Thursday, May 28, 2015

0 in 2050? 0 in 2100?

Zero nuclear weapons in 2050?  Zero armies in 2100?  Impossible?  No, but improbable.  On the other hand, if we don’t set goals, we might not even make minor steps.

I don’t think the current holders of nuclear weapons are going to make any real steps to get rid of them or even to reduce their stockpiles significantly.  What it will take is many of the non-holders to put constant pressure in the U.N. and other places to get the holders to begin reducing their nuclear arsenals.

Currently, it seems the problem is getting even worse.  Saudi Arabia is threatening to start its own nuclear program.  China is developing multiple-warhead missiles.  North Korea could get mad enough to launch a missile at somebody at anytime.  And who knows what kind of deals ISIS may be seeking?

What reduction plans are possible?

A first step might be for the biggest holders to reduce their stockpiles to the level of the next biggest holders.  This should be an “easy” step given the huge gap between the groups. 

According to estimates published by Ploughshares, the U.S. has 8,000 and Russia has 7,800 nuclear weapons.  There are 1,000 cities in the world with a population of 500,000 or more. That means that the U.S. and Russia could send over fifteen missiles to each of these cities. Too what purpose?  Who dies and why?

Worse yet, they would probably launch their missiles at cities in Europe and North America. There are less than 250 cities in these two continents with populations of 500,000 or more.  The U.S. and Russia could send over 60 missiles and bombs to each of these cities.  What do they want to do?  Watch the rubble bounce?  With this kind of ridiculous power would there be anybody left to watch the rubble bounce?

As a first step away from this madness, the U.S. and Russia should reduce their nuclear weapons to the level of the third largest nuclear power – France, which has 300 nuclear weapons.  That would be more than enough to obliterate the larger cities in North America and Europe more than twice over.

Any country with nuclear weapons can have a change in government, even “peaceful”, to a more bellicose government.  What if Israel with its 80 nuclear weapons feels that it has to react to some threat and sends nuclear weapons to several of its Muslim neighbors?  Would Pakistan, which might not be an Israeli target, then feel compelled to retaliate with its 120 nuclear weapons?  Even if Pakistan didn’t retaliate, would some of the fallout come back to haunt Israel?  The farthest Israeli target that I can think of is Tehran, less than 1,000 miles away. Winds may be westerly, but some of the fallout might drift back to Israel, really making the use of nuclear weapons a lose-lose idea.

I hope a large coalition of non-nuclear countries would continually bring up in the United Nations General Assembly the folly of nuclear weapons. Maybe if the pressure gets great enough, we might have no nuclear weapons in 2050.

Although the amount of war has not decreased, there are several areas that had major wars but now have peace.

Think of the centuries of wars in Europe: duke vs. duke, king vs. king, city state vs. city state. The King of Sweden doesn’t march to Prague.  Britain and France have peaceful relations after centuries of fighting for dominance on land and sea.  Despite Putin’s perceptions, no Knights Templar, no Napoleon, and no Kaiser or Hitler will be banging at the gates of St. Petersburg or Moscow.

There have been many wars in South America and there are still armed rebellions in Columbia and Peru, but the last war between two countries was the Cerepa War between Ecuador and Peru that ended in 1995.

The Americas have the most countries with zero active militaries – Costa Rica, Panama, and Haiti.  Iceland and Mauritius also have no active militaries.  Iceland has the smallest paramilitary with 130.  Iceland’s paramilitary includes counter-terrorism police and the coast guard.  Ironically, although Mauritius has no active military, a part that was considered part of Mauritius before independence is now leased by the United Kingdom to the United States - Diego Garcia.

You can do some of your own comparison of militaries with the Wikipedia entry “List of countries by number of military and paramilitary”.  You can order the list by any of the columns.

Ordering by “Total per 1000 capita”, North Korea outstrips all others: 308.5.  Almost a third of the population is in the military or paramilitary.  Its active military is 47.8 per 1000 capita.  Its archenemy, South Korea has 12.3, just behind North Korea’s “benefactor”, China, with 12.4. The United States is much farther down the list at 4.7, even though it has the second largest active military after China.  I could go on and on.  It just boggles the mind how many resources we as a species put into distrust of others of our own species.

Maybe no armies in 2100 is a difficult goal, but when you compare the hostilities of 2000 to the hostilities of 1900 or 1800, it is not an impossible goal.

Maybe we could start with reducing the arms trade.  And maybe the way to reduce the arms trade is with sarcastic humor.

“Micmacs” is a great slapstick movie about a bunch of misfits fighting arms merchants by exposing their hypocrisy.

