Thursday, October 21, 2010

The power of print

I was reading a newspaper article about performance scores in local schools. There were a number of times while reading the text I went back to an included table of information to confirm statements.

It dawned on me that if I had been getting this information over the broadcast (mostly TV) media it would have been almost impossible to check or recheck a statement. The broadcast visual is in the background and then, poof, it’s gone. The same for the pundit or talking head who presented the audio.

The internet may be more flexible to read and double check than broadcast media, but only if the information is available.

Weekly and monthly magazines offer a much more permanent file of information than does even the internet. It’s not difficult to browse through an old magazine (especially in the barbershop or doctor’s office) and re-evaluate an old story. Try doing this on the broadcast media or internet, it’s not something you’re likely to do, or be able to do.

But back to my base thought. Will the gradual demise of the print media result in our looking at information a different way? Will today’s broadcast always supplant yesterday’s information? Will we become more susceptible to propaganda?

We can always find appropriate information on the internet, but can we find the most important information? The paradox is that information which is most available to us is the information we have the least ability to act on.

Riots in France? What are you going to do about it? The same for Pakistan’s internal strife, corruption in Afghanistan, England reducing it’s budget. Plenty of internet coverage, but mostly a rehash of the print reporting.

But, what about what’s happening in your home town? Does the internet have coverage of your city council or school board meetings? Even if the internet were to report on these, it would only be a rerun of the local paper’s print reporting.

But strangely enough, that’s the news you can most easily act on. Not just the official government actions but the high school sports schedules and scores and local events. Can you get movie listings and times without resorting to print media? Without the internet getting it from print media?

Once you don’t know what’s happening around you locally you’re on the way to ignorance of what most directly effects your day to day life. It’s only a small step to then not paying that much attention to what else is happening in the world.

We’ve come to accept punditry as information when it’s just opinion. We’re being fed propaganda as information. I recently came across the term “management by propaganda”. I think we’re much closer to accepting propaganda as news or information than we think.

I haven’t come to any conclusion but speculate we will become much more shallowly informed and more easily mislead. If the last several years of spin and propaganda haven’t made you feel manipulated then you’re already accepting that as real information.

God help the country.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Paradox in solving economic situation

Reading letters to the editor recently, I see the impossibility of anyone coming up with a publicly acceptable solution. The suggestions are either mutually exclusive or contain contradicting recommendations. An obvious solution to government debt is to reduce government expenditures. Whether it’s by reducing programs or reducing personnel, it ends up with the same amount of money circulating in the economy.

Every program eliminated results in less money going to someone. These some ones then lose a paying job. This in turn increases unemployment and reduces the money available to various families to spend in the economy.

Technically, the money not spent by the government will remain in taxpayers pockets. These taxpayers will then spend it on some service or product that will require an employer to hire the out of work former government employee.

On the other hand, people could spend less money, saving for a rainy day, which in turn would put some worker out of a job because his employer doesn’t need as many workers.

Those who want to shrink government forget this means less of something. Are we willing to reduce the numbers of government meat inspectors or turn the air traffic control system to the private sector?

It’s all a closed system where everything affects everything else. Most people can find some one thing they see no need for to cut out and, once they’ve done that, presume the problem would be solved as soon as the dummies in charge realize where the money is being wasted.

No one seems to think someone else want’s to cut out things we think are important. Here’s where the art of politics comes in. By knowing what their constituents think is important and what isn’t they can bargain together, each taking a negative reaction and each taking a little credit

My villain for all this is our, and the world’s, living beyond our means. As long as property values and incomes were going up we could cover our debts. But, once some sector (housing)turned down our house of cards collapsed. When this is all over we will be a more frugal society. The impact won’t be anything like that which followed the great depression but will a smaller version.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Small solutions to energy problem

Small solutions to the energy problem

I was watching a panel discussion on the energy problem and how it might be resolved. This panel had big (i.e. important) people on it, (including an Assist Secretary of Energy), and was discussing big solutions that would cost big money and require big legislative approvals.

Let me diverge here for an anecdote.

If you were to have a traffic congestion problem, the recommended action would be determined by the kind of expert you hired to develop a solution. A Highway Engineer would recommend additional lanes. A Transportation Planner would suggest mass transit. A Sociologist would point to developing car pools. And a Land Use Planner would recommend locating housing close to the jobs.

Each would be right as viewed from the expertise of his profession, but you could have any of four different solutions depending on who you selected. Remember, it’s important to understand an expert’s bias or focus before selecting him.

In the instance of the energy panel above, all the participants represented important (big picture) players in energy industries, (including alternative and renewable sources) and government. It might be expected that they would all suggest large scale solutions. And, they did.

But imagine what a different panel might recommend. A panel of knowledgeable amateurs might have recommended residential rooftop units tied into individual property generation alternatives.

Sounds good but it might be more difficult to implement than building a single, big one mega generator. Or would it?

