Westworld – The Rise of Artificial Intelligence?

I recently  finished watching “Westworld”, an HBO television series based on the 1973 movie with the same title. Both were the story of a theme park filled with animatronic characters who interacted with the guests. The characters, called “hosts” were so advanced it was practically impossible to tell them from the human being “guests”. Without going too far into the plot line, this, in my opinion was an extraordinarily well-done science fiction story which seemed to be far too close to reality for comfort.

Sentience

The capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. It is the ability to feel (sentience) distinguished from the ability to think (reason)

Westworld isn’t the first movie to explore the notion of artificial inteligence running amuck.It started with Hal 9000, the  infamously intelligent computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odessy (1968).

hal 9000

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that…”

Since then there have been countless movies about computers and/or robots turning on humans. In some cases the robots were monstrous and evil (Terminator). There were action/adventure robots (I,Robot), creepy (Ex Machina), and the franky disturbing  A.I. Artificial Intellgence, by Steven Spielberg.

Artificial Intelligence

The standard definition of artificial intelligence (AI) is intelligence exhibited by machines. Generally, this is thought of as machines that imitate human cognative functions, such as problem solving.

The incredible recent advances have made AI an everyday experience. For example, search for something on Google. As you type in a few letters, suggestions begin to appear, as though Google is attempting to read your mind, and find out what you are looking for before you finish typing it. This is the common use of an algorithm, a self-contained sequence of actions to be performed. In the Google search (predictive text or autocomplete), to fill in your search, Google analyizes the last 10,000 searches in your geographical area, your bookmarks, your recent searches, your web browsing history, and the patterns of your browsing and searches. In other words, Google carefully looks at your behaviors as you fill in that search box, returning suggestions before you can even type them. Scary? It probably should be, but we’ve grown so accustomed to it, we really don’t even think about it. This is artificial intelligence from a machine, or in this case software, solving problems for you.

google algorithym

Google searches are of course, commonplace today. We accept them as part of our normal lives. How about Siri or Alexa? We ask them questions, they give us answers. We’ve adapted to speaking to our phones and computer systems, or is it speaking “with”? When does that interaction between man and machine begin to get muddy? — meet Samantha:

So when does the computer beome “real” ? When is it more than a machine?

British code breaker  and inventor of the Enigma machine Alan Turing proposed a test (now known as the Turing Test),  which suggests that if a person communicates with a machine, and cannot tell if the communication is from another person or a machine, the test has been passed. To paraphase a line from Westworld when a “host” is asked if they are human or machine, the host replied, “If you can’t tell , what difference does it make”?

So, could computers and artificlal intelligence become self-aware? Could they become sentient? Far fetched, perhaps, but some pretty smart folks have some qualms.

Stephen Hawking, the British physicist often referred to as one of the smartest people in the world, told the BBC “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” he said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”(1)

Bill Gates seems to agree: “I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence,” Gates wrote. “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”(2)

Tessla founder Elon Musk seems to suggest the same thing: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with the artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.” (2)

The question seems to be whether or not machines with AI can become conscious, or self-aware. Watch these tiny robots take a test:

“…It may seem pretty simple, but for robots, this is one of the hardest tests out there. It not only requires the AI to be able to listen to and understand a question, but also to hear its own voice and recognise that it’s distinct from the other robots. And then it needs to link that realisation back to the original question to come up with an answer.”

To find out how this little robot became self-aware, click link below:

Robot passes self-awareness test

Technological Singularity

This is the creation of an artifical superintelligence, one so sophisticated that it could become runaway, causing it’s own “intelligence explosion”, out of the control of it’s makers. The argument is that it is possible to build a machine that is more intelligent than man, and this machine begins to rebuild itself, literally writing it’s own software, growing more and more intelligent as it goes. A concept known as Moore’s law suggests that this is not only possible, but plausible and even likely over time.

Is this real, or just the stuff of vivid imaginations and screenwriters? Several of the people mentioned above are part of the Future of Humanity Institute, which seems to take these things seriously.

So maybe humans will be ruled by machines sometime in the future. Or maybe it’s just fun science fiction. Which brings us back to Hal:

 

Endnotes

1.Beware the Robots, Says Stephen Hawking

2. Bill Gates on Dangers of Artificial Intelligence — Washington Post

Future of Life Institute — Wikipedia

Technological Singularity

Artificial Intelligence — Wikipedia

Is Google tracking me?

Moore’s Law

 

But Will it Power a Kuerig?

 

kuerig

I happened to see an ad for an emergency generator on Amazon recently. For whatever reason, I scanned the listing for comments.  One person asked, what I suppose, is the pressing question of our modern times: “Will it power a Kuerig?”.

I thought about that for a minute:  A winter storm, a blizzard, power out everywhere. Hunkered down, hoping we don’t freeze to death with the heat off. What concerns me the most?  How can I get my Kuerig to work?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Kuerig thing is nifty; cute little cups that make just the right kind of coffee mixture you crave: Starbucks, Folger’s, Green Mountain. Whether its Nantucket Blend or Breakfast Blend, Hazelnut or Sumatran Reserve, it’s all in that little plastic cup. Pop it in the machine and you’re just seconds away from paradise. It’s just not my kind of coffee.

Coffee. I’m a serious coffee drinker, old school type. I started drinking coffee probably around the age of ten. I peaked in my twenties and thirties, when I was drinking a dozen or more cups a day. During my waking hours I was never without a cup of coffee. Back then, we made our coffee like this:

coffee-pot

This was called a percolator. Fill it with water, put coffee grinds in the basket inside, put the pot on a stove (or campfire for that matter), and heat the water. The water boiled, pushed up through the grinds, and like magic, coffee! The height of simplicity. No electric, no fancy gadgets, just coffee, water and heat. Coffee was, and still is a simple beverage. Basic. Fundamental. Just ask the old cowboys.

cowboys

Coffee was also cheap. For many many years a ten cent cup of coffee was standard in many diners. I remember a popular brand was Maxwell House, “Good to the very last drop” coffee. There were of course, other brands, but coffee was coffee. — Well apparently not.

In the late 1980’s, I met a woman from Seattle. She had come to New Jersey and brought her own coffee with her. She was the first “coffee snob” I ever met.  She would brew her coffee in her motel room and bring it to a restaurant in a thermos rather than drink the restaurant coffee.  She fussed and opined about the wonderful coffee in Seattle, and how backward we were in the rest of the country. I got to taste some of her wonder brew. It was good, but I didn’t see the fuss. I thought she was a bit of a snobby twit, and I think the coffee was Starbucks, which had not yet come East at that time.

The Coffee Shop

According to US News and World Report in a recent article, Americans pay an average of $2.70 for a cup of coffee in a coffee shop, leaving an average 20% tip ($.54), bringing the cost of that cup of coffee to $3.24. So what does that cup off coffee cost the retailer?

Coffee prices have varied over the years, largely due to trade agreements and growing conditions, but since 1976, the wholesale market price of coffee has remained between $.50 and $2.50 per pound. As of this writing, it is selling for $1.46 per pound on the commodities market. The mean price of coffee has been about $1.40  for forty years.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, one pound of coffee should yield 48 six ounce cups. Cutting that in half, we’ll suppose we can get 24 twelve ounce cups ( a Starbucks “tall”) from that pound. At the wholesale level, that’s a cost of about $.06 (six cents) per cup.

From the wholesaler, the coffee must go the the roaster, who roasts, packages, and ships the coffee to the distributor, bringing the cost per pound to around $3.00. Add in miscellaneous costs for loss, shrinkage,  other overhead, and profits, and we’re looking at about $6.00 per pound to the coffee shop retailer. That’s $.25, or twenty-five cents per cup.

