Archive for October, 2008

Marriage Anyone?

One of the hot social issues of these times is whether same sex marriage should or should not be legal. Conservatives naturally oppose anything that breaks tradition, and use the “slippery slope” argument that such a break would lead to the legalization of polygamy. Why they think this naturally follows is not clear, but maybe they’re right. Is polygamy necessarily a bad thing? Would harm be done? Is there a victim? The whole debate, however, is about to become moot. In modern western societies such as the United States and Europe marriage loses ground every year. Already more than half of all households in the U.S. are headed by a single adult, and marriage is on its way to becoming only symbolic.

Other than a few artificial tax distinctions, is there anything a married couple can do that an unmarried couple can’t do? Living together in an unmarried state has lost all its stigma, and having children out of wedlock is now so common that the term “bastard,” although still derogatory, is losing its original meaning. Much of this has happened in the last fifty years. What is driving all this change? Marriage, after all, is a very ancient institution. Originally, most ways of making a living required physical strength and thus a division of labor naturally developed, relegating women to domestic roles especially when child care was an issue. The disparity in physical strength also served to enforce the subjugation of women. It has been a long haul for women and all during that time male dominance and traditional marriage went hand in hand. The logic of one reinforced the logic of the other. That distinction is rapidly disappearing even in what would normally be considered heavy work such as construction. A ditch is no longer dug with a pick and shovel and a backhoe can be operated just as well by either sex. In addition, many ways of making a living are increasingly dependent on mental strength rather than physical strength. Mental strength consists of innate ability, where women have always been equal, plus education where parity is immanent. At this writing the majority of all students enrolled in higher education in the U.S. are female.

What will the future look like?

Is seems highly probable that within fifty years (maybe sooner) complete parity will be occur. Compensation will equalize and the “glass ceiling” will be broken. There may even be a reversal of dominance between the sexes. When this comes to pass traditional marriages will probably become a small minority, and it will be women who bring this about. There will always be those to fight a rear guard action, but it’s a losing battle. The original logic just isn’t there anymore. In short, there is an inverse relationship between the prominence of women in society and popularity of traditional marriage. Today the basic legal entity is the individual and it would appear that in the future this will also be the case, perhaps even more so. Individuals will be free to make any kind of living arrangement they wish –they may remain single, be coupled, tripled, quadrupled, or become a whole commune. Such arrangements may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or all of the above. They may be informal or covered by some kind of contractual agreement dealing with issues such community property and the rearing of children. Some living arrangements of the future may be organized, as businesses are today, into legal partnerships or corporations. Frankly, it seems unlikely that large, close-knit group marriages will become common. It is six times more difficult for four people to be blissfully compatible than it is for two, and two is hard enough. Perhaps we will see a tiered type of structure with primary and secondary relationships.

All of this represents something new for human society. It’s unexplored territory, and a significant revolution for our kind. There will, of course, be some missteps and false starts, but in the long run it is difficult to see such expansion of choice as a bad thing. It’s the wave of the future and the future is almost here.

R.L Mason
Mendocino, California

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Thursday, October 23rd, 2008 Marriage Anyone? No Comments

Cake Mixed Economy

A wise man once told me government should do what is best done by the people collectively, and private enterprise should do what is best done by the people individually. That was a long time ago, but it still rings true for me today. The question remains, however, which is which, and how are they made to work together? Government and private enterprise are two poles of economic and political thought and each pole has staunch advocates.

It is the responsibility of government to create an environment within which individual initiative can flourish. This includes addressing issues of defense, justice, safety, education and infrastructure which are the common needs of all its citizens. In so doing it establishes a public wealth or “commonwealth” where equal opportunity is realized and where the pursuit of private wealth is enabled. Defense, justice, education and safety are generally acknowledged as legitimate areas of government endeavor, even though private industry has a subsidiary role to play in each. But infrastructure stirs considerably more debate.

