Immigration is a very nuanced issue, but the US can learn from Canada’s example

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Donald Trump may have accelerated the idea of immigration as a political flash point.  But any understanding of the area requires what systems analysts call “functional decomposition”.  The issue plays out differently with immigrants from various parts of the world, with varying needs and skills.

The world locations creating the biggest controversies are mainly Syria and Iraq, and Central America and Mexico.  Some immigrants have technical skills in short supply, causing tech companies like Facebook to argue for more liberal visa policies.  Others take jobs that Americans don’t want, like picking fruit, and are abused, much as an Bolshevik would say. Some have children in the US, who become US citizens as “anchor babies”, entitled to all normal services like public school education (requiring teachers with ESOL skills, in short supply). So many diverse and criss-crossing policy problems arise.

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But there is also a question of moral responsibilities of more fortunate Americans.  And it’s well to work this question inside-out.

So let’s start with the Syrian refugee issue. Most are Caucasian, and most are Muslim, but a few are Christian or other faiths.   Yes, European countries took many times more than the US, and are now resisting it.  The biggest roadblock seems to be security, the fear that a “Trojan horse” terrorist could immigrate (this has happened in Europe, and the Tsarnaev brothers, from Russia   had immigrated legitimately.  Statistically, the risk is very low, but the potential consequences to those affected are very great.  The US says it cannot easily vet most refugees from the chaos of a civil war zone. There may be a better chance of clearing a family or person with refugees already in the US.

So, then, look at the Canadian program.  Robin Shulman has a big story in the Washington Post May 5, “While other countries are turning Syrian refugees away, Canadians are taking them home”.   Yes, individual Canadians are getting involved, very personally. Nonprofits and “faith-based” groups (a term that would please George W. Bush) are doing all the leg work of finding housing and jobs, and other services.  Sometimes individuals are families are indeed housed in “spare bedrooms” of those willing to extend such “radical hospitality”, but most often the groups find landlords or smaller apartment building owners willing to help (often church members). Newsy has a detailed story about how one specific Syrian family is being helped in Ontario.

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The Post says that the United States “does not permit private sponsorship” the way Canada does.  It actually has in the past a few times, as with Soviet Jews and with the Mirabel Boat Lift from Cuba in 1980.  Usually when it does there is a political undertone  (anti-Communism, for example), and “Documented” (2014) by former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas.

The Niskanen Center in Washington DC recently published a white paper “Private Refugee Resettlement in the U.S., History”, link, by Dave Bier and Matthew La Corte.  (See endnote below.)

Yet, it’s fair to ask, how would this idea work with Central American refugees (mostly speaking Spanish or Mayan and often Roman Catholic). And if a private sponsorship model is to work, why not imagine a program for domestic homeless that is much more personally engaging than what we do now?  Thought experiments abound:  one could imagine nudging seniors living alone but with means (like me) to take them in.  Somewhat ironically, a GOP-controlled Congress is not likely to be interested in these ideas (let alone Donald Trump).

Another major group sometimes needing assistance would be gays and lesbians (and transgender sometimes) seeking political asylum, which is somewhat a different concept legally. The anti-gay laws in some countries (notably Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and some others, subsuming, of course, the Middle East and the Islamic world) has create a need for asylum.  Gay newspapers like the Washington Blade have reported on a few cases.  There has been some effort to organize more support from private people in a few cities, especially Chicago.  For the most part, gay asylum is a very difficult process.  There has not been a lot of public pressure to look for more sponsors so far in most of the country. Serious other problems in all of these countries (like Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Ukraine issue in Russia) have tended to divert mainstream, journalists from covering the gay issue in enough detail. Authoritarian leaders (like Vladimir Putin) have been all too willing to use the LGBT populations as convenient diversions or even scapegoats from their other economic, sectarian and security problems.

The situation was different in 1980, when the gay communities in southern states, beleaguered by social hostility, were often asked to help house Cuban refugees, many of whom were gay.  I give a lot of details about my personal connection to this here  as I was living in Dallas at the time.

It’s important to note that LGBT people experienced a long history of other discrimination, as I have already summarized here.

The Cato Institute held a forum on “The Economics of Immigration” on Jan. 6, 2016, with my writeup here  covering some of this same ground.  In that posting, there is an embed where Dave Bier discusses immigration and private sponsorship of refugees with libertarian journalist John Stossel.

An important recent book is “The Economics of Immigration” edited by Benjamin Powell, Oxford University Press.