Of course the coffee shop has lots of costs too; cream, sugar, the cup, napkins, and all the other overhead associated with running a retail business.  So if the coffee shop owner doubled his costs (100 percent markup), the coffee would cost the customer fifty cents per cup. If the shop tripled the cost, it would be seventy-five cents, quadrupled it, $1.00 per cup.

Which brings us to the average cost of $2.70 per 12 ounce cup. That’s a markup of almost 1100 percent!

Home Brew

The current price for our Maxwell House ” good to the last drop” coffee is running $6.00 – $8.00 per pound at the retail store. One pound of Starbucks coffee retail is about $15.00.

So let’s recap at this point. If I buy a pound of Maxwell House for, let’s say $7.00 per pound at Walmart and make it at home, it costs me about $.29 (twenty-nine cents) per cup. If I buy a pound of Starbucks and do the same thing, it’s about $.63 (sixty-three cents).

keurig-statbucksWhich brings us back to Keurig. In order to get a 12 ounce cup (keeping this apples to apples), you must buy the K-Mug pods. The price of these, from the Keurig website are about $14.00 per 12-pack. That makes the cost of your 12 ounce mug of coffee from the Keurig about $1.17 per cup. I couldn’t find Starbucks K-Mug size,  so we have to extrapolate a bit, making your 12 ounces of Starbucks K-Mug size about $1.76 per cup.

Before I go any further, let me stipulate to any coffee aficionados or “foodies” out there, I understand the “differences” in coffees — different types of beans, different growing areas, blends, etc. I get it. There is no need to tell me I’m comparing apples to oranges. People are willing to pay premium prices for all kinds of things, and if that is your desire, by all means, pursue it. I’m just painting with broad strokes here.

Here’s how I see the bottom line:

If I drink three cups of my $.25 per cup Maxwell House a day, that’s $.75/day or  $273.75 per year.

If you drink 3 cups of $1.76  Keurig Starbucks per day, that’s $5.28 per day or $1927.20 per year.

If you buy 3 cups per day in a coffee shop at the average price of $2.70 per cup, that’s $8.10 per day or $2956.50 per year.

Coffee sales in the United States alone are over $18 billion annually. Americans consume an incredible  400 million cups per day (half the population averages 3 cups/day).

Coffee prices are crazy, but some of the people who buy it are even crazier. A coffee shop in New York City recently opened selling “extraction” coffee (I don’t know what that is, and I don’t care) for as much as $18. per cup. (New York City, Most Expensive Cup of Coffee).  Some coffee aficionados are equating these coffee prices with the prices of craft beers, another overpriced commodity. Not to be outdone, Starbucks now has a “Reserve” coffee selling for around $7/cup.

“Starbucks, which introduced millions of people around the world to higher quality coffee and espresso drinks and now must find a way to avoid being labeled pedestrian when compared with upscale rivals like Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia, which are popping up in U.S. cities….” Yahoo News.

And so it goes. That ten cent “cup of Joe” is now a designer product, capable of being sold at extraordinary prices. Enjoy your Kuerig. You might want to consider purchasing a generator to power it if the electric goes off.

Notes:

USA Today – Price of a Cup of Coffee

 

Big Trouble in Little China

The world is holding it’s collective breath at the moment, courtesy of a pudgy, demented thirty-three year old with a bad haircut.

un

Kim Jong -un, son of Kim Jong- il, and grandson of Kim Il Sung, is the third psychopath in a line of psychopaths who have ruled North Korea since 1948.  Grandpop Sung started the Korean war in 1950, and the family has managed to stay in power and in the headlines around the world off and on ever since.

The 1953 cease-fire, creating North and South Korea allowed the South to become a vibrant world-class economy, while the North under the illustrious Kim family degenerated into a dark and dismal place.

Ostensibily Communist, North Korea is in reality a cult-state, with loyalty to the Kims a necessity for survival. The history of this family is mysterious, including indicators that the name was stolen from another family. That being said, the idiosyncracies of the family are well reported and can be found elsewhere. Our focus is on the current Kim, and why he matters.

Little is actually known in the West about Kim Jong-un. Little was seen of him publicly before his rise to power. Even his date of birth is not absolutely certain. Details of his early years are sketchy or kept secret. Rumors that he once attended Western schools under a pseudonym cannot be confirmed.  There are many reports of these stories and rumors which can be found elsewhere. He was declared the supreme leader of North Korea following the death of his father in 2011.

“…Kim holds the titles of Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Chairman of the National Defence Commission, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army,[1] and presidium member of the Politburo Standing Committee of theWorkers’ Party of Korea.” 1

Since taking office, Kim reportedly has ordered the execution of several high ranking officials, including an uncle and likely a half-brother. It’s quite clear he will do anything to hold on to power.

Nuclear Weapons

North Korea began working on developing nuclear weapons in the 1980’s, under Kim Jong Il. In 1985 they agreed to participate in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weaons, but withdrew from the Treaty in 1993, after prohibiting United Nations inspections. Under President Bill Clinton, the United States tried to steer North Korea to peaceful uses of atomic energy; including  providing two light-water reactors to North Korea in return for an agreement they would not pursue weapons production. The wheels came off this cart when the Koreans gained access to Pakistan’s nuclear technology in the 1990’s. North Korea conducted the first test of a nuclear bomb in 2006.

The North Koreans tested a second nuclear weapon in 2009, larger than the first. In 2013, an even larger test was conducted. A test in 2016 may have been a hydrogen bomb, far more powerful than previous atomic weapons. During this same time, the North Koreans began developing and testing increasingly larger long-range missles. On September 9, 2016, they conducted the fifth and largest nuclear weapon test to date.

Throughout the period of North Korea’s recent nuclear development, the U.S. offered various “carrots” to North Korea in exchange for the agreement of the North Koreans to abandon their weapons program. The “carrots” included offers of oil and food. Years of talks with other interested countries including  the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan led nowhere. While there are lists and lists of the “objectives” achieved by diplomats, it is clear North Korea was simply using the talks as a cover while they continued to develop more and more powerful weapons.

Negotiations with North Korea have not worked. Sanctions by the U.S.  and United Nations and others have not worked. The clock is ticking, and the parties involved, and indeed much of the world, may be heading toward a precipice.

War

North Korean soldiers parade in front a portrait of former North Korean President Kim Il-sung during a military parade in Pyongyang's central square in this photo taken by Kyodo on September 9, 2011 marking the 63rd anniversary of the state's founding. REUTERS/Kyodo

North Korea has a formidable military, and they are not afraid to fight. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the North Koreans (with the help of the Chinese) fought the United States and United Nations allies to a standstill armistice in 1953. The UN Forces lost over 178,000 dead and 33,000 missing, along with over 450,000 wounded. Over 33,000 American troops were killed, and over 7,800 are still considered missing in action.The North Koreans/Chinese suffered over 367,000 dead and over 700,000 wounded. It is estimated over 2.5 million civilians were killed.

Today, the North Korean military is substantial. Over 700,000 frontline troops, 4200 main battle tanks, 4100 armored fighting vehicles, and 4300 artillery pieces account for some if it’s ground forces.

Its Air Force has 944 fighters and attack aircraft, along with over 200 helicopters. While North Korea has no aircraft carriers in it’s navy, it has over 70 submarines, a cause of great concern, expecially if they develop long range missle launching capabilities.

The bottom line is this: North Korea has a formidable military. They are not Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria. It would be beyond foolish to think that the United States could “take them out” quickly or painlessly. Any conflict with North Korea would likely bring casualties in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, many of them American.

Strategies and approaches

There are few potential ways to approach the situation with North Korea, and frankly none of them are good.