The satire section of Swedish Radio’s “Godmorgon, världen”, Public Service [sic], had a wonderful piece about Sweden not selling arms to dictators.  The “prime minister” is queried about sending arms to Thailand.  He calls it a “non-democracy” because Sweden doesn’t send arms to dictators.  The interviewer then asks if Belgium is a dictatorship because Sweden doesn’t send arms to Belgium.

Hitler is gone, but Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” is still popular: “the misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.”

This was also published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2015-05-25 at

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Who is doing what social engineering?

Every too often somebody writes a letter to the editor complaining that public transit is “social engineering” and “taking our cars away”.  Have they considered that building all the freeways is social engineering?

How many people lost their houses to make way for the freeways?  How many neighborhoods were separated by freeways?  How many farmers had their land taken by imminent domain?  I know, I know!  It’s eminent domain but when your land is taken it is also imminent.  Aren’t these changes to city and country social engineering?

When the freeways are first built, it becomes much quicker for many people to drive than to take public transit.  More people drive instead of taking the bus, the bus service becomes less frequent for those who don’t drive.  So to save time, more people have to buy cars.  Isn’t this social engineering?

Remember “Field of Dreams” where Robert Redford was told, “Build it and they will come.”  Well, we build freeways and they come.  Soon a four-lane freeway has to become a six-lane freeway.  Soon the six-lane is clogged and has to become an eight-lane freeway.  Where are all the people going to live as the freeways get wider and wider?  Isn’t this social engineering?

For some reason those who complain about their cars “being taken away” don’t seem to realize that the more other people take public transit the more room there is for them on the freeways.

And actually, public transit should have dedicated lines or lanes right down the middle of every freeway.  I remember driving out of Chicago on I-90 on a Sunday afternoon.  It was stop and go in three lanes in my direction.  We would move a bit and a train would catch up to us.  Then we would move forward ahead of the train.  This went on for fifteen minutes or so and the pattern was reversed.  The train would pull ahead and we would catch up.  Eventually the train was long gone and we started and stopped, started and stopped.

When I grew up in Cleveland, we walked to neighborhood stores or took the streetcar downtown.  Now most neighborhood stores and downtown stores have been closed in favor of sprawling malls in the middle of nowhere.  Sometimes the lots are so big that it takes twice as long to walk from one’s car as it did to walk to the corner store.  Isn’t this social engineering?  And it was done without a public vote!

The irony is that most social engineering is done by corporations, not governments.  When a government does “social engineering” we might have an open debate about it.  When a corporation does “social engineering”, it is done behind closed doors and often by deceit.

In the Twentieth Century we as a nation were socially engineered by a man many of us never heard of – Edward Bernays.  A nephew of Sigmund Freud, he applied many of his uncle’s ideas to manipulation of public opinion.  Supposedly he believed that “public’s democratic judgment was ‘not to be relied upon’…’so they had to be guided from above.”

He worked in the Committee on Public Information during World War I.  One task was publicizing the idea that the U.S. involvement was “bringing democracy to all of Europe.”  We had a repeat of this use of “democracy” in our own times.  “The ill that men do lives after them…”  The success of “bringing democracy” surprised Bernays, and he wondered if similar propaganda could be used in peacetime.  Rather than call it propaganda, he labelled it “public relations”.

One of his first achievements was helping the tobacco industry break the taboo of women smoking in public.  He staged a big event in New York City in which models lit up Lucky Strike cigarettes or “Torches of Freedom”.  This promotion was not done as advertising but as news!  Smoking was giving women “freedom” and “liberty”.  Two more echoes in our time: “freedom” and “liberty” are smoke screens for doing what one damn well pleases without concern for the consequences for others.

Many Americans ate a light breakfast of coffee and maybe a roll or orange juice.  He arranged for letters being sent to 5,000 doctors asking if they thought Americans should have a bigger breakfast.  About ninety percent answered saying Americans should have bigger breakfasts.  This he had published as news in papers across the country.  In parallel, he had other articles published that bacon and eggs should be part of a larger breakfast.

He believed that we would have a utopia if the inner energies of individuals “could be harnessed and channeled by a corporate elite for economic benefit.”  This idea seems to be alive and well with all the corporate claims that they will create jobs and that environmental protection and safety rules will only take away jobs.

He wrote a paper called “Engineering of Consent”:  "Any person or organization depends ultimately on public approval, and is therefore faced with the problem of engineering the public's consent to a program or goal.”  Isn’t this a description of “social engineering”?

In many ways, Bernays was value-neutral.  He protected a play in 1913 that supported sex education.  He promoted fluoridation of water to help the aluminum industry sell a by-product of aluminum production.  He hosted the first NAACP convention in Atlanta, and there was no violence.  On the other hand, he inflated the threat of communism and was instrumental in the overthrow of the elected president of Guatemala.

