Saturday, December 15, 2012



Reportedly, there was a time when a samurai could test the blade of his sword on some unfortunate peasant—and no one would question his action. Today it would be frowned upon, and action would be taken. In modern Japan, as like or not, the samurai would be hanged. Cultures, together with their associated beliefs, do change; albeit sometimes very slowly.

Yet, generally speaking we are strongly discouraged from questioning the system on the grounds that it is both futile and socially disruptive. Indeed, conventional wisdom dictates that one should just get on with life.

I have never been able to accept such a viewpoint, and have had a tendency to question just about everything from an early age. Such an attitude has often been dismissed as “complaining,” but I have long held the view that if one is given a mind, one should use it—and a mind needs exercise.

The greatest opposition to such a questioning approach comes from: (1) Vested interests. (2) Peer group pressure. (3) Social conditioning. (4) Ignorance. (5) Laziness. (6) Fear.

In the U.S., I suspect fear to be a major factor because if you question the status quo within a corporate environment—where you probably spend half your waking life for five days a week—you stand a very good chance of losing your job, even if you are good at your job. And if you lose your job, you may well lose near everything else—from your personal dignity to your health care; from your car to your house. The U.S., despite the hype, is heavily authoritarian, and rarely more so than within a corporation. That is a truth we don’t face up to because merely to discuss such an issue would put our careers at risk.

I question because it is my nature, and because I find the process both intellectually stimulating, and rewarding. It is rewarding because I have found that the more I question and research, the more I find that there are answers to most issues out there; and that the world could be a vastly better place if we only bothered to look. True, there are some matters which are extraordinarily difficult to resolve—“wicked problems” come to mind—but I have found these to be in the minority. In short, what makes questioning the issues so satisfying is not just the pleasure of the journey, but the knowledge that that there are solutions to most of the questions—and that in many cases the solutions are already proven.

Although it tends to be our practice to specialize—to focus on specific issues rather narrowly—I deal with such matters holistically because, in reality, issues tend to be connected much more than we care to admit. For instance, housing directly impacts health, education, employment and the environment—not to mention the economy as a whole.

But what kind of issues am I talking about? Frankly, they run the gamut from the macro (big issues) to the micro (small issues), though I tend to focus mainly on the macro—at the personal micro level, I tend to be impractical. Here are a few examples of the subjects I think about at a macro level.

Unemployment The thing about unemployment is that it is not just a personal tragedy, but it is a cost to the community and the economy as a whole—with unemployment pay being only a small part of that cost. When someone becomes unemployed they go from paying taxes and spending their income—mostly in the immediate area—to needing support. Add up all the costs involved, including healthcare, and it would be surprising if the total real cost to the state was not, at least, $50,00 a year. Faced with that, it is hard not to wonder why we don’t treat the creation of jobs more seriously.

Unemployment inflicts untold misery on millions of people—and not just the unemployed. Many of those with jobs feel extremely insecure when unemployment is high.

Whatever is said publicly, business is heavily biased in favor of a fairly high rate of unemployment because it vastly strengthens employers’ bargaining power, undermines the power of unions, and keeps wages in check—if it doesn’t force them down, which is frequently the case at present..

Whether employers have given adequate thought to the fact that high unemployment depresses consumer demand is a good question. I find it unlikely.

Job Creation Republicans argue that job creation must be left to the free market and that government job creation projects are nothing but an expense which hard-pressed taxpayers cannot afford. There is no truth to that statement if the jobs created genuinely add value—a stipulation which applies with equal vigor to the private sector. In short, government could create jobs if it wished. So far, Republican intransigence has blocked that course of action. Worse, since the 2008 Great Depression, large numbers of government employees ranging from teachers to firefighters and police have been laid off by Republican controlled state governments.

