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.


Government and Our Trip South

August 1, 2015

Many people in this country believe that the Founding Fathers established our Constitution to get government off of people’s backs. My wife and I just traveled to North Carolina where that idea is big. They expect people to take care of themselves without the help of the nanny state. We are all expected to earn and pay our own way.

We were on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in Nags Head, and traveled to Ocracoke Island by ferry. It is a lengthy ferry ride, about ten miles as it winds around shoals that would stop and probably destroy the boat. I chatted with one of the crew, an employee of the State of North Carolina, and told him that I hadn’t yet been told how much the trip would cost me. Nothing, he replied. It’s free. We were certainly prepared to pay our way. That’s quite a gift from the State of North Carolina.

Still the good people of North Carolina, and certainly their elected representatives, know that government is nothing but a problem in the way of the people. So imagine our surprise when we stopped at the Ocracoke lighthouse to discover that the feds, those doggoned feds, built the light house in the eighteenth century, before the ink on the Constitution had much time to dry, and rebuilt a sturdier one in 1825 that is still working today to keep ships off the rocks and shoals.

Then we mailed a couple of cards to our granddaughters. You guessed it – we relied on the Postal Service that the feds set up and ran since Ben Franklin, that old self-reliant founding patriot, ran the thing even before the Constitution was written. The old Founders, they certainly knew how to use the government to benefit the people. Guess no one told them they weren’t supposed to.

Daily we checked NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that includes the weather service. Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but all those private meterologists on every television and radio station are basing their forecasts on weather data collected, analyzed and distributed by the federal weather service. Lawyers by the way, contact the weather service for information about the weather at the time of events being litigated – there’s no need to replicate Lincoln and his famous use of an almanac to get an acquittal for his client. Weather service data are recognized and relied on as authoritative virtually universally.

We drove back on U.S. highways, both in North Carolina and between there and Albany. Yes roads the government built. In good shape too. In fact some of the first roads in the United States were postal roads, built by Uncle Sam.

We had some great dinners. But I sure hope the health department was checking up on those places – it’s pretty darn hard for a traveler to know much about what’s going on in the kitchen. And we have sometimes had some pretty bad experiences despite our best efforts.

I expect MORE from our government, not less.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 11, 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.


Taxes

July 2, 2013

I’m tired of hearing that lower taxes will bring new business. Politicians chant low taxes like a mantra that answers everything. Governor Cuomo offers to starve many New York communities of money for services by barring them from taxing new business.

Many places in the world have no taxes, and no business opportunities either. Many places in the US charge lower taxes than New York but do much worse. What’s missing in the low tax nonsense includes markets, transportation, supplies, employees, skills, resources and amenities, the things that make places interesting and fun to live in, the reasons company founders live here, why the bosses live here, and why their employees want to live here. Read the rest of this entry »


Medical research

June 25, 2013

The Supreme Court’s decision that no company can patent genes but can patent its tests for genetic information is the tip of a large iceberg. We have gotten used to believing that the patent process is the only way that new drugs and treatments are developed, and that private industry is the only source of that work. Nothing could be further from the truth but the attack on government activity may make it true. Read the rest of this entry »


Saving Federal Dollars

January 15, 2013

Some congressmen believe the government should not spend any money, shouldn’t borrow, shouldn’t raise the debt ceiling, and shouldn’t raise taxes. They are from “red” states or districts. And they don’t want to vote for hurricane relief for the northeastern states.

Others believe government should do what is necessary for the welfare of the people. When people are in trouble, good people help. They are from “blue” states or districts. And they voted for hurricane relief for the South and Midwest.

It’s not just Tea Party ideology. Whose ox is gored matters to them. If the hurricane hits my district, well, they’re good people, so we gotta help. But if it’s somebody else’s district, especially a “blue” district, we certainly do not want to help “those” people. So we have a combination of politics and ideology.

OK then, here’s a proposal. Read the rest of this entry »


But for the Grace of God

November 20, 2012

I have often thought back to a conversation I had many years ago with one of my students. She had come from a rural background with a strong, and in many ways admirable, streak of self-reliance. She was dumbfounded when I quoted the saying “There but for the grace of God go I,” often attributed to a sixteenth century evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford. How could I, her professor, imagine myself in the position of people who were down and out, people without jobs who needed help? Read the rest of this entry »


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