James H. Schmitz


One day in Cleveland, Ohio, more than 50 years ago I was exploring the main downtown public library. I had just discovered science fiction, which became my favorite literary genre, and was looking for all of it I could find. That day I read Agent of Vega, by James H. Schmitz, which absolutely blew me away.

The agent in the story is part of a really big galactic empire, who travels through space at immense speeds in a ship tailored to his needs, investigates criminals and kills bad guys as necessary. Sort of a futuristic James Bond, but Schmitz had written these stories (there are three sequels) before Ian Fleming got started with Bond.

Schmitz may not have been one of the top writers in science fiction, but I always liked his work, and he worked in areas that most people didn’t at that time. A lot of his important characters were women, for instance. The subgenre he was working in most of the time was space opera: a big canvas with huge threats to humankind. Heroes in that genre were usually men.

His heroes and heroines usually had psi powers too, not unknown in science fiction, but Schmitz had his own take on them. He wrote a whole series of stories about Telzey Amberdon, who discovers she has telepathic powers as a teenager and finds herself embroiled in a lot of dangerous matters because of them. That’s merely the one series in which Schmitz really explores his concept of how psi works. Other stories and series have that element too.

Probably his best novel overall was The Witches of Karres. A man uses his spaceship to go trading in hopes of making enough profit to get married. That’s not what happens. He picks up three girls who are witches, and have been enslaved. They’re using their psi powers to make their owners miserable, so the man undertakes to return the girls to their parents. Naturally things become more complex, and he and they end up saving the universe from malevolent aliens from another dimension. There’s plenty of action, and the tone is light-hearted. Space opera on the grand scale, and very enjoyable.

The last years of his writing career he wrote stories mostly about the Hub, a galactic empire, but different from the one in which Agent of Vega takes place. Many of the characters appear in multiple stories. The editor of a series reprinting his stories tried to figure out the history of that mileu. It seems that people with psi talents had often used those talents to make themselves powerful and rich, and when this was discovered it precipitated a war. Once the war was over the government tried to enlist as many psi talents as possible into helping keep law and order. They didn’t want people without these talents to be second-class citizens, they didn’t want psi talents to be a despised minority, so the kept the whole problem under wraps as much as possible.

A character in one of the novels says the government doesn’t want to over-control the population. They want them to continue to have responsibility and the ability to defend themselves at need, without over-dependence on the government. So Schmitz’s heroes and heroines are James Bondish characters, but with a sense of responsibility to prevent bad things from happening and punishing those who cause them to happen. Not too much to argue with in that worldview, I think.

The 1960’s seem to have been the last really fertile period for Schmitz as a writer. Many years later I stopped in at a second-hand bookstore in the soutwestern corner of New Hampshire, and talked to one of the clerks there. She said, if I remember correctly, that Schmitz had been her stepfather, and a very nice man. I think she also said he suffered from emphysema, and eventually died of it toward the end of the 70s.

Writers lives are often less interesting than their work, but Schmitz had an interesting background. As I recall, he had lived in Germany before Worls War II, before coming to the USA. Whether he was native German or American, I can’t recall, but I wonder how his background ties in with his writing.

The 1960s were a great period for science fiction. There are a lot more writers from that era worth reading. I’ll probably be writing about some more of them later.

Ty Cobb vs Babe Ruth


Ty Cobb didn’t like Babe Ruth. Specifically, he didn’t like his hitting style. Ruth had discovered the home run, and in his first full season as an outfielder (he’d been a very good pitcher before) had hit more home runs than anyone ever had in a season. The next year he almost doubled that. Someone said that today it would be like someone hitting 120 home runs in a season. As amazing as that, but also impossible.

Cobb liked the old-fashioned game, which he found more subtle, and therefore more interesting and more fun. That game (offensively) had largely been invented by the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s. It included the hit and run, the double play, bunting and stealing bases. That’s pretty much how everyone played when Cobb came to Detroit in 1904.

I think a lot of people may be unaware that there had been professional baseball for about 30 years by then, and that something like that game had been played for decades before that. The legend is that Abner Doubleday invented the game in the 1840s, but experts say it’s almost certainly older than that.

It was a much different, less specialized game then. The National League was founded in 1876, the American 24 years later. Teams only had two or three pitchers, so one or two pitched most of the games. Winning 30 or 40 games wasn’t unusual then, and one pitcher won 60. At the same time, it wasn’t unusual for someone to hit .400 either. The highest season average ever was .438 by someone in the 1890s. At the age pf 15 I got interested in sports, baseball first, and found a book about baseball players published probably in the 1920s. The author (don’t recall the name of book’s title) apparently shared Cobb’s dislked: a number of contemporary players were included (many now forgotten), but not Ruth.

It was a very interesting book, though by no means complete. Players were chosen from the beginning of the National League up into the 20’s, not all of them stars, and a good many stars left out. Billy Sunday, the famous evangelist, played a season in professional baseball, though he wasn’t very good. Louis Socksalexis, and American Indian, was another who apparently had a lot of talent, but became an alcoholic, and didn’t realize his potential.