Paradoxically, Republicans resist all efforts to cut defense spending even though there is an abundance of evidence to show that much of such expenditure is both unnecessary and grossly inefficient. In fact, if we switched a proportion of of our defense expenditure to other purposes, research indicates that we would create many more jobs with the same investment. Given that a strong economy is the primary support of National Security, it is fairly clear that we are currently misallocating our resources.

Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the vast bulk of both government support, and that of the Federal Reserve (which is not a government institution in the full meaning of the term) has gone to support the Big Banks, and through them, Big Business—which thanks to ultra-low interest rates can borrow at minimal cost. Meanwhile, savers are deprived of an adequate return on their savings—bank interest rates being typically less than inflation—and the real economy is capital deprived. In particular, mortgages remain difficult to get and Small Business is significantly under-capitalized.

In practice there is a great deal that government can do to reduce unemployment and accelerate growth.

  • Set up a National Infrastructure Bank to remedy the $2.5 trillion shortcomings of our infrastructure.
  • Set up State Banks along the lines of the highly successful North Dakota State Bank.
  • Set up the modern equivalent of the Great Depression era Works Progress Administration on the basis that it is better to have people working than being marginally supported by a large number of administratively heavy, not very effective, schemes.
  • Implement a National Energy Strategy.

The above will never happen as long as Republicans have the majority in the House because they are motivated by ideology—regardless of the evidence--rather than by a focus on what works. Meanwhile, millions of Americans suffer unnecessarily.

The Role of Government. There was a time when Americans had considerable trust in government. Today, after more than three decades of demonizing government, Republicans have severely damaged people’s faith in government without really replacing it with any alternative institutional support system. Nominally, the private sector is supposed to be the solution to all our needs, but the behavior of Big Business, in particular, has been so egregious—with a particular focus on the Financial Sector—that clearly it is not the answer. So what are we left with? Cynicism and the hollow feeling that we are on our own. Some people may want that. Clearly, judging by the popularity of such programs as Social Security and Medicare, most Americans do not.

Government is far from innocent in this matter—the bureaucracy and inertia of the Civil Service are legendary—but it strikes me that we might be better employed trying to make the government work better rather destroying it. Why so? Because government is, or should be, no more than cooperation writ large—and cooperation is the basis of a civilized life. Rugged individualism, for all the sloganeering, doesn’t get you very far. In reality, we all need help and all accomplishments—no matter how individual they appear—are achieved with help.

But what exactly do we want government to do? This is too big a question to answer in this blog, but essentially we want government to handle the things we can’t—without being too intrusive. Maintaining that balance is not easy, but it is critical.

Can we make government more efficient? The short answer is: “Yes,” and the quickest way to check that out is look at other countries and see what they get for their taxpayer dollars. For instance, Taiwan gets one of the best health systems in the world for less than half the U.S. cost as expressed as a percentage of GDP. Similarly, Israel maintains one of the most sophisticated military forces in the world but had a budget of only $15 billion in 2012. In contrast, U.S. total spend on defense in 2012 will be in excess of $1 trillion. But we need to garrison the world will be the immediate defense by the Military Industrial Congressional Complex. Do we really?

Apart from the fact that the Constitution clearly needs an overhaul (it was never designed to be treated as a sacred cow) it strikes me that our greatest problem with government is that it acts as if it was a separate entity, and feels remote and singularly lacking in both compassion and common sense. Can we overcome such attitudes and bridge such a divide? I don’t know the answer to that but it strikes me that perhaps the public and private sectors might become more integrated. For instance, perhaps it should be normal for people to work partly for the government and partly for business—splitting their week, so to speak. There may be better ways of working out the logistics but I was struck by the fact that most of the administration of the Swiss Army is done from within the private sector at minimal cost to the government. Such duties are just part of a citizen’s obligations—and they don’t seem to stop Switzerland being one of the most prosperous countries in the world.


Well, I have only touched on a few issues here, but I trust they illustrate the point that questioning the status quo is not necessarily harmful to one’s health, and that the U.S. might be a better place if we looked around a little more.

The answers really are out there.




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