Some relevant films include “The Good Lie” (2014, directed by Phillippe Falradeau, based on “The Lost Boys of Sudan”), “The Golden Dream” (2015, by Diego Qiuemada-Diez), about Central American escapees, and “Documented” (2014) by Jose Antonio Vargas.

I think that you also have to contemplate immigration in connection with other foreign and military policy issues.  For example, the U.S. and western powers could decide to help provide “safe zones” in the Middle East (as there are already a huge number of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and, of course, Turkey).  That would involve the sensitive issue of committing many more US troops again, but quantitatively, this could help many more refugees.  It’s fair to ask, why haven’t wealthy Muslim countries like UAE done more?  Similar issues could arise providing help to Mexico and Central American countries controlling drug cartels in some areas.

A retrograde issue concerns the inclination and ability of US non-profits and especially faith groups to send volunteers to unstable or challenged countries.  This comes to mind since churches with which I am familiar have sent young adult (college and older teen) groups, engineering graduates, and other assistance to countries like Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and even countries in Africa including Kenya and Sudan.  But it would be very difficult for some people (like LGBT people) to serve in many of these countries on humanitarian missions.

Another more distantly related issue is whether charities should encourage Americans or others in western countries to “sponsor” individual children in poor countries (especially in Africa). Save the Children did that in the 1970s, when I started contributing, and I agreed to that, getting a different “child” about once a year, and getting letters.  I had no idea how to respond to this personally, and I wonder if this is a good idea ethically and psychologically, unless the sponsor intends to visit the country and adopt the child. Some faith-based charities promote this concept aggressively today in social media, such as BaNgaAfayo.

Visitors will want to look at the history of the proposed (unpassed) Dream Act.  A recent discussion (by Robert Barnes) of President Obama’s plan to shield many undocumented workers from deportation in the Washington Post (the effect in Los Angeles) is here.

On Facebook, a friend has linked a disturbing and belligerent story from a French site, translating into something like, “Open your borders or die,” here. And the New York Times has a column May 17, p. A21, “Refugees aren’t bargaining chips” by Ben Rawlence (“Kenya is using 400,000 Somali refugees to blackmail Europe”).

(Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2016 at 9 PM EDT)

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Update: End-notes:

On Thursday, May 19, the Niskanen Center published a letter it had sent to the US State Department encouraging making private foundation support for refugees legal and even aggressively pursuing philanthropy and the setting up of services somewhat following the Canadian system. Note the “four models”, including personal service, in Section VIII of the letter.

Update: Thursday, 23, 2016

The Supreme Court let stand in a 4-4 tie a lower-court ruling denying President Obama the ability to allow undocumented immigrants to apply to stay in the US legally;  CNN report by Ariane de Vogue and Takl Kolpan; Washington Post story by Robert Barnes and William Branigin. It’s important to note that undocumented spouses of legal residents might be subject to deportation without Obama’s action, although not natural born children; so the GOP is being depicted here as a “family buster” in opposing Obama in court on this matter.

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Update: Thursday, June 30, 2016

Michael Weiss (CNN journalist) tweeted this PRI story about a Jewish family in Berlin, Germany housing a (Muslim) Syrian refugee in a “spare bedroom” in the family home, could not happen in the US now.

WJLA-7 in Washington has a disturbing story involving teen kids of gang members from Central America, which would seem to support some of Donald Trump’s “be tough” attitudes, here.

Students need to accept free speech from others on campus, and not expect to feel “safe” all the time

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Michael Bloomberg (former New York City mayor) offers an important op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Friday May 13, 2016, “Why Free Speech Matters on Campus” with a subtext “’Safe spaces’ will create graduates unwilling to tolerate different opinions – a crisis in a free society”.

Bloomberg spoke at an annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign a few years ago (I think in 2013).  His article makes the point that free speech an open debate makes ideas offensive to many in earlier generations mainstream today.  Now this includes marriage equality;  a few years ago it was the service of gays in the military, and a dozen years ago it was taking down sodomy laws.

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The debate is amplified by user-generated content on the Web (most of all in social media, but also in person-owned websites and self-published books).  Even if most people get the bulk of their news from establishment sources, the bulk of views that is “out there” to be found has a big impact on changing attitudes.  Likewise, the possibility of accepting different points of view on a campus is a major way of opening the next generation of adults to ideas that may be necessary for a society to sustain its freedoms.  (How about the science of climate change and green energy?)

