Saturday, July 31, 2010


A Matter of Opinion?

According to statistics reported to me by some of my friends, nearly half of the American people do not believe in the idea that present species, including homo sapiens, evolved from previous species through random mutation and natural selection. That is, they reject Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Biologists and breeders of animals have seen so much evidence in favor of Darwin's explanation that they no longer regard it as a theory. It exists. Living forms mutate. One can select living things, plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, etc., and select mutated forms and grow them. In that way we humans have created a great variety of plants and animals for food, show, and other purposes, some useful and some not. The Great Dane and the Chihuahua have evolved with human help from the wolf. Percherons, Clydesdales, Arabians, and other breeds of horse have similarly evolved from the wild horses of Asia.

In spite of this evidence, almost a majority of Americans do not accept Darwin's theory. A majority of church-going Americans reject Darwin. In contrast, people in other advanced countries accept the Darwin concept of evolution, including the idea that humans evolved from other smaller-brained creatures and that we humans are genetically related to the great apes. In fact, among our closest genetic relatives are the chimpanzees of Africa.

Since many Americans have an unscientific belief regarding the origin of species it should be no surprise that many Americans have unfounded and unprovable beliefs about politics and policy. An example is the persistent belief that President Obama is a Muslim Socialist and was born in Kenya. Another is the belief that government in general and the President in particular is powerful enough to bring an end to this recession without spending any money and that the reason he isn't ending the recession is that he has some evil socialist plot.

You see my point. The public is mistaken and has strange superstitions.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Do we need a new WPA?

There were two conflicting news items this week. I heard them both on the radio. One item was a result of recent public opinion polls. The poll results showed that President Obama's handling of the economy is not popular. He is losing the support of Americans on the issue. The other item was a report by some economists. That report stated that the government's policy of stimulating the economy had produced good results. Although we are in a recession, it would have been much more severe except for the massive stimulus.

Of course, there isn't any real disagreement between the public and the economists. The economists are saying that, although things are bad they would have been much worse if the stimulus hadn't occurred. The public is saying that no matter how good or how bad the recession is, ten percent of us have lost our jobs and we can't find work and we're pretty damned mad about it. We blame the President, the most powerful man in the world, for not doing a lot more to bring back our jobs and the good times we used to experience.

Some liberals have argued that we really need to repeat the policies of the 1930's. In those days the federal government used borrowed money to fund various work projects, carried out under various acronyms such as WPA, PWA, and CCC. Some of these projects were simply make-work projects. Others produced useful and long-lasting results. An example dear to me and to many engineers was the calculation of accurate tables of functions: sines and cosines, bessel functions, and others. The last time an effort was made to calculate such tables occurred in France during the reign of Napoleon. Regardless of the merits of the actual work done, these jobs were temporary. After the economy recovered and jobs in the private sector were again plentiful, these work projects were ended.

Conservative economists argue against such a program because the jobs would be temporary. What is needed, they argue, is a program designed to create new permanent jobs. The stimulus program isn't creating enough new jobs to lift us out of recession.

Both arguments make sense. WPA type jobs are not permanent. Unless permanent jobs can be created in the private sector, the temporary jobs will have done no good after they are terminated. There is a matter of timing and extreme involved. We believe that, in time, the private sector on its own will recover and new jobs will come into being. If the private sector is left to itself, that process of healing may take a decade. For the ten to twenty percent of people out of work, that's much too long to wait. They will either starve to death or start a revolution.

Can the government do anything to speed up the process of creating new private sector jobs? In the 1930's the process was speeded up only because of the outbreak of war. The government created whole new industries, particularly to build the airplanes and ships and tanks and weapons needed to fight the war. After the war the airplane manufacturers proceeded to supply the new and growing air transportation industries with the airplanes needed. That particular option is not open. There may be another whole new industry that the government could support. The question is, what is it?

For the present, I leave that question to you, my readers.


Thursday, July 22, 2010


A Never-ending Argument

I have a continuing argument with my conservative friend H and my libertarian friend R. Lately R and I have been having a go about the recently enacted U.S. health care bill and the health care systems in most European countries, such as Denmark. R doesn't agree that the Danish health care system, in which every resident of the country receives health care at no cost, is in any way better than our system in which everyone has to pay, either directly to the medical providers or to an insurance company that pays the providers. I pointed out that our system has the disadvantage that many Americans die each year because they can't afford health care and don't have health insurance. R disputes my claim that anyone dies for lack of ability to pay. Are there not hospital emergency rooms that treat everyone regardless of ability to pay? He also challenged me to cite published information to support my assertion that people in America die because they can't afford health care.

Such information is of course available and easy to find with a computer and internet access. Use the browser to find Google and ask Google to find information about Americans who die because they lack health insurance. Google comes up with a long list of such articles about studies made by reputable institutions, such as the Harvard Medical School.

The point of this story is not to pillory R. Rather it is to provide an illustration of a kind of argument that exists between liberals like me and conservatives like H and R. We argue about what the facts are. Since we can't agree about the facts, the argument never ends.

