Thursday, January 20, 2005

36. Government's all Greek to him

Success is often built upon the bricks of knowledge formed from studying both the triumphs and failures of its predecessors. The founders of this country sought to examine previous governments in order to frame a constitution and government that might encapsulate the best of each, without repeating the mistakes of the past. Some of the failed republics studied were those of the ancient Greeks. The challenges of government that we experience today are not apart from the hindrances pondered by Athenian philosophers centuries before modern time.

Aristotle and Thucydides, in particular, noted the tensions and potential incompatibility between ideas such as "democracy," and "freedom." Too often, these terms are used interchangeably, despite their very different meanings and applications. Their musings and postulations are exemplified in our modern government, with the differences often unnoticed.

According to Thucydides, expounded by Daniel N. Robinson, Ph. D. in his Greek Legacy series, "democracy assumes that all have equal moral and political standing, and that rewards will be distributed equally, " whereas "freedom presumes that rewards will be distributed unequally, since some people have more ability than others."

In Thucydides' definition of democracy, the assumption of equal moral and political standing does not refer to a casteless society. However, the plausibility of a society of equal moral and political standing is improbable. To this, according to Robinson, Aristotle noted that a "democracy creates the potential for a tyranny of the majority." One could argue that Aristotle prophetically detailed the last election in which the "moral" majority tyrannically eradicated potential marital arrangements between homosexuals. Thus, in this definition of democracy, the rights of minorities exist only so long as the majority refrains from extinguishing them.

Fortunately, the American founders fought for the ratification of several rights as Constitutional amendments to preserve minority beliefs and opinions. Again drawing from tyrannical study, the inclusion of these rights guaranteed, at least to some degree, a democratic state in which individuals would have equal moral and political standing- at least in the right to express one's minority or unpopular opinion, without the fear of being hauled off to prison (although this, of course, hasn't always held true).

The presumption that freedom rewards those based on ability or effort lends itself to a meritocracy or what is sold as "the American dream." In this concept of governance, the rewards are to be reaped by the deserving and successful- as the most talented individuals rise to the top. Ideologically, citizens would begin at the same place but end (or succeed) according to merit- some rich, some poor. This premise, however, fails in the light of nepotism, elitism and privilege. Fewer citizens, as the wealthy entrench their stronghold on the path of success, realize the American dream.

The Economist magazine examined American's "fading meritocracy," in what it titled, "Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend." It found that income inequity "is growing to levels not seen since the 1880s." In addition, it noted that it is "not any easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the wealthy have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap."

Again, in our recent election, both President George W. Bush and candidate Senator John Kerry came from very privileged backgrounds. The privileged path consists of growing up in wealthy and prestigious families, attending private schools and then Ivy League colleges- after which, the opportunities are endless. With education often being the key to success, especially for those that graduate from the top schools, it is disheartening to note, according to The Economist article, that "three-quarters of the students at the country's top 146 colleges come from the richest socio-economic forth, compared with just 3% from the poorest forth." Harvard students, for example, come from families whose median income is $150,000. Furthermore, 10-15% of all Ivy League classes are made up of "legacies"- those that are often granted special acceptance because they are the children of alumni.

Some leaders of the recent past, likewise, expressed their concerns over the plight facing the poor. Teddy Roosevelt favored inheritance taxes to preserve a meritocracy (and prevent an aristocracy), that is, to level the playing field so that fewer individuals realize such a head start. In addition, philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, who donated millions of dollars to free libraries, attempted to thwart the implications of a class-based society.

The ideology of America's democracy and meritocracy, it can be argued, is slowly being eroded, as exemplified by the distribution of wealth and education. An aristocracy can succeed in a democracy so long as it prevents overthrow from the mob. To do this requires a content middle class and a perceived majority ideology. As long as the middle class is relatively satisfied, the voice of the poor will not be heard. Moreover, as long as the country is moving in the "right" direction politically, culturally or morally, the aristocracy will be permitted to survive (consider conservative values that sparked this year's election, regardless of social standing).

