Regression to the Mean

August 18, 2015

Social scientists have a phrase, “regression to the mean.” What they mean is that the law of averages eventually fells families, companies or countries that are doing better than average, and eventually lift those doing much worse than the average. Now for all of us who like to say the United States is the best in the world, there is a prospect to consider.

We could just get fatalistic; it’s going to happen so what can we do about it. But of course we didn’t succeed by fatalism. Americans escaped, trekked, traveled, by rickety sailboats and steerage and every other way imaginable to get here and then they cleared the wilderness and conquered the continent and then took on the world. No fatalism about that.

They didn’t stare at each other saying we can’t do or build this or that; they joined together or got the government to help. Until the fatalists took over. Reagan said government is the problem. Strange remark, from a man who either should have known better or did, because when he took over the U.S. Government was actually remaking the world, our world. Perhaps you didn’t know that the internet was developed by DARPA as a national security project to make up for a strategic weakness of the old fashioned telephone system. Or that the transistors that run everything you use were developed as part of a government war effort. There isn’t much that you and I touch that weren’t connected in some way to the government space effort.

I could tell that story for every American generation. Government that is devoted to the welfare of the people, began here. The banking system, the transportation system repeatedly rebuilt as new technology developed, schools and the university system, the list of government projects for us is endless – until we stopped trusting each other and our own government.

So how do we stay strong, healthy, and successful? Some think we do it by fighting everyone. They must have grown up in a very tough neighborhood. Those who crunch the numbers figured out a long time ago that arms are what economists call a deadweight loss. Sometimes you really need them but they contribute zero to the economy except for the research. And like the barroom brawler, everyone’s gunning for the top gun.

We got where we are because of our economy. You can look at the economic numbers and see when Germany got ahead of England and France and then when the U.S. surpassed Germany. It’s all in the numbers. Ever since that other fatalist, George Bush said “read my lips; no new taxes,” Americans have imagined that progress was free. But we got where we are because government did the things needed to facilitate what the rest of us could do, travel, save, study, communicate, ship, research and on and on.

But now America feels so poor that it can’t repair its infrastructure, can’t fix the cables, the water and sanitary systems, can’t fund its university system except on the backs of students who haven’t yet had a chance to earn a living. If America is truly that poor, it will regress to the mean.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 18, 2015.

Speaking Across the Aisle about the Killing of Babies

February 10, 2015

I’d like to speak across the aisle. We have values in common even though we sometimes draw different conclusions. My point is simple. We are all against killing babies, their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. A religious revival in this country has focused on one form of what many consider baby-killing. There are, however, other ways of killing babies in unspeakable numbers.

Babies by the billions will be the first to die because manmade pollutants that change the climate will kill in innumerable and excruciating ways. That should be a cause that left and right, religious and nonreligious should join on, with passion, action, and dedication. Global warming and burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses should be the third rail of politics, an absolute no-no, IF we truly agree that killing billions of babies is a tragedy we cannot ignore, cannot be neutral about, must act about – unless we’re merely hypocrits. So I appeal to the religious right, and the religious left and all the rest of us, to all those who really care about babies and protecting them from killers, to stop the burning of carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses now.

  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as we lose our food sources. Burning carbon-based fuels acidifies the oceans, killing the reefs and much of the food we get from the sea. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change, contributing to the extinction of the plants and animals we depend on for food as their climates disappear.
  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as we lose our water sources. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates the climate change that depletes the glaciers that feed the lakes, streams and rivers we depend on for water. And burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that contributes to the drought and the expansion of deserts that rob us of drinking water.
  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as unfamiliar diseases spread out of the tropics. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that brings tropical and hot weather illnesses to us.
  • Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that takes our land as the sea encroaches on us, making refugees of families, mothers, fathers, babies and children.
  • Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that adds to the violent storms that engulf cities, towns and villages all over the world including the U.S. where hurricanes and tornadoes have been striking with unaccustomed fury in places that seemed immune. As in all these tragedies the most vulnerable and first to die will be the babies and children.

In each case, the most vulnerable to the disease, drought, storms and starvation will be the babies. Who then are the baby-killers? Who wants to authorize pipelines that make it easier for millions of gallons to flow to be burned? Who wants to drill, baby, drill? Who opposes every measure to add to carbon neutral sources of power like wind and solar? Who are the baby killers? Would you support and vote for baby killers?

Really, let’s by all means talk about killing babies. Yours, mine, our children’s babies. Global warming does not distinguish by faith, color, ethnicity, or gender. It is and will be an equal opportunity killer. So let’s show some real heart and understand this is the number one threat to infants all over the world, and their brothers and sisters, parents, and the rest of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 10, 2015.