As to the emergency room argument, the fact is that emergency rooms do not provide continuing long-term medical care. They do not heal or cure. They stabilize a patient who is near death or severely injured. Emergency room health care is the most expensive and least effective kind there is. At best, emergency room medical providers patch you up so that you can last long enough to get to your regular doctor for long-term treatment.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010


We're getting the government we deserve

Californians have a long history of complaining about their government. At one time the legislature was in the pay of the Southern Pacific Railroad. What SP wanted the legislature enacted. I wasn't around during those times, but I imagine that elections were much like they are today. There is plenty of information available about candidates for office and about the issues and problems of government. I presume there was then also. The public has other things on its mind and won't take the trouble to dig out the useful information. Instead, the public will read and believe what's put in front of it. Joe Smith is a crook but his opponent John Brown is honest - or vice versa. As a result, the candidate with the biggest campaign fund wins the election. Before 1909 the winning candidates had financial support from SP.

Hiram Johnson was a crusading reformer. It didn't occur to him to try to break the bond between money and winning election. Instead, he had the voters approve several devices of direct democracy, such as the initiative and referendum, to bypass the corrupt legislature an enact good legislation.

For a while direct democracy broke the influence SP had on legislation. Later other corporations and wealth businessmen realized that the processes of direct democracy were just as susceptible to manipulation by people with money as candidates for office. Today we have the worst of both worlds. We have a legislature beholden to various moneyed pressure groups and we have ballot initiatives that got there by paying signature gatherers a dollar per signature. We have not done anything to break the connection between money and legislation.

We still have the power to overcome the influence of money. We can choose to ignore the campaign ads paid for by candidates and initiative backers with deep pockets. We can instead go to libraries, the internet, and other sources to find out some real analyses of the initiatives and the candidates. But we don't. We take the misinformation that is spoon-fed to us and vote accordingly. We may not like what we get, but we get what we deserve.

We can also overcome the influence of money by establishing a system of public financing of campaigns, both for candidates and for initiatives. We have in elections past declined to do so. Again, we get what we deserve.


Sunday, July 11, 2010


About Wine and Religion

While attending holy communion at church this morning I had some thoughts about the use and prohibition of wine in various religions. Traditional Christians celebrate holy communion with wine. These include the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans. In the consecration of the wine the Anglicans dilute the wine with water. An Episcopal priest once explained to me that, as a consequence, he would start with fortified wine (i.e., strengthened to 19 percent alcohol) so that after dilution the wine would still be strong enough to kill any bacteria or viruses and enable the parishioners to sip from the same cup without spreading disease.

The Episcopal prayer of consecration describes the preparation of wine and bread at the last supper. I don't know of any biblical account of the last supper that includes the detail of diluting the wine. However, that detail isn't important to my theory, which I am about to present.

My theory is that wine produced in countries of the same latitude as Biblical Israel is rather strong. Compare, for example, Italian Chianti with German May wine. German grapes are grown in a higher latitude and the wine is milder in consequence. The wine produced by the vintners of Jesus's time must have been pretty strong stuff. I can imagine that Jesus himself had a rather delicate taste and couldn't stand the local wine unless it was diluted. Certainly priests serving communion in the centuries that followed would also be likely to dilute the wine.

Now let's consider Muhammad. He lived in a region not suitable for grapes. Any wine consumed there was imported from Israel or Persia or Mesopotamia, all in the same range of latitude for producing strong-tasting wine. I can believe that Muhammad also had a rather delicate taste. He couldn't stand the stuff and wouldn't drink it. He hated it so much that he forbade his followers to drink it either.

There's another theory about Muhammad. He was in a situation similar to another religious leader who was establishing a colony for his flock in Utah. Brigham Young forbade his followers from drinking coffee or tea. Coffee and tea don't grow in Utah and he wanted his colony to be completely self-sufficient. They could drink tea made from the leaves of mint plants that do grow in Utah. Hence, Mormons can drink peppermint tea but not coffee or Oolong tea or any of the other teas that must be imported. Muhammad may have had the same attitude toward wine, since it had to be imported. Coffee was no problem for him. After all, coffee originated in Arabia.

My theory is incomplete. Christians dilute sacramental wine and Muslims abstain from all wine for one of two reasons: (1) Their leaders had delicate tastes and didn't like the taste of the available wine; (2) Muhammad didn't want to have to import wine from the north and urged his followers to drink coffee instead.


Saturday, July 10, 2010


The Impatience of Voters

There are some gifts that should be used sparingly. I am thinking of the gift of direct democracy, the initiative, referendum, and recall that were introduced into the governance of California in the days of Hiram Johnson. These were and are still precious gifts. However, we do not use them sparingly or wisely.

As an example, there will be two initiative propositions on the ballot in November, both dealing with the plan to have legislative districts of Assembly and Senate members and the Board of Equalization drawn by a redistricting commission rather than the Legislature. One, proposition 20, would add the Congressional districts to the process. The other, proposition 27, would completely eliminate the redistricting commission and return the task to the Legislature. These are both on the ballot in November even before the redistricting commission has done its first redistricting. Why eliminate it before we even know how it will work? Why add to it before we even know how it will work? Why not wait until after the present redistricting has been done? If it's a bad job, we can then change the process, abolish the badly drawn districts, and return the job to the Legislature. If it's a good job, then we will be able to add the Congressional districts to the mix.