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But, it is true, most of the concerns about speech codes have come about from left-leaning campuses concerned about protecting select groups because of the specific histories these groups have with past antagonism from society.  There is a tendency to portray some people as victims, and to coerce others to join in with propagating or even sham-experiencing the victimhood.   The controversy has included insistence of having “media free zones” for campus protests, even on publicly-owned property (the Melissa Click firing from the journalism school at the University of Missouri) and also the notion of defining certain insular personal behaviors as “microaggressions” that can lead to some sort of campus sanction or discipline. I’ve covered this on Blogger in numerous postings, by label, here.

On the other hand, there is plenty of intolerance on some conservative and sectarian campuses, too.  My own expulsion from William and Mary in the fall of 1961 can be viewed as the result of a speech code cast upside-down.

The video below notes that many students have been reared to expect to be “safe” from being made “uncomfortable” and that its odd to see the speech codes from the students themselves.  (Somehow I think of the line “Is it safe?” from “Marathon Man“.)   There is mention of the “Seahawk Respect Compact”  at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and of the “Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression”.  I think another possible interpretation is the converse;  some more radical students may want to see others walk in the shoes of the dispossessed before they are heard from.

The group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) offers its own Guide to Free Speech on Campus.

(Published: Saturday, May 14, 2016 at 3:15 PM EDT)

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Update: Nov. 17

Watch this short film “The Yak in the Room” by Nathan Gelfand-Tourant.  Now, saying you’re not attracted to the opposite race is itself hurtful racism. Maybe this little movie is the antithesis of “Loving“.

What rights do consumers really have when “buying” digital products online?

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When you “buy” a copy of a movie or music mpeg online, do you have the right to lend or give that copy away, just as with physical phonograph records, CDs, VHS or Beta tapes, or of course DVD’s?  All of this is related to the “first sale” doctrine.

Don’t confuse this with another idea:  under the Digital Millennium Copy Right Act of 1998, you don’t have a right to make copies of the CD’s and DVD’s, and there are copy protection firmware devices to make this difficult.

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I can remember, back in the 1960s, myself and another friend sometimes made open-reel tapes of records.  I remember taking a tape of Verdi’s Requiem and other favorite records on my first extended business trip to Indiana from the East Coast back in 1970 (throwing a tape deck in the trunk for the temporary move).  This was probably illegal, but we justified it morally because we both bought a lot of vinyl records.

But even to share or lend digital copies, it seems not.

Electronic Frontier Foundation has an article by Kit Walsh, “What do costumers think when they buy digital media online?”   The article goes into the differences between “Buy Now” and “License Now”.  It would seem intuitive that “License now” would confer fewer rights.  It would be more like renting a movie or video for a short period.  The paper refers to a U-Cal Berkeley study of “What We Buy When We ‘Buy Now'” by Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Jay Hoofnagle.  (I am reminded of “Buy More” in the NBC “Chuck” series with Zachary Levi.

My experience is that when I buy a copy of music or a movie, I own the “copy” in the Amazon or Apple cloud.  I do depend on the companies’ staying in business and for the cloud infrastructure to work (not be destroyed by enemies and hackers, but that can happen with physical property).  I did have a problem recently working with an Amazon rental (it needed a new Silverlight version) and an opera  (Chris Cerrone’s interesting “Invisible Cities”) MPG (had trouble saving it, but I had watched the opera “free” on YouTube and effectively paid the artist through Bandcamp about $10 for what amounted to a rental or a  Soho-style theater ticket).

Keep in mind another possible threat: items stored in clouds (“nuages”) could someday be scanned for illegal content.  Maybe a recent strengthening of electronic privacy (countering the 180 rule) will help counter that risk (Congressional link on HR 699).  This concept could come up either with direct cloud storage or with saving an object on one’s own hard drive and allowing a cloud backup service to archive it. Stay tuned on this.

(Published: Friday, May 13, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)

Filial responsibility laws need more attention from mainstream media; here is what I know now

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One early Tuesday morning in May, 2012, in a rustic motel room at 8500 feet at Mammoth Lakes, CA, near the head of the Owens Valley route (395), I turned to CNN and saw a report about a certain Mr. Pittas who got billed directly for his mother’s nursing home cost under Pennsylvania’s “filial responsibility” law.  There are still plenty of detailed stories on the web about the Pittas case.

