Posts tagged ‘Elizabeth Anne Hull’

SCOTUS

How will the Supreme Court’s decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning affect democracy?

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.


Elizabeth
Anne Hull

When Pope Francis named 19 new cardinals to be installed in February, it underscored the efficiency of a nondemocratic government. The elevation of Les Cayes Bishop Chibly Langlois (at 55 the youngest of the appointees) from Haiti, shows how much can be done very quickly by an autocrat, in this case, to implement Francis’s agenda of ministering to the poor of the world. Bishop Langlois’ youth makes likely he will still be around and under age 80 when the time comes to vote for the next pope. All this in less than a year since Francis became the pontiff.

I likewise saw how efficient the totalitarian government of China could be in clearing the roads blocked by a landslide after a great rainstorm in 1991, when Fred and I were stranded for an extra day in the Tibetan foothills while visiting the Panda Breeding Station.

With us were Charles Brown, Brian Aldiss, Brian Stableford, Malcolm Edwards, and a couple of dozen others from outside China for the occasion of the World SF meeting in Chengdu, Sichuan. The authorities were not going to let their honored guests be inconvenienced one more day than absolutely necessary!

It’s an old joke that at least Mussolini got the railroads to run on time during World War II.

Contrast this with our seemingly dysfunctional Congress in the United States where democracy rules. Well, actually we have a representative democracy, which means we have established checks and balances that are supposed to preserve the basic rights of minorities and prevent too hasty decisions from being implemented by well-meaning people who fail to see potential unintended consequences of their agendas. But for the sake of brevity, we call it “democracy” and are quite proud of it.

Democracy as we practice it is, undeniably, a much slower and more cumbersome way to reach decisions and implement change. And it’s an equally self-evident logical principle — sorry, those who want to maintain the old ways no matter what — that situations can not ever be improved without making changes. But democracy (we’ll call it that for shorthand) has one big advantage over totalitarian, top-down management. That is, when everyone can have his or her say before a decision is finally reached, the decision is likely to be fairer and last longer before it too needs to be changed. Americans don’t like having stuff shoved down our throats.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the question of whether the president has the right to make interim appointments to key positions, including judicial appointments, which in turn may lead to appointments to the Supreme Court itself. We do live in interesting times!

Rubik"s Cube

He was English, the fellow in the lobby. He had come from London the day before to see some kindred enlightened souls in Cincinnati, Ohio. Now he was on his way to certain other centers of adepts before reaching the Grand Canyon focal point of the Harmonic Convergence. (Not, thank God, on my flight.)

This flake was the kind I like least. He had learned every buzzword there was in every discipline known to man — his conversation was full of Descartes and expert systems and quarks — and had managed not to understand any of them. And when I managed to point out to him, for example, that “Cogito ergo sum” did not imply the existence of a Divine Being, he responded every time by shifting the universe of discourse to another subject, from molecular biology to Rubik’s Cube. (Lots of people, he told me loftily, could solve Rubik’s Cube; there was nothing remarkable in that. But when you had evolved as far as he had you could do it in your head. Actually, that sounded like a pretty impressive feat to me. But when I asked him if he could then take a real cube and quickly match up all the colors so other people could see, he looked at me with pity. Of course he could do that. But he would never bother. It would simply be too boring to him.)

There was another odd thing about him. I had noticed he was wearing earphones. In those pre-iPod days, I assumed it was some kind of industrial-strength hearing aid. It wasn’t. After a while I saw that he kept fumbling with some sort of gadget in a pocket, and discovered that he was taping everything we said. But before I could find out why he was doing that my transportation arrived, and I was out of there.

Of course, all of this is nonsense. I am not about to believe that when the ancient Mayans devised their calendar they were somehow able to foretell that a hot, wet Sunday in August would be the turning point for mankind. (If they were so smart, why did they let Cortes wipe them out?) I think the whole thing is pretty blackly, depressingly comical.

I also think it’s sad, though, because, my God, here are all those people who believe this nonsense, What’s more, they act on it. According to the papers some hundreds of thousands of people took anywhere from a few hours to a couple of weeks out of their lives simply to chant and relate to each and go, “ooooom.”

And if it happened again today, they’d do it again.

These aren’t bad people. They don’t blow up abortion clinics or sell handguns to teenage gangs. They don’t even put “Sarah Palin for President” bumper stickers on their cars; a lot of them don’t even drive cars, because they don’t want to add to the burden of carcinogens and acid rain.

All they want is to make the world peaceful, loving and as nearly stress-free as a human world can get and, gosh, I’m for all those things, too.

Even the airhead and the Brit, although their grasp on reality was tenuous, seemed sincere in saying that they wished no human being any possible harm at all, only the best of all that’s possible for everyone in the world. And if you add to them the Scientologists and the ests, the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the transcendental meditators — all the people, in the aggregate the many millions of people, whose deepest desire is to clean up the mess in their own heads and then go on to help others to do the same — what a dedicated work force we are allowing to piddle away its energies on fantasies!