Candy Cummings was one of the earliest pitchers, and supposedly was the first to learn to throw the curve. Charles Radbourne won 60 games in one season. Cap Anson was a very good player and manager, but also unfortunately a segregationalist. Ed Delehanty was one of the early great hitters, but died in strange circumstances, an apparent suicide. The Baltimore Orioles, including Wee Willie Keeler, john McGraw, Hughie Jennings and Wilbert Robinson were the innovators of the 1890s, and all of the above went on (except Keeler) to be very successful managers. Jennings was Cobb’s manager.

In the early 20th century the players get a bit more recognizable. Christy Matthewson, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Sam Crawford, Tinker-to-Evers-to Chance, Mordecai Brown, Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, Jimmy and Eddie Collins, Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh. The latter two were the only pitchers to win 40 games in the 20th century. Thirty game winners were fairly common the first two decades, but increasingly rare after that. Some of the reasons given are increased travel, the end of the dead-ball era, and increased specialization in pitching. In the early days pitchers were expected to finish what they started, and in the 19th century it wasn’t unusual for pitchers to throw 500 or 600 innings. Now it’s unusual for pitchers to pitch as many as 200.

I also read Cobb’s autobiography with Al Stump, and his early years in the American League come through as exhilarating, though he wasn’t easily accepted by his team at first. He’s learning what he can do, and eventually leading his team to the World Series three straight years–all of which the Tigers lost. His later career seems to have been less fun, By that time he was an established star, but his team wasn’t as good, and never made the World Series again until after he’d retired. He was a fiery, volatile personality, who got in trouble that way at times–beating up a fan in the stands who had been booing him, but also for allegedly throwing a game. The latter was a recurring theme in that time, as owners didn’t want to pay players as they thought they ought to be paid. That culminated in the Black Sox scandal, in which members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series, and several of them were banned from baseball. That was the beginning of the more modern era of baseball.

Baseball team owners decided to appoint a commisioner who would have the power to police the game, and there’s been a commisioner ever since. They also decided to make the baseball so it would carry further when hit to encourage Ruth and other plaers like him. So there was an offensive explosion in the 1920s. Besides Ruth there was Rogers Hornsby, another of the all-time great hitters, George Sisler, Al Simmons, Jimmy Foxx, Paul Waner and a number of others. The star system was already in place in sports, and players were beginning to be paid better, though the salaries wouldn’t really get huge until the 1970s and after. Maybe that’s where power and money enter the equation of the star system in athletics, and maybe other areas too. That the star system was already in place was demonstrated in the mid-20s, when Babe Ruth was out most of a season with a “stomach ache” that turned out to be a veneral disease. A biography of Vince Lombardi points out that sports were already a big deal and prone to scandals in the 1930s, when he played college football, which was much more popular than pro football at that time. Sports in general have only gotten bigger since then, as well as the money and scandals.

The whole role of sports in our society is an odd one. They seem to be an occasion for people to worship and becme fanatical about something actually peripheral to our lives–or ought to be. Compare how great athletes are paid to what police, firemen and teachers are paid, all arguably more important to the functioning of society than entertainment figures. Just one of many imbalances that can be discerned in our way of life. Yet there’s a fascination in sports, both current and of the past. We’re fascinated with skills far beyond ours, and the whole drama of winning and losing, to which we often inappropriately attach some moral meaning. Maybe it’s related to our fascination with wealth and power, all the things we envy, but aren’t able to attain ourselves. But wealth and power don’t always bring happiness.

Al Stump, who collaborated on Ty Cobb’s autobiography, later wrote about the Cobb he knew as an old man. He lived alone, he was an alcoholic, and hard to get along with. He often threatened violence, and gave the impression that he wouldn’t be easily stopped if he decided to employ it. He was no longer married, and the implication was that he hadn’t treated his wife or wives well. On the other hand, he helped out old ballplayers who had fallen on hard times. A very mixed man, probably because of a trauma he had suffered about the time he’d entered pro baseball.

His father had suspected his mother of having an affair with someone, and approached their house from the outside. His wife thought he was an intruder, and shot him. Or at least that was the story. Cobb had been very close to his father, and this hurt him in a way he apparently never recovered from. His teammates in Detroit didn’t immediately accept him, so he became aggressive in the way he behaved in general, as well as the way he played the game. He said that baseball was the moral equivalent of war, which leads me to believe that had he been born more recently he would either have been a soldier or a football player, as football is much more equivalent to war.

His approach made him arguably the greatest baseball player ever, but not a happy man. Achievenemt can, but doesn’t necessarily make people happy. Consider John D. Rockefeller, who could only eat bread and milk. Adoph Hitler and Josef Stalin achieved on unpredictable scales, but it’s doubtful that either were very happy. Andy Reid, recently fired coach of the Philadelphia Eagles had a son who died of a heroin overdose. I suspect that has something to do with Reid never being at home because football was more important to him. Driven people may achieve, but they often don’t achieve much that satisfies them.

Was Babe Ruth a happier man than Cobb? I don’t think he was driven in the same way, but he wanted to manage a major league team, preferably the Yankees, and never got the opportunity to do that. His main enjoyment had come during his playing career, when he was not only very successful on the field, but was able to satisfy his huge attitude for food and women. He died of cancer little over a decade after he retired. I don’t know if the cancer has any significance.