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I cover this topic on Blogger with the appropriate label, and you can go directly to it .   The May 24, 2012 posting goes into detail.  In July 2007, I have some postings about the detailed laws of many states.

My postings, made “on the road” that week, got nearly record hits for this topic, but the subject soon died down in the news.

I wrote an article on the topic for Wikipedia in March 2013, and it is still here.  Wikipedia says it is “outdated” and doesn’t consider overseas.

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The AARP had a state-by-state map with details, but took it down in 2014, apparently because it did not have the staff to maintain the information.

There is still a 2006 Blogspot entry (“Everyday Simplicity”) by Reba Kennedy that gives a state-by-state list .

Filial responsibility laws, on the books in about thirty states, typically hold adult children liable for their parents’ medical bills, when the parents are legally indigent but one or more adult children are not indigent.  In many cases, they would kick in only if the parent tries to use Medicaid.  But in a few states, like Pennsylvania, it is possible for a provider to pursue an adult child even without trying to collect Medicaid, on the theory that the provider knows that the state can go after the child.

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Also, in a few states (mainly the Midwest), filial responsibility can theoretically apply to siblings or grandparents as well as parents.

These laws are rarely enforced, and even CNN said that in 2012.  I talked to a professor from Penn State online in 2007, and she even expressed the concern that “amateur” blogging about it could, by unmasking a little known area, provoke states and providers into actually enforcing them.

Although the most obvious use of the laws could be with nursing home bills, the laws could apply for parents under retirement age, and could matter in cases of elderly homelessness.  A recent New York Times story mentioned a homeless mother whose adult children did not know where she was.

I have an older posting on filial responsibility and “Medicaid lookback”, which is not the limiting peril of these laws, but which does mean that at a federal level (and some states), reimbursement protocols look back several years (up to six) for “giveaway” of assets to adult children before going on Medicaid, link.  This posting may be moved to another archive soon;  I’ll revise at that time.

Overseas, in the developing world, it is common for adult children working in the west to send money “back home” to support parents.  In fact, Donald Trump wants to impound payments sent back home to Mexico to compel Mexico to pay for the “Wall” (or “Green Monster”), as Trump himself explains here  .  Oriental countries have an idea of “filial piety”.

Practically speaking, the lower birth rates among more affluent populations coupled with longer life spans, often with extreme disability like Alzheimer’s Disease, increases the financial burden on the “sandwich generation” as well (especially) on childless adults, who now face a greater likelihood of “family responsibility” to support others that they did not “choose” by their own actions.

As a general policy matter, the prospect of using these laws could support the idea that couples should have more children, or have them earlier in adulthood (countering the “demographic winter” problem often suggested by the right wing) and even that same-sex couples should be encouraged to adopt children when able.  The overall policy picture trades off an older idea of “marriage” and its internal functions that used to be very important to a lot of people’s sense of life meaning, for a wider definition that is more flexible and able to provide for non-independent people (children and elderly or disabled adults) without excessive dependence on government.  So the concept of applying filial responsibility fits well into a world that accepts same-sex marriage, for example.  Jonathan Ruach had noticed this back in the 1990s.

Support for these laws has sporadically been mentioned before. I don’t think New York has such a law, but former mayor Ed Koch (himself single and childless) once said that parents should be expected to support their ailing parents.

I have an older essay on the topic on my legacy site here where I call the laws an “iceberg”.

(Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 9:30 PM EDT)

“Resilience” is an important component of personal moral compass

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Back in Fifth Grade (the spring of 1954), we studied “The Pioneers” as a unit of social studies, and made little dioramas and projects, and assembled scrapbooks with little handwritten “reports” and drawings.  One time the teacher, Miss Craft, got mad at us and threatened to cancel the unit, saying we should study “courtesy” instead.

I used to enjoy western shows (in black and white) as a kid, just after we got TV in 1950 – those four-act programs where there would occur a climactic stage wreck (or maybe a train wreck) in the last act.  I once wrote a letter to a TV channel saying Gene Autry should have a horseback race with Roy Rogers.

I would enjoy Walt Disney’s idea of FrontierLand (as well as TomorrowLand and AdventureLand, much more than FantasyLand) and recall the movie “The Great Locomotive Chase” with Fess Parker. (Sorry, I also enjoyed “Howdy Doody” (even Clarabelle and Mr. Bluster) and I even rejoiced in the opening of a fictitious town “Doodyville” back in the summer of 1955, beamed onto BW TV during a summer on an Ohio farm.)  Those we the not-so-good old days of “I Like Ike”.