Just imagine what it would be like if each one of them would, say, expend all that energy on some worthwhile social project (by which, of course, I mean one I approve of) — for instance, teaching remedial English to American high-school graduating classes, so that the kids would learn how to spell, punctuate and parse and my wife wouldn’t spend her time swearing to herself as she corrects their freshman compositions. Illiteracy would disappear overnight.

And we’re letting them go to waste.

Do you see what I mean about reality being less plausible than science fiction? None of us would dare make up a race as lunacy-prone as Genus homo for a science-fiction story. No editor would buy it. No reader would believe it.

The Harmonic Convergence wasn’t the only thing of interest in that summer’s Chernobyl. book tour.

Continue reading ‘Through the Harmonic Convergence, Part 3’ »

bag_of_money

 

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Elizabeth
Anne Hull

Tax season is a good time to assess your net worth.

Recently, I read that over half of the members of Congress of both houses are millionaires, which implies that they’re rich and so cannot possibly understand the problems of the average person, much less those living below the poverty line.

Perhaps. I’m not quite ready to believe that of all of them, because it depends on how you define millionaire. High net worth is not the same thing as high annual income.

According to the traditional definition, you’re a millionaire if you have a net worth of $1,000,000 or more — not including the value of your home. More recently, however, that term has been used to describe $1 million in annual income, which makes more sense today.

Annual income often is a great deal less than $1 million for “millionaires” whose net worth is above that figure. A net worth of $1 million isn’t far out of reach of upper middle-income Americans (as shrinking as that group is). Those who are lucky enough to hang on to a good job, who save regularly, invest wisely, live frugally, don’t run up their credit, live in a house that’s much less valuable than they could afford, drive a car for as long as they can, and teach their children to have modest tastes as well, may amass at least $1 million, maybe even several millions in net worth, while having an income under $100,000 annually.

Taxes on that income are divided in two different ways: Taxes as a percentage of overall income, and types of tax per types of income.

For example, FICA taxes — the ones that fund Social Security for the elderly and disabled — are paid by every wage earner (unless they’re covered by a state pension system that usually costs those individuals more than the tax would). Minimum-wage earners pay the highest percentage of their earnings for FICA. Those making over $113,000 per year don’t pay FICA on any amount above that, and they pay it only on earned income, not on capital gains or interest income, which for people in those brackets may be considerable. Thus, while everyone who earns any wages at all pays FICA, those taxes are definitely not flat; they are regressive: the percentage paid by people who earn $1 million a year is definitely less than the percentage paid by minimum-wage earners.

The next most common type of tax is income taxes, which are progressive, to an extent. That is, if all or most of your income comes from wages or salaries, you’ll pay a gradually higher tax the higher your tax bracket is, up to a current cap of 36 percent for the highest earners. But of course, there are loopholes and tax shelters and other ways that the rich can pay less.

It’s likely that you’ll pay other taxes as well, a few at a considerably higher rate, more at a lower rate, such as capital gains. And if you are lucky enough to be a property owner, you will also pay real-estate taxes (although landlords pass along these costs to tenants), which can vary widely across the country.

Most states also have a state income tax. Only a few states don’t have sales taxes, another regressive tax (and no tax at all to companies, which can deduct them as a cost of doing business).

Hence, the aphorism that nothing is inevitable except death and taxes.

Trying to agree on a fair assessment of taxes would be difficult enough if we only had to deal with humans, but in the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5/4 split decision along party lines, ruled that corporations are people, and that money is equivalent to speech. Thus under the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, corporations have the right to donate — in secret through 501(c)(4) PACs — to lobbying efforts and not pay taxes on that income.

(The Supreme Court has been silent about the death penalty or even prison for corporate officers when the corporations commit crimes, including causing the deaths of people. They can be sued, but the corporations — or their insurance companies — can reach a monetary “settlement” out of court when they believe they’ll lose or, as they claim, just to avoid the time and cost of defending their innocence or nonculpability.)

Thus we have some very large, mega-billion-dollar corporations paying virtually no taxes, while humans in this country, even the poorest, all pay taxes, one way or another.

Somehow, being a simple millionaire (by the old definition) doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal these days, does it?

Janet Yellen

Janet Yellen, first woman to head the Fed.

Man Bites Dog?

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Elizabeth
Anne Hull

As you probably know, the “glass ceiling” has suffered yet another crack, as Janet Yellen has started work as the first woman to head the Federal Reserve Bank. That means that the two most significant leadership positions in global money are both occupied (word chosen carefully) by women. (The other is the International Monetary Fund, helmed by Christine Lagarde.)