In any case, he was one of the key figures who changed not only the game of baseball, but the whole culture of sports into becoming such a gargantuan part of society as it is now. For better or worse.

How To Do Economic Recovery


Several months ago I had a conversation with a conservative lady on Facebook, who didn’t like my suggestion that the government invest in rebuilding infrastructure, as was done during the Great Depression. She thought this would merely add to the debt that we may be handing down to our children and grandchildren. I allowed myself to get angry with her, rather than explaining why I thought she was mistaken.

Arthur R. Poskocil, a teacher at Hollins University (located not far from where I live) had a column in the local paper not long ago that articulated what I thought better than I’d been able to. Entitled An Off-balance Budget Metaphor. he points out in it that the dominant metaphor for our country’s budget crisis is that of a family. When a family gets into financial trouble they cut expenses, spending only on what they really need. A country’s economy isn’t the same. When I spend money I’m supporting your job, and when you spend you’re supporting mine. If neither of us spends, both our jobs may be in jeopardy. Republicans want to cut spending, and there’s plenty of waste and fraud for them to aim at. What we’ve seen, though, in the past few years, is the cutting of funding for police, firemen and teachers. Does someone want to seriously argue these are unnecesary?

The author mentions the brouhaha last year when President Obama, during his reelection campaign, famously said, “You didn’t build that on your own.” Immediately a lot of people said, yes, they did too. One of these people owned a cookie-making business in this area, and refused to allow Joe Biden to visit his buisness, apparently exactly because of what the president had said.

But what the president said was true, even if he didn’t articulate it very well. For the above business-owner to be able to say he’d built his business entirely by himself, he would need to have built the building in which it was located, grown the ingredients of his cookies himself, built the vehicles that delivered the ingredients to him, as well as the roads they drove on and the ovens in which he baked his cookies. “Remember, my spending supports your job and the government’s income, and vice versa. Clearly then, at an extreme level the family analogy fails totally. Instead of paying down our debt, we lose our income and go broke,” says Poskocil.

No disrespect is intended to people who start their own businesses and work extremely hard to build them. That’s not an enterprise I could be successful at, but when you analyze all the elements needed to make a business work, it’s not hard to see that without the support of the rest of society and its infrastructure, modern businesses would be impossible.

Another comparison is the building of the modern car. Were the ancient Greeks and Romans too stupid to invent such a thing? No, but they didn’t have the precursor technology to make an automobile possible. Now we have the technology and a variety of services to support a cookie-making business. Such a buisness might have been possible 200 years ago, but the elements of it would have been much different.

Republicans say they’re not in favor of welfare, but they’re against government spending to rebuild infrastructure, which would benefit them, as well as everyone else. They claim to prefer people working to their receiving welfare, but refuse to pass the legislation to get people working again, while resisting continuation of unemployment. If they got their way on that, what would be the result?

“Clearly, the best measures will support the most efficient job creation and will result in a rejuvenation of private spending that will support and create still more jobs. Tax cuts for the rich are a most inefficient investment in this respect. In our global economy, the idea that such an investment will result in more American jobs than its cost is absurd, whereas we can be very confident that tax cuts for middle- and lower-income Americans, as well as extended unemployment benefits for those forced into idleness, will be money that is very quickly put back ino the economy.

“Thus the Republican strategy, while it would spend trillions in lost revenue, would be as penny-wise and pound foolish as is imaginable. Not only do these legislators want to give to the rich, but also to cut the jobs, income and benefits of the very Americans whose then forced spending is economically as poor an approach as it is a morally bankrupt one.”

Does this mean Republicans are stupid, or is there some other dynamic working here? I seem to remember Rush Limbaugh saying there was no need to play zero-sum games when we can grow the pie to be adquate for all, but I don’t think he really believes that. There are too many people he despises and wants to punish. But even a broken clock can tell the time correctly twice a day. With the right perspective and behavior, we CAN grow the pie for all. We’ve done it before. There is, however, no guarantee of either.

If we focused, as Mr. Poskocil says, on the most efficient way of creating jobs, we could be out of this recession in a hurry. Why is it Republicans don’t want to do that? A public works program w0uld create a lot of jobs and put money in a lot of people’s pockets without it being welfare, and also create needed infrastructure. Who would lose in that scenario? Apparently some people think they would, or it would have happened long ago.

It’s interesting to look at the rhetoric of the Right, and compare it with their behavior. Mitt Romney referred to 47% of this country’s population as “irresponsible” because they paid no taxes. We have to ask, then, why they paid no taxes. Was it because they didn’t WANT to work, or because they couldn’t FIND work? Of course there are people who don’t want to work, and rich people are better placed to get away with that atttitude, though they have no patent on it, but there are a lot of people unable to find work too, sometimes through no fault of their own. Have you heard of people refused jobs because they’re “overqualified”? I don’t remember having heard it lately, but I certainly used to.

Sometimes it’s because people didn’t bother to get what education they could, or because they live in areas where there are few jobs, but there are also plenty of examples of jobs having left people. Who has benefited from that? Apparently Mr. Romney is one of the people who did, when he worked at Bain Capital.

