Monthly Archives: February 2012

Dollars and Sense

I waive any claim to understanding the economy. That is because my acumen for mathematics is that of a brilliant 3.2-year-old child. Paul Samuelson, an economist, said “without mathematical ability one is entirely lost.” Yet, my bank account is always in order, I don’t have debts, and I always live within my means even when they are rather thin, That’s no problem because I’m comfortable with a simple life anyway.

But I have a problem understanding big-time economy. I don’t think someone has to be a financial wizard to know that something is very wrong with the current national and global economies.

In an attempt to understand the problem, I’ve done some research. I realize that unlike theories of space-time, particle physics, and quantum mechanics, the more I study economic theories, the less I think they are reasonable. Keynesian Economics is remarkably similar to Ponzi/Madoff Schemes except that government money pyramids are legal. In part, legal Keynesian Economics smacks of the rather arbitrary Robin Hood ideal of “taking from the rich and giving to the poor.” Keynes’ famous statement, “In the Long Run we are all dead,” suggests license to do whatever is expedient at the moment without regard to future consequences. Not a good idea. Adam Smith had a better idea when he said, “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.” Galbraith thought that wage and price controls are an absolute necessity for full employment with low inflation. Unfortunately, that idea led many economies to lower employment and prolonged inflation. Engels, Lenin, and Marx flunked every test for reasonable-let alone successful-economic systems.

When leading indicators of the economy are announced on TV, my eyes glaze over and my ears perk down. My simple lifestyle makes it unnecessary for me to follow financial news. I’ve never paid attention to the Gross Domestic Product, Consumer Price Index, Consumer Confidence Index, or any other of the economic indices. They have nothing to do with me. But, despite my indolent attitude about money, the global financial crisis has certainly caught my attention.

Obviously, families and kings have both dropped the ball. What baffles me are the figures that economists and politicians banter about. How in the world am I to make sense of them, with or without mathematics? The statistics they cite are wildly disparate. One says we need a 9.1% increase, another says we need a 1.9% decrease. One says we need 9.2 billion, the other 2.9 billion for the same program, still another says we should cut the program altogether and put the money elsewhere. I am particularly intrigued by the tenths following the integers. How do they arrive at these seemingly precise figures? For that matter, on what basis do they determine exact figures and percentages when determining scales for income taxes? I hear them say, “The wealthy should pay their fair share.” Fair to whom? At the other end of the economic hierarchy, why is my monthly Social Security benefit $741 and not $742 or $740? It seems as though financial schedules, high or low, are the results of flipping a coin.

On a considerably larger scale, I wonder why short and long economic projections are somewhat like erratic weather reports. A meteorologist will tell you of the global ‘seasonal lag.’ When a season is about to change, there is a lag of several weeks before the old season relinquishes its grip and the new season fully replaces the old one. This lag is guaranteed, whatever the oscillations may be on a daily basis.

I suppose its equivalent in the economy is the not so predictable dance of recessions, interest rates, unemployment, and whatever else the ‘leading indicators’ tell economists. However, there is a significant difference between economic and weather forecasts. Meteorologists may be wrong in their predictions, but they give precise weather conditions—the temperature, precipitation, barometric pressure, and so on. Politicians and political economists conveniently fudge statistics. That’s pretty much like telling the public it’s 65 degrees when it’s actually 90 degrees so that people will feel cooler.

I don’t mean to be flippant about the serious financial crisis. Riots, unemployment, and poverty are not laughing matters. In fact, I began the article with an attempt to deprecate myself for financial ignorance while mocking the absurdity of everyday business. For example, I have always found it absurd to price an item at $999.99. I know that figure is designed to help make a sale, but…really! Yet, that lame tactic pales in the light of politicians who juggle figures to suit their talking points.

At the risk of offended authentic economists, I can’t resist adding that my light research provided me with a chuckle when I read an economic equation for ‘Aggregate-supply curve and Aggregate Demand’:

AD = C+1 + G + (X-M)

I rest my case.   

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The Girl in the Burkini

Last week, sex, politics, and religion leaped out of an eye-catching poster of a teenager, Ari-Sophie Dewinter, who wears a Burka that covers her head, neck, and shoulders but little else of her beautiful body except for superimposed slogans, Freedom or Sharia? across her breasts, and You Choose across her bikini. And, of course, under her predominantly nude body was a deeper message protesting the suppression of women under Sharia Law.

Although Burkas are not strictly mandated by Sharia Law and voluntarily worn by many Muslim women throughout the world, they are effectively mandatory in several theocratic societies. Many Muslim women object to the resistance they encounter against burkas in the non-Muslim world. Clashes on this issue are increasing in size and severity in the non-Muslim world.

Muslims (and others) argue that all societies have dress codes. Even in the United States where you can wear anything you choose privately, there are dress codes for dining, business, and just about any other public activity or event.

My views about the clash of cultures can be found in a blog I wrote almost a year ago titled The Terrorist and the Infidel (April 17, 2011), but the present blog reflects my reaction to an ominously growing trend.

You may have heard about the Rye Playland incident in Westchester, New York toward the end of summer in 2011. The scuffle between police and a group of American Muslim women was occasioned by their being barred from amusement rides that prohibit headgear and scarves. The women refused to remove their scarves (hijabs). An altercation erupted. There were injuries. Security intervened.

As usual, pros and cons flooded the media, and blogs lit up throughout the country. Discounting the remarks of uneducated bloggers and differing descriptions of the physical brawl itself, the fundamental issue was absolutely clear: Was this an incident of Xenophobia or Safety?

In either case, the conflict underscores a deeper issue. The United States maintains a separation of church and state. The corollary to that principle is religious freedom. Although many people, including legislators and judges, are confused about the correlation of those binary principles, they are generally reflected in the laws and practices of our country. And, of course, religious freedom does not include religious practices such as ritual infanticide. It also does not provide a right to break the law.

Yet, there are fanatics who posit that Muslims should be permitted to practice Sharia Law with its separate courts and judges outside the jurisdiction of national laws. The United States is no exception. Fanatics do not recognize national borders. I know that Xenophobia has reared its ugly head in much of the non-Muslim world. But so has attempted encroachment on the laws of non-Muslim nations. I hope that Americans will exercise the same fervor against legal Islamization as they do to check other religions.

Millions of people question the wisdom behind the provocative poster. Millions of others applaud it. Whatever our differences about the poster, I hope my fellow Americans, including Muslim Americans, wisely sort the difference between Xenophobia and American Jurisprudence.

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Old Habits Die Hard

The Attorney General, Eric Holder, is at the center of the Fast and Furious controversy. Mr. Holder claims that he is being persecuted because he is African American. Given that neither he nor President Obama would hold their respective offices were it not for a significant number of white people who voted Obama into the presidency, Holder’s claim is at the very least curious, if not disingenuous.

The Fast and Furious controversy is not at issue here. My concern is for people who are not in high office. Various sources claim that African Americans are disproportionately punished when they break or appear to break the law. I take them at their word, and regret racial injustice.

But I take issue with Mr. Holder’s claim. By pretending that he is being persecuted because he is an African American, he is diminishing the credibility of individuals or groups who are genuinely protesting against actual racial persecution. When a successful and powerful man equates his legal difficulties with those of defenseless citizens, he plays right into the hands of bigots who discredit the potential legal injustice against African Americans.

I don’t think that Holder actually believes that he is being investigated because he is an African American. An educated man, he must know that racial prejudice is not at issue. But I’m not at all  sure whether or not he knows the damage he’s done to the cause of equality between races. His stance smacks of reverse bigotry.

Where has he been through the many investigations of white men and the formal distinction awarded to celebrated African Americans? Why does he subscribe to the old prejudicial notion that white American’s see the color of a man’s skin rather than judge the issues at hand? He must know better than that.

And that is what disturbs me about his claim. There he is, the Attorney General of the United States, either pretending or believing that the people investigating him are doing so because he is an African American.

As Martin Luther King eloquently declared, we should judge a man not by the color of his skin but the content of his mind. Whatever the truth may be about the Fast and Furious issue, I am disappointed by the content of Holder’s mind.      

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