Americans have always had a tendency to solve a serious problem by passing a law. Do poor people who beg for their livings bother you? Pass a law against begging. Do people who have to sleep in the street bother you? Pass a law against sleeping in the street. Do Mexican workers who lack valid visas annoy you? Pass a law against them. Passing a law to "solve" a problem is easier and cheaper than implementing a program that will address the causes. The program will cost money (i.e., more taxes) and nobody wants that. Or, the program will involve diplomacy and assistance to Mexico to help solve its unemployment problem. We Americans are too impatient to practice diplomacy and too stingy to spend money to improve Mexico's economy.

My thought for the day. Good Night!

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Friday, July 09, 2010


My Blind Spot

I have discovered that I have a blind spot. I don't mean the defective vision in my left eye. I mean that I have been unaware of the influence that a disdain, if not actual dislike, of political parties has on the political thinking of average Americans who, unlike me, are not dedicated to one of the political parties.

For most of my voting life I have voted for Democrats. Exceptions include Norman Thomas, Charlie Montgomery, and Huston Flournoy. In 1948 I was convinced that Truman was a sure loser and I voted for Norman Thomas, as did many of my friends. When Truman won, we were ecstatic. Charlie Montgomery was a family friend in Michigan who was running for Tyrone Township Drain Commissioner in 1944, the only time I voted in Michigan. He was a Republican but I voted for him. I don't know who was running against him. Perhaps he was the only candidate. Tyrone Township Drain Commissioner is not a very important position. Once in California I voted for Huston Fluornoy, a Republican. I think he was running for State Controller. Alan Cranston was also running for the position as the incumbent but he was plagued by a scandal involving the appointment of political friends as estate inheritance appraisers.

I was discussing the new scheme in California for drawing the boundaries of legislative districts this morning with some friends. We also discussed a proposition to be on the ballot in November to repeal the scheme and give the job back to the legislators. Now I agree that the process of letting legislators draw their own district lines reeks of conflicts of interest if not outright corruption. I expressed my satisfaction at a recent poll that indicates that the voters will probably reject the proposal to abolish the system before it is even tried. I then said that I would prefer a much more advanced change, one that takes advantage of many years experience in such countries as France, Germany, Israel, and Russia. I would like to see some sort of proportional representation adopted under which each political party, large or small, gains members in a legislature in proportional to the fraction of voters for that party in the election. I believe, for example, that Israel, being a very small country, does not elect the 120 members of the Knesset from individual districts as we do. Apparently every party nominates as many candidates as it pleases, but no more than 120. Voters vote by party. Each party then is represented in the Knesset according to its percentage of the vote in the election.

To apply this scheme to California, we should enlarge the Assembly to at least 200 members. Let there be 40 election districts, each one electing five members. These five would be apportioned according to the party vote in the district - or something that would produce a similar result. I advocate using instant run-off voting to choose the five most popular candidates to represent the district.

Years ago there was a commission set up to study the California constitution and to recommend changes. Afterward I asked one of the members of the commission, Erwin Chemerinsky, why the commission had not proposed proportional representation. He replied that it was too radical an idea for the people of California. Now, this was Erwin Chemerinsky, not some Republican or Democratic party hack. He has been reviled and defended as being a very "liberal" person in his political thinking. Even he thought that the American public was not ready to think about such things as proportional representation.

So, here's my blind spot. I can understand the attachment that Americans have to our system of single-member districts. That's what we've always had. What I can't understand is their reluctance even to think about a system that would provide better representation to minor parties, such as the Greens, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Libertarian Party, the American Independent Party, the Socialist Party, and so on. It occurred to me this morning that my blind spot is that I can not imagine not preferring one of these political parties. However, the same polls that give me happy news about reforming the legislature, not rejecting the commission method of setting legislative boundaries, and rejecting the proposal to delay the implementation of the Global Warming Solutions Act also shows that a majority of Americans do not care for any political party. Since Americans disdain parties, it is understandable that they would have no interest in proportional representation.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010


Subsidizing Poverty

A Republican Senator explained his support of a filibuster against the appropriation of additional money for unemployment insurance payments as opposing the subsidizing of joblessness. His theory is that if the unemployment benefits are ended, the unemployed will simply find some work - any work, regardless of the pay or the quality of the job - and become employed again. To continue paying an unemployed person as long as he or she is unemployed - or as long as he or she chooses to remain unemployed - simply prolongs the process.

What chtzpah! I am speechless, if not wordless, with anger and astonishment at such reasoning.

I know many Republicans. Some of my close relatives are Republicans. Their values are like mine: take care of my unfortunate neighbors; do not shun a person who is out of work and out of luck; treat all persons the same. I can go on with this list. These are values that many Christians have. I go so far as to assert that the Senator lacks one or more of the Christian values that most of us Americans cherish. The Senator is not a good Christian, not even a good Republican, and not a very good American.


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