I have a suspicion that overpopulation is part of what’s driving the behavior of the wealthiest people grabbing as much more as they can. They’re afraid that destructive change is going to come, and want to be sure that they and their families are as secure as possible.

Destructive change may very well come. Cal Thomas, the right-wing columnist, wrote two or three years ago about how people helped each other out more during the Great Depression. The intersting thing about that was that he was born AFTER the Depression, so he didn’t experience it himself. My parents and those of a lot of my friends DID experience it. One friend said his father agreed that people did help each other out more. On the other hand, my mother said that her father, a teacher, lost a third of his pay, but was better off than other people in their neighborhood who had NO income.

Our future may turn out to be worse than that or better. There will obiously be problems, but we also have some choice in how we meet them. Keeping our minds and hearts open will make us more flexible, and therefore more able to survive. I wish I’d made a better effort to explain what I think is true to the conservative lady I mentioned at the beginning of this piece.

Political Insanity


After a night on the internet reading articles, it’s obvious that our politics isn’t getting sane anytime soon. A gunman targets an elementary school, kills more than 20 children, and the NRA and other assorted gun nuts are afraid the government will take our guns away. One of the people I went to high school with posted something on Facebook about private citizens needing guns to resist the government. I wrote under the post,

Too bad that won’t actually work. The government way outguns private citizens.

As far as I know, he hasn’t replied.

I think that’s because there IS no reply. We have way too many guns in circulation, way too many to keep them out of irresponsible hands, but you need more than even assault rifles to run a successful revolution. The government has aircraft and tanks, to say nothing of anything else. Private citizens can’t win a fight against those.

I had a similar conversation with an online friend sometime ago. She compared a possible revolution to the Civil War. I reminded her that the North won the Civil War, not because it had better fighters–Southern soldiers were arguably better, and the South had more good generals–but because the North had more factories. I forgot to add that the North also had a larger population, and were thus able to wear the South down.

If we had another Civil War now, the only entities that could possibly ovethrow the government would be large corporations. They have the organization and resources that might be able to bring a government down. So far they prefer to operate by subverting from within, and since they have money, politicians are generally happy to let them do so. Private citizens don’t have either the organization or resources to make a dent in either the government or corporations violently. We can make a dent politically, if we’re willing to make the effort, but most of us don’t have the time or energy. We’re too busy making a living, and that’s what politicians and corporations alike count on.

As far as mass shootings go, I don’t remember any elementary schools being targeted before, but now that the precedent has been set, we can expect that it’s going to happen some more. Some people want to do the most horrifying and destructive things they can, and it doesn’t get much more horrifying than that. Keeping guns out of those people’s hands (I personally don’t have a problem with responsible people owning guns) ought to be a no-brainer, but not for the gun nuts. Apparently they don’t care how stupid they look, or that unrestrained traffic in guns pretty well guarantees more such mass killings.

I worked a couple of summers in a restaurant in a train station in Switzerland, and there’s a whole different mindset there. Soldiers used to come into the restaurant, often bringing their guns with them. They’d set them down, order whatever they wanted, and leave when they were finished. Picture people bringing automatic rifles into restaurants in this country. Firefights might be a nightly occurrence, but in Switzerland it wasn’t even an issue.

There’s no more sanity to be seen when you look at the Republicans getting into position to resist raising the debt ceiling next month. President Obama’s position is that this is spending they’ve already approved, so they have to be responsible about paying the nation’s bills. If it’s not new spending, then I think he has a point. New Republican congressmen, according to articles I read, are itching to shut the government down. They want to stop the government from overspending, something I can’t disagree with, only with the way they want to do it.

One of the articles I read pointed out that the things Republicans say they want to cut are things that vast majorities of voters actually like, when they stop to think about it, even Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. When people realize what their so-called representatives are voting for, Republicans are going to lose. But in the meantime they’re willing to destroy this country’s credit rating in order to win. Would they fail to pay their bills as private citizens? What would happen if they did?

But it seems that they’re willing to take the chance that they’ll throw the world economy into an even worse recession, and get blamed for it. Republicans used to be known for fiscal prudence, but not since starting two wars that never made much sense, paying for them by borrowing from China, lowering taxes (during a war), and taking advantage of the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Bill (which Democrats foolishly went along with) to almost ruin the national economy. And who is to blame for all that? Why, Liberals, of course.

I don’t know the tune, or I’d be singing it a lot these days, but there’s a song that begins, “Before you accuse me, darling, take a look at yourself.” That’s a line that can apply to almost any of us, but especially to fanatics of any kind. Republicans may or may not actually believe the stuff they’re talking, but they want desperately to convince the rest of us: anyone that looks at them objectively is going to refuse to vote for them, and disrupt their cozy relationships with the people who give them money.

Those are the people that talking heads like Karl Rove front for. You remember Karl Rove, who wanted to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub. That’s a nice image, isn’t it. But what do you picture coming after that? Not enough police, firemen or schoolteachers? Republicans have shown they don’t think we ordinary people need those services. Maybe corporations with private armies fighting each other and ordinary people trying to stay out of the way? That won’t be too easy when we get too poor to afford gasoline or food. Enlisting in the company armies may be the only choice young men have, if they want to survive.

Let’s hope that the above remains science fiction. I’m afraid it could all too easily happen. There was insanity after the First World War, when the Communists took over in Russia. That was a time and place when you could get killed just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or telling the truth about your political views. Maybe those things are coming to this country. I hope I’m wrong.

Religion and the Modern World


How long has spirituality been part of human life? Graham Hancock, in Supernatural, puts it at about 40,000 years, and suggests that psychoactive plants, of which there are quite a number, played a part in the birth of religion. He also argues that religion was what spurred the development of human civilization, not only in terms of religious commandments and ethics, but also in the development of technology and new conceptions of life, its meaning, and the universe.

Some will argue that the date should be earlier or later. In any case, it’s so long ago we can’t remember its beginning and can only live with its effects and try to reason backwards if we’re interested in our own beginnings. Religion has been with us a long time, and has taken a number of different forms, though all the valid traditions (those not simply made up) are related in concept, if not in form or actual influence.

J.G. Bennett, a student of George Gurdjieff (previously mentioned in these posts), said there have been four basic conceptions of God: the Creator God, the Mother Goddess, the Great Spirit and the Savior God. According to him, all originated in different areas, and had different manifestations, also producing different ways of worship.

The Creator God, he said, came from Africa at the time after the last Ice Age, when the climate was changing and people were seeing forms of life they’d never seen before. There were powerful magicians living there then, whose lives were much different from those of ordinary people. Africa has had a stunning variety of life forms ever since, and in Egypt produced one of the greatest civilizations this world has known.

The Mother Goddess was specifically linked to agriculture, and as far as we know, originated around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. It worked out the idea of sacrifice to ensure fertility to both land and people. The sacred king was sacrificed after marrying the Goddess in the form of a priestess at varying periods: a year, six months, or several years. Eventually the system changed in favor of substitutes for the king being sacrificed. Maybe human substitutes at first and animals later, though I don’t think we know definitively.

The Great Spirit seems to have originated among the nomads of northern Asia, though it was also found in the Americas, whether it migrated there, or (possibly) in the other direction. This produced shamanism, in which the shaman allows himself to be possessed to get God’s instructions for his people.

The Savior God, according to Bennett, came from the Aryans, who at that time lived on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in northern Asia, which had a much milder climate during the Ice Age. Nevertheless, they saw the power of nature there more clearly than people elsewhere, and believed that they could not survive without God’s help. The Hopis, in the southwestern USA, have a sort of parallel tradition: that they had chosen the land where they lived because it was so difficult to live there that they couldn’t forget God and hope to survive.

Bennett said that he had found this view of Aryan origins from an Indian scholar, who noticed that the Upanishads contained a lot of imagery about dawn. Dawn, says Bennett, is very prosaic in the tropics, but very dramatic indeed around the poles of the earth. For six months the sun never rises, then for six months never entirely sets. As winter turns to summer the sun approaches the horizon, but never quite rises. Until summer actually begins.

The above is suggestive. Is there any other evidence? I have some anectodal evidence. In chatting with an Indian friend online, I told him about this theory, and he told me that the ancient Persian and Indian gods had the same names, but the Persian gods were Indian demons, and vice versa. Talking with a young Iranian woman, I was told that many Iranians believe that their ancestors once lived in Siberia.

If religion has built the modern world, how did it do this? People who have experimented with psychedelic substances have talked about a sense that something in the experience has been teaching them something, even if they couldn’t say exactly what.

George Gurdjieff talked about different levels of religion. Most of us who are believers live in the exoteric circle: we have some idea about how things work, but probably not too accurate. The mesoteric level is people who have been to school and begun to actually understand things. The esoteric level is where people experience spiritual reality directly. One possible way of giving humanity a gentle nudge in the right direction is ideas. Ideas can’t immediately force anyone to do anything, but they can change the environment of thought, making the previously unthinkable something worth thinking and even doing something about.

Notice that several religions of world importance arose about 600 BC: Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism,  and Zoroastrianism. Some of the most important of the Hebrew prophets lived around this time too, as well as Pythagoras in Greece. All of these religions (if you count Confucianism) opened the religious life to the ordinary person. Before this it had been only for kings, priests and maybe warriors. The difference, says Bennett, was that previously important people were exhorted to treat common people decently, but common people had no actual rights.

We have only to look at history to see that powerful people didn’t immediately become egalitarians, nor did ordinary people become saints very often. But the idea that everyone could and should seek salvation (for want of a better term) elicited response from unexpected places. When Jesus came along a few centuries later he may have been descended from King David, but he consorted with women and lower class men that most respectable Jews would have condemned. When Christianity started becoming a strong movement, it was largely slaves and women who converted and influenced others. According to the view of many, that’s not how things are supposed to work.

There are a number of ideas current that may point in a better direction than humans in general are going in now. One is the idea of the Earth as a conscious entity, and our common mother. The idea that we should treat our mother better than we do is one that infuriates some, and we can’t claim to have reversed exploitative attitudes, but most people would prefer clean air and water, though we may not have much idea what we individuals can do to make them better.

The idea of equality is another. People are obviously not equal in ability or circumstance, but we can still strive to treat everyone at least decently. That’s another idea often resisted, sometimes violently. It’s easier to count some groups of humans outside the circle of humanity, especially as population rises, and we become more anxious about having enough for ourselves and our families.

We may well be anxious. Selfishness may well be the root of all evil, whether it applies to money or anything else, and it’s a quality few of us are without. To believe that not only humans, but the rest of life as well, deserves to be treated gently implies an immense responsibility that many of us, maybe most, reject out of hand. Maybe not in theory, but in our everyday actions.

How many of us consider what impact driving our cars or throwing out our trash has on the planet? Our cellphones and computers often go into landfills when we’re done with them, and their toxic wastes leach out into ground water. It doesn’t happen before our eyes, so we don’t notice. Maybe we’ll notice when we or our children get sick from the poison of our addiction to convenience and entertainment.

Religion is often taken to be something we do on Sunday, which has little to do with our daily lives. In fact, when actually allowed to influence our behavior, it’s intensely practical in the longterm. Loving your neighbor as yourself is likely to give both of you longer, and arguably happier lives. And if you expand that definition to include all living things, the practical effects are also likely to be extended.

This, however, is difficult, and unlike our American ancestors, we don’t seem to tolerate difficulty very well. We’ve been a wealthy country at least since World War II, but wealth hasn’t brought out the best in us. Many of us are unhappy; some with good reason, others not, and the unhappy tend to make those around them unhappy too. We tend to blame everyone but ourselves for the problems that afflict us, when we ALL have contributed to the problems of the world.

None of us can fix everything, but we can look at what’s immediately around us and try to fix that much. Nothing is guaranteed, but intentions do matter, and so do actions. If it makes us more comfortable we may reflect that we may be punished not so much by God’s judgment as by the impersonal consequences of our own actions. We live mostly in the world of cause and effect, and trying to produce good effects for others as much as ourselves is likelier to have a pleasant outcome than the selfishness we so often allow ourselves. That’s one of the basic messages of religion. If we prefer not to pay attention, we’re likely to have to endure the consequences.

More About Steve Forbes and His Freedom Manifesto


There’s a kind of dance that goes on constantly between groups of people. You could call it a sort of contest between liberty and order. Some will say that one is more important than the other, but i think people need both. The question is always how to balance one idea against the other. That’s a question that tends to become violent sometimes.

Steve Forbes, in Freedom Manifesto, favors the free market, and chooses restrictive government as the villain. That’s not entirely false, but not entirely true either. He values the innovation of the free market, and certainly lots of amazing things have come about that way. He’s a free market fundamentalist, believing that the market decides the value of everything as long as it’s left alone, through competition. I wouldn’t go that far.

There are different kinds of competition, for one thing, as when car companies of the USA decided to work to eliminate streetcars in major cities in favor of buses and cars belonging to individuals. Forbes would call this creative destruction, and if what replaced the trolleys were superior, he’d be right to do so. But not all such destruction is creative. Whether buses and cars are superior to streetcars is debateable, and I’d suggest that, in the context of a city, they’re not.

That leads to the question of value: what OUGHT we to value and invest in? Everyone will have different answers to that, and some of those answers we can eventually determine to be wrong. One of the current questions, not yet definitively answered, is whether the technology of “fracking” is a good one.

Fracking uses millions of gallons of water, with a certain amount of chemicals and sand, to fracture underground structures so that oil and natural gas can be obtained. I’m inclined to suggest it’s not good, that we ought to be seeking other forms of energy that don’t pollute, but I don’t know enough to say that definitively. Cheap energy, in the form of oil, coal and natural gas have brought lots of benefits to us, but lots of unintended side-effects as well. People may doubt the science of climate change, but wouldn’t it be smart to try to eliminate that threat, even if we’re not entirely sure how true it is? There’s no question that pollution isn’t good for humans or other forms of life. Why not find a way to eliminate pollution, while retaining the good things about our technology?

For one thing, because doing so would be expensive. We’re not hesitant to invest in something we believe to be necessary: wars, for instance. But enough people prefer to believe that profit is more important than living pollution-free, so we don’t invest in technologies that arguably will save the lives of our children, and possibly of the whole planet. If the innovation Forbes admires were invested in this problem, solutions would most likely be found. In fact, such investment has taken place in other countries, and while the investment hasn’t been consistent, and the solutions aren’t definitively better than the carbon-based technology (its infrastructure and business models already in place) it’s very possible that further investment would find ways to make a transition to a more healthy form (or forms) of energy. Carbon-based energies therefore have the advantage of being convenient, though their disadvantages aren’t trival.

Forbes doesn’t want government to stifle innovation with too much regulation, and that’s a reasonable concern. But SOME regulation is necessary. He recognizes this as well, and cites a study showing that Americans are generally more trusting of people they don’t know than are the Japanese. He attributes this to our free market form of economy, and says that this attitude is rare in the world, and that the less trusting attitude tends to go with places where government is authoritarian. That may also be true, and if so it’s a tribute to our economic system. But our economic system doesn’t always work the way it should.