In 2007. Director Andrew Dominik and Warner Brothers gave us the western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”.  There’s a scene where a passenger train, around 1880 or so, is hijacked (by James and company) and all the passengers are robbed somewhere in the Dakotas.  In a way, people were vulnerable to catastrophic “terrorism” then just as we are now.  Smallpox was used as a biological weapon as early as the French and Indian Wars, all the way back in the world of James Fenimore Cooper.

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“Pioneer values” seem uniquely American, or at least North American. Normally, a man saw his land (farm or ranch) and land, once settled, in combination with his family (extended) as the source of psychological identity.  The law (the town or county sheriff) mattered, but there was an element of life that transcended the “system”.  On  the frontier, you took care of yourself and your own family. If a disaster like a wildfire or tornado happened (or if you were overrun by outlaws or native Americans), you rebuilt yourself.  You did things with your hands.

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I guess anyone can tell where I am headed – justifying the Second Amendment, gun ownership, self-defense and the life.  Libertarians sometimes say that the ability to defend oneself and neighbors ought to be seen as a moral obligation.  Switzerland believes this, and escaped the Nazis.  I could digress into the area of bad karma, too:  Americans, in westward expansion, took land away from natives, creating the horrible reservation system we have today, with the diabetes and poverty.  Having lived in Minnesota from 1997-2003, I’ve driven through some reservations in the northern part of the state and in South Dakota.  We also have a system of casinos and gaming that makes some natives rich.  I enjoyed visits to Mystic Lake on Highway 169, SW of Minneapolis, during that period, as the LPMN often had its conventions there.

I do understand the view of people who want the absolute right to defend their own rural strongholds.  But I want to get to a tangential or related issue.  How much should we count on “the system” to be there for us?

It’s true, we usually look at good, prudent, and “moral” behavior in terms of following the rules of the game, especially with the financial system that we have set up to live by. That system can be enriched in speculative but probably, in the long run, beneficial ways (like bitcoin or digital currencies).  And while I don’t follow the extreme positions of some gurus like Porter Stansberry (whom Ron Paul now supports) I think the possibility of future major crashes is very real, partly because debt keeps increasing, and our country (as shown by testing the brinks with the several debt ceiling crises recently) is not absolutely committed to stopping them.  As with we know from Puerto Rico and Greece, we can’t count on being paid back what we’re owed 100% of the time.  Donald Trump has been running around predicting a huge crash and saying only he can save us (read about his latest theories on solvency on Vox here).

So, an individual needs to pay some heed to the idea that the “rules” can change radically in the future, or that law and order could disintegrate, and he or she will still be morally accountable for personal actions, and their putative effect on others, in a much more uncertain environment, t the mercy of external forces.  Coercion does not absolve the need for moral accountability.

The world has been much more stable than it might have been for my adult life. At the outset (when I was 19 and a “patient” at NIH) we dodge the Cuban Missile Crisis (would Nixon have gotten us out of it?_  We’ve reversed the energy crisis and oil embargoes of the 1970s, as well as urban financial crises (at least for NYC when I lived there, but not Detroit).  In the 1980s, AIDS and HIV became an existential threat not only to lives like mine but to the future of “gay rights” as we knew it (an odd away to prioritize things) but became politically and medically manageable with technology.

The biggest before-after moment for a lot of us was 9/11, and so far the worst (in terms of big events) has not happened in the US.  But the danger of asymmetry increases, as ISIS, its internet recruiting of a mass movement, and the attacks in Europe show.  Right now, we can imagine extreme social and economic disruption that could result from dirty bombs (as with news reports after the Brussels attack), bioterror, or even electromagnetic pulse or small nuclear devices, even if the actual likelihood of these seems very small because of (fortunately) the practical difficulty in amateurs’ making them.

Still, our western values, which provoke hidden dependencies and weak karma, may have created a world that seems meaningless to a lot of young men, who seek belonging, an odd sense of sexual power, and revenge.  Furthermore, many people live in parts of the world much more vulnerable to natural catastrophes than others do (including me).  The prospect that people could recover, even group recovery means giving up a lot of personal agendas, itself helps provide some security and deterrence to enemies, and long term stability.  So, reliance matters, even as a personal moral value.