Let’s go back to our hypothetical traffic congestion problem.
A constant frustration among transportation experts is the waste involved in people purchasing 4000 pound vehicles to transport one to five (usually no more than two) people around. These vehicles clog up our roads, burn more fuel per passenger mile than buses or trains, require 300+ square feet of valuable parking space per trip and, in general are inefficient in many ways compared to public transit.

BUT, who’s footing the bill for transit? Mostly John Q. Public as all mass transit has to be subsidized by some form of taxpayer funding. This means a big legislative decision and public approval is required to develop a transit system, especially an effective one.

The auto on the other hand is purchased, maintained and driven by individuals. No legislation is required for him to get funding. No public process is needed for approval of the trip routing. Fuel, maintenance and the vehicle operator are provided by the owner at no cost to the public. No Environmental Impact Report is required for the above.

In a nutshell, while it might be economically inefficient for the individual owner, the public doesn’t shoulder any direct cost for an auto based system. Fuel taxes paid by the vehicle owner pay for road construction and maintenance of the roadway.

However it’s added up, no one has been able to find an acceptable alternative for the auto.

Oops, back to energy.

My case is that in might be better to have an energy policy focusing on individual or small unit power generation (the single auto) than centralized power generation (a rail transit system). A thousand one kilowatt generators might cost more for the same total power than a one megawatt plant, BUT, it might be a quicker solution to the overall problem in the long run.

If the owner pays for it, who, other than himself, cares? Perhaps the best solution might just be for government to encourage individual action and get out of the way.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The current fiscal crisi9s

I don’t understand how the U.S. will ever get out of this fiscal crisis and back to normal levels of business responding to supply and demand.

Businesses will have to re-employ people to provide the goods or services their businesses produce. But they can’t re-employ people until someone starts buying their goods or services at previous rates. And no one will buy their goods and services until there are jobs.

But there will be no jobs until businesses need more employees to produce those goods and services.

Consumers will start buying again once they have jobs and feel there is a stability in the jobs market.

So, we go round and round – getting a job creates the ability to purchase items. Purchase of goods allows employers to hire people and create jobs. This in turn creates consumers for businesses.

Employers can create jobs after people start buying again but people can’t buy until after they have a job.

No matter how I say it, this is a self canceling process. Something outside the process has to break the cycle.

After the Great Depression, it took WWII to break this cycle. I wouldn’t want to wish anything like that on us to break this cycle. But what is there??

I have no idea.

My nearest thoughts only starts after the cycle is broken. I think we’ll go back to becoming a more thrifty society. People will save more resulting in lower levels of spending.

This, in turn, will result in only moderate business growth, leading to tighter jobs markets and probably lower pay levels.

The long term future as I see it is one of a more moderate quality of life for the middle class and a reduction from tolerable to a desperate quality of life for those in the bottom layers of society.

This confusion I’m feeling may be what the country is feeling. We all know something needs to be done but no one knows what that is.

Think about that.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Selective stupidity

Ignorance is bliss. “Once you know things you start seeing problems everywhere, and once you see problems you feel like you ought to try to fix them, and fixing problems always seems to require change, and change means doing things that aren't fun. But if you're willfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like. The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest.” - Calvin & Hobbes

It’s not likely that many people deliberately say to themselves, “ I think I’ll stay ignorant about _________.” More likely, they find themselves too busy to be bothered with some subject or other. Or, knowing little about a subject, they don’t see how it can either help or hurt them. They don’t take the time to find out any more about it.

It's frightening how much this could rationally explain why people seem to limit their knowledge and/or awareness of things that don't directly effect them in the here and now frame of reference. Not that it isn’t a very sensible approach to take. There are literally millions of things a person could be interested in. Tens of thousands of which might reasonably impact on a person’s life. And, many hundreds of which will directly affect each of us.

There would be no time to eat, sleep or work if we tried to learn as much as we could about everything that might remotely affect us. So, without even knowing we’re doing it, we use a very sophisticated method to determine what is really important. We rely on other people to determine what is important. Except in singularly personal matters, this works well.

The importance of a subject or issue depends on the combination of two factors, how many people seem to care and how much they care. It’s the combination of the quantity (how many) and the quality (how much) that determines how important we decide the subject will be to us. Depending on the subject, other factors such as our age, sex, occupation, economic status, tax bracket, geographical location, etc. will be part of our decision on whether or not we will personally get involved.

As we have seen in many cases, a few people who are passionate about an issue can prevail over a multitude who don’t seem to care. While this might not fit the definition of democracy that is the law of the land (one man, one vote), it is probably a more reasonable practical application that takes into account both numbers and intensity of interest in a topic. After all, if most of us aren’t interested in say, field hockey, why should that keep the few who are from having a place to play their sport?

Which brings us back to the subject, selective stupidity. It is a very good way to minimize the stresses in our lives. It does however have unintended consequences. Those who are most interested in more things tend, in the long run, to get more things their way. The price they pay is more temporary stress and personal time commitment.