For lots more on Bernays see Wikipedia and “Century of Self”, a four-part BBC series.  I hope these will help you be more skeptical of what anybody says for or against any idea.  Or as in “All the President’s Men”, “Follow the Money”.  Oh, and be skeptical of the attribution of this quote.  If you do so, you might inoculate yourself against “social engineering”.

Mel considers himself a gullible skeptic.

This was also published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2015-05-21 at

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The United States is NOT a Christian Nation

...and it was not founded as such.

The United States may have many people who call themselves Christians, but evidence abounds that very few practice Christianity.  I’ll get back to this.

Many who proclaim that the United States is a Christian Nation cite the Declaration of Independence.  But “Christian” or “Christianity” do not appear in it or the Constitution.  The closest to a religious statement in either is “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration, was a hypocrite.  He held slaves and did not pass on their Creator-given inalienable rights of liberty.  Furthermore, what did “men” mean at that time?  People of male gender as in the Adam and Eve story.  Or people as in on the sixth day “God created man in his own image…male and female created he them.” - Genesis 1:27, King James Version.

The only “religious” word that appears in the original Constitution is “religious”, as in “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Given all the religious tests that have been required, “ever” was not a very long time.

It took over 170 years for a Catholic to be elected President.  And he felt compelled to be vetted by a group of Protestant ministers.  It took a bit less for a Jew to be appointed to the Supreme Court.  John McCain and Barack Obama had to be vetted by an Evangelical minister to prove their “Christianity”.  Shame on Obama, the Constitutional professor, for submitting to this religious test.

And this same Constitutional professor is sponsoring his own “Prayer Breakfasts”.  And shame on all the other politicians who do not have the political will to object to this religious test.

These prayer breakfasts also prove that these politicians are hypocrites.  “And when thou prayest, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.”  Matthew 6:5.

What does a Christian practice?

For starters the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul.”
The second is “Like unto it, to love thy neighbor as thyself.”  And who was “thy neighbor”?  The hated Samaritan who helped a Jew beaten and robbed by the side of the road.

A variation of the second commandment is “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you.”  Would we like foreign troops stationed in our country?  One of the reasons of the American Revolution was the stationing of British Troops in many of the Colonial cities.  But we have bases in dozens of countries, sometimes welcomed by the populace, sometime hated by the populace.

Many congregations recite the “Lord’s Prayer”: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  The United States and many other countries have forgiven Germany and Japan for World War II, but has the U.S. gotten around to forgiving others that they have trespassed against?

U.S. mobsters practically ran Cuba and the U.S. supported the dictator Batista.  Is it any wonder that a Cuban leader arose to oust Batista?  And is it any wonder that leader wanted to reclaim the ill-gotten gains.  But there are many “Christians” in the U.S. that still don’t want to forgive the Cuban government.  Very strange that the U.S. had “good” relations with other Communist governments, including China.

The U.S. was implicit in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossaddegh of Iran and the support of the Shah with his brutal Savak.  Is it any wonder the Ayatollahs have little love for the U.S?  Who should be the first to “forgive those who trespass against us”?

“Blessed are the peacemakers” is part of the Beatitudes, but is U.S. peacekeeping around the world only making matters worse?  See above about the British troops keeping peace in the Colonies.  Are nuclear weapons peacemakers?  Oh, yes!  The Colt Peacemaker has the blessing of the Bible!

We definitely don’t have any “Christian” banks.  How many of them are going to forgive loans every seven years, even for loans to Christians?  Are “Christian” farmers not going to till the land every seven years?  Unless they are farming only for themselves and have saved a lot of food, they would go bust.

Now we have many people asserting that their “freedom of religion” allows them to refuse to associate with certain people or to not have to abide by certain laws.  There is a certain logic in this because “conscientious objectors” are allowed to avoid military service, but they have to do other public service instead.  So if the “Christians” at the top of a corporation object to paying health insurance for abortions, should they then be required to contribute to a fund for child care?

My take of the “freedom of religion” clause in the First Amendment is that we are free to believe what we want, whether it’s the Big Guy in the Sky, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or a Golden Calf.  It isn’t anybody else’s business.  The writers of the Bill of Rights were only too aware of all the persecutions that had happened because somebody believed the “wrong” thing.  The “freedom of religion” clause guarantees that we are free to believe what we want.  In return we should let others believe what they want.

