Gerald (Jerry) Zezas

Home » 2013 » February

Monthly Archives: February 2013

Updrafts and Tea Kettles

When I see my 12-year-old on stage with her school chorus, I am amazed by the level of talent that some of the better singers have. The ethereal voices of some of these adolescents can serve to suspend breathing, while moistening the eyes. Spring-time in heaven is likely not as exquisite.

My daughter has a very nice voice-but not to the level of the best children in this school chorus. (They actually sang at the Presidential Inauguration this year), but she sings well. The reason she is in the chorus is not the hope that her voice becomes as beatific as some of her peers. She’s in the chorus so that she gets to experience fellowship among people with talents that are beyond hers. It is so that she can look up to people who are genuinely good at what they do.

She’s pretty good at math as well. When she competed in the statewide math competition this year, she came in the top 10% or so, which certainly made my wife and me happy. But some of the children who did better than her were exponentially more competent in mental gymnastics than she. The level of acuity that these kids could summon with the help of only pencil and paper approached, in my mind, that of NASA aspirants. Actually, Rainman comes to mind for some of them. Really. In some cases these kids (eighth graders), were raising their hands with the answers before the proctor had finished reading the problem.

My daughter will likely never be the mental hummingbird that some of these children are, yet she contributes to this competition every year. This is not done with the intention making her as good as them, but because it enables her to look up to people who are genuinely good at what they do.

The point of this essay is to suggest that those who excel tend to create updrafts. They bring others with them by setting standards that are higher than would have existed without their having been there. They cause the degree of minimum acceptability to climb to levels that would not have been attained without their having been part of it.

I’ve never aspired to be the best at anything, yet I turned out to be pretty good at lots of things. How? By perpetually looking up to those who are more accomplished than I. By acknowledging higher levels of intelligence, a sharper wit, greater insight into political, religious and social issues, greater skill at racquetball kill-shots, better luck with women, etc.

I have always preferred to engage with those who are much smarter than I, because when they speak, I need only listen, and their knowledge, experience, intellect, wit and on occasion, brilliance, fills the air like the steam from a whistling tea kettle. It remains for me, simply, to breathe.

That is why my daughter is in chorus. That is why my daughter engages in math competitions. Not to win. To engage.

We, as a society, place too much emphasis on achieving greatness when true greatness is better absorbed than attained. Being the best at something is an illusion, since we can never know if one has achieved this ostensible superiority because one is truly at the pinnacle, or because he who is better didn’t know that there was a competition going on that day and, regrettably, stayed home.

Advertisements

Wealth Redistribution, Cognitive Dissonance and Stockholm Syndrome

I accidentally redistributed wealth the other day.

I bought gas at the local gas station. The price, $3.79 a gallon, was fully $.40 more than just a few weeks ago. Now, I hadn’t heard anything about oil leases having gone up in price, or drilling rigs costing more, or even the going rate for an off-shore platform having jumped recently. But the price was higher-and I paid it-because the sign said so.

My personal wealth had been redistributed to Exxon/Mobil via my gas purchase, in addition to the fact that it had been redistributed to them via $5 billion in government subsidies (about as much as they pay in taxes)* already.

Then, I did it again.

I bought something at Walmart. Due to the low wages that Walmart pays, a large portion of their workers live below the poverty line and have to subsidize their income with food stamps. I, personally, pay the taxes that pay for the food stamps that subsidize Walmart’s workers. Every time I buy something from Walmart I make them just a little more successful, ensuring that their business model of paying near or at poverty wages continues.

My personal wealth has been re-distributed to Walmart via my having to support their workers with food stamps.

Minimum wage in real, inflation adjusted 2009 dollars has decreased from $10 in 1968 to about $7.00 today. A car that cost $1,995 in 1970 costs about $15,000 today. A house that cost $20,000 in 1970 costs about $200,000 today, even with the housing market collapse.

Yet the per capita GDP has gone from about $15,000 in 1968, to $45,759 last year, in the same constant dollars.

History_of_US_federal_minimum_wage_increases.svg

So, while workers at the bottom of the pay scale have lost $3.00 per hour in real dollars, their contribution to the overall US economy has tripled. Their wealth, if you can call it that, has been redistributed to the overall economy. But where has it gone?

