Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for January, 2017|Monthly archive page

Which Economy is Trump Talking About?

In American Economy, Current events on January 28, 2017 at 4:30 pm

I’ve written about the apparent confusion of the language here in the US between conservatives and liberals, commented on how the word ‘entitled’ has been transformed from a criticism of the upper classes to a pejorative for the working poor, and lamented that some accept lies as facts simply because they have heard them hundreds of times. And now we have Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway giving us ‘alternative facts’. But in all of this confusion, there is one idea that is so muddy and unclear that one hardly knows what it means – or whether it means anything at all. In fact, I think we may all have quite a different idea in our heads when we hear the words ‘the economy’.

Studies of bi-lingual children have shown that the same word spoken in different languages can produce very different images in the mind. One study involved French-Canadian children between the ages of 4 and 7 years old who had one English-speaking parent at home and one French-speaking one, and could use both languages with equal skill. The children were given a piece of paper and some crayons and were asked by an instructor, in English, to “draw a dog for me, please.” The children happily complied. The drawings all looked very similar, as do most drawings done by children of this age. No surprises.

The next day, the same children were given the exact same instruction, but this time, the whole event was conducted in French instead of English, so the children were told to “dessinez un chien pour moi, s’il vous plait.” Again, all of the drawings looked very similar to each other – but to the astonishment of the instructors, they all looked decidedly different from the drawings of the previous day. The study was repeated with a variety of different objects and creatures school children might be familiar with – every time with the same surprising result.

It seemed that when the children were communicating in French, they were actually thinking differently than when they were speaking in English. Is it possible that ‘un chien’ produces one image in the mind, while ‘a dog’ conjures another? Can it be that not only do different cultures have different ideas kicking around in their brains, but also different ideals?

Or, that what one person means when he says ‘the economy’ isn’t the meaning I get when I hear him say it? This might explain why we are in so much disagreement about how to fix our ‘economy’.

I’ve never been rich, so I have a decidedly middle-class idea of what a good economy might look like. To me, a good economy means that everyone who wants to work can find a job, and that those jobs pay enough to provide the necessities of life. With a bit of hard work, other opportunities to obtain better jobs with better pay become available, and some of the niceties of life, such as a house or car, can be afforded as well. Over time, not only can one afford a few comforts and modest luxuries, but a modicum of financial security. Professionals and successful entrepreneurs can scale to even greater financial heights, but pretty much everyone can expect to exchange his or her labor for a typical American lifestyle. Government assistance is for those who have temporarily fallen upon hard times or who legitimately can not work.

NAFTA, North American Free Trade AgreementWhat about for those who don’t work for a living, but instead depend on the accumulation of wealth and a positive return on investments? The availability and quality of work is an integral part, in my mind, of a good economy. But, I’m guessing that ‘a good economy’ means something altogether different for investors than it does for me.

Notice that how well Wall Street is doing doesn’t factor into my thinking about the economy, but it would be perhaps the single most important factor for someone with a huge accumulation of wealth. For me, I’d like to do something I enjoy doing, and pay the bills doing it. For a person who doesn’t need to work, doing what he wants to do and paying the bills while doing it is a foregone conclusion; what he wants is something completely different from what I want – and thus his idea of what is ‘good for the economy’ probably doesn’t line up with mine.

He wants a good return on his investment. I want a good return for my labor. He might be able to win some, lose some; I cannot afford to work at something that doesn’t pay.

So, when conservatives tell us that tax cuts for the rich are good for the economy, we need to ask, “Which economy?” When the rich have more cash, they invariably invest more into the stock market. As more money pours in, stock prices rise – whether the companies selling shares perform better or not, more buyers than sellers creates an influx of cash for a finite number of shares, causing  prices to rise. Therefore, tax cuts are good for the stock market and those who invest in it. If this is your measure of ‘a good economy’, then saying that cutting taxes for the rich is good for the economy is true.

However, if your idea of a good economy looks like mine, then tax cuts are counter-productive. Teachers, policeman, firemen, and other government employees get axed when taxes are cut, which sends most communities into a downward spiral. Those who lose their jobs can no longer shop or buy, meaning that local businesses lose income as well, meaning they may have to lay off employees as well. All those folks without jobs means lower tax revenues next year, which necessitates even further job cuts.

Depending on how it’s managed, this can still be good news for shareholders. Those redundant employees might be forced to take lower-paying jobs than they had before, and low wages increase the bottom line for big business.

But notice the big difference – the investor class can do well in either type of ‘good economy’, when companies are expanding and adding employees or when they are cutting costs by letting them go. If he’s savvy, the investor can make even more money when stock prices go down.

The man who depends on his labor for his living is not in the same predicament. When the economy is bad, he suffers. Some may find a way to start a new business in bad times, but most end up making less money than they did before. There’s no upside to a downturn for the working man.

I think this is one of the reasons Donald Trump is now POTUS. While I think the man is abhorrent, there are a great number of people who voted for him because they haven’t seen their personal economies improve in decades, despite watching the stock market double in the last 20 years. I don’t see how cancelling trade agreements like TPP and NAFTA are going to reverse that trend – what I really think is that, while people have had stagnant wages, they’ve enjoyed cheaper prices on goods. ‘Renegotiating’ trade agreements will do little to bring back jobs or raise wages, but will certainly raise prices on everything from computers to shoes to vegetables. So, the working man will lose again.

I certainly do NOT see how more tax cuts for the rich will create those jobs or raise wages – not in the US anyway. And I’m afraid I don’t have much sympathy for what ails the rich, nor am I concerned about what benefits that class without benefiting others. A guy like Mitt Romney pays 15% in taxes on his millions, which grow while he sleeps, while I pay 30% on what I earn by the sweat of my brow. He can adjust his investment strategy to incorporate a downturn; I’m left with the ultimate tax break – I get to pay 0% if I have no income at all.

Can Trump improve the middle-class economy while slashing taxes for the rich? It hasn’t worked in my lifetime – but I’m guessing we’ll know the outcome soon enough.

Why Children Shouldn’t Pray

In American Society, Religion and Education on January 22, 2017 at 12:56 pm

prayer

After many years behind the Great Firewall of China, I’ve finally decided to move elsewhere. It’s been so frustrating to try and get a blog going when everything is blocked! I’m not sure where I’ll land, but at the moment I’m writing from Bangkok, Thailand. I’m re-posting one of the last articles I was able to publish, just to get things rolling again. More to come.

I have dear Christian friends and family members whom I try hard not to offend when I post on social media – the main reason I created the American Secularist Facebook page is so that I could share ideas and posts with like-minded individuals without worry that I’d alienate someone I care about. Since I’m not trying to force my opinions upon anyone, I guess I should expect that there would be quite a few people I’m connected to who may not know that I’ve become one of the ‘unconverted’ over the years, becoming much more comfortable with an agnostic worldview and very uncomfortable with the suggestion that we need more God in our government. That means that most days I’ll see a post somewhere that looks like this one:

Dear Atheist, if you do not believe that God exists, why do you care if I pray to him?

Most of the time, these don’t bother me much – I put them in the same category as those invitations to play Candy Crush or whatever the latest game is. If I start getting a half-dozen a day from the same person, I just ‘hide’ their posts for a few days until they calm down about whatever it is that’s got them wound up. There are probably a couple of people who are so far to the right that I need to block them until election season is over. But basically no harm done as those who agree ‘like’ the post and others can just keep moving down the page.

But this particular one hit a few hot buttons – and I think it requires a response.

Let’s first dispel the common misconception this photo promotes – that it is illegal for anyone to pray in an American school. This is simply untrue, no matter how many preachers or Fox News commentators say otherwise. No one has ever ‘taken prayer out of our schools’ at any time. Students can pray in school whenever they like, so long as such activity isn’t disruptive in nature. Teachers and administrators can pray as well, although it must be clear that they are exercising their personal beliefs and that the school is not endorsing any religion or requiring that anyone participate.

Basically, no teacher or administrator can prohibit a student from the free exercise of his or her beliefs – they just can’t lead students in prayer as was often done in the past. The Lemon Test doesn’t say people can’t pray, it only says that the state should not be promoting prayer. The Supreme Court ruled that school activities – and indeed government activities of any kind – should have a secular purpose.

Don’t forget too that almost everyone in favor of school prayer is in favor of their own particular brand of prayer. I don’t think the people passing this photo around would be happy if everyone got to pray they way they wanted to pray – young Sufis whirling around in circles or Japanese Shintos running through the hallways with huge penises held high in the air.

In fact, the legislation that stopped teacher-led prayer in school didn’t come about because some atheist was annoyed by it – it started because a Jewish man didn’t like seeing his son saying Christian prayers. Going back to the way things were in the 1950s would only re-open the old debates about whether a Catholic or Jew (and we’d have to add Muslim today) should be included in Protestant prayers – or should the prayer be watered down to be so general as to be meaningless. Few are satisfied with universalist prayers.

I think what I find particularly annoying about this photo is that it is presented as an honest question from a child – scrawled innocently on a notepad, out of the mouth of babes, as it were. Finished off with a rather smug-looking smiley face for good measure. Of course, this is a misrepresentation.  It is clearly the opinion of an adult who wants to force kids to pray to his god. He wouldn’t phrase it that way, I’m sure, but that’s what the outcome would be.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like to hear children being referred to as “Christian children”, “Jewish children”, or any other religious designation. Children do not choose their religious affiliation. No parent tells a child about Jesus, Mohammed, Rama, and Buddha, then leaves it up to that child to decide which one they want to believe in. Instead, children are indoctrinated. At an age and developmental stage in which fantasy and reality are hard to separate, children are presented only one set of religious myths, told to them as truth.

This is why keeping religion out of the schools is so important. Schools have the huge task of educating our children, dispelling ignorance, and creating and nurturing inquisitive minds. Propping up tired old ideas based on the 2000-year-old writings of mostly unlearned men should not be on the agenda. Teachers who encourage children to ask a magic man in the sky for personal favors instead of showing them the math and science behind how the universe works should not be employed by public schools. Education is about learning that which can be proven.

Why do I care? Even though children are legally allowed to pray in school, I’m not sure that they should. I think it’s dangerous to encourage children to believe in fantasy and fatalism, to teach as real that which has no proof. A lot of what’s wrong in America today is caused by believing there’s something out there that will magically solve all of our ills. God will come back before we destroy ourselves through wars or environmental destruction. Cut taxes for rich people and the economic woes will somehow right themselves. Carpet-bombing and drone attacks are somehow going to reduce terrorism around the world.

Perhaps our children should be learning that only they, themselves, can change the world for the better.  Arguing about which imaginary friend we should be allowed to talk to is a serious waste of time.

Please comment – do you think I’ve gone too far when I say children shouldn’t be taught to pray?

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