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While the libertarian and sometimes evangelical right sees resilience almost through the lens of a doomsday prepper, there is a very personal side, too, having to do with relationships.  Recently, Ryan McMaken, anticipating a similar subsequent piece by Ron Paul, in criticizing conscription, actually said that being maimed in war is a kind of “tax” that keeps a person from ever being a desirable sexual partner.  But one of the ideas of “conservative” moral thinking has been reserving sexuality for marriage so that if people are faced with sudden physical challenges (even those that affect appearance as well as function) they can still form and keep relationships.  This is an idea related to resilience.  Collectively, it seems to make a whole culture safer (and able to continue itself even if severely challenged by nature or very combative enemies).  That’s one reason why social conservatives want to limit sexual speech and experience to special, socially managed spaces, and resist some retaliatory speech from people who like me who have trouble dealing with their social expectations.

Response to bullying bears on resilience.  In my own thoughts, I’ve detected in recent years a sense that there is no honor in victimhood. But simply disappearing could inspire more bullying of others.  Many “enemies” see bullying not so much as a matter of disagreeing with the values of others as a way to maintain power and control for its own sake. It’s important to note international “bullying” that can affect ordinary civilians (maybe less in the U.S. than Europe), as the disturbing Wall Street Journal article on p. A3 on May 11, 2016, by Perviaz Shallwani and Devlin Barrett.

Emotional aloofness and ostrich-like proclivity to “hunker down” may keep individuals (like me) out of trouble in many circumstances. But that personal strategy is not good for the resilience of the larger group.

(Published: Monday, May 9, 2016, 2:45 PM EDT)

Infrastructure matters, and political candidates rarely talk about it

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Donald Trump has often bragged about how his money enables him to live well, like artificial royalty.  Never mind he is about one-tenth as “rich” as Mark Zuckerberg, who has contributed a lot more.

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But a ledger account balance for your name only goes so far unless there is a public infrastructure that is dependable enough that you can “enjoy” your paper wealth.  In fact, your use of public infrastructure is part of “your” wealth.

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So, Elon Musk and maybe Ashton Kutcher notwithstanding, you can’t vacation on Mars (or Titan, one of my favorite places) and stay at a 5-star hotel with free Internet with Facebook, because the infrastructure to get you there doesn’t exist yet.  It may in a couple more generations. You can’t vacation on a Dyson’s Sphere around Tabby’s Star because we have no way to deal with the physics of the speed of light.  I’ll add, that as far as Mars as concerned, you can take a simulated trip to Mars (takes about an hour) at Epcot in Orlando, and I have done that.  Disney has provided all the infrastructure there is right now to personally experience another planet (and I look forward to the Star Wars exhibit soon).

Today, operations manager Paul J. Wiedefeld of the Washington DC area Metro announced the Safe Track Plan, which could present severe challenges to people getting around in the DC area, especially during off-hours, in the next twelve months, link here. While the disruptions to normal-work-hour commuters may be minimized by the plan as announced, the ability of many small businesses to survive in the City, dependent on Metro-access especially off hour, could be jeopardized. There are other measures, such as replacement bus service and improvement in the availability of 24-hour parking, as well as the effectiveness of private taxi, Uber and Lyft services, that could mitigate the effects.  But, again, this is part of my point.  Businesses, Metro and citizens, through local governments, must work together to reduce the possible economic harm.  The lack of full home rule for Washington DC and its vulnerability to the unsympathetic attitudes of a conservative, partisan Congress can complicate matters.

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I’ve experienced infrastructure issues earlier in my life.  When I was “coming out” in the 1970s, I was working in the New Jersey suburbs, and my ability to get into the City (New York) to experience my “new life” in view of energy crisis (the Arab oil embargo), and possibility the function of the city during its fiscal crisis at the time (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) was a potential issue for me, even though I was making enough money to pay for things reasonably if they were available.