Also published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2015-05-14 at

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Quick correction of corporate mistakes

This noon I tried reading the eEdition of the Star Tribune.  Safari on my iPod said it couldn’t the load the page because of “too many redirects”.  No matter how many times in how many different ways, I kept getting the same result.

Come on, folks, don’t deprive me of my comics fix.  They are not as readily available as in the eEdition, the screen equivalent of the actual printed page.

I sent email to the digital access address of the paper.  Then I tried calling, but there was a wait.  Ah ha!  I’m not alone.

This was about noon today.  By sometime around three, if not before, the problem was fixed and I could read the comics again.

I did send a thank-you email.

Knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing

Last week in “The Magic Marketplace can be malevolent” I wrote that the marketplace for labor is not always a benevolent mechanism.  This week I would like to consider some cases where companies have ignored value for price and where companies have put value ahead of price.

Management of a large electronic chain decided to fire all their high-paid floor employees and let them reapply at a lower pay level.  The company ignored the fact that the high-paid employees had gained considerable experience and were providing exceptional customer service.  Unfortunately, many customers lost their favorite go-to employees and found the remaining help unsatisfactory.  And this attitude spread rapidly, years before social media.  The company rapidly declined and has become a textbook example on how not to treat employees.  Remember Circuit City?

Sometime ago I read a letter in a newspaper complaining about firefighters going for groceries with a fire truck.  The writer questioned why they didn’t take a smaller vehicle.  Did the writer consider the increased response time of a crew returning to the fire station to get the big rig?  If the crew returned to the fire station to get the big truck, how much more value would be lost in a burning house?

“If you can read this, thank a teacher!”  But too many begrudge teachers the salaries they get, using among other wild-eyed statements “greedy teacher unions”.  After he resigned, Nevada Superintendent of Schools James Guthrie said the top tier of teachers should be paid $200,000.  This would give teachers a salary commensurate with other skilled professionals.  Do those who decry the lack of qualified workers see any connection to their unwillingness to pay sufficient taxes to educate future employees?

Some of those who grouse about teachers’ or others’ pay keep pushing their own pay up.  Many CEOs and board members are getting pay far in excess to the value they give to shareholders.  They often play games about comparing salaries “with comparable companies”, but it is the board or if the board is hand-picked by the CEO, it is the CEO who determines his or her own salary.  Doesn’t sound like the marketplace is determining salaries.  Sometimes they get the boot; sometimes they run the company into bankruptcy.  Many CEOs groused about a law that strove to let shareholders have a say in executive pay; it was watered down so that the vote was non-binding.  See “Time to Make CEO Pay Match Shareholder Performance”,  Suzanne McGee, The Fiscal Times, 2015-05-01.  She wrote that often the pay of the CEO is inversely related to the performance of the company.  Interestingly, a proposal was made by the Securities and Exchange Committee to make corporate top executive pay more transparent to shareholders. It was voted against by the two Republicans on the committee.  Could it be that Republicans aren’t business-friendly but CEO friendly?

As an example of the inverse relation of pay of the CEO to the performance of the company consider Walmart, Target, and Costco.  The CEO of Costco gets a hefty pay package but it is far less than those of the CEOs of Walmart and Target.  The Motley Fool published an interesting comparison on five measures of company strength.  I haven’t fully understood it yet, but the Fool’s conclusion is that Costco is a far better long-term investment than either Walmart or Target.

Costco pays its employees about $20/hour compared to a third less for the other two.  It has only about four percent of its employees as part-time.  On the other hand, Walmart has one-half of its employees as part-time.  Part-time is great for students, but it is lousy for people who have to support families.

Speaking of part-time, as a college student, I was getting $1.74 an hour for around 14-16 hours a week at Kroger.  I did stocking, cashiering, and bagging.  According to PayScale, Kroger pays its cashiers $7.26 to 11.99 an hour.   Assuming an inflation rate of three percent, then somebody with equivalent experience should be earning about $10.88.  I’ll let you play around with various inflation rates; for example, do these same calculations with the actual inflation rate for each year.

But average inflation doesn’t tell the whole story.  Some things are a lot cheaper relatively than in 1958.  Somethings are a lot more expensive.

When our daughter was born in 1962, I was a graduate student earning $75 a week.  School insurance paid most of the cost.  I do remember the room cost was $10/night and the obstetrician cost was about $700 total.  At three percent inflation the room cost should be less than $50/night.  In 2010, the average cost of a hospital stay was $1,600 to $2,000/night.

We bought our first new car in 1963, a Ford Falcon.  Its cost was about $2,200.  Assuming the average inflation it would cost over $10,000.  You would be lucky to get a two-year old car for that price now.  Of course, the cars of today are packed with comfort and safety features that were only dreams in 1963.