Technical innovations, which at their inception are considered luxuries and therefore the proper concern of private enterprise, have a way of eventually becoming necessities. When this happens, it is the duty of government to insure equality of access which is independent of private wealth or industry profit. A good example of this is electrical power. Originally, electricity was developed and marketed by private enterprise. Cities, where the market was dense and therefore profitable, were electrified first; but when it came to the rural areas, the lines were too long and the population too sparse. The industry simply refused to provide rural dwellers the same service for the same price. This put people who lived in outlying areas at a considerable disadvantage.

The federal government, seeing that an inequity existed in something that was rapidly becoming a necessity of life, interceded by creating The Rural Electrification Administration which provided loans and assistance to rural communities and farm cooperatives. It also increasingly regulated private generators and utilities to insure equitable distribution. And, finally, it got into the generation business itself, most notably in the area of hydropower.

The above is a good example of something that was originally conceived and marketed by private industry and has since become a common need of all people. Government was required to become a player to insure a necessary fairness.

The postal industry is a good example of events happening in reverse order. Originally conceived and implemented by the federal government, and long its exclusive domain, it has recently seen inroads by private carriers who saw segments of the service that could be done better and still yield a profit. The entrance of private enterprise into this industry has resulted in an improved overall service for the country as a whole.

These two examples illustrate the respective strengths of the two poles of economic endeavor. Any industry that provides goods or services that are common necessities should have both elements present to some degree. Private enterprise spearheads the economy and is the most likely to produce innovation. Government spreads the benefits evenly and protects the citizens against abuse in the name of profit.

I like to think of this mix for the production of commonwealth goods and services as being analogous to a cake—the government component being the cake itself, determining the shape and providing the strength, and private enterprise the icing. Of the two industries mentioned, the postal industry fits the analogy best. The electrical power industry could use a little more cake and a little less icing. It’s a little too sweet the way it is currently structured in the United States and allows pricing irregularities created by the artificial manipulation of supply and demand. One way to remedy the situation would be to arrange things the way it is done in some prominent European countries. All power generated within a country is purchased by the government, which then takes responsibility for its distribution. As a side benefit, the government can easily influence how the power is generated by offering premium prices for power generated in the most desirable fashion. Thus power generated from renewable sources, for instance, can be encouraged.

An additional advantage of having a relatively large government presence in the production of basic goods and services is a reduction in the need to regulate the private segment of an industry. For example, the private carriers that compete in the postal industry know that if they get too far out of line in pricing their service people will simply revert to using the U.S. Postal Service.

Roads and highways are a common need which historically has been the purview of governments, although some private roads do exist. At the top of the list are the federal interstates, followed by state highways, county roads, and city streets. These are owned, operated, and maintained by governmental agencies, however, they are usually built by private enterprise. This demonstrates another way the cake can be mixed and could serve as a model for the distribution of electrical power. The defense and security industries are mixed in a similar way. Overall responsibility is governmental, but equipment and supplies come from private sources.

One industry which is still very much out of balance is health care. It is, without a doubt, a need which is common to all people, but it is dominated by private interests. This cake has way too much icing, and consequently, is much too rich for many people’s taste. As a result, a major health crisis can be financially ruinous to a person of modest means. This should not be. In addition, there is something very odious about private parties making a profit off other people’s misfortune. Not only should a single payer system be initiated, but the government should become directly involved as a provider on a large scale. This is not to say that the private practice of medicine should be eliminated. It should not. It should exist for those who are willing and able to pay a premium for attention above and beyond what is available through public channels. A national health care system could be achieved by expanding the system that currently exists for those over age sixty-five (Medicare) and drawing upon the experience of the many industrialized nations that already have such a system. The Government could also become a significant provider by expanding the service that is currently available only for veterans.

Per-capita spending on health care in the United States is far higher than in other industrialized nations, and yet life-expectancy is lower, and infant-mortality is higher, than in countries that spend less than half as much per person. A national health care system can achieve economies and improve care by:

  • eliminating the profit cost segment of current providers and insurers,
  • achieving economies of scale,
  • eliminating current adminstative costs for the screening of applicants,
  • exercising purchasing power for equipment and pharmaceuticals,
  • eliminating excessive duplication of capability, and
  • promulgating uniform treatment standards.