North-and-South-Korea-Meeting

Diplomatic — This is the approach that has been tried for years to know avail. The United States and the United Nations have attempted to have “talks” with North Korea, and gone nowhere. The “carrots” of oil, food, and financial remuneration in an attempt to get the Kim government to play nice have not worked. Sanctions, mostly financial, have also not worked, often because North Korea was getting help on the side from such places as China and Iran. Years of talking and “negotiating” have all been one sided, with North Korea using the time to develop bigger and better weapons.

seals

Clandestine — One of the more far-fetched notions recently has been “decapitation”; the notion that we could sneak into North Korea and assassinate Kim Jung-un, and possibly his high ranking advisors. The rumor was even floated that Seal Team Six, the team responsible for killing Osama Bin Laden were training for the job. Kim isn’t hiding in a safe house near Islamabad, he is heavily guarded by fanatics. Any attempt to sneak in and kill him is more likely in a movie than real life. There could be an exception to this, however: the Chinese. It seems likely the Chinese have well-inflitrated the Kim regime with spies. It seems somewhat plausible that they could have the resources to get to Kim and eliminate him. That being said, it’s still a stretch of the imagination.

Pre-emptive strike (non nuclear) —

North Korea is approximately 120,000 square miles, about the size of Pennsylvania.  It has military bases scattered all over the country:

NORK Air Force bases(Click on picture for larger image)

The map above shows only North Korean air force bases. There are naval bases and scores of army bases, many at least partially underground and hidden in the mountains. Taking out these bases is not a simple matter of firing cruise missles, as in Syria. A non-nulcear pre-emptive strike would have to be massive, and the logistics of planning such a strike would telegraph the activity long before it could be used.

Pre-emptive strike (nuclear) —

The doomsday option. The U.S. could indeed strike North Korea using nuclear ICBM’s. Such a strike would allow North Korea no time to prepare, and no ability to respond. The country would be destroyed, with millions of casualities. This option would almost certainly open the door to World War III, with consequences no sane person would even want to contemplate.

The bottom line is that there are no good choices here. None, not one.

Kim-Trump

Full Circle

We come back again to Kim Jong-un, and more importantly the current standoff between he and President Donald Trump. The United States wants North Korea to abandon it’s nuclear weapons, and North Korea is indicating it is doing the opposite; developing bigger weapons and better delivery systems. Years of negotiations have gone no where and the pot is at the boiling point.

There have been suggestions that Kim must know that regardless of outcome, war would inevitably mean his death and the end of his dynasty.  The sense is that this would somehow cause him to back down in the end. On the other hand, there have been suggestions that rather than “lose face” to the Americans, he would be willingly suicidal, and take his country with him.

To be sure, Kim may be insane or quite sane; there have been many like him before: Idi Amin in Uganda, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and certainly Adolph Hitler. All left their mark of destruction, up to and including world war, but all with one exception — none of these monsters had nuclear weapons. He cannot be left to his own devices, and time is not on anyone’s side.  His technology seems to be improving faster than the experts had originally imagined.  If the day comes that he can mount a nuclear weapon on an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S., or place a submarine with nukes aboard off the American coast, it is already too late.

The one possible solution here are the Chinese. While Korea is not a Chinese “puppet”, most of it’s survival depends on the Chinese for trade and support.  China does not want a victorious South Korea or reunified Korea on it’s border, but neither does it want millions of Korean refugees pushed across the Yalu River by a war.

The Chinese could possibly wage and/or assist in a coup against Kim. Removal of him and his most fervent supporters could take the pot off the the fire, possibly allowing for a less extreme governing force in North Korea. It seems at this point only the Chinese could do something like this, and if they did, everyone wins. If they don’t do something, this pot will continue to boil out of control, and everyone will lose.

We are living in a dangerous time.

 

Endnotes

1. Kim Jong-un –Wikipedia

2. Military comparisons — Global Firepower

3. North Korea — Wikipedia

4. The Korean War: http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war

Sports Movies

 

sports

Let me start off my saying I am not much of a sports fan. When I was a kid I followed baseball and collected baseball cards. In the mid 70’s, I followed hockey and the Philadelphia Flyers through their first Stanley Cup win. But that’s about it. I have my opinions about professional sports today, but I’ll keep them to myself.

What I do enjoy are sports movies. Football, baseball, hockey; I enjoy them all. I enjoy them because to me they are about what sports can really be, a metaphor about life.

My idea for writing this came after I sat down the other night and re-watched the movie Invincible:

I liked Invincible for a few obvious reasons: It was about my local team, the Philadelphia Eagles, and it was a true story; the story of the most unlikely player to ever make the NFL.

The movie is uplifting and fun, but most of all it’s about the underdog having his day in the sun.

Thinking about this, I realized that almost every sports movie made follows this same theme – overcoming all odds. Virtually every sport has had movies like this, and I’ve enjoyed almost every one. There are football movies:

The Replacements

Remember the Titans

Honorable mention: Rudy,  Brian’s Song,  Any Given Sunday , The Blind Side.

Then there’s baseball:

Field of Dreams

Major League

Honorable mention: The Natural, The Babe, Eight Men Out,  Cobb

and there is Hockey:

Miracle

Slap Shot

Basketball Movies:

Hoosiers

I started making a list of sports movie and discovered there are far more than I realized, covering every imaginable sport. I’ve seen most of them, often more than once. Besides the clips here, there are any number of heart warming and inspiring movies: Chariots of Fire, Seabiscuit, A League of Their Own, Friday Night Lights, Bull Durham, The Bad News Bears.

I think one thing sports movies do is remind us what we can find inside ourselves, if we dig deep. The characters in these movies, often based on real-life people, aren’t super heros. They are regular people who overcame obstacles, sometimes great ones, to achieve a goal. Their purpose is to inspire, to pull us to our feet, to believe that even what seems impossible might be possible afterall. Underdogs can be heros.

And finally, the quintessential underdog movie:

Rocky

Immigration Part Three — Who Gets In – And Who Doesn’t

 

statue of liberty tears

Recent decisions by President Trump regarding immigration have caused an outcry.  Critics screamed that Trump’s actions were unconstitutional. A New York newspaper front page carried an image of the Statue of Liberty crying.

The outcry was everywhere.  Every form of media reported it along with the oft repeated axiom that we, the “nation of immigrants” don’t do this! We welcome people, we don’t refuse them entry!

Well….. not exactly.

It seems we’ve been denying people entry into the United States for a pretty long time.  Different people at different times, but it was never pretty.

immigration law

Immigration law in the United States.

The first immigation laws in the US were enacted in 1882. The first group excluded were the Chinese.  About 300,000 Chinese had migrated to the US, many of them working on the building of railroads.  Xenophobia about the Chinese gave rise to the phrase “yellow peril”, suggesting the Chinese were taking jobs from native-born Americans.

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, wrote an editorial that included this:

“The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order”

The government enacted the “Chinese Exclusion Act”,  prohibiting Chinese from entering the country. The act was enacted for ten years and was renewed for ten additional years. The act was not officially  repealed until 1943. In essense, we banned Chinese people for sixty-one years.

During the ensuing years, Congress banned imigration of people in bad health and poor education. Specifically banned were infectious disease carriers and “lunatics”.  After President McKinley was assasinated, anarchists were specifically banned in 1901.

In 1917, we added a literacy requirement and expanded the banned persons list to include: “alcoholics”, “anarchists”, “contract laborers”, “criminals and convicts”, “epileptics”, “feebleminded persons”, “idiots”, “illiterates”, “imbeciles”, “insane persons”, “paupers”, “persons afflicted with contagious disease”, “persons being mentally or physically defective”, “persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority”, “political radicals”, “polygamists”, “prostitutes” and “vagrants”.

