Things We Take for Granted

We Can’t Make Assumptions That Health Care Will Be There for Us

We walk into the kitchen, pick up a glass, and turn the tap on. What if nothing comes out? Or, worse, what if what comes out is polluted like the water in Flint, Michigan? What if we flush the toilet, and it just won’t go down because the sewer line is all backed up? What if the traffic signals just stop working? Or the telephone lines? Or the electricity?

Every day of our lives, we make casual assumptions that what has worked in the past will continue to work. I have this odd inkling that perhaps we are living at the start of a period in which things we assume will work, just won’t work.

I recently read an article on Salon.Com about how some 20% of rural hospitals are on the point of collapse. Given the money-grubbing nature of our healthcare system—especially on the part of pharmaceutical corporations and health insurers—I can see why there aren’t enough dollars in rural areas to motivate hospitals to remain in business.

This comes at a bad time, when the political divide between the urban areas on the coasts and what has come to be called “flyover country” has led to hard feelings. Much of Trump’s support is, I feel, based more on this urban/rural divide than any particular love for the orange-headed horror. Things can only get worse if Aunt Tillie dies trying to get to a distant hospital, but doesn’t make it.

Government can rectify this situation, but only if voters are willing to let government do the things that government does best. The nihilistic conservatism and Tea Party anarchy of the times makes this difficult.

 

Crypto-Economics

Stack of Cryptocurrencies Including Bitcoin and Others

Today was my day downtown. After my mindful meditation session, I took the Dash B bus to Chinatown and had a delicious lunch of Beef in Black Bean Sauce at the Hong Kong BBQ on Broadway. As I ate my lunch, I read a long article in The New Yorker about cryptocurrencies. It was entitled “The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of” and was by Nick Paumgarten. I have held back from the subject because I used to be a computer programmer myself and know how tempting it can be to game whatever system I am designing to my advantage.

People are so mesmerized by the concept of a blockchain because it is something new and edgy. Therefore it exercises a powerful attraction, especially to people who are not quite conversant with the technology.

Do you know what a blockchain is? One can’t advance far into the subject without coming to terms with the concept. Here is a link to a graphic presentation from Reuters entitled “Blockchain Explained”: Click Here. I am familiar with hash codes in search algorithms, so I feel somewhat familiar with the ground. What disturbs me is that human nature keeps rearing its ugly head and leading to the system being easily scammed. Also, I am not happy about ransomware from hackers demanding payment in cryptocurrencies, because the transfer is untraceable by law enforcement.

I am always suspicious about economic activities that require more faith than I am willing to repose in them. There is such a marketing aspect to the whole technology that one feels one were being assailed by timesharing condominium salesmen, as I was when I landed at the Cabo San Lucas airport a couple years ago.

What if cryptocurrencies became more popular than the 1% share of the global financial services market they currently occupy. Even at the current level, blockchain software requires incredible computer power. According to the Paumgarten article:

This year, it is said, the Bitcoin network will use as much energy as the nation of Austria, and produce as much carbon dioxide as a million transatlantic flights. Mining rigs—computers designed specifically to do this work—are thirsty machines. Mining farms tend to sprout up where juice is cheap (typically, in proximity to hydropower projects with excess capacity to unload) and where temperatures are low (so you don’t have to burn even more electricity to keep the rigs cool). There are open-air warehouses in remote corners of sub-Arctic Canada, Russia, and China, with machines whirring away on the tundra, creating magic money, while the permafrost melts.

I can foresee Thomas Pynchon writing a sequel to his Bleeding Edge about this activity. It’s almost as if the subject of cryptocurrencies and the high priests who run them were made to order for him.

As David Chaum, one of the pioneers of cryptocurrency software, once said, “There’s never been, in the history of civilization, this much money aggregated as a result of doing nothing.”

America: Going Down the Drain?

The Vegas Strip

Somehow, over the years, something happened to the United States and its people. In 1945—the year I was born—we were one of the few countries involved in the Second World War that were not in ruins. We were on top of the heap. The hardworking people who struggled through the Great Depression and helped restore Western Europe after the Nazi onslaught, were suddenly guilty of hubris. We thought we were really something, that our way of life was the only way to go. We were the City on the Hill, and everyplace else was a steaming sh*thole.

Nemesis struck quickly and often. Korea. The Bay of Pigs. Viet Nam. Iraq. Afghanistan. Panama. Grenada. Al Qaida. ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. And that was just the military!

We still thought we were really something. We got into deep debt, figuring that we had it coming to us. We stopped saving money for a rainy day. There was always Vegas, the Lottery, or the Horses.

We built fancy new things, never figuring that we would have to maintain and repair them somewhere along the line. The streets of Southern California are full of potholes, ringed by K-Rails, and bumpy with steel plates.

Americans drove these mean streets in leased luxury automobiles they really couldn’t afford. The more they paid, the more they assumed they could do anything they wanted: They were the privileged class with their Lexuses, Bentleys, Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes, Infinitis, and Range Rovers.

These same Americans elected a President like them, a privileged real estate developer who made the Whites into the New Aryans.

Will I live to see American feel a twinge of humility? Or will we continue to swirl around the drain until we go down it?

 

 

Text: Pope Francis Speaks Out

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.—Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

Economic Austerity: Who Stands to Benefit?

There’s a Reason Why Republicans Are So Behind This

There’s a Reason Why Republicans Are So Behind This

There is an excellent article by Paul Krugman in the June 6 issue of The New York Review of Books entitled “How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled.” Paul Ryan and other apologists for economic austerity in the U.S. have been using two studies to bolster their case: Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s “Growth in a Time of Debt” and a 2009 analysis by the Italian economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna. It appears now that both studies are discredited as a result of miscalculations and wild assumptions.

That, however, does not prevent Republicans from pushing austerity measures in Congress irrespective of the reasoning. Their motivation is simply that, once again, they are shilling for the rich:

It’s also worth noting that while economic policy since the financial crisis looks like a dismal failure by most measures, it hasn’t been so bad for the wealthy. Profits have recovered strongly even as unprecedented long-term unemployment persists; stock indices on both sides of the Atlantic have rebounded to pre-crisis highs even as median income languishes. It might be too much to say that those in the top 1 percent actually benefit from a continuing depression, but they certainly aren’t feeling much pain, and that probably has something to do with policymakers’ willingness to stay the austerity course.

There is a widespread attempt to make economics into a “morality play” to make the pain of austerity seem necessary to account for the wretched excesses of the boom times. Krugman recalls how Andrew Mellon advised Herbert Hoover to let the Great Depression run its course so as to “purge the rottenness from the system.”

But where does this rottenness come from? Certainly not from the lower classes who are just trying to survive in tough times. Granted that thousands of people bought into mortgages they couldn’t really afford, but who packaged these mortgages for sale to them and to dim investors who were not in on the joke?

In little Iceland, bankers who made the loans which in 2008 precipitated the country’s financial crash were sentenced to prison terms for fraud. Did we do as much? Why have we exonerated greedy bankers for causing this whole mess?

There is a price to be paid for the U.S.’s financial woes, and I believe that eventually we will turn to prosecuting some of the guilty parties. But, as usual, the most guilty parties will not only get off scot-free: They will have, in the long run, gained from their crimes.