Numerous other goods and services exist which, in a modern industrialized society, fall into the category of basic necessities, and they can all be structured in a similar manner—a socialistic cake with capitalistic icing. Goods and services that are considered luxuries should remain the exclusive domain of private enterprise. People of sufficient wealth may function entirely within this realm, but for everyone else, a minimum level of basic necessities should be established that none are allowed to fall below.

“Let them eat cake”
Marie Antoinette

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Monday, October 20th, 2008 Cake Mixed Economy No Comments

Stepping Stones and Stumbling Blocks

To the extent that people think for themselves they will be of differing opinions. These opinions, expressed without fear, form a free market place of ideas. In such a market one may go shopping for an ensemble of thoughts to fit one’s own personality. This is as it should be; collecting a wardrobe of philosophical vestments can be a personal growth experience, and no two shoppers will end up identical.

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

When, however, you run across a body of people whose opinions are largely consistent, then you have found people who do not go shopping. These people wear the philosophical uniform of some thoroughgoing creed or orthodoxy. New ideas are not welcomed, and the orthodoxy provides one-size-fits-all answers to most questions. Followers need only don the habit of belief.

This dichotomy is closely congruent to the contrast between science and religion. When two scientists disagree about some aspect of Mother Nature they go back to the physical Universe and make further observations until one theory or the other gains a higher probability of being true. In other words, there is a way of resolving scientific disputes. Once a scientific dispute or question has been settled, it becomes a “stepping stone” for further inquiry, and usually generates a whole set of new questions. Proceeding in this manner since the inception of the scientific revolution, a vast body of knowledge has been produced. Open the class catalog of any major university and look under “Science” to see the extensive scope of current scientific investigation. Scientific theory or “knowledge” is continually being upgraded and expanded by a self-correcting process. In addition, the process is civil in nature; no one is likely to die because of a scientific dispute.

On the other hand when adherents of differing religious attitudes disagree on some metaphysical or supernatural tenant, there is no way of resolving the issue. No data can be collected that will shed light on the problem. Consequently, religions tend to be rigid and very slow to change. Furthermore, the total documented content of major religions is comparatively small so the same ground is plowed over and over again. In the past some religious advocates have become so frustrated with their inability to gain the upper hand for their particular beliefs that they resorted to the uncivil process of simply eliminating those who believe differently. This represents an extreme course of action but, unfortunately, history is replete with examples.

“Men differ daily about things which are subject to sense. Is it likely then they should agree about things invisible?”

Benjamin Franklin

Even so, if religions would only stick to the metaphysical and supernatural then conflict with science would not really be a serious problem. Science, after all, is scrupulously careful about dealing only with the physical Universe. Only data collected via the senses is considered valid for scientific use. Mathematical constructs are sometimes hypothesized, but they don’t gain acceptance until confirmed by observation. Religions, on the other hand, often takes issue with science concerning the nature of physical reality. Typical examples include human origins (anthropology), the validity of evolution (biology), and the age of the Earth (geology). A dispute of this sort is difficult to resolve short of a court order. Such a ruling, however, usually leaves one party or the other unconvinced even though it may settle the matter legally. Court rulings usually favor the scientific point of view because, like science, the rules of legal evidence are, at their most fundamental level, based on perception of the senses. In court, testimony is the most basic form of evidence, and consists of what is said by a competent witness. A witness is deemed competent when, among other things, he has perceived something with his senses that is relevant to the case.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is widely acclaimed today as one of the founders of modern science. Yet he was censured by the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for expounding his views on astronomy and physics. Today Galileo is almost a household name, but not many people could tell you the name of the Pope who was responsible for his banishment from Italian society. This is not just an ancient story, similar conflicts are going on today. The only difference is religions, at least in the West, no longer hold the same positions of power as four hundred years ago. Assuming that the human race continues on into the future, what will our descendants four hundred years from now consider to be the major achievements of our times? One likely candidate would seem to be that, for the first time, humanity figured out how to escape Earth’s gravitational field, and not just with a prayer.

R. L. Mason
Mendocino, California

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