The same legislation banned people from the “Asiatic Barred Zone”, which included most of Asia and the Pacific Islands.

In 1921, Congress enacted the Emergency Quota Act, which created formulas allowing varying percentages of immigrants from other countries.  An annual cap of 150,000 immigrants was established, and countries were allocated 2-3% of that number.  The quotas were tilted, however to favor Western Europeans.  Southern Europeans, such as Italians, were discouraged by lower quota numbers.  Arabs and Asians were banned completely.

The law was modified over the years, favoring some groups, while restricting others.  Books have been written about the social and politcal machinations using the immigration laws.  The quota system basically stayed in effect until 1965.

Other Bans

Others have been banned from entering the United States, usually specific groups and for specific reasons. Such as:

Franklin D. Roosevelt  limited German Jews during WWII, fearing some could be German spies.  The most notorious of this was the German ocean liner MS St. Louis. The ship set sail from Germany with over 900 Jewish refugees. They were  denied entrance into the United States, and ultimately returned to Germany.  There are estimates that as many as twenty-five percent of those on board eventually died in concentration camps.

The Internal Security Act of 1950, banned Communists, despite being opposed by President Truman.  Sections of the act were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1993.

 Jimmy Carter banned Iranians during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980.

 Ronald Reagan banned HIV positive persons in 1987, adding HIV to the list of “dangerous and contagious” diseases.  The repeal of the ban was begun by George W. Bush in 2008, and completed by Barack Obama in 2009.

In 1981, Reagan banned “Undocumented aliens from the High Seas”.

Reagan also banned all planes, ships and trade from Nicaragua, and banned immigration from Cuba in 1985.

Bill Clinton at various times blocked individuals from Serbia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

George W. Bush blocked immigrants from Haiti.  He also blocked some people from Zimbabwe.

Barack Obama blocked people who  engaged in transactions with North Korea, or who contributed to instability in Libya, Burundi, Central African Republic or Ukraine.   He also blocked people from Iran and Syria.

Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 —  Prevents travel to the US by anyone who has been in the following countries since March 1, 2011: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen.

So all in all, we’ve done our share of preventing people from other countries from touching our shores. Some of the reasons may have been good, others were petty, and some were outrageous. But that’s who we are; we’re not perfect, and our ideals don’t always match reality.

Considering things like terrorism in the modern world, it seems likely we and others will block foreigners from time to time and for various reasons. This is the nature of the human condition today.  Knee jerk reactions and outcries based more on emotion than facts do nothing productive.

Next: In part four we will look at the actual immigration process and see how it works.

References

National Law Review

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Public Law 189-236

Immigration Act of 1990

MS St. Louis — Holocaust Memorial Museum

Undocumented Aliens from the High Seas

 

 

They might be Giants…But they don’t have a college degree

hollywood

One of the things that really got my goat during the recent Presidential election campaign was the statement, repeated over and over again that those voting for Donald Trump were mostly those without a college education.

Pundits and talking heads clucked their tongues, implying the “educated” were voting for Clinton (or at least Bernie Sanders), while all the riff-raff would be supporting Trump. Pompous, sanctimonious and elitist. Their fawning snobbery made me sick.

One of the groups most outspoken this election were the celebrities. Every time I turned on the television it seemed, there was a celebrity pontificating why Trump was a horrible choice.

Since these folks are some of our most elite, surely they must be our best educated, right? I decided to check some credentials. Here’s a list of celebrities who do not  possess a college diploma:

No college degree:

Ben Affleck – college dropout (University of Vermont)

Jack Black – college dropout

Cher – dropped out of school at age 16

Louis C.K   — no college

George Clooney – college dropout (University of Cincinnati)

Miley Cyrus – Charter schools, private tutors, acting school. No college.

Johnny Depp – high school dropout

Leonardo DiCaprio – high school dropout – GED

Robert Di Niro – high school drop out (age 16)

Barry Diller – college dropout (UCLA)

Richard Gere – college dropout (Amherst)

Whoopi Goldberg – high school dropout

Chelsea Handler – no college

Angelina Jolie   – no college

Jimmy Kimmel – college dropout (Arizona State)

Jennifer Lawrence – no college

Rob Lowe – Santa Monica High School – no college

Madonna – dropped out of college (University of Michigan)

Michael Moore – college dropout (University of Michigan)

Rosie O’Donnell – college dropout (Boston University)

Sean Penn – Santa Monica High School – no college

Brad Pitt – college dropout (University of Missouri)

Mark Ruffalo – no college

Barbra Streisand – no college

Al Sharpton – college dropout (Brooklyn College)

Sarah Silverman – college dropout (NYU)

Ben Stiller – college dropout (USC)

Actually, they are in the majority.  Only about 32-34 percent of Americans hold a bachelor degree or higher. And that’s fine.  Many people can be perfectly successful without a degree, and many are, these included.

Until this election, education never seemed to matter, and indeed it shouldn’t.  Snobbery is never becoming. The next time the pundits talk about the “non-college educated”,  they should perhaps look among  their elitist icons.

Why Donald Trump Won the Election

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The pundits were wrong, and now as I write this piece the morning after the election, they are still wrong. They don’t get it. They never did, and perhaps they never will. Correction, they’ll pretend they knew, but they didn’t.

Throughout this nightmare campaign, Trump bashing, and indeed Clinton bashing dominated nearly every news cycle. Trump was a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, vile, perverted, etc. bastard. Clinton was a crook. The screaming and shouting and accusations back and forth never stopped. We had nominated the two worst people in the world, and your guy was always worse than mine. People completely missed the point.

The election was never about Trump and Clinton. They were figureheads, metaphors if you will for the underlying issues that we were never able to confront. The issues are clear, and they are there, and they are the reasons Trump won.

Before we address the real issues, let us take pause for a minute and discuss one important factor in Clinton’s loss.

Trump supporters are not “deplorables”. They are not overwhelmingly racist, homophobic, poorly-educated, gun-toting knuckle draggers that many Clinton supporters believed and the pundits wanted people to believe. They are the backbone of this country. They are made up largely of the former middle class which has all but disintegrated in the past few decades. They are not stupid, not by a long shot, and they mightily resented that condescending label foisted upon them by the media elite. If I heard about Trump’s “non-college educated” supporters once, I heard it ten thousand times. This was almost presented as some sort of qualifier, a ticket to correctness.

This patronizing and condescending tone prevailed throughout the election, oddly pushed not only by the Clinton camp, but from the Republican “elites” who clearly demonstrated what they thought of their own constituents.

Another factor in the repertoire was social issues. The “Deplorables” were against equal rights, hated immigrants and the LGBTQ community. They were racists and fascists, dragging their knuckles through the backwoods swamps of flyover country.  Wrong, wrong and wrong.

These issues were not the deciding factor in this election, no matter how much the pundits wanted them to be. Frankly, by moving these issues to the top of the Democrat agenda, they drilled holes in their own ship. While people care about social issues, they do not rise to the level of election-determining, not in 2016. There are far bigger fish to fry.

Laws and elections don’t deal with social issues, people do. Certainly the civil rights laws of the sixties were important, but they came about not from the top, but from the bottom. Society is always changing, much like the climate. We are a sea of individuals living side by side, and we learn to harmonize by our own actions and interactions. Laws can’t make people like each other. Presidents can’t dictate who will accept whom. These things evolve by their own accord and always have. People change, usually for the better. We learn from each other. Certainly there is discord at times, but this has also always been so. Making social issues the primary focus of a political campaign was a losing strategy all along.