On the other hand, those who minimize their stress and involvement, are often upset or angry when it seems that things in general aren’t going the way they would wish. This is the price they pay for letting others be the involved people.

There is no right or wrong answer to this natural tendency of human nature. Some people will always see a cause in the smallest happening and take steps to insure that something does or doesn’t happen. Others will go through life either blissfully ignorant of near disasters or the surprised victims of the random acts of others.

Perhaps this explains why so many can be governed by so few.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Invisible government

The invisible government
By Jack Balshaw

The thought of an invisible government conjures up visions of dark and sinister activities. Yet most people want the government to be invisible. At least invisible in the sense they aren’t aware it’s there. And in most cases, government has succeeded in providing the public with just what they want. You could almost say that when we are aware of government, it is because it has failed in some manner.

At the local level, probably 98% of what government does is just keep things working. In 42 years in my town there hasn’t been a single time I haven’t been able to turn on the water or flush the toilet. Neither the utility nor the phone comapnies have been able to accomplish that run of uninterrupted service.

Yet we never say, “WOW, what a great operation this is!” We never think to give credit to anyone when nothing goes wrong. It almost takes a disaster and the recovery from that disaster before we begin to thank and honor the “heroes” who saved us. It never occurs to us that those same “heroes” have been taking steps for years to head off many other disasters or at least unpleasant experiences. All the rest of the time it was, “just their job”.

We don’t usually appreciate even the police and firemen until they have done something that calls attention to the fact that they were there to perform some positive task. We never think to appreciate the many times that Planning and Engineering have caused poor designs of proposed developments to be modified so that we wouldn’t suffer from traffic or other problems.

For every stupid, rigid, insensitive or thoughtless action, there are dozens, hundreds and even thousands of governmental decisions and actions that are proper and correct. All this doesn’t mean that we should never criticize government operations. Just that, when we do criticize, we should also remember how many times things are done right.

Jumping to the other end of the government scale, the federal level, a similar case can be made. We’re all much more pumped up about the intrusion of the Federal Government into our lives because of the multitude of stories told of government arrogance, ignorance or laziness by those who want the federal government to either do or not do something.

We accept these tales as personal affronts even though they don’t directly affect us. That is, until the Federal Government doesn’t do something we think it should. Then it’s a different story. The arrogance of the Federal Government interfering with private sector operations quickly changes to government being too lenient with the private sector right after we hear of an avoidable aircraft accident. And the criticism of excessive federal employees becomes a demand for more inspectors right after the news of unhealthy food products causing illness or death.

Try to think of anything socially acceptable you wanted to do in the last year that you were prevented from doing by a governmental regulation. It’s much more likely that you had to do somethings you would rather not have done ( get your car smogged, pay your taxes, put your tray table and seat back in the upright position, etc.).

I do tend to view government in a more favorable light than most. I worked in government as both an employee and as an elected official. The people I worked and served with were no different than any cross section of the population. “We” are the government. If you don’t believe it, think about the people in town who hated government and its representatives last year and now are looking forward to government bringing about what they wanted to happen now that “their people” are government. All of a sudden, “government is good”.

I was thinking of calling this “Government Appreciation Day” but thought that would be expecting too much of the reader.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Afghanistan and Iraq are no win situations

Here we go again! America is running true to form, fixing some other country’s business for them just as we always do. We mean well, but will wind up in the wrong as usual. Will Rogers, June 22, 1931.

Will Rogers was the 1920’s and 1930’s equivalent of Jay Leno.

The situation in Afghanistan and Iraq is set up to become a lose, lose result for the U.S.. We just can’t imagine that everyone on earth won’t see our standards and values as being the best way to live and govern.

We don’t understand the tribal nature of some societies because we’re not tribal and, “ look at how good it has worked out for us.” Although the differences between conservatives and progressives sure looks like a tribal fight sometimes.

We will stay in these two countries until someone decides it’s time for us to go. Then, after we leave the tribal and religious conflicts will flare up and for one group in the U.S. that will be interpreted as “We lost” because we left without a resolution of the problem.

We’ll stay there too long because leaving will look like running away and when the decision is finally made to leave we’ll do it so quickly it’ll look like confirmation of our running away.

This situation is a no win situation for whoever is in charge of our government.

The liberal position is that everyone will eventually accept “our” way of doing things because it makes so much sense.

The conservative stand is that if they won’t do as we want, we’ll keep hurting them until they agree to accept our values.

Neither will work in a situation where people are willing to sacrifice themselves to ensure their tribal or religious values will prevail.

We consider this a backward way of looking at life. Is it any more backward the our rigid belief that only we know the right way? That our culture is the only way?

Taking a neutral position (if that’s possible) do our talking head pundits seem any more reasoned and rational than the tribal and religious spokesmen of Iraq and Afghanistan? Are their diatribes not just a non physical extension of what we see in the middle east?

There’s no wrap up on this only that whoever is in charge when the house of cards comes tumbling down will be seen as the loser.