This graph indicates the increase, according to the Federal Reserve, in corporate profits since 1965.

corporate-profits

So, to put this into perspective:
This graph indicates the divergence of personal income compared to corporate income. It is based on a University of Mass study.

Blog_Corp_Labor_Graph

So, to all of you who are so vehemently fighting the righteous battle against redistribution of wealth, you may need to reconsider just whose wealth we’re discussing here. Those who believe that the least wealthy among us are somehow getting wealthier at our expense need to spend some time reading the economic facts, some of which I have very briefly laid out here.

According to Merriam-Webster:
Stockholm Syndrome is the psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.

When those of us who work for a living sympathize more with those to whom our wealth is be given than with those from whom it is being taken, it may be time to reconsider which of us is the hostage, and which is the captor.

*Oil subsidies http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/2011/05/the-us-tax-subsidies-for-oil-companiesposner.html

The Incongruity of Welfare Queens

Mom passed recently. Eighty-three, (almost) from congestive heart failure. We were ready for it, but who is really ever ready for the loss of their mother?

She was a true conservative during her entire life. Nixon, Reagan, Bush, pro-Iraq, pro-gun, anti-tax, anti-Obama. This is not to judge. These are just facts. That’s who she was.

She believed in paying your bills on time, paying your taxes, and not depending on the government for your basic needs. Her husband, my father, passed away in the 1980’s.

She worked for 25 years or so. Mostly in a perfume factory where she did simple assembly-line or warehouse work. Never made more than about $13,000 per year in her entire life. She retired at 65 and lived off the savings accumulated from a life lived without excess, and Social Security. She did OK financially, never needing my brothers or me to assist financially.

Her social security benefit amounted to about $500 per month on average. $96,000 total in her lifetime.

According to the The Healthcare Bluebook, open heart surgery can cost $325,000 or so. Installation of a Pacemaker, $21,000, give or take. Mom had had both of these, as well as multiple trips to the emergency room for falling and breaking her leg, damaging her lower back, heart palpitations, minor strokes as well as a myriad of other ailments that can affect the elderly. I don’t really know what all that cost, but over 20 years of treatment, I don’t think $100,000 would be an unreasonable estimate. So, let’s say that Mom’s total healthcare bill to Medicare in her lifetime was $450,000. We will completely ignore the 6 months or so in and out of hospitals and nursing homes in the last months of her life. I don’t know what those amounts were nor are they necessary for me to make my point.

Here is a worksheet explaining Mom’s financial history, vis-a’-vis Medicare and Social Security.

Click here for worksheet

The surprising takeaway from all this is that Mom wasn’t broke. She died with assets in the low/mid six-figures, in addition to her house. This had been accumulated from investments, an earlier inheritance and the sale of some gold jewelry she had been given when young. Her house was paid off.

My Mom was supported by the government and received nearly free medical care for the last part of her life, but was allowed to retain enough to make a sizable inheritance for her children.

Compare the scenario above with that of the proverbial “Welfare Queen”, who ostensibly pumps out children for the sole purpose of leaching off the rest of us.The most she can expect to get in most states, including cash, food stamps and rent subsidies is about $15,000 per year.

My Mom. Nice white lady who died with cash in the bank. She received $496,000 in government money over 16 years or about $31,000 per year, over and above the money that she contributed. She was a happy Republican who thought personal responsibility was a paramount personal trait. She thought that the government should stay out of the lives of its people and hated that there were so many who just laid around collecting government money.

Welfare Queen. Nice lady, likely a single Mom, (often assumed to be of different coloring) who maxes out at $15,000 per year and has to support her entire family on that amount if she can’t find work or is going to school to better herself.

I know that I am comparing an old lady with a presumably younger woman. I know one situation involved medical and elderly care and the other was for basic needs. I know that my mother worked for years without asking for anything and that the other woman was asking for help at a much younger age. But my mother started with the advantages of white skin, a husband who bought and paid off her house and a small inheritance from her own mother.

My point is that this nets out exactly the same in both cases: Money from the government going to people to enable them to live better lives.