Now let’s discuss why Trump won. There were four main issues, mostly either ignored or blown out of all rational proportion during the campaign. From least to most important, here they are:

 Number #4 Immigration:

Let’s first dispense with a silly notion: Trump supporters do not hate immigrants. Say that again; they do not hate immigrants. We are all immigrants to some degree of generations removed, and we all know that. We all know America’s history; “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” We know it, and we get it.

Trump supporters agree with legal immigration, to repeat the word: legal. We have immigration laws; whether we agree with them or not, they are the laws. If you don’t like the law, change it. But until the law is changed, it should be upheld. Rationales like illegal immigrants “do the jobs Americans won’t do”, do not get it. Change the law or uphold it.

And yes, people resented their tax dollars paying for welfare and food stamps for illegal immigrants. And why shouldn’t they, especially if they have lost their well-paying job and are scraping to get by. By definition an illegal immigrant is here illegally and by law they are breaking the law.

For months (years actually), I’ve heard about the need to “reform” immigration policy. Never happened. Congress was content to do nothing; Obama was content with allowing the laws to be broken. It could have been fixed. People wanted it fixed. The government ignored it and Trump said “Build a Wall!”  Trump and his wall metaphor became a target for hate from the left, but still the government did nothing. This should never have been an issue, but it was. The issue really isn’t about immigration, it is about government failure.

A final note on immigration: Trump’s comments about Muslim immigration were directed toward Syrian immigrants. He stated that it was impossible to “vet” these immigrants, and implied this was a possible avenue for terrorists to sneak into the county. He has yet to be proven wrong on this. No one in the Administration has ever explained how it would be possible to background check these immigrants, classified as refugees from that war-torn country. It is simply impossible to do anything but take them at their word, a definite national security risk, especially since ISIS has touted their ability to sneak potential terrorists into the United States. This part of the immigration issue was never about racism or intolerance as the critics suggested.

Number #3 Foreign Policy

We have a foreign policy, don’t we? Let’s take a look at what is going on:

Afghanistan: We still have thousands of troops in Afghanistan. We’ve been there now for fourteen years! Why? What is our mission? We have American troops dying there every week and no one in the government seems to be able to articulate why.

The Middle East; chaos in the region. Our officials celebrated the “Arab Spring” in 2010, and things have gone downhill ever since. Egypt is in turmoil. We helped take down Khadafy in Libya and there is chaos there. Syria is at war; and we’re backing who? Rebels? Which rebels? Do we even know anymore? Oh yeah, something called ISIS came along under our current foreign policy.

Secret deal with Iran? Why is all this secret? What deal are we striking with this country, and will this allow Iran to build nuclear weapons down the road? We don’t know that, do we?

Russia on the move, perceiving our weakness. Ditto China. The Philippines want us out.

And on and on and on…..

Critics and pundits have argued Trump would make a mess of our foreign policy? Really?

Trump supporters looked at what is going on today and concluded that Trump may make our foreign policy better, but it does not seem he could make it much worse.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing to those who voted for Trump was the notion of “globalism”.  This relatively new phenomena was first heard when George H. Bush referred elliptically to the “new world order”; the beginning of the idea that the United States was not special, but merely one nation among many. Trump supporters rejected that notion. They believe in American exceptionalism. Certainly this is an emotional belief, but a strong one.  Trump supporters want to be part of the world community, but on American terms. No country in history has done more to support and defend freedom around the world. No country has done more to rush to the aid of others in distress. This is exceptionalism, and Trump supporters believe this intensely.

Number #2 Trade

We have been told over and over that free trade with the rest of the world has been good for Americans. Certainly the availability of inexpensive goods and services has been positive. But what about jobs? What about the thousands of Hillary Clinton’s “Deplorables” who watched their jobs shipped off overseas, and saw their middle class dreams evaporate?

The Clinton Administration enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Since that enactment and combined with other free trade agreements, our trade deficit rose from $2 billion in 1994 to over $60 billion in 2015. Almost 700,000 jobs were lost, directly attributable to NAFTA. Some may argue these were replaced with other jobs as the economy grew, but even if this is so, which it is not, the “replacement” jobs are often at significantly lower salaries and lack the benefits the old jobs provided.

The Obama Administration has been pushing the TPP or Transpacific trade agreement, broadening free trade with Asia. Again, at what price? The price of more displaced American workers?

Curiously, when pressed for detailed specifics about the advantages of free trade, supporters always seem to come up lacking details. They are happy to cite numbers about GDP and other financial figures, but when it comes to citing actual and specific jobs, they always grow evasive.

The bottom line is that if a trade agreement is good for America, those supporting it should be able to point to specific concrete reasons why this is so. Absent that, Trump supporters don’t believe them.

Number #1 The Economy

It’s Still the Economy Stupid…

Back in May I wrote a piece suggesting that the main issue in the election was the economy http://williamwlewis.com/wordpress/?p=1506. I followed that with a second piece in August about the demise of the Middle Class: http://williamwlewis.com/wordpress/?p=1560 .

This is what bought voters to the polls in massive numbers, numbers never seen before in a national election. Above and beyond anything else, people are worried about their jobs, their families, and their future.

Whether it is trade agreements or technology or these plus other things, there are few bright lights on the horizon when it comes to the economy. In the United States, we are falling into two categories; those who have done well from these changes, and those who have not; winners and losers, the haves and have-nots.

The Middle Class have been a driving force in this country for the past seventy years. We have grown and prospered because of the blood, sweat and toil of those people labeled as “Deplorables” by Hillary Clinton. Without a Middle Class, the economy tips over. Without a Middle Class we are not the same country we once were. The Middle Class is what made America great, and that greatness is what Trump voters sought.

Trump supporters aren’t “Deplorables”. They’re not racists or homophobes or misogynists. They are just like you. They go to work, raise their families, and hope for the best. They don’t hate any more than you do. They watch TV, go to ball games, and probably eat the same kinds of food that you do. They are the same as you, not different.

The notion of division in this country is false, a construct of politics. The election is over, those barriers should fall. It’s time for everyone to stop fighting, shake hands and become Americans again. We have work to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handicapping the Election

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We are just a few weeks away from what appears to be the most contentious presidential election of modern times. If presidential primaries are any indication, we might see record turnouts as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump battle for the White House.

Every day there are new polls, new assessments, and new predictions. To be sure, no one knows who will win, but as political sport, the prognosticators are out in force.  Predictions are often based on emotions and personal feelings; handicapping is assessing the situation using as much practicality as possible. Let’s attempt a bit of the latter.

We’re not really looking at the candidates here, but rather the individual states; their histories and their political tendencies coupled with the current reality on the ground. Contrary to most beliefs, national elections are not about the country as a whole, they are about individual states. States are different, as are the people in them. These differences determine who wins and who loses.

At the end of this piece, I will make my own prediction. My prediction record is 100 percent, because I have never done it before. I may be right, I may be wrong. I’d enjoy hearing your comments on my method and your thinking on this issue.

The Electoral College

Presidential elections are won or lost in the Electoral College. States are apportioned college “votes” based on population. The total number of votes is 538, based on the members of the House of Representatives (435), the Senate (100), and three additional votes for the District of Columbia. It takes 270 votes to win, as simple as that. The person who receives 270 or more votes becomes President.

This process, although seen as unfair by some, was designed to allow smaller, less populated states parity with larger populations. Without it, elections would solely be determined by the areas with larger populations, leaving many of the smaller populated states with no voice.

Most states award electoral votes based on a winner-state-all system. This means that whichever candidate receives the majority of votes in that state receives all the electoral votes for that state. Only two states, Maine and Nebraska award electoral votes based on a percentage of the votes cast.

vote-02Most of us are familiar with the “red/blue” electoral map, red for Republican and blue for Democrat.  For the most part, states tend to retain their color, often for many years. This is because the voting constituency tends to remain the same. Population shifts can cause changes, but generally take years to do so. For this reason, it is usually reasonable to predict that a state like Massachusetts will go “blue”, and a state like Alabama will remain “red”. The few states with a tendency to change back and forth more frequently are known as “swing states” and are usually the most closely watched during an election. The number of swing states tends to vary only slightly from election cycle to cycle.
All this being said let’s look at the 2016 election, region by region to see what is happening:

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New England:

New England is notoriously a blue region, and we should expect mostly the same this election. Clinton should prevail in Massachusetts (11), Rhode Island (4), Connecticut (7), and Vermont (3).

States to watch:Two states to watch in this region: New Hampshire (4) and Maine (4). New Hampshire is considered the most conservative state in the region, and Trump showed some early polling progress there. As of this writing, Clinton is polling six points ahead. Trump is faring somewhat better in Maine, and appears to be rising in the polls. Main splits its electoral vote, so Trump could take away vote or two.

If any red shows up in New England, it could be a long night for Hillary Clinton.

 

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 Mid Atlantic States:

Another blue region, the Mid Atlantic states most often remain the same. New York (29), New Jersey (14), Delaware (3), Maryland (10), the District of Columbia (3), and last but surely not least, Pennsylvania (20).

 State to watch: The Mid-Atlantic only has one state really “in-play” — Pennsylvania. Normally a blue state, the state seems to at least the potential for “swinging” over to red this year.

Pennsylvania has two major cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and a handful of smaller cities. Much of the rest of the state is small rural towns. Pennsylvania’s economy was once largely industrial; coal mining and steel production being two. Both of these industries have been crippled in the current economy, and the future of coal mining in general is under assault by environmentalists. The one bright industrial area in the state, gas and oil fracking, is also under environmental attack.

The rural areas of Pennsylvania are sandwiched between the two cities. Philadelphia has always been a Democratic stronghold, and will likely remain so. Western Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh seems to be shifting toward Republicans. Lack of industry coupled with an aging population seem to be propelling this. Another factor is that in the rural areas, like much of the country, voter turnout has fallen in recent years. Much of this population is white, and  non-college educated, a group largely seen as leaning toward Trump. If large numbers of this group decided to vote this year, there is a possibility the state could go from blue to red.  This a state to watch.

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The South:

Much of the South has been traditionally Republican territory in recent elections. Red states tend to include West Virginia (3), Kentucky (8), Tennessee (11), South Carolina (9), Georgia (16), Alabama (9), Mississippi (6), Louisiana (8), Texas (38), Oklahoma (7), and Arkansas (6).  One can be reasonably certain these states will remain red this time. There are, however, three Southern states that bear watching.

States to watch:

Virginia (13) is an interesting example of demographic change. Home of the Confederacy, Virginia had been a red state since the 1980’s years of Ronald Regan. In 2008, however, Virginia turned blue, along with neighboring North Carolina. Both states went for Barrack Obama twice.

A good part of the changing demographic in Virginia is the increase of federal workers in Northern Virginia. This part of the state has undergone a population boom in the last ten years. Thousands upon thousands of people working for the government or government contractors have poured in. Many of these people tend to vote Democrat, simply overwhelming the past nature of the state to vote Republican. As of this writing, Clinton is polling about 5 percentage points ahead of Trump, so the blue trend may prevail here. Nonetheless, this is a state worth watching.

North Carolina (15) is an important state to watch. Typically a red state, North Carolina voted for Barrack Obama in 2008, but for Mitt Romney in 2012. Sudden reversals like this mean the state is in play, and is considered a “battleground” state — either candidate can win. Current polling put Clinton and Trump in a dead heat in North Carolina, making this an important state to watch.

Florida (29) The biggest prize in the traditional South, and one of the most difficult to predict. Florida is another state, that while traditionally red, went to blue in the last two elections. It is also one of the most contentious (Bush/Gore 2000), largely due to a highly diverse population. Florida is a “must win” state for Donald Trump. Without winning Florida, it becomes hard to visualize him winning the election.

Racial and ethnic demographics will surely play a role in Florida. The state is 60 percent white,  20 percent Hispanic, and 17 percent black. A large percentage of the Hispanic population are Cubans, who tend to vote Republican. Florida also contains the highest percentage of people over the age of 65 in the entire country.

As of this writing. Florida is another “dead heat” in polling between Clinton and Trump. Of all the states to watch, not only in the South, but the whole country, Florida may well be the most important. It is not unreasonable to suggest that whoever wins Florida will win the election.

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The Midwest:

The thirteen states of the Midwest have stayed roughly the same for the last two elections. There are some possible changes this year.

First the no-change states: North Dakota (3), South Dakota (3), Nebraska (5), Kansas (6), Missouri (10), and Indiana (11) have been red states and are likely to remain so and go for Trump.

Minnesota (10) and Illinois (20), both blue states, will likely remain so.

States to watch:

Iowa (6): Traditionally a farm state that leans conservative has shifted a bit to the left in recent years as there are fewer family and more corporate farms and young people have not gone into the family business, but off to college instead. Iowa went for Obama in 2012. Currently however, Trump is polling about three points ahead of Clinton, still within the margin of error, but nonetheless, this makes Iowa another “battleground” state.

Wisconsin (10): Wisconsin has flip-flopped Democrat/Republican a number of times over the years, but has been a “blue” state since voting for Al Gore in 2000. There are some factors in play that deserve attention. First, neither Clinton nor Trump won their primaries in Wisconsin. The winners were Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, candidates to the respective left and right of the current nominees. Governor Scott Walker (R) has been a controversial  figure, battling the teacher’s union. The Tea Party has also played a role in Wisconsin politics. Clinton and Trump are currently polling within 4 points of each other, making Wisconsin a “key battleground” state because of it’s high number of electoral votes.

Michigan (16): While Michigan has favored Democrats in the last four Presidential elections, the state historically has favored Republicans more often. Michigan is another state where Sanders beat Clinton in the Democrat primary. Clinton is currently polling about five points ahead of Trump in Michigan. That being said, Michigan is a “rust belt” state that has lost thousands of manufacturing (mostly auto) jobs to overseas trade, a position largely favored by Democrats. Trump’s appeal to disaffected, laid-off workers could tilt the balance here.  Michigan is another “key battleground” state.

Ohio (18): The crown jewel of the Midwest, politically speaking, and another critical state for Donald Trump. Ohio has voted for the Presidential victor more often than any other state (93% of the time). It has been both red and blue, voting for George W. Bush twice and Barrack Obama twice. Clinton and Trump are polling within two points of each other in Ohio, making this state an absolute horse race.  Ohio is another “rust belt” state damaged by jobs lost from foreign trade. Eight years of being a “blue” state does not seemed to have helped the Ohio economy, so it seems reasonable to see a swing to red in this state.

The West:

Five solid red states in the west — Montana (3), Idaho (3), Wyoming (3), and Utah (6), Arizona (11), and one solid blue, New Mexico (5),  none likely to change.

States to watch:

Colorado (9): Colorado is another state that went red for Bush and blue for Obama. Currently Clinton and Trump are polling about three points apart, too close to call. As a battleground state, Colorado is unpredictable. Traditionally red, the state has been becoming increasingly liberal, and in fact Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton here in the Democratic primary. On the other hand, Ted Cruz beat Trump here, the result of an influential right-wing Tea Party population. Colorado is a toss up state.

Nevada (6): Another state that voted twice for Bush and twice for Obama. Clinton and Trump are tied in the polling here. However based upon the primary turnouts, Republicans seem to outnumber the Democrats in Nevada by a significant number, making this a close call, but seemingly leaning toward Trump.

The Pacific Coast and Offshore:

Very easy to predict: California (55), Oregon (7) and Washington (5), all blue, all solid Democrat states.

Alaska (3), red. Hawaii (4), blue.

 Outcomes:

My count gives Hillary Clinton a pretty solid 16 states and 201 electoral votes. The same method gives Donald Trump 23 states but only 191 electoral votes. Since neither candidate has enough “solid” states to win, the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election will be determined by the remaining 11 “battleground” states.

Predictions:

New Hampshire — Clinton

Maine — Clinton

Pennsylvania — Clinton

Virginia — Clinton

North Carolina — Trump

Florida — Trump

Iowa — Trump

Wisconsin — Trump

Michigan — Clinton

Ohio — Trump

Colorado — Trump

Nevada — Trump

My totals give the victory to Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in a very tight race, 275 to 263.

As a footnote: my prediction includes Wisconsin going to Trump and New Hampshire to Clinton. If these two states reversed, New Hampshire for Trump and Wisconsin for Clinton, the result would be an absolute tie, 269 to 269, throwing the election choice to the House of Representatives.

Presidential elections are often personality contests, decided by the voters individual reaction to the candidate. I believe 2016 is different, in that there are two relatively unpopular/unlikable candidates. This time, I think more people will vote on their own political philosophies, liberal or conservative. Normally, this would maintain the status quo of previous elections, but this cycle seems to have triggered far more visceral reactions than I can remember in my lifetime. With neither candidate being strong, even within their own parties, it seems to me this could be the year for the apple cart to tip over, changing traditional expectations.

I may be right, I may be wrong. What is your opinion?

 

 

It’s Still the Economy Stupid, Part Two — Say Good Bye to the Middle Class

middle_class_sign

The American Middle Class, the driver of the US economy, is in retreat.  By definition, the middle class worker makes a decent salary and spends money. This makes companies profitable, and they expand and hire more workers. Government collects more taxes, and expands programs. Middle class workers pay to educate their children and save some of their money. This increases the numbers of educated workers and builds personal wealth. The middle class is the hub of the wheel around which everything else turns. Today, the hub is shrinking. and the wheel is getting wobbly.

In 1970, the middle class comprised 62 percent of the population. The upper income class was 20 percent and the lower income 10 percent. By 2014, upper income had risen to 49 percent, the lower was 9 percent, and the middle class had shrunk to 43 percent. The trend is clear: We are heading toward a nation of have’s and have-nots, which is not in the least desirable.

Manufacturing jobs in the 50’s and 60’s created the American middle class. The American “dream” of owning a home and a car, buying a television and having an annual vacation became reality for millions of people. Most of all, the middle class had opportunity for upward mobility, the idea that they and their children could look forward to a brighter future.

In 1955, the five largest employers in the United States were General Motors, U.S. Steel, General Electric, Chrysler, and Standard Oil. These companies employed a total of 1.4 million people. Today, the largest employer in the United States is Walmart, employing  2.2 million workers. Other retailers in the top five employers include McDonald’s, Kroger, and Home Depot.

Fully 14.8 million Americans are employed in retail sales, and another 13.3 million in the leisure and hospitality sector. The vast majority of these jobs fall in the minimum wage range.

Sociologists in the 1950’s first began describing the class as primarily the new white-collar worker. The upper middle class consisted of college-educated salaried professionals and managers. The lower middle class was comprised of skilled craftsman and lower-level managers. According to the sociologists, middle class people had a comfortable standard of living, economic security, and could rely on their expertise to sustain themselves.

When the middle class declines, wages stagnate, consumers buy less, companies downsize. Tax revenue decrease, government cuts programs, and unemployment rises.

The Pew Research Center recently reported on the slippages of the middle class:

“The American middle class is losing ground in metropolitan areas across the country, affecting communities from Boston to Seattle and from Dallas to Milwaukee. From 2000 to 2014 the share of adults living in middle-income households fell in 203 of the 229 U.S. metropolitan areas examined in a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data. The decrease in the middle-class share was often substantial, measuring 6 percentage points or more in 53 metropolitan areas, compared with a 4-point drop nationally … The shrinking of the middle class at the national level, to the point where it may no longer be the economic majority in the U.S…” (1)

As the middle class recedes, the gap between the haves and the have-nots  increases. In 1978, the typical middle class work made a salary of about $48,000 (adjusted to 2010 dollars). In that year, there were about 393,000 people in the top 1% of wage earners.  That adjusted salary for that worker in 2010 decreased to about $34,000, while the number of wealthy 1% earners increased to over 1.1 million people.

The rich are getting richer, stockholders in prosperous companies are getting richer. The middle class grows poorer by the day. There is no “trickle down” in today’s economy. Companies are not created to benefit the worker; they are created to benefit the owners and the stockholders. Stockholders in public companies constantly pressure management to make more and more money and push stock prices upward. This puts enormous pressure on management to continually look at ways to save money by reducing a singular large cost — employee salaries and benefits.

One of the reasons for the decline of the middle class is undoubtedly the loss of our manufacturing base to globalization and the rise of technology. Simply bringing manufacturing back is not an answer, as more and more manufacturing can be done by machines and robots. Other countries, however, are manufacturing in the high tech world. We’re not doing such a good job. Let’s look at an example:

apple-iphone-5s

The IPhone — popular and efficient. Who makes the money from the sale of IPhone components?

Japan 34% — Germany 17% — South Korea 13% — USA 6% — China 4%  — Other 27%

American company,  Apple,  jobs out all but 6 percent of component manufacturing to non-American countries. By the way, the phone is assembled in China, but the components are made elsewhere.

Even the American automobile has the majority of its parts made elsewhere and shipped to the US for assembly.

So who looks out for the middle class? Anyone?

I don’t claim to have answers, maybe no one does. But I believe this is something we should be talking about and asked our politicians about, especially in relation to both current and proposed trade agreements. Policies being considered today will effect our children tomorrow, and if recent history is any indicator, we need some serious policy changes.

In the meantime, I strongly recommend you watch this:

 

References:

(1)Pew Research Center 5/11/16: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/05/11/americas-shrinking-middle-class-a-close-look-at-changes-within-metropolitan-areas/

It’s Still the Economy, Stupid

its-the-economy-stupid

We are in the midst of a presidential election campaign, and all hell seems to be breaking loose.  Businessman Donald Trump, the putative Republican nominee is wreaking havoc with pundits and critics on both sides of the aisle.  His views on everything from immigration to foreign policy are seen as controversial to say the very least. Virtually every time he opens his mouth some critic claims that it is another example of why he is crazy; a lunatic, a fascist.

One would think the chances for this bombastic  real estate mogul would be minimal at best; yet he is sweeping the field during the primary season, and the numbers of supporters seem to grow daily. Why might this be?

Critics will tell you many things about Trump supporters, most of them not very kind. From the left especially, Trump supporters are seem as racists, rednecks, poorly-educated, slovenly hillbillies (no disrespect to hillbillies). The vitriol seems endless, but that is just part of the political climate of 2016. It’s nasty and pretty brutish.

One could look at any one of a number of issues and cross swords over the Trump position.  Indeed, any person may see any one of a dozen issues as most important  in this election.  I see primarily one. To steal a phrase from the “Rajin’ Cajun”, James Carville during the Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Carville was doing nothing more than stating the politically obvious, something known for decades:  people vote their pocketbooks. I would submit that one reason Donald Trump is doing so well is that the American economy is in the tank. Before we talk numbers and statistics, however, let’s look at a little history:

rca victorRCA Victor, Camden New Jersey

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in South Jersey, about ten miles from Camden, New Jersey. Camden was a thriving manufacturing town.  RCA Victor made radios and televisions, Campbell Soup,  Hollingshead Corporation made polishes and waxes, Warren Webster Company made heating and cooling components.  New York Shipyard actually built ships;  big ones, right in Camden.

South Jersey was ripe with industry:  Owens Illinois and Owens Corning companies made fiberglas insulation and glass bottles in multiple factories.  Wheaton Glass made all sorts of glass products, as did dozens of smaller companies.  Additionally, South Jersey had a thriving agricultural industry (the famous Jersey tomato).

Jobs were everywhere and easy to find, without even crossing the Delaware River to Philadelphia, where jobs were even more plentiful.

In those days, a person with a little backbone could land a decent-paying job, support a family, buy a house, and take that summer vacation.  It wasn’t difficult, all it took was hard work.  In those days, folks with a minimal education could get a decent manual labor job and high school graduates could become “management trainees”.  For those with a college education, management positions were abundant. Today, it’s all gone.

Today, Camden is rated as one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. Poverty and crime are rampant. Those factories are all gone, torn down and not replaced with anything except littered empty lots. The other factories in South Jersey are mostly gone too,  several of them left standing as a ghostly reminder of what once was.

Why?

Why did these jobs go away? Why do we manufacture almost nothing today?

We know where the jobs went:  The last television set was manufactured in the US in 1999. Today, most are made in China.  Campbell’s still has it’s “world headquarters” in Camden, but no longer manufactures anything in the city (no more Jersey tomatoes in your tomato soup).

savannahThe NS Savannah, the world’s first commercial nuclear powered ship was built in Camden. Today, most shipbuilding takes place in other countries.

Tariffs

A tariff is a tax on imported goods. The tariff is used to regulate the flow of imported products into the country, as well as to protect the prices of domestic goods from low-cost (foreign) competition.

The United States has used tariffs in trade with other countries since 1789. Tariffs ranged from a low of around 15 percent to a high of around 45 percent in 1870. In the 20th century,  tariffs declined as trade with other countries increased. By the end of World War II, the average tariff on foreign goods was around 8 percent.

By the 1970’s tariffs went down to around six percent,  which spurred the import of foreign automobiles, particularly Japanese.  American auto workers fought for raising tariffs, but lost. The government agreed to a “voluntary” restriction of imports by the Japanese.  We all know how this played out.  Other American industries, such as steel, TV’s, textiles, and clothing were already collapsing from low-cost imports. The loss of the American auto industry was a major event.

In the 1980’s, the Republicans abandoned protectionism, and tariffs fell even more. Tariffs drifted downward to around 3 percent. More and more American goods were being replaced by goods from foreign manufacturers.

NAFTA

The North American Free Trade Agreement  (NAFTA), was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1994. This law effectively removed all tariffs between the United States with Canada and Mexico.

Ross Perot, a third-party candidate for President and Texas businessman in 1992 opposed NAFTA. He said this:

 …We have got to stop sending jobs overseas. It’s pretty simple: If you’re paying $12, $13, $14 an hour for factory workers and you can move your factory South of the border, pay a dollar an hour for labor,…have no health care—that’s the most expensive single element in making a car— have no environmental controls, no pollution controls and no retirement, and you don’t care about anything but making money, there will be a giant sucking sound going south
…when [Mexico’s] jobs come up from a dollar an hour to six dollars an hour, and ours go down to six dollars an hour, and then it’s leveled again. But in the meantime, you’ve wrecked the country with these kinds of deals.

Soon after NAFTA,  significant changes in the balance of trade began.

 Maquiladoras

malqMexico began immediately setting up maquiladoras, or manufacturing shops right over the border in Mexico. These plants used imported components and  produce goods for duty-free export into the United States.  Today there are over 3000 maquilladoras, shipping duty-free goods into the United States every day.

Government officials argue that these free-trade agreements are good for the economy, but don’t like to talk about the 700,000 American jobs lost because of NAFTA.

Since NAFTA, the US has negotiated at least fourteen (14) additional free trade agreements with countries around the world, including, but not limited to China, Jordan, Oman, Peru, Columbia,Honduras, Panama, and South Korea.  We have pending trade agreements with all of the other countries in the Western Hemisphere, all of Europe, the Middle East, and every country touched by the Pacific Ocean (Trans Pacifiic Partnership, TPP). In other words, free trade with the rest of the world.

Try finding a major product manufactured in the United States today — look around your home, look at labels.  My guess is you will find precious few newer product “Made in the USA”.

 Figures lie, and liars figure …. old adage.

fred

An obvious question about all this free trade is how has this effected gainful employment in this country. Well, that seems to depend on who you ask.

The official unemployment rate hovers around five percent , which the government and the Chamber of Commerce would tell you is pretty good. But is that number accurate, and what does it mean?

That five percent calculates out to around 8 million people out of work. This however is only the “official” unemployment; people seeking work and collecting unemployment benefits. Once a person stops collecting benefits, they are off the list — whether they found work or not. The government doesn’t exactly list them as employed, although that is the implication. It just removes them from the count. So official unemployment: 8 million.

On the opposite side of that coin, Trump and others have said there are as many as 94 million out of work. Well, that isn’t right either. That number includes anyone over 16 years old not reported as working. So it includes teenagers and others in school as well as retirees, who obviously are not working.

According to the Bookings Institute, there are probably about 13 million adults who are not collecting benefits but still not working, or working only part-time and seeking full time employment. So we’re really looking at around 21 million people, a 12-15 percent unemployment rate. Obviously, this is much higher in certain demographic groups.

And then there are those who are working but…. The “underemployed”.

If a person made $50,000 per year and lost their job, and the best new job they could find paid only $25,000, they are underemployed. Millions of people technically “working” are working at jobs earning far less than they once did, with little prospect of returning to the higher pay they once enjoyed.

Several estimates suggest around nine million people fall into the “underemployed” category, bringing our unemployed/underemployed number to about 30 million people.  Is the economy working? Not for them.

The Future — Manufacturing and technology.

America has been losing manufacturing jobs since the early 1980’s, and continues to do so. The suggestion that the jobs lost to other countries were only low-skilled jobs is frankly nonsense. Regardless of the skill levels, lost jobs are lost jobs — they’re not coming back.

Add to this the fact that technology is advancing rapidly, causing the potential loss of even more jobs. Ever think how many bank tellers lost their jobs because of ATM’s? Not likely, because we tend not to pay attention, but we should. This becomes even more apparent when we consider the current clamoring to raise the minimum wage. If employee costs cut into a company’s bottom line, something is going to give, and that something could be even more people losing their jobs.

The United States has historically used things like tariffs to protect jobs. It’s only really been since NAFTA (1994) that politicians and corporations seriously embraced this world-wide “free trade” concept. They promoted the idea. and still do claiming it is good for the American economy, and any other stance is a step backward to isolationism. This of course, is nonsense. The politicians have profited, corporations have profited, wealthy stockholders have profited; all while the American worker has suffered.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked this question.:

“Next Tuesday is Election Day. Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don’t agree, if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.”

Ask yourself that same question thirty-six years later. Think about your answer.

Full circle

trump

This brings us back to Donald Trump. It’s not clear if re-imposing tariffs or other actions will bring back American jobs, especially manufacturing jobs. But Trump is pointing to a hot-button issue for millions of folks. He calls it out, and puts it on the front page. Whether or not he could change anything would remain to be seen. But he’s talking about it, something other politicians have dodged and dodged and dodged.

Certainly there are other issues in this election, and I’ll be writing about some of them as well. But if our economy and our future economic condition isn’t a central issue in 2016, then I don’t know what is.