Yalda and a Healthy New Year

December 23, 2014

I’m writing this after a party for what Persians call Yalda, the winter soltice. There is a significant Persian community in this area, refugees, immigrants and students. This group was put together by the Alaei brothers. They are the doctors who were imprisoned in Iran for the temerity of trying to treat people with Aids and discussing the best techniques for doing it with other doctors around the globe.  When he was released, Kamiar came here to Albany to finish his doctorate at the School of Public Health. We spent the better part of a year praying for the release of his brother Arash and as soon as he was released he joined Kamiar here in Albany. They have now been joined by their sister and Kamiar by his bride.Medical res

And as soon as they landed they started to work to set up an international program in health and human rights. Both brothers became globe-trotters, working to set up allied programs all over the world. Many institutions here in Albany, including Albany Law where I teach have joined the effort. Kamiar and Arash worked with governments, UN agencies, large foundations and universities wherever they could. I can’t begin to say how much respect I have for their effort – and I am certainly not alone, as international medical organizations and others have honored them for their work. Most of us have dreams. They are making theirs become reality.

But – I told Kamiar there would be a “but,” – the biggest health problems around this world are not medical, but political.

Africa is suffering from the lack of government – good government that could stop the wars that have killed millions there and are still killing, pillaging and selling girls into slavery. Good government that could provide sanitary services and vaccinations.

Governments around the globe are allowing industry to poison their workers with toxic gases and chemicals in the plants, and poison the people outside by dumping toxic chemicals into the air and water, or by destroying the land and forests that keep the waters clean.

We are relatively healthy in the US because of government – because government did supply the clean water and sanitation and the public health and disease control systems and the medical research to make that possible. Don’t be fooled by labels, a very large share of the research dollars have come from the government, a very large share of the medical systems until very recently were public – without government few of us would have had decent medical care.

We need to upgrade the water supplies. We need to maintain and upgrade sewage disposal and landfills. We need to fund basic medical research, research that is fundamental to the health of all of us. It is increasingly clear that we need government to continue adequate vaccination programs. And we need government to deal with the spiraling problems of global climate change that will sicken all of us if government doesn’t get out ahead of them.

So what I wish people here and abroad for the new year, is good responsible government that keeps the peace and protects the health of their peoples. That’s a real holiday gift and a happy, healthy new year.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 23, 2014.

Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.

Is Environmental Catastrophe Ringing from the Pulpit?

May 27, 2014

Let me lead with a question – Is the threat of environmental catastrophe ringing from every pulpit and ethical organization in the country? If not, why not? The Bible records many prophets and the price of ignoring them. Surely making clear the moral and religious imperative of preventing catastrophe is a basic function, a duty of the clergy. Read the rest of this entry »

Cities Against Suburbanization

May 9, 2014

Congress has been considering changing mortgage banking, reducing the role of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, the two federal superbanks that have been insuring and buying our mortgages for decades. Actually, the government should stop encouraging the suburbanization of America. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Warming and Human Politics

April 8, 2014

I just got back from Chicago where I attended a national meeting of political scientists.  One of them described at length the local, national and international barriers to doing anything about climate change.  His basic point was that those whose livelihood seemed to depend on activities that are bringing on climate change  are strategically placed to prevent the rest of us from doing anything.  His point is that to make anything happen  it would be necessary to make people come to think about what they are doing as wrong  in the teeth of evidence that it is good for them in their own lifetimes.  That also makes them totally resistant to the idea that climate change is happening,  that human activity is a substantial cause of the change, that it will do any damage  and that it is worth dealing with.  Ouch for the rest of us.

Then I attended a meeting where the speaker described the change of ideas.  He regarded those changes as inexplicable.  For most of human history war had been considered noble, a good thing, that made people stronger and better.  Then just before World War I, that started to change.  After that war, no one makes claims about the generic benefit of war  – war has become an occasionally necessary evil, but not a good thing.  And for most of human history, people had slaves.  Those that could would.  Slaves and slavery were valued.  It made you a big shot, and made your life easier.  Then suddenly in the eighteenth century it changed dramatically in Europe.  England began to block the slave trade  and shortly it was banned in Latin America, the serfs were freed in Russia,  and only the U.S. clung to slavery of the modern nation states.

In the speaker’s description, both ideas turned in reaction  to novels that separately described war and slavery as disgusting, as indeed they are.  In regard to war,  the novel described the scene of rotting and dismembered corpses on a battlefield.  In the case of slavery,  another novel described the brutality of the way slaves were treated.  Both of course were accurate.  The facts, however, were not new.  What was new was disgust.

I’m no novelist but global warming is disgusting.  Global warming is an extinction of ourselves.  We and our children and children’s children  will be strewn on nature’s battlefield  gasping for water and air,  our bellies distended for lack of food,  our homes lost to the elements,  our skin alternately burned and frozen,  unable to protect our children, wives, husbands or parents,  indeed some will become too desperate to care.  Global warming will take everything from us that makes us human.  It has been doing that piecemeal in the aftermath of storms that have left people totally destitute in parts of the world.  It will exceed our capacity to put people back on their feet as the oceans take back the coasts.  It will poison us, as a warming climate spreads diseases for which we have no defenses,  leaving us to rot from diseases few of us have seen  and none of us care to see except as the noblest of doctors and nurses.  It will extinguish our food supplies  and it is attacking the supply of the air we breathe.

Global warming is disgusting. Pass it on.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 8, 2014.



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