The difference is that my mother looked down on the welfare queen, even though my mother was allowed to have money in the bank while she was receiving this government largess. My mother could have forgone all that government money and still survived reasonably well.

The so-called welfare queen probably has nothing in the bank and no options, and likely didn’t look down upon my mother.

My mother would go to the polls and vote to end the subsidies to the welfare queen. The welfare queen was probably not reciprocating in kind. She may have had a better understanding of how good people sometimes need help than my mother did.

Both are female, both were in genuine need. One is called a nice old lady. The other is called a welfare queen, or words to that effect.

President Elect John F Kennedy, in his 1961 speech to the Massachusetts Legislature, said, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required…”

I wish that were true…

Drone Strikes and the Fourteenth Amendment

Recent obfuscations regarding so-called “drone” strikes on American citizens in other countries has caused me to break with my preference to not include anything remotely resembling political commentary in this blog. But I’m not completely abandoning that preference, since this will address the legal rather than the political justification for these actions.

We have those on one end claiming that the Constitution, via the Fourteen Amendment, requires that citizens of the United States receive what is referred to as “due process”. Some are referring to this as Judicial Review, which is typically used to describe when the Supreme Court determines the constitutionality of a law passed by Congress. This was first determined to be the right of the Supreme Court in a ruling by Chief Justice John Marshall as a result of Marbury vs Madison in 1803. It has nothing to do with due process rights afforded to individuals.

Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment is quoted here:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

I separated the two sentences which comprise this section in an effort to ensure that they are read as written; two separate sentences. The first sentence simply establishes the basis of citizenship and is pretty straightforward.

The second sentence, distinct from the first, describes what is referred to as the due process clause, explaining, quite specifically, that no state can abridge the rights of citizens, deprive any person life, liberty or property without this so-called due process, nor deny anyone within its jurisdiction equal protection.

Many are using this section of the Fourteenth Amendment to deny the President or the military the right to kill US citizens who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda or other quasi-military groups which have proclaimed a desire to kill Americans. They are using the premise that if these people are in fact citizens, they are somehow protected from being targeted without the judge, jury and other protections that the due process clause warrants.

But…the due process clause refers not to citizens, only to persons. It does not say that it is permissible to deny due process to non-citizens, protecting only citizens from deprivation of life, liberty and property. This right is specifically extended to all persons. Rest assured that the framers of the Constitution certainly knew, understood, and agonized over every single word in this document, so anyone who suggests that they had somehow intended this only for citizens needs to spend a little time reading the Federalist Papers to understand that every word used was the exact word intended. It covers not just citizens, but all persons.

So, since the due process clause, and its execution, has nothing to do with citizenship, the fact that these American members of Al Qaeda are citizens of the US is irrelevant and of no consequence. Citizens, according to the Constitution, have no more rights than non-citizens when it comes to due process.

If we, as a sovereign nation, claim the right to kill people in the name of protecting our country, (A.K.A. engaging in warfare), then citizenship is not something that we need to consider-ever.

This is not to say that so-called drone strikes are by necessity good or bad. Those are moral issues with which I will not contend in this format, but the premise that being an American somehow gives one immunity from being treated like an enemy when one proclaims his status as an enemy is non-sensical. If the military and its hierarchy determine that an individual hiding in a village in Yemen is a threat to us as a nation, then that hierarchy is morally bound to ensure that its judgment is sound and that we are not killing innocents by mistake. That obligation never ends, and we should judge the job those leaders do in that vein. If it turns out that they are killing the wrong people, they should be subject to the normal channels of investigation and potential penalties. That is not the issue here.

But to use this fraudulent argument that Americans are so special, regardless where we are or whether we’re aiming a rocket-propelled grenade at an American Blackhawk helicopter, that the military needs to hold a hearing in front of a judge to determine if our Fourteenth Amendment rights are being upheld is, on its face, imbecilic.

If a guy, even an American citizen, holds up a convenience store with a loaded .38, a cop is justified in shooting him to protect life and property without the benefit of due process. But according to these arguments, if that same guy is a member of a terrorist cell with designs on blowing up a US Navy vessel, these same rules somehow don’t apply. Yes, I certainly understand the distinction and legal separation between law enforcement and the military, just as I assume the reader understands the difference between an aircraft carrier and a 7-Eleven.