The Glass-Steagall bill was enacted during the Great Depression to prevent the Depression from ever happening again, by barring commercial banks from speculation on the stock market. Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999, and it took less than ten years for the stock market to crash again. That’s an example of regulation that’s necessary on a large scale. On a small scale, consider traffic regulation, as Forbes does. That’s pretty obviously necessary as well. Traffic accidents happen in spite of regulation, but how many would happen if there was no regulation at all? It’s not hard to guess: WAY too many.

So what would our economy look like if there were little or no regulation? Forbes thinks it would look better than it does, that there are always bad people in any walk of life, but only a minority, and that corporations do better at responding to changing conditions than the government does, since they’re made of people doing what they do volunatrily.

I think there are whole industries that are less than good (to put it politely). More than 20 years ago I visited the state of Mississippi, staying the night in Vicksburg. As I drove through the downtown area I saw a WHOLE LOT of rent to own stores. It seemed pretty obvious to me that this is how a lot of poor people buy things. They pay a certain amount each month, and that goes towards their eventually owning whatever they’re buying. That’s not necessarily bad, but I have a suspicion that when people buy things that way they wind up paying a whole lot more than if they could afford to buy the thing outright. If the interest they have to pay each month isn’t exorbitant, that’s okay. But I suspect it is.

I recently walked into a local store thinking about buying a laptop, saw the prices on them, and walked back out again. The prices were a lot higher than the other stores I’d been looking in, and the only apparent advantage to buying there was the low monthly payments you’d have to make. But you’d clearly end up paying a lot more for the product. That’s taking advantage of various people’s ignorance. Maybe I’d stop short of banning it, but I don’t like it.

The same for borrowing on the title of your car. I’d prefer not to lose my car that way, and I suspect it would be very easy to do. This business model is based on  on what is called loan-sharking. The only immediately discernable difference is that this is legal, though I’m not so sure it should be.

Another way to make profits is to pay your employees very little. There’s quite a history of that in this country, as well as the rest of the world. With industrialization came the attempt by workers to organize unions, to which employers often responded violently. That was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since then unions have been resisted more in the legislative arena, by states enacting what are called Right to Work laws. Just how these work, I’m not entirely clear, but I just saw a statistic saying that the 10 poorest states in this country are all  Right to Work states. Let’s leave the significance of that open.

Other ways to reduce what workers are paid have been downsizing and exportation of jobs. Downsizing was very fashionable in the mid-1990’s, to the point of it being publicized as a panacea. The odd thing about it was that companies that were making good, sometimes record profits were practicing it. You’d expect downsizing in a company that wasn’t doing well. When companies are doing well, downsizing takes on a different significance. It’s no longer about cutting expenses so the company can survive and eventually make good profits again. It’s become depriving employees of their share of the profits they helped to make. Americans may be trusting, but that kind of behavior suggests they shouldn’t be.

Exportation of jobs seems similar. Forbes admires the late Steve Jobs, and so do many others, apparently. There’s a lot to admire in a man who helped found one of the most successful computer manufacturers, making ground-breaking products in the industry, but Forbes doesn’t mention the Foxconn  factory in China where components for IPods are made for Apple, among others. Workers there (one factory employing 200,000) were forced to live at the factory, to work about 60 hours a week for about $100 a month, and pay for rent and food out of that amount (about half their pay). There were also reports of child labor there, and a high suicide rate. A different report said that workers had to make reptetitive motions to such an extent that they lost the use of their hands. Wikipedia (source of the first few allegations) also said that a reporter from Reuters was assaulted by by security guards at the Foxconn facility for trying to take pictures. The above may explain why Apple’s profit margin is high.

Now I begin to read tha manufacturing is returning to this country, and that manufacturers say that their previous outsourcing was a mistake. It’s true that making mistakes is the way we learn, but these mistakes came at least partly at the expense of American workers. Is there any doubt that these jobs contributed the the bad economy of the last four years?

But let’s also consider that the free market provides what people want. What people want often turns out not to be too good for them, like fast foods and sugary drinks. I’m not going to suggest banning such things (that’s what Forbes says big government does), but it does seem to underline that freedom includes the freedom to do gross things. On the psychological level gross things include TV programs like Jerry Springer, which I watched–exactly once. If there’s such a thing as air and water pollution, isn’t there such a thing as mental pollution? Again, I’m not going to suggest banning TV shows that I don’t like. There wouldn’t be many left. But I will suggest that the free market isn’t an unmitigated blessing.

Forbes also says that CEOs deserve high pay because it’s a tough job, and if they couldn’t make that much they’d do something else.  I expect the CEO of a corporation to make more than the average worker, but I don’t recall that there was any lack of CEOs in the 1950s or 60s when the CEO made only about 100 times as much as the lowest-paid employee instead of 3-400 times as much now. And with bonuses that seem to come even if their company isn’t doing well. Have CEOs started feeling ENTITLED to be overpaid? Executive pay going up while laborers pay goes down is also a feature of the free market. Does that make sense for the country as a whole?