Ancient Greek philosophers proposed that we must choose between the majority mob that rule democracies (because they can) and societies that rewards its citizens (in terms of wealth and power) proportional to their accomplishments. Similarly, Robinson concludes that, "The American founders realized that their democratic experiment would fail if it were not restrained (from) the excessive tendencies to which democracy is prone." Today, it seems, America must tread cautiously through the principles of government, balancing democracy, meritocracy, freedom and liberty- while dedicated to controlling the excessive tendencies of democracy and the oppressions of aristocracy.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

35.Global warming a real fear

Dolphin-safe tuna, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, rainforest destruction and recycling- where does it end? Similar to being on a strict diet around the holidays, it is difficult to be consistently environmentally conscious. Looking out for the environment is a time consuming endeavor, practiced in varying degrees to save animals, rain forests or our atmosphere. What are the dangers and what does it all mean for future generations and us?

Michael Crichton, of Jurassic Park and "ER" fame, recently released his latest novel, "State of Fear." Already controversial, and unread personally, the book makes the statement that the issue of global warming is significantly overblown. His point, as reviewers eloquently note, is that the idea of global warming is more, "faith over fact," "more political than scientific, " and even a "quasi-manipulation of our society."

Crichton has often molded his stories around science, most notably Jurassic Park, as his background is both in anthropology and medicine. I thoroughly enjoyed the last book of his that I read, "The Lost Word," although I still have not forgiven Steven Spielberg for completely destroying the screenplay. Crichton's argument in "State of Fear" is an interesting one, even if I disagree. And, statistically, based on his premise, I can only assume he is a Republican and that perhaps he even owns a logging company (want some wood?).

Fear has always been a powerful motivating factor and, as we recently witnessed, the fear of terrorism was a major factor in the presidential election. As Georgetown law professor Richard J. Lazarus notes in his new book, "The Making of Environmental Law," it was the environmental scares of the 1970s that prompted even Richard Nixon to begin passing environmental laws that lead to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. The question is then, how real are those fears today?

The recent election was hardly influenced by environmental factors, as George W. Bush will be remembered as one of the least environmentally and scientifically informed presidents in history- the signing of the February 2004 petition condemning the White House for "deliberately and systematically distorting scientific fact," by scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, more than exemplifies this statement. Further to this, Lazarus notes, "the GOP has become experts in managing the spin, repacking environmentally damaging laws under titles like "Clean Skies" or "Healthy Forests" (I might add the "Patriot Act" and "Operation Iraqi Freedom to that clever, though unrelated, list). From this, despite Crichton's claim, fear has clearly not influenced recent political thought.

Crichton's book has fallen victim to poor timing as the World Meteorological Organization just released its report for 2004, noting it as the fourth warmest year on record (since 1990 the ten warmest years have been recorded). In addition, the carbon dioxide on the side of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano has registered a carbon dioxide increase of two parts per million now for two consecutive years. The increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may raise global temperatures. Increasing temperatures may, in turn, melt ice caps, setting in motion climatic and environmental changes. Models differ in the projection of possible consequences, but we recently witnessed nature's power in the tsunamis that hit Asia following an oceanic earthquake.

The issue or concern, depending how one views the situation, is a global one. And more than an economical issue, it is a cultural and moral issue. Our "fast-paced" culture has little understanding of the gradual nature of environmental decay, notes Lazarus. Furthermore, our industrial, scientific and technological advancements have created a culture that, "ever more disconnects us from the real world." Meaning, of course, that we have become separated from the physical world that challenged our ancestors. Bill McKibben in "Legal Affairs" magazine, best summarizes the cultural and moral dilemma encompassing the globe, "...real progress on global warming demands figuring out ways to let poor nations use more energy for necessities while we use less for luxuries."

Granted, on a planet that is measured in billions of years, a ten-year trend towards global warming does not prove that it exists. But it does not take much to understand that fossil fuels, and our other natural resources, will not last forever. It would be easy to list the atrocities placed on this planet in just a couple of generations- from the depletion of natural resources to the alarming rate of extinction. Human beings, especially in first world countries, continue to tear through this planet like an Enron shredding party. At some point, we need to slow down and recognize the moral obligation to future generations (and other species). And perhaps consider their, impending, "State of Fear."