As the grandmother of a female commercial pilot (the first of either gender that I know of in our family), I follow “firsts” for women with special interest. So I noticed another news item that may not have hit everyone’s radar: Yellen’s husband, George Akerlof, himself a Nobel prize winner in economics, stepped down as a member of the advisory board of the UBS International Center of Economics in Society at the University of Zurich.

Even though he wasn’t paid for being on the advisory board and there was no conflict of interest, he wanted to “avoid even the appearance of conflict,” Akerlof said. UBS, Switzerland’s largest bank, operates an investment-banking business in the U.S. and is therefore regulated by the Fed.

Remember the constraints put on Caesar’s wife? This goes beyond a husband helping his wife with the housework and child care, so she can Lean In.

toilet paper public domain image

 

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.


Elizabeth
Anne Hull

An article I read some time ago in The Week (my favorite print replacement for the now online-only World Press Review) reassures me that “No, paper isn’t dead.”

As I’m buried in paper in various forms — greeting cards (ones received as well as those not yet sent), photographs, wills, old and new contracts, spanking new passport, officially notarized documents, old correspondence, even junk mail, and yes, books and magazines and newspapers — I looked at the facts mentioned in the longish essay with more than a little interest. A theory says that we learn more thoroughly by reading print than we do from electronic media. I’d like to believe that, but don’t know if I do. More research, please.

Coming at the question of paper’s obsolescence from another angle: Most retail stores no longer offer much choice of how to protect our food and other purchases on the way home. Upscale department stores seem to favor paper bags with handles, tony boutiques sometimes use a light-weight cotton bag, discount department stores use mostly plastic; Costco provides optional repurposed cardboard boxes with the tops razored off; outside California, most grocery stores offer only flimsy plastic, while Trader Joe provide paper for those who don’t bring their own bags.

But we give very little thought to the real costs of old sources of carbon (oil, coal, natural gas and fracked gas) versus new, renewable carbon (trees, plants, animal furs and hides, etc.), and the unintended consequences of our choices. We have yet to make a good realistic assessment of the overall cost of producing energy and plastics by consuming fossil fuels that took many millennia to form.

I don’t doubt the potential and immediate benefits to the planet from preserving the dwindling forests of the globe, but there also may be sustainable ways to farm trees and other raw materials, like cotton and hemp, etc. that make pretty good paper. The earth is certainly making new oil; the problem is, it takes such a long lead time in human perspectives.

Another consideration in sustainability might be the petrochemical products involved in creating electronic devices. I know I prefer writing on a computer to writing on paper. Much easier to revise. But nothing does as well for me as paper for jotting down a daily to-do list. Easier to triage and prioritize and let my daughter add to as she thinks of suitable stuff. And of course, we still need women’s sanitary supplies and American toilet paper!

So I’m quite convinced that paper is not dead — yet.

Bill Gates predicts an end to  poor countries by 2035.

An optimistic Bill Gates predicts an end to poor countries by 2035. Pessimists fear the U.S. will be one before then.

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.


Elizabeth
Anne Hull

Billionaire Bill Gates‘ recent prediction that by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world caught my eye. I can’t help wondering how much attention Mr. Gates has paid to theshrinking middle class in the United States, let alone how much understanding he has about what it’s like to be a member of a family with greatly diminished expectations, or that’s slid into poverty within the last five years.

Mr. Gates has every right to be an optimist. He’s taken great risks and, against the odds, come out a winner, at least financially. Throughout my lifetime I believed that most Americans were optimists, having faith in a better future. I’m not so sure a majority still feels that way, considering the state of the economy, our political paralysis, the proliferation of weapons in private hands in the U.S., shootings, and violence at home and abroad. For a number of reasons, we do not seem to be growing safer or more secure.

I once made a similar assumption for a story, “Standard Deviation” (originally titled “The Midler,” and dramatized for radio in Germany but never published in the U.S.). It was based on a December 1978 Analog science-fact article by John Gribbin, “Science Fiction is Too Gloomy,” which asserted that in 200 years we’d no longer have any of the problems we worried about at the time. Gribbin qualified his claim by assuring us that we’d have problems galore in 2178, they just wouldn’t be the same ones we fretted about then. All those problems would have come to a crisis and been solved, assuming the human race had survived at all.

So, for the purposes of my story, I waved the writer’s magic wand and assumed that major issues like global warming, pollution, overpopulation, food shortages and distribution, nutrition, access to education and technology, diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, all had been solved. What remained as a major problem in the story was the need all human beings seem to have to feel “special.” I might take a different tack if I were doing the story today, Although I’m still into food issues, these days I’m far more interested in feminism, human cultures, economics, politics, etc.

Pessimists worry that we won’t solve our problems and it will be the end of us, at least as we know human civilization and culture. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a comic novel, Galapagos, about human survival in a physically devolved state, wherein we had lost our big brains that had given us so many problems, and our progeny were now happily frolicking like porpoises in the water. It’s every bit as funny as Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five. We have to laugh so we don’t cry.