I haven’t managed to address all the points Forbes makes. I can’t disagree with a lot of them, but there are also a lot of them I can’t agree with. Politicizing the question makes it more difficult to see the whole picture. Most of us have biases in one direction or another. I don’t want to see my country run for the benefit primarily of corporations, whose interests are not the same as those of individuals. I also don’t want to see the country run for the benefit primarily of the government. The interests of government and corporations seem to coincide more than the interests of either do with those of individuals and communities. I prefer not to blindly trust either.

My Three Favorite Mystery Writers


I haven’t tried to cover the whole of the mysteries. That would probably be impossible anyway, though I’ve come a lot closer in science fiction. But I have three favorites of writers who fit more or less into that field, each of whom has (or had) a very different perspective.

I recently wrote about Ross MacDonald, who died some 30 years ago, and I think was one of the foremost of American mystery writers. Not long after his death my other two favorites began publishing: Jonathan Kellerman and Andrew Vachss.

MacDonald’s narrator was Lew Archer, a hardboiled detective out of the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler school. Private eyes became iconic figures in the 20th century, though I’m not sure their fictional exploits corresponded very well with how real private detectives behaved. One of the ways mystery writers seek to come up with something different is to have their heroes be something other than professional detectives, private or otherwise, so Kellerman’s Alex Delaware is a child psychologist (as Kellerman is outside his fiction), and Vacch’s Burke is a criminal.

The big difference between MacDonald and Kellerman is that MacDonald wrote about more or less ordinary people who make mistakes and event-ually are driven to kill to cover them up. Kellerman, however, writes about monsters–usually serial killers who represent the extremes of human behavior. You can identify with a lot of MacDonald’s characters; it’s pretty hard to identify with a lot of Kellerman’s. Not all of them are serial killers in the sense of private individuals who just like to kill people. There are certainly people who are in it for gain: a Nazi, for instance, or a police official. Still, his villains tend to be less sympathetic than MacDonald’s.

Vachss also writes about monsters, but from his narrator’s perspective, the American system is what is monstrous, and it naturally produces monsters. Burke, like most of the people around him, and the people he tries to help, is outside the system. Like many of them, he’s been abused, and spent a good deal of time in prison. Out of prison he’s part of a family related by common experience and viewpoint, not by genetics. One is the Prof (short either for Professor or Prophet) whom he met in prison, and who has been teaching him ever since. Prof is black, but his insights are for anyone who can follow them. Another of his family is a Tibetan martial artist who’s deaf, another is transgender, a third is Jewish with very poor eyesight but tremendous scientific and technical ability.

Burke has particular hatred for pedophiles. He’s been the victim of at least one, and has met plenty of others who have too. Vachss’s first novel concerns a woman whom Burke helps to find the pedophile who killed her child. She finds and kills him. Other novels explore that territory more thoroughly.

One of my favorites is Choice of Evil. The villain in this novel began as a kidnapper, who kidnapped only children, and always killed the children as a safety measure, not, in this case, because he enjoyed killing children. Then he kidnaps a girl who regards him as a rescuer. That’s because her father has been molesting her. Rather than kill her, he gives her some sort of drug that has an effect not clearly described. She lives to grow up, and eventually meet her kidnapper again.

Meanwhile, her kidnapper has become enamoured with the idea of killing. One of Burke’s friends was a contract killer, and a consummate one. By this time he’s committed a spectacular suicide, taking a lot of people with him. The kidnapper wants to be recognized as a better killer. A monstrous character, to be sure, but also sympathetic in having let a little girl touch his heart.

In the last novel about Burke (and the implication that no more are to follow) Burke is hunting a boy taken from his mother by his father, who is another monster. Burke eventually succeeds in returning the boy to his mother, but in doing so he realizes something about his own past.

In all the previous novels he has despised his mother (who gave him up as a newborn) for her apparent irresponsible attitude towards him. Now he reconsiders. Perhaps his mother gave him up because she lived in a horrific situation and thought giving him up would give him a better chance at survival. That’s uncertain, but the mother he’s trying to help has given her child up with that hope. Burke finds her hope to be unrealistic, and persuades her to try something else.

Vachss is not, as far as I know, a survivor of abuse, but he’s spent much of his life around people who are. He’s a lawyer who defends only children, and prior to that ran a prison as humanely as he could. He has some real-life experience of power relationships in the underbelly of society.

Kellerman’s view is somewhat similar, being a child psychologist in real life, in addition to being a writer. His narrator isn’t a criminal, but shares Vachss’s jaundiced view of the ugly parts of society. MacDonald, I think, wasn’t aware of a lot of the things Kellerman and Vachss are. There were still lots of things about the American condition that he wasn’t happy with, but it was more generally the human condition he wrote about, America (California in particular, in his and Kellerman’s cases) being only the location of that condition.

All three writers have a clear sense of something wrong. They can show the particulars of what’s wrong to some extent, but may not be able to show a solution to whatever it may be. Catching criminals and putting them in prison or executing them (and execution can be problematic) is all very well; the real challenge is to prevent them from becoming criminals in the first place. How is THAT to be done? It probably will never be done perfectly, but it seems pretty clear that it could be done better than it is. Answers to that question will have to come from somewhere else, though. Brilliant as these writers are, they don’t have those kind of answers.