There is a much darker side to the infrastructure debate, which is the security of the power grids (three of them in the US).  The biggest threat could come from the lack of technical preparation by utilities that can come from once-per-century (or so) solar super storms (like the “Carrington Event” of 1859).  The biggest danger comes not just from the “solar flare” itself (a subject of a “Smallville” episode in October 2003 on the same day of an actual flare) but the arrival of the associated “coronal mass ejection”. We may have escaped a major catastrophe by about a week in the summer of 2012 regarding the position of the Earth.  Other dangers to the grid can come from cyberterrorism, as explained by Ted Koppel in his book “Lights Out”, although one wonders why the control systems for the power grids can be reached even from the public Internet.  There is also the idea of a high altitude EMP blast from a nuclear weapon, which is even more destructive to a civilization grown dependent on technology than a solar storm.  An EMP blast would fry personal electronics as well as knock out the grid.  Whatever threat there is for this is more likely to come from rogue states (like North Korea or Iran) than terror groups, and would not necessarily be associated just with “radical Islamic terrorism”, to quote Ted Cruz. Smaller non-nuclear devices with local effects have been speculatively described but never used.  Surprisingly, the presidential candidates have mentioned this very little, although Ted Cruz mentioned it the night before the Brussels attacks, and Rick Santorum had mentioned it in January. Nevertheless, the NBC series “Revolution” describes what happens to people in a technological society if they suddenly lose access to electricity permanently (although the circumstances in that miniseries are even more obscure and improbable).  All of our planning of apps for everything (from nano-medicine to robotics) goes down the drain like Alice the Toothpick.

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Remember, a conventional grand (or spinet or upright) piano doesn’t require electricity.

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(Published: Friday, May 6, 2016 at 5 PM EDT)

Update: May 18

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Note this “About New York” column by Jim Dwyer, “Less talk, more action on Hudson rail tunnels before it’s too late” in the New York Times.

A perspective on “equality” as a component of “political correctness”

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I’ll open this blog with some thoughts about the overuse of the concept of “equality” for political correctness.

First, nature and physics make absolute “equality” among individual people an impossibility, regardless of public policy.  People born later in history generally have more opportunity to accomplish things commensurate with their talents.  That’s particularly true, for example, with music.  A friend who is forty years younger has accomplished a lot more than me partly because of better technology available to him when young.  This is simply an observation about space-time.  People are born into vastly different circumstances, and with vastly different genetic propensities and biologically-mediated abilities.  Mere genetics would stop most of us from performing in baseball like Bryce Harper.  So right away we see that the majority of people in a culture need to invest a lot of emotion and of themselves into having and raising children.

Even “equality of opportunity” is not really achievable.  Some inequality is necessary, along with the ego-satisfaction that goes with it, to inspire innovation that gradually benefits others.  But the backside of this observation is a moral expectation that those better off get something out of really helping others.  It also means openness to experiencing “complementarity” has moral significance. All of this will feed back into debates about wealth inequality even more than income inequality.

Equality has taken on narrow meanings in today’s political climate.  Most recently we have heard the term thrown around with gay marriage (that is, “marriage equality“). It is certainly true that in many individual cases, committed gay couples, where one person took care of the other (rather than leaving the “state” to do it) got the short end, so to speak, in tax and inheritance policy. It’s true that society benefits from encouraging same-sex couples to care within the relationships.

But the longer reach of the term was that unmarried people, and childless people, often became second-class citizens.  Sometimes “they” were left to make the sacrifices left to take care of families with children.  The upshot of all this was that, in the past, adults who did not feel inclined to participate in heterosexual sexual intercourse could be left to subsidize the activity of those who were so inclined.   The unmarried and the childless could still face the burdens of filial responsibility and eldercare, without the social skills usually learned through (traditional) marriage and child rearing.  I found that out the hard way from 1999-2010.

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Obviously related is gender equality, and the whole debate in the past over the (failed) Equal Rights Amendment, and the impulse toward compensation equality in the workplace. This desire is confounded by the time it takes for women to have children, leading to the whole debate over paid parental leave, which if granted, would be subsidized in part by the childless.  In the past, it was also confounded by the unequal risks taken on by genders.  Men took more risks in earning a living and sometimes fighting to defend the community, and women experienced more risk in the childbirth process itself.  This drills down to a lingering debate about conscription and whether it should include women. Ron Paul has said that opening Selective Service requirements to women amounts to equal opportunity for slavery (and for being maimed or sacrificed for some “common good”).

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Even the past issue of gays in the military had equality implications.  The military was an important career opportunity especially for the disadvantaged.  And denying gays the opportunity to serve implied that sexual orientation (or disinclination for procreation) could compromise the ability of someone to share in the risks of defending the community. Recently the debate has been enriched by the nuances of transgender service.

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No doubt, the other obvious areas to talk about equality are race and religion.  Despite the fact that we have the first African-American president and are likely to enjoy a first female president soon, the problems of racial and religious profiling are much worse than I had myself thought, as the events in Baltimore in April 2015 showed.

(Published: Wednesday, May 4, 2016, at 7 PM EDT)