cloud in sight—and it now seems that Folklore, which asserts that the sky is blue, must be true after all. Yes, even here in Mordor. Thank you, Lord. We know you love us. And a little hint of that will let us endure a lot for a long time to come.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Catholic Vote Revisited

My use of the word “revisited” above is a nod to an earlier entry on my (these days) much-neglected economics blog called LaMarotte. There I had a posting in February 2012 on the subject. The post showed the Catholic vote from 1948 through 2008. Today I thought I’d revisit the subject. The result, obtained from Wikipedia (here) follows:


According to CARA† the Catholic population (self-identified Catholics) was 74.2 million in 2016, still a substantial block of people, but evidently declining: in 2011 CARA had the figure at 77.7, in 2010 at 74.6 million. In  the 18-year period that I’m showing, the Catholic vote went to the winner in 14 out of 18 elections, thus 78 percent of the time. In that same period, democrats won office eight times, republicans ten times. The majority of Catholics voted for democrats in each year the democrats won but also four times when they lost. Catholics voted for republicans six times when they won but deserted that party the four other times the GOP was successful.  Catholics in the 1948-2016 period never voted for the GOP when it lost. On the whole, therefore, one infers, the Catholic vote is more likely to go democratic than the other way unless something rubs that collective the wrong way. In 2016, alas, the Catholic vote deserted Hilary Clinton and went with Donald Trump. Well, maybe the next time.
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†Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, link.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Thin Water

Thin water (call it that) but it is everywhere,
Insistently covering, coating everything—
Pebbles, grass, swaths of concrete, tracks of tar, the trees—
Soaking the air invisibly, dripping, puddling,
Wet, wet, wet. Shivers run down my back. I pull my
Skin close to the bones. A big breath—and out I go
To haul the garbage bag out to the distant curb
Navigating petty lakes across the ocean
Of thin water; then back again to fetch that blue
Recycling Bin full of its humid cargo of
Spent bottles, cans, and plastics sacked to save the world.

There are these times when for a week of Sundays, seems,
The sun must hide behind a massive grey or fog
So thick thin water turns quite visible and white, and
The faint light only hints at what I cannot see:
Houses across the street, the lake between, the docks
Down there where in some distant future yachty things
Will moor and white swans will seem to move without the
Locomotion of webbed feet thanks to thick water
That carries them darkly, but glitters as it
Reflects the light that, in some future, shall be back.
Will it dry out? Or will fake January last?

I Pray not. Sick of thin water and obscuring
Fog, sick of fake news and fake months that should be cold
Instead—and brilliant—the Sun in charge again!

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Left Bank

Say you’re at the middle of a bridge—say it is the Seine River in Paris. You’re looking upriver, meaning that the water is approaching you. Which bank of the river is which? It seems to you then, from your orientation, that the bank on your right is rive droite and the bank on your left is the rive gauche—what with rive meaning “bank”. But suppose then you decide to go to the other side of the bridge, this time seeing the water flowing away from you, the two banks have changed names. So which is the left bank of the river? This left or the other?

Left and right in (call it) riverese (and possibly also in other contexts) is relative to your point of view. Now left and right in dictionary definition means that the bank on the left of the direction of flow is left, the bank on the right of the direction of flow is right. The Seine flow roughly east to west through Paris. Therefore the Rive Gauche is to the south, the Rive Droite is to the north. This method of naming is formalized in the geological science of orography, the study of topography of hills and mountains. Thus rivers as seen from their source (which is topographically highest). As seen from the source downward, the banks remain always to left or right of the water.

Why this question? Well, I’m studying the brief life of St. Joan of Arc—which will appear here by-and-bye. In Joan of Arc’s life the city of Orléans plays a major role. Up-to-date accounts (e.g. Wikipedia), refer to crucial events on the south bank of the Loire—which is the dominant river in the northern part of France. In older accounts (e.g., my dated Encyclopedia Britannica), the references are to the Left Bank of the Loire. But how could the left be the south when, staring at a map, left is West and right is East. I had to sort that out quickly—given that, just looking at a section of a river on a map, I’d no idea which way the river flowed. I know the way the Rhine flows, or the Danube, but the Loire is largely aqua incognita…

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

That Cross of Gold

In the wake of the Great Recession, I had been charting employment growth/decline monthly on LaMarotte. I’d started in March 2011. For years after that, I used to wonder why I saw almost no sign of a popular upheaval over the sluggishly-performing economy. But the upheaval did finally came with the nomination/election of Donald Trump in 2016. And suddenly everyone is using the word populism.