Thursday, January 6, 2005

34. Commercialism spoiled hobby

In late August I used to stay up late waiting for my mom to come home from the convenience store she managed back in the late 1970s. With her she would bring all the packs of football and baseball cards my couple of dollars could buy. Back then, about ten cents a pack, each dollar got me ten packs and my first practical use of long division. My friends and I would bring our cards to school, and on sleepovers, to negotiate trades and compare collections. We would stay up all night working on that blockbuster deal.

I completed my first football set 1978 and my first baseball set in 1980- Topps, of course, for they were the only company that made sports cards back then. Soon after, Donruss and Fleer starting making awful imitations, and shortly after that, a slew of other companies and brands entered the market in the 1990s.

I collected nearly every set, by hand (not buying the complete set), until around 1989. In around 1989, I put a couple of extra sets that I collected up for sale at my parents' small business. The rapid sale and, furthermore, the customer inquires into these sets and other sets quickly lit a light bulb above my young head. Buying and selling cards might be a profitable little business. I started slowly, using only profits to buy additional products; but I worked hard, and hustled, doing card shows and flea markets. My best friend and I drove everywhere and anywhere to get a good deal on cards, destined for resale. What was once an enthusiastic, although sometimes obsessive, hobby, was now a full-fledged small business.

Baseball cards especially, and sport cards in general, became zealously popular in the late eighties and early nineties. Hobbyists, like myself, found out that there was value to their collections and quickly "sold out" and pursued sport cards as an investment, rather than for the enjoyment. Quickly, money and greed ruined, at least for me, the hobby I once thoroughly enjoyed.

Nearly all markets can easily be defined through supply and demand. The pattern of events that led to, in my opinion, the destruction of this traditional hobby outlines a trend that is now easily recognized throughout other hobbies and fads. My stomach turns ill when I see other innocent endeavors fall (or are about to fall) victim to the greed of both companies and consumers wanting to make a quick profit.

Here, in my opinion, is how it happens:

Step 1: Something that used to be in short supply, or at least in equilibrium, becomes overtly popular- quickly raising demand. This popularity usually comes about through some sort of media attention.

Step 2: When demand dramatically exceeds supply, prices suddenly rise.

Step 3: Rising prices do two things. Those who have the product in demand begin to sell the product for a sizeable profit (and tells everyone what kind of profit they made); and other companies begin producing the product with the hope of capturing some of the market share.

Step 4: The flooding of the market frustrates both customers/investors as now supply exceeds demand- driving down prices. .

Step 5: Companies desperately fight for market share and seek to create artificial demand by cutting production runs. These shortened production runs are usually distributed randomly so that one has to be "lucky" to get "one out of only 500 produced." The entire hobby turns into a lottery. While, at the same time, collectors/investors spend so much money keeping up with the recent trends/products that there is little money left to spend on the original product, for which, ironically, is truly in short supply. In this manner, companies do a great job of distracting consumers from the falling value of their inventories/investments.

I thought my modest sport card business would pay for my college, and although it helped, I waited a bit too long. As the supply increased, investors focused on the limited edition cards- those purposely created in short supply. This act drove down the prices of thousands upon thousands of "common cards." In addition, those who had purchased cards as an investment panicked and further flooded the market. Suddenly everyone was a dealer, and nobody was a collector. Even cards at garage sales had sellers pulling out their price guides to get the latest value.

I sold my collection in 1993 and never again bought a single pack of cards. It was like giving up an addiction "cold turkey." I have noticed on occasion the cost of the cards I used to get 15 to a pack for 10 cents. Now the cost is upwards of a couple of dollars for a pack of 5 cards. In my opinion, hobbyists, like me, sold out and ruined what used to provide hours of pleasure. In fact, due to my obsessive tendencies and guilty conscience, I have refrained from collecting anything since then.