The cost of transportation has become a big part of the budget of those with lower incomes.  And as we have spread out more, public transit becomes less available and a car has become more of a necessity.

Meaningful discussion about these issues, as it has always been, comes down to point of view.  We are right and you are wrong.  Too many of us ignore our wrong choices and give too much importance to being in the right place at the right time.

It reminds of Pete Seeger’s tale of two slugs that fell off a shovel.  One falls in the gutter and the other in a dead cat.  After a few days of eating and eating, the lucky one goes looking for the other.  When asked how he became so fat and sleek, the lucky one says, “Brains and personality!”

Many may dispute Mel's brains and personality, but he knows that a bit of pluck and a lot of luck helped.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Magical Marketplace Can Be Malevolent

Once again, one who lives by profits justifies wages by the magic of the market.  See “Work like you mean it, and let the market set the best wage” by Scott Sayer, Star Tribune, 2015-04-20.  He writes, “Market forces should determine what an hour of work is worth.”

Once upon a very bad time, market forces determined that a slave should work as many hours as the master required. These masters were so determined that they were right, they were willing to wage a bloody war to protect their interests.

Once upon a bad time, market forces determined that children should work as many hours as the masters of the factories required.  These masters didn’t fight a military war to protect their interests, but they bought a lot of politicians to defeat child labor laws.

Once upon another bad time, market forces determined that young women should work long hours in unsafe working conditions as the masters of the factories required.  Even fires and other disasters did not stop the corruption from letting these conditions continue.  Then the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, killing 145 people, mostly immigrant teen-age girls, made a bit of progress in reducing these conditions.

Even in these supposedly more benign times, market forces determine that masters’ employees should work long hours, well past their ability to function safely.  How many people other than these employees have been killed by truck or bus drivers working longer hours than the drivers could stay alert?  Despite these deaths, there are still masters who decry government interference with too many regulations.

Now as many call for a minimum wage of $15/hour,  Sayer states “Market forces should determine what an hour of work is worth.”  He complains that these figures are coming “from bureaucrats who never had to sign a paycheck in their lives.”  But these “bureaucrats” are officials, elected by the People, who try to follow the Constitution and promote the “General Welfare”.

And just what are these “market forces” that Sayer mentions so often?  Are they many buyers and many sellers free to enter and leave the market?  Do these “market forces” provide buyers and sellers with all the information they need to make an informed decision?  Are all the costs of the transaction covered, or are there costs that others must bear?

There are far fewer buyers of labor than sellers of labor.  The buyers of labor are free to contract or expand their work force. The sellers of labor must find buyers or be hungry and without shelter.

Both buyers and sellers of labor might not provide all the information for informed decisions.  Buyers might not provide all the details of the job, including how safe it is, how many onerous rules there are, and how reliably checks are issued. Sellers might overstate their credentials, hide unsuccessful performance, or hide illness that limits their abilities.

Both buyers and sellers of labor might push off costs to others.  Buyers might not have insurance to cover work injuries. Sellers might engage in theft that needs to be investigated by public law enforcement officials.  Buyers might pay less than “a living wage” passing off to others the concern that sellers have sufficient food, shelter, and clothing.  Sometimes these costs are borne by relatives, sometimes by governments.

These are only a few of the ways that other than “market forces” can influence labor decisions.

Sayer decries that a living wage is based on 40 hours a week, and he wonders why such a limit.  He ignores that many people fought and even died to get a standard work week set at 40 hours.  This push came not from bureaucrats but workers who wanted long, healthy, and enjoyable lives.  They defied Adam Smith’s observation that it was legal for the masters to unite to keep wages down but illegal for the workers to unite to raise wages.

Consider that a work day is eight hours plus a half hour for lunch.  Assume that a worker has a half-hour commute each way and that the other two meals also take about a half hour each.  The worker has now accounted for ten-and-half hours of the day.  Add eight hours for sleep and fifteen minutes each preparing for bed or getting dressed. The worker has now accounted for nineteen hours of his or her day, leaving five hours for other activities.  It seems Sayer believes that the work day should use these extra hours up to give him a thirteen-hour day from his employees.

Even when I was enjoying my job, I was quite willing to go home at the official quitting time.  Sure, there were times when some pressing problem needed more work or when I was so involved in what I was doing that I didn’t want to stop.  In fact, I don’t think that there was an hour of the day at which I didn’t work sometime or another.  Sometimes that was when the work was to be done; sometimes that was when the work just kept going.  But I was always glad when work returned to a normal day-time pace.

It was not bureaucrats who decided the work week should be 40 hours, but We the People.  It was We the People who decided that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.