To be sure, it is a euphemism. In a country where one may only refer to the population as “middle class,” it is painful for pundits to speak of the lower class. To call something a “populist revolt” is more acceptable than calling it a “lower class revolt.” But one thing is certain. William Jennings Bryan’s famous Cross of Gold plays a major role every time that populism rises to the surface. If you ask Google NGram (the word-usage application) to chart “populism” and, say, “tea party,” you’ll discover that until 1962 “populism” was much less used than “tea party”; beginning that year, however, “populism” began to soar in printed mentions so that by 2008 it was used five times more often than “tea party”; and since then (NGram only goes up to ‘08), it must have had an even more sharply rising usage.

I note that until 1962 indices of productivity and real hourly compensation were essentially the same (since 1947). They begin to diverge in 1962, with productivity higher (and higher, and higher) as time advances. The 1960s mark the start of an economic divide—which grows and grows…and grows. And so does the use of the word populism.

Bryan said, in a speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, “you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” The context here was monetary policy, specifically money supply. The United States, operating on the gold standard, had an insufficiency of money. Bryan advocated bimetallism, meaning the use of silver along with gold to increase the supply—which would have benefitted the agricultural producers, a vastly larger segment of the population then than it is today. The subject of bimetallism deserves its own entry; for now, let’s just say that the gold standard favored East Coast money interests; bimetallism would have helped (let’s call it) the middle class.

Many parallels mark the 2016 and the 1896 elections. Little-known Bryan emerged as a very popular figure and won the Democratic nomination. But he lost the election (no Putin helped him, I suppose; Nicholas II ran Russia then). The gold standard was kept in place. William McKinley won the election. (We disclose here voluntarily that our last address was 259 McKinley.) Another parallel was that a large but little-heard portion of the population—the red states of that time—were disaffected but not as successful as the voters of the same type that managed to capture the presidency in 2016.

Populism? The lower classes in revolt against elites—after long stagnation and suffering. The Golden Cross just got too heavy. Amazing how much 1% can weigh. The ultimate outcome? Who can foretell the future?  One of the interesting observations for me is that the “rage” you expect to see by studying statistics is not necessarily visible until some voice starts shouting it to mobs. Then we have populism. And it can win even without the majority of the popular vote.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Truth Is…

…well, the truth is, at root (thus from the view of etymology), strongly anchored in such concepts as faith, adherence, and loyalty. It came as a small shock to me to realize this morning that underneath it is the Old English word treowe, which I recognize as the German word die Treue, a word I understand deep in the gut. That word, in turn, according to my Cassell’s dictionary, is defined as “fidelity, faithfulness, constancy, loyalty; sincerity, honesty; accuracy.”

Based on its roots, “the truth” is best described—except for the last word in that list above—as a quality or feeling resident in my internal reaction to something; it has a definite emotional quality—again, with the exception of that last word, accuracy. I do not think that most of us have a very strong emotional reaction to accuracy. We’re cool about accuracy but warm about the truth.

Now the problem with “the truth” arises when the truth of some vast collective phenomenon needs to be assessed—and therefore the personal feelings of large masses of people are involved—as in public opinion. There we’re dealing with there is vast clouds of facts we cannot check in person—and our own view of promises which will require months and years to check.
 The truth for us, in such a situation, is a judgment based pretty much on a gut-level reaction to the values that some collective phenomenon may or may not represent.

How close to the “truth” are the fidelity, faithfulness, constancy, and loyalty of millions of voters? How much do they collectively know, how deeply, and how accurate are they on the whole. The truth is we can’t know. The truth is that the truth is as elusive in practice as the meaning of life. All we know is what it is for us, individually. I know in my heart. Not collectively.

If we define truth as “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality” (as Google does), means, when applied to collective facts, that these can only be checked approximately.  None of us knows reality.


I sense that this subject is endless, so here an abrupt end. In that long list above in Cassell’s, one word is obviously inconsistent: accuracy. All the other definitions suggest that truth is “good”; why else those positive reactions of adherence to it; accuracy, however, captures today’s common usage. True is that which agrees with what we see. If what we see is “evil,” rejection, repugnance, revulsion, flight, and aggression would be the negative reactions truth engenders. The content it hides in that single syllable is what really matters. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Notes on the New Random: Head Gear

What with Trump embracing Netanyahu, I noticed an odd fact about Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice as the new Secretary of State. Tillerson has quite gray hair, but the graying has not been uniform. The back of his head, when seen in profile, indicates black hair. And at certain times and from certain angles, he seems to be wearing a yarmulke. Was that fact one, or perhaps even the most important, reason for his choice as Secretary? To be pleasing to Israel? Or was it Mr. Tillerson’s friendship for a man who rarely wears a hat at all?

Concerning headgear, I have not been privileged to read the classified portions of the Intelligence Establishment’s report on alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. election process. Therefore I cannot confirm a rumor that is said to be “in the air” (or is that just “fake news”?)—namely that the color of Mr. Trump’s favorite electioneering baseball cap was chosen by Mr. Putin, the color red being, as it were in Mr. Putin’s background.

Image credit is Wikipedia (link).