I am, generally, not a big fan of killing for any reason. But if we can legally justify killing criminals to prevent them from committing heinous acts, then the fact that the criminal is on foreign soil should not change the equation.

As long as nations justify institutionalized killing, (and they do), then the decision to commit that act of killing should be based on the actions of those targeted to be killed, not merely their citizenship.

Fundamental Attribution Error, or “You were Rucky”.

Most business students know the story of the Japanese inspector for the W. Edwards Deming prize.* During his inspection of a Florida Power and Light facility which had ostensibly been built faster and more economically than any similar facility, the inspector asked penetrating questions as to the methods used to construct this facility with such speed and quality. The manager’s answers were so inadequate that it became quite obvious that he did not understand enough about what they had done so well to explain it, much less recreate it the next time a facility was to be constructed. Apparently, this group had done a wonderful job constructing this plant but didn’t know how or why. It just turned out that way. Frustrated at this lack of understanding of their success, the inspector told the manager of this facility that, rather than being worthy of the Deming Award for Quality, they had likely just been fortunate. He told the plant manager, in his thick Japanese accent “You were rucky.” This phrase, with the attendant accented pronunciation, became a common way to indicate when self-serving interpretations of success, without the requisite explanations of the specific methods used to attain that success, were being employed.

The adage “success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan” is more relevant to discussions such as these than many acknowledge. How many of us attribute our own success to our education, our determination, our drive, work ethic, our good looks, honesty, charm, ad infinitum, ad nauseum? We rarely consider that student loans, good teachers and grading on a curve may have contributed to our education. Our “drive” might have emanated from being poor when growing up, or having an unambitious father or mother, or, possibly, just the opposite.

This is not to say “you didn’t build that.” You may certainly have built that, but you must also remember that, unless you were following a specific plan your entire life and every aspect of that plan went as designed, then there must have been other, unplanned, unknown and undetectable forces at work, causing someone to get fired just before you got promoted, or an architect who lived 100 years ago who first considered the calculations of wind load for the building you’re designing, or some geek writing code in his garage 30 years ago which was the genesis of the industry in which you currently excel.

In a study conducted from 1936 to 1955 at the University of Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research,** it was determined by tracing the habits and mannerisms of hundreds of sets of monozygotic (identical) twins who had been separated at birth and raised separately, that roughly 75% of who we are is determined by genetics, not by environment, (including our upbringing). What was amazing was that some of these twins both did poorly in math, were carpenters, married spouses with the same names, had the same religious beliefs, etc, of their twin counterparts, even though they lived in different cities, sometimes in different countries and neither their parents, nor they, had ever, in their entire lives, met. This was quite a disappointment to many parents who believe that they have complete control over their children’s upbringing and caused quite a stir among many religious groups who believed that religious upbringing contributes to morality.

The point is that there are many things that determine who we are, what we do, whether we succeed or fail, whether we’re good or bad, smart or stupid, trustworthy or a likely candidate for the Sopranos. It can be hard to know for sure, so we usually attribute the good things to our own brilliance and moral compass, and the bad to, well, whatever else we can think of.

You don’t have to be the sole architect of your own good fortune. You don’t have to take all the credit for having a bright child. You don’t have to pat yourself on the back because you’ve got an intelligent, desirable spouse.

You might just have gotten rucky.

*The Deming Application Prize is an annual award presented to a company that has achieved distinctive performance improvements through the application of TQM. Regardless of the types of industries, any organization can apply for the Prize, be it public or private, large or small, or domestic or overseas. Provided that a division of a company manages its business autonomously, the division may apply for the Prize separately from the company. Companies or divisions of companies that apply for the Prize (applicant companies hereafter) receive the examination by the Deming Application Prize Subcommittee (the Subcommittee hereafter). Based on the results of the Subcommittee’s examination, the Deming Prize Committee selects the winners.

** For a brief synopsis of this study, see https://mctfr.psych.umn.edu/research/UM%20research.html

%d bloggers like this: