Think About It

The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates


It’s no surprise that I spent a lot of my supposedly formative years living an interior life – lots of reading, computer programming, games, etc. This is not to say that I never went outside. I had a dirt bike that I loved to ride in Minnesota, and camping had not lost its luster for me in those early days. Taking the L.A. River to Seal Beach on single-gear beach cruisers (in the years before anyone was pretentious enough to use the term “fixie”) was another great way to spend time with friends. I say that these were my supposedly formative years, because I think I’ve continued to form since then, with a nice burst of formation happening during my Army service. Travel truly is enlightening, and being forced to work and live with people from other backgrounds is a fine way to expand the mind as well.

I’m guessing a significant number of people live a life that Socrates would consider unworthy. They don’t examine their decisions, their beliefs, or their biases. They react to things which make them feel strongly, and don’t wonder if they’re being manipulated (intentionally or not). These people can’t comprehend that others do spend time thinking about why they should or should not believe things. Talking with them can be fascinating, but not for long. It’s like talking to the old Eliza chat program – it resembles a conversation, but nobody is actually conveying any information to the other participant.

Philosophers have come up with a number of terms and concepts regarding ethics. One of the concepts in ethics that is applicable to politics is “utilitarianism.” The basics are that we should make decisions based on the least harm or greatest benefit that the results would create. So, we should choose policies that have the best end result, regardless of the rationale for those policies. Deontology is another concept, which says we should make decisions based on the inherent rightness or wrongness of the actions, regardless of the eventual consequences. There’s a lot more depth to both of these concepts, and to the varying interpretations, but this should be a good start.

When we look at the society we have today, and the society we might dream of it becoming, we can think of doing the right thing, or we can think of doing the thing which produces the best result, and sometimes they’re even the same plan. That balancing act is tough to handle at times, but I’m not willing to just appeal to authority and make what someone else says is the One True Choice.

My views on society are, like most thoughtful people I know, not always perfectly coherent. There are always holes where I may not have spent enough time thinking through a position. Many times, I have to admit ignorance and try to avoid forming a concrete opinion on an issue that others have expertise and personal experience with. I’m generally on the side of utilitarianism, but there are times when you just have to do the right thing (apologies to Spike Lee). Fortunately, we rarely encounter a real-life version of the Trolley Problem in our lives.

This is all well and good, you say, but what the hell is the point? I’m mostly wool gathering, but it’s been prompted by seeing the sheer volume of people who will parrot nonsense, and when challenged, rely on “well we’ll never agree.” Yeah, if we can’t talk without rancor, we won’t agree. If we can’t both acknowledge the other as a fully-formed human being with opinions which are honestly held, we won’t agree. If we can’t put aside the silly name calling and tribalism and try to understand why we believe things that others think are ridiculous (and they believe things we think are ridiculous), we’ll never agree.

I’ve seen a few of my friends recently try to engage with people who have differing political views. My friends have all (and this is why they’re friends) been unfailingly polite, and attempted to defuse the defensive posturing to get to a core, “why do you say that” answer. Alas, I’ve never seen this end with a sharing of views. I’ve seen the defensive person just disappear or disappear after the “agree to disagree” comment, but at no point explicating WHY the opinion was held in the first place. It’s truly maddening.

So, I can only come to the conclusion that some significant number of our fellow humans don’t think much, and can’t understand those who do. Everything must be simpler when all answers are obvious, and nothing has nuance or subtlety. I don’t live in that world, but it sounds like a cartoon to me. I’ve found that humans are rarely caricatures. I know many gun owners who are in favor of stricter gun control. I know people who are pro-choice and pro-gun, in favor of environmental causes and also in favor of nuclear power. None of the people I would consider friends would call someone a “libtard” or a “rethuglican” except as a clear joke. I think the nation and the world would be better off if we could stop with the tribalism (and that’s what party politics are) and start trying to see the common humanity in our fellow people.

And, seriously – think about things.


As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. – Thoreau

Testing Crosspost to LJ & G+

I’m testing a new plugin for WordPress to post to Livejournal. The old one seems to be inserting random characters in my posts, and breaking URLs and otherwise not functioning as desired. The fact that it hasn’t been updated in a year, while WordPress has been updated a dozen times since then, leads me to blame incompatibility between new WP and old plugin.

Be Skeptical

So many Facebook posts are mindless or poorly-considered reposts of something vastly misleading or irrelevant. Here are some I’ve seen this week.

For example, “Bibles are not allowed in schools.” This is not true, and has never been true. The only prohibition is that teachers and staff can’t force or coerce students in religion. There has never been a case that was upheld in which a student was forbidden from bringing a Bible (or other religious book) to school, nor from praying in a non-intrusive fashion.

“The President takes a lot of vacation,” claim folks on the Right. No, he doesn’t. He takes more than I do, but I also don’t have to be on-call even while on vacation. I’m not sure the President could ever be considered to be truly on vacation, as he takes his entire operations center with him everywhere. He does not take more vacation than his predecessors. Let’s say he keeps up the pace he’s been, which is around 21 days of vacation per year. That will be 168 days in 8 years, or just about the same number as Bill Clinton (174) and significantly less than GW Bush (1020 days according to his Library, with 490 of them in Crawford) or Reagan (335 at his California ranch). I can’t seem to find someone with good numbers on George H.W. Bush’s full term, but by all accounts he was below average in days away from D.C. in his term (another reason to like Poppy Bush). Obama’s vacations do tend to cost more than the Bush or Reagan vacations, since he doesn’t own a vacation home and has to pay (OK, we have to pay) for his lodging.

“American soldiers in the Middle East are being forced to observe Ramadan fasting restrictions!” No, they’re not. Well, not really. It’s complicated. If you’re stationed overseas, there are two sets of laws you need to follow. If you’re on-base, you follow US laws, as modified by the military and local command. If you’re off-base, you follow the local laws. In Saudi Arabia, it is literally illegal to not fast during the Ramadan days of fasting. That’s the local law. To ensure that US service members don’t run afoul of the local law, there are briefings telling them what they need to do, off-base. They can still go to the chow hall or Burger King on-base, with no problems of any kind.

Any statement that begins with “liberals believe” or “conservatives believe” is probably bullshit. It rises to near-certainty if the terms used are “libtard” or “rethuglican.” No group seems to be well-represented by the loudest members of that group in modern politics. Most conservatives and liberals seem to disagree with most of what the two political parties put forward as party platforms, as if “conservative” is not synonymous with “Republican” and “liberal” is not synonymous with “Democrat.” Go figure. Most actual people are not cartoon character villains, and pretending they are does no one any good.

I have nothing profound to say, just ranting about nonsense which is easily refuted by two seconds with the Google. Before you repost something that sounds great to you, maybe take a little time to find out if it’s got any basis in reality.

Dear Abby

There are a number of media personalities who define an era. Those of us in Generation X grew up with a few TV networks and a relative conformity in popular culture until the late 1980s. This led to a few names being instantly recognizable, even if they were originally marketed to our parents and not to us. This was, after all, before the rise of child-centered life in America, when we were expected to be seen and not heard and did not get a veto over things in the home. It seems the icons of the Boomer generation are almost all gone now, and so the comfortable feeling of Gen X childhood memories are tainted as well.

My mother has always been a reader, and the books I read when I was a kid (at least between library visits) were frequently hers. Thus, I became a fan of Erma Bombeck, one of the great humorists of the 1970s and 1980s, who could be considered a precursor to the “mommy blogger” phenomenon of today. Erma died far too young in 1996, but I still remember the cover art for “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.”

In the days of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio was not nearly as pervasive and fragmented as it is today. One voice that everyone knew was Paul Harvey. When I attended a broadcast journalism class in the early 1980s, we put together a television news and commentary show. I chose to use the persona of Saul Garvey, which I thought was clever at the time. Paul Harvey died in 2001. And that’s the rest of the story.

We didn’t always have cameras following our every move in public, and we certainly didn’t have YouTube to share our private moments of embarrassment or inadvertent comedy. From 1948 until 1993, we got our dose of schadenfreude from Allen Funt and “Candid Camera.” Rarely mean-spirited, the pranks were hilarious and rather obvious to our older, jaded eyes today. Allen Funt died in 1999. I like to think he was smiling, and in on the joke.

This week, another of the great figures of the latter half of the 20th Century left us. Abigail van Buren was the woman everyone looked to for advice from 1956 until 2002. With wit and empathy, she made us all feel that she could be trusted with any secrets. Pauline Phillips died in 2013. Sadly, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was unlikely to be very much like her old self, but we can remember her wit, and her daughter continues the column with some inherited awesomeness.

I don’t think the younger generations will ever know the monolithic nature of popular culture we lived with before 100 channels of television and high-speed internet came along. We have so many more choices today than we did twenty years ago, not to mention the dark ages of the 1970s. Choices are great, and I love the options we have today. But, will there ever again be someone who is going to be remembered as such a pervasive part of everyday life as Dear Abby?

Everybody’s Special

Seeing as many birthday parties as I do (helping Kat at her job), it’s obvious things are different from When I Was A Kid. The new kid order is further highlighted by the end of the school year, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, parties.

Back when I was a kid, the only one who left a birthday party with anything other than cake in their belly was the birthday kid. I don’t know when it changed, but by the time Alex was attending birthday parties, the gift bag culture had developed. If you didn’t hand out candy and toys to the guests at a party, good luck getting your kid invited to anyone else’s. Are we teaching kids that even on a day when one kid is rightfully the center of attention, everyone is still Special?

When I was a kid, the only graduation ceremony you had (before college) was when you got a diploma after 12th grade. That is graduating. Any graduation that ends with, “See you in the fall” is not much of a graduation. I understand marking major events in a child’s life, but when Alex “graduated” from kindergarten, I don’t think he nor his classmates gave a damn about it. The whole thing was for the parents to prove their kid is Special. When he “graduated” from elementary school a year ago, I’m pretty sure the kids didn’t care much either. The boys seemed uncomfortable in their nice clothes, but otherwise they acted like it was just another day. Which it was!

I suppose in two years, he’ll “graduate” from middle school. It still won’t mean much to him, nor should it. Why have we started doing this? If your child doesn’t know how much you appreciate him on a regular basis, if your child doesn’t know how much you love him every day, do you really think a silly ceremony is going to make him feel Special? It seems like we’d be better off celebrating our kids’ individual (or team) achievements when they happen, rather than just wrapping up the year with one big ceremony. It seems to be an admission that we don’t have time to recognize actual accomplishments if we recognize “not being held back a grade” as worthy of a ceremony. When everyone is special, nobody is.

Obligatory Steve Jobs Memorial Post

It seems the internet has decreed that all geeks must post some essay or braindropping to commemorate the passing of Steve Jobs. I would be remiss in my geek role if I were to avoid this responsibility, so here goes: a memorial for Steve Jobs from someone who has never owned an Apple product.

I know, my various geek and media brethren, the very idea of not owning an iPod or iPad or iPhone or iWhatever is impossible for some to comprehend. But I come here not to praise Jobs but to bury him. Or something like that, anyway. Regardless of my complete lack of Apple ownership, there is still a great deal of Jobsian influence in my life.

Continue reading Obligatory Steve Jobs Memorial Post

Email is not foolproof

The USAF continues to rely far too much on email for communication, and continues to trust that sending an email is the perfect all-encompassing method of disseminating info with no possibility of failure.

Many years ago, when I was in the Army on this same Air Force base, a zoomie LT thought that a lack of getting a “reply receipt” from an email she sent was insubordinate and got very angry that I was, “deleting without reading” her emails. Of course, I was doing no such thing; Outlook at the time didn’t send a return receipt for previewing a message, and that’s how I read her missives (which didn’t apply to me in the Army anyway, but so much for logic).

Fast forward to 2011. The refrigerator is down the hall from my office, and I keep my sodas there. The fridge is in a common area, and there is a bulletin board right next to it. Imagine my surprise when my sodas were thrown away today. A sane person would have put the sodas aside, if cleaning out the fridge. They aren’t likely to spoil, after all. When I inquired, I was told that “everyone” was informed about the coming fridge purge, so wah (or something equivalent).

Obviously, I was not informed. The building manager sends an email to the squadron secretary, who sends it to everyone in the squadron. I am not in the squadron, but I had myself added to the squadron email list last year due to the necessity to stay abreast of issues in this building, and there is no email list for residents of the building. I apparently got booted out of the squadron email list sometime in the past (who knows how long ago, as I rarely care about USAF business and maybe I was just relieved at the lack of spam I didn’t care about). So, no notice for me, but complete notification to everyone in the building in the mind of the manager.

So…am I a crazy person for thinking, in addition to an email, a sign or note or post-it on the fridge or near it would have been a normal thing to do? I’m simple, apparently.

Time-shifting and place-shifting

The demise of soap operas (of which I was never a huge fan anyway) prompted me to write a rather long-winded piece recently, wherein I decided that DVRs were the final nail in the coffin of long-form serialized daytime dramatic television. Since then, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the disruptive technologies of the recent past and how my childhood differed from my son’s. I was interrupted in this reverie by a phone call, which ended up serving as a perfect example of the major differences.

Caller ID (didn’t exist for my childhood) showed me that The Boy was calling from a friend’s phone. The Boy requested that I bring him a particular toy from his bedroom. I wandered down the hall on my cordless phone (didn’t have that when I was a kid), and found the toy. I said to the child, “You’re at Friend’s house then?” Oh, no – they were at the park. And there went another piece of the implied landscape of my youth – a phone belonged to a location, not a person, when I was a kid.

We had a phone for the family, not for each member of it. We called people at home, and expected the person answering the phone to not necessarily be the person we were going to converse with. This seems to affect telephone etiquette, or my son’s peers are all just clueless gits. I presume the former, out of generosity. When I answer the phone when one of The Boy’s friends calls, it is almost painful to get out of them anything like a coherent statement. You know the kind we were taught to use as kids; something along the lines of, “Hello, this is Gary, I’m calling for James.” What I get now is some sputtering where, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to pick out the name of the child calling me. More often, it’s incomprehensible or a demand to speak to The Boy, with nothing like an introductory preamble. I’m convinced that all of his friends have their own personal phones now, so they just know to start talking when they answer. *Ring Ring* Look at phone, see it is James. Hey, James, what’s up?  That sort of thing is so completely foreign to us old geezers, even if we are cell phone users. Think about it, how many times do you know who is calling you, and yet the person still goes through the (now old-fashioned) introduction? I predict that the “Hello” when answering the phone may eventually die out entirely, as nobody needs to just answer as if they don’t know who is calling them.

Meanwhile, people talk on the phone an awful lot more than we did. If you were lucky enough to not have siblings screaming at you for their turn, you might be able to have a half-hour conversation on the phone in the 1980s. That was probably all you’d get for a day or more. It’s not that we didn’t have more to say, we just got tired of sitting in the one room where we had a phone for so long. Now that phones are completely untethered from a wall, much less the house itself, why ever stop talking? And so we have people who stick their phones to their heads the moment they are no longer prohibited from doing so. Hey lady, just do the grocery shopping, stop discussing your latest sexual conquest at HEB, huh?

As everyone from Ogg the Caveman until the end of humanity notes, Things Are Different Now. Listening to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe recently, the youngest member of the crew had no idea what “F Troop” was. Nearly everyone from my generation and before knew the same television (and radio prior to TV) shows as everyone else in their generation. After all, we only had three channels. Shoot, even PBS has only existed since 1970, and for most of its early existence was consigned to the UHF dead zone.

So, we all watched Gilligan’s Island when we came home from school, oblivious to the fact that the show had been cancelled before we were even born. We knew all the characters in the Addams Family, which also ended four years before my birth. Such was the nature of the highly-syndicated rerun system of 1970s afternoon television, in the days before cable.

In pursuit of the desire for more options in entertainment and technology, we seem to have lost most of our generational shared experiences. Just about the only thing that seems to remain is popular music. Whether you like the songs or not, if you’re remotely aware of the outside world, you’ve probably heard Cee-Lo’s F You, or Pink’s F-ing Perfect, or Enrique Iglesias’s Tonight (I’m F-ing You). Yeah, I chose those examples because of my amusement at how far we’ve come in pop music. Not that any of those three actually has the F word in the radio version of the song, but what the heck?

If you ask someone born around 1940 what they remember from their childhood, many of them would reference “Fibber McGee and Molly” on the radio, listening to Bo Diddley and Elvis, and the films of Hitchock or stars like Cary Grant, and of course Sputnik and Apollo. When you ask someone born around 1970 what they remember from their childhood, you’ll get references to “The Brady Bunch;” listening to Joan Jett,  Johnny Cougar (neé Mellencamp), Madonna, and Michael Jackson; movies like Star Wars, ET, and the Breakfast Club; and the space shuttle (first launch and the first explosion). When kids today look back in nostalgia at the early 21st Century, will any significant percentage be thinking of the same things? Will the customized nature of modern society mean the end of common experiences? And is that even a bad thing anyway?

Did DVRs kill Soaps?

Last year, Guiding Light and As the World Turns got canceled. This year, All My Children and One Life to Live are getting canceled. It seems impossible to comprehend, but is this the last gasp of soap operas as a genre?

When I was a little kid, my mom was a housewife who watched Days of Our Lives daily. She joked about how one of the characters was born near the same time as my older brother, but by the time my brother had graduated high school, his Dayscounterpart had grandchildren who were in middle school. Meanwhile, that character’s grandparents remained middle-aged. Such is the magic of soap opera time. Although my mother, like most in her generation, eventually joined the workforce fulltime, soaps continued to survive.

During my teen years, soap operas had followed the changing schedules of women (their target, but hardly exclusive, audience) and infiltrated prime time. In the 1980s, we had Dallas, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, Dynasty, and I’m sure some others. In time, the viewers grew weary of the recycled melodrama with the same characters, and by 1992 all of them were gone. But somehow, the daytime soap operas continued to survive.

It’s probably difficult for most kids today to imagine a house where mom got them up in the morning and was awaiting their arrival from school in the afternoon. Accompanying those hours in between direct childcare, mothers got to hang out with their neighbors and buy Avon from door-to-door salesladies (sometimes the same people), and watch soap operas while folding the never-ending laundry. Personally, I couldn’t figure out how soaps stayed around after the 1980s, since the stay-at-home mom era seemed over by 1990. But the soaps were still there, with the same characters (frequently played by an array of actors but other times by very well-preserved surgically-altered actors). And now they’re almost all gone.

What changed in the last 20 years? Cable TV, some would say. Ah, but we had cable in the 1980s and we saw a boom in soaps, not a bust. I think it’s the DVR. While we had VCRs in the 1980s (I was in charge of programming our first model, which consisted of an array of wheels and buttons on the face of the strange device), very few people time-shifted many programs. Sure, you’d record some special episode you were interested in, but nothing routine. I knew a family whose mother couldn’t be dissuaded from her belief that the television had to be on for the VCR to work, but didn’t want to see any spoilers from the free movies she was recording off the air, so she covered the screen with a cloth. VCRs were magic. In later years, when I was attempting to replace a nice VCR that had died with a similar quality recorder, I was told that so few people every actually recordedanything on their video cassette recorders that most of the features I liked were discontinued. So, at least anecdotally, it seems VCRs were only disruptive to movie watching, not to television viewing.

In 1999, Tivo and ReplayTV were introduced. Although ReplayTV had the better product by most technical measures (automatic commercial skip for one), today they’re almost completely lost down the memory hole. Still, Tivo survived and thrived and grew from a hipster bragging right to a default home electronics device. There are DVRs in cable boxes, satellite boxes, even in some televisions. In the five years since I built my Mythbox, it has changed the way I think of television schedules profoundly. What time something comes on, what day it is shown, even what channel it is on – all are irrelevant now. I tell the magic box to record the shows I’m interested in when it finds them and I walk away. When I’ve got time, I flip through my personalized library of video entertainment. Twilight Zone is one whenever I want now, and not just during some late night hour or holiday marathon. There’s no need to be concerned that I might miss a show because I’m busy or running late on some errand – the magic box will have it waiting for me whenever it’s convenient for me.

This, I think, is what finally killed the soap opera – easy access to all the other hours of the day. When our mothers and grandmothers were staying at home, baking pies and doing laundry and all the other things we imagined they were doing, they were held hostage by Proctor & Gamble. There were three channels, and all of them had serialized programming that was intended to appeal to women. Now that those women (and men, to be fair) who remain at home during the day have the easy ability to watch 50 channels of programming, from any time of the day or night or week, it turns out they don’t actually want to watch Luke and Laura do whatever it is they do.

No need to be too wistful for the fading of an entire genre. From Guiding Light’s radio debut in 1937 until whenever the final soaps wither away, it’s been a pretty good run. And meanwhile, the networks do occasionally let a show have a long-form serial plot in the background. Sometimes it even stays on the air more than one season.

Fun with Filters

I’m always amused and somewhat aghast at the random nature of the web filtering on-base. My personal homepage is accessible, but not my wife’s (both on the exact same server). I can get to Google Mail, but not Google Calendar. Facebook is accessible, which is obviously official use. And, of course, the messages on the Access Denied pages are of no help or just stupid. My personal favorite is when the “reason” line has something like “Blocked Because: Reference/Education.” We definitely want to discourage that sort of thing.

Although I can get to NPR’s website, I can’t get to my local NPR affiliate (Reason: News/Media). Of course, whenever I run into a nonsensical block, I always try to get to two of my favorite notorious crank sites: Rush Limbaugh and G Gordon Liddy. As always whenever I’ve tried this experiment, both of those sites loaded just fine on the military network (with no conceivable official use, as well as questionable value to human beings in general). Odd.

Old Songs

I’ve been slowly building every KROQ “Top 106.7 Songs” playlist for the years they did them, and recently finished 1985. It’s interesting to see how many of the songs that were considerd the biggest of the year (for that station) are completely forgotten today. For instance, the John Palumbo song “Blowing up Detroit” – I don’t remember that song at all, nor the singer, nor the band he’s still in today (Crack the Sky). Other songs are an interesting piece of history. There’s the obvious John Hughes reference – Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me.” And there’s also the social commentary – Artists United Against Apartheid’s song “Sun City” was big in 1985. It took 5 more years for De Klerk to begin negotiating an end to apartheid, and it wasn’t until 1994 that apartheid ended with multi-racial elections in South Africa. But, the song is a part of many people’s memories of the era when (after 40 years) we in the USA finally noticed apartheid was part of the society of a country where our rich people went to party.

As Kat points out, the list also includes a very obvious LA-centric slant.  Three Oingo Boingo songs are on the 1985 list, and yet most folks outside of SoCal have heard of exactly one OB track – Weird Science. Amusingly, there’s also a Danny Elfman song, “Gratitude,” on the list, which was recorded with the entire Oingo Boingo band on an Elfman solo album (So-Lo) – the ridiculous nature of recording an album with the exact same people but calling it solo instead of Boingo is due to some dispute with their record company. So, “Gratitude” is considered to be both an Elfman solo track and a Boingo band track – it appeared on the Best O’ Boingo compilation album years later, adding some credence to the Boingo provenance. Hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Oingo Boingo performed their farewell Halloween concert.

So, any bands or songs you remember from years past, but are completely lost to most of your friends’ memories?

Predictions for 2010

2010. The year we make contact. Or not. Let’s see if I can beat 80% accuracy in this year’s predictions.

  1. Tablet PCs will continue to be something which almost nobody has heard of or cares about.
  2. President Obama will continue to be vilified by the Right as some sort of mythical evil being.
  3. The GOP will make some gains in the 2010 midterm elections.
  4. The US economy will improve enough that even people who watch Faux News have to admit it, although they will claim it’s improving despite anything that President Obama or the Democrats have done.
  5. There still won’t be a good crypto system that the public uses, despite ever-increasing threats from man-in-the-middle attacks.
  6. All the various ebook readers will continue to be incompatible with each other.
  7. Sarah Palin won’t go away.
  8. TSA flight restrictions will cause the airline industry to lose money.
  9. And, of course, the weather will continue to be remarkable, which will still not mean anything to denialists.
  10. Kat and I will still not fight.

I know, many predictions are just “things won’t change” – but they should change, and I’ll be happy if I’m wrong about them. We’ll see how that goes.

Apple Blue Beer

Why do so many people hate themselves?

The estate tax only affects estates valued at above $2 million today, and maybe down to $1 million if things are allowed to lapse in 2011 (not $675,000 no matter what your talk radio told you). How much do you expect to leave in net worth for your heirs? More than a million dollars? Not likely. Yet, a significant number of people who will never be affected by the estate tax are fighting to repeal it, on behalf of people making amounts of money most of us can’t imagine.

There are so many complicated economic issues wrapped up in estate tax debates, it would be ridiculous to try to summarize them. My curiousity is piqued by the rabid defense of the “repeal the death tax” mantra by people who will likely never have to pay it anyway. What kind of strange phenomenon causes people to spend time and effort fighting for something that helps only people most of us would classify as filthy rich?

I recently read a Princeton research paper, which showed quite clearly that the party in the Executive has historically been a good indicator of the rate of increase in income inequality. Republican presidents have been very good to the top 20% of Americans, and pretty crappy to the bottom 20%, with a relatively straight-line graph between them. Democratic presidents have been pretty good to the bottom 20%, and just about as good to the top 20%, with a straight-line graph between them as well. The difference, of course, is that the Dem graph is nearly horizontal. Income growth is about 2.5% for the top quintile under either party, but under a Dem that’s about the same level for everyone in the country (2-2.5%). Under the GOP, on the other hand, the top quintile still gets a nice growth rate of 2.5% or so, but the bottom quintile gets growth of 0.5%. The only exception to this pattern is in election years, when the Democrats seem to shoot themselves in the foot with the poor, and the Republicans somehow discover they can give money to the plebes to gain votes. Economic stimulus package, anyone?

By the way, I’ve been told by someone near and dear to me that the Princeton paper is not nearly as fascinating a read as I think it is. Something about “deathly dull” was murmured, as I recall. I am focusing on income inequality because it is so stark a statistic of economic health for most people, as well as being an indicator of widespread discontent.  Discontent breeds instability and all that, ya know. So, currently, the top 1% of people in the country have 22% of the income, which is the greatest concentration of wealth in such a small group since before the Great Depression.  We all know how well that turned out, eh? Another good indicator of economic health is personal savings. In 1982, that rate was 11%; in 2006, it was negative 1%. I’m pretty sure that’s not good.

If this income inequality issue is so blatantly obvious, the question remains: Why does anyone who isn’t already wealthy vote Republican? My theory is “the media makes people crazy.” Look at the giant storms of controversy and outrage the media talking heads have been stirring up over relatively minor issues of things like “bitter people” and cleavage and flag pins. Do any of those things really matter to the citizenry? Of course not. But, people have grown so accustomed to the din of information flowing from the magic box that shows them both parties looking stupid and venal and self-serving and hypocritical, people assume there’s no difference between them. We’ve watched the offshore outsourcing and domestic dismantling of our industrial base, through several presidents of both parties. People have become used to the idea that either party will screw the citizenry over. So, the parties end up ceding the ground of substance to “none of the above” and spend all their time fighting over trivia and “social issues.” Most of the social issues affect very few people, and based on my reading of that quaint document called The Constitution, are none of the government’s business anyway. But, you can sure rile folks up if you claim your opponent wants to take their guns or Bibles away (no matter how fictitious your claim may be).

It’s all rather disgusting. If you can stand it, watch the Pennsylvania Democratic debate – the first half is devoted to flag pins and bitterness. We’re so screwed.