The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Politics ... Public Policy ... Society ...

I’ve read a couple of interesting things lately about college education and the question of whether college should be available to everyone via government tuition subsidies at public colleges. Bernie Sanders introduced federal legislation not long ago to make all public colleges free. In 2014, President Obama proposed making 2-year community college free. The idea behind such government guarantees is that college is necessary today to obtain a good secure job with decent earnings, and that the more people who have college, the better off our society will be, in terms of economic growth, fairness and equality, and a variety of quality-of-life measures. A more educated workforce would theoretically stimulate the economy and allow employers to pay the higher salaries that highly productive college-trained workers demand. And with a higher percentage of our working population making college-level salaries, the expanding income and wealth distribution gap in our country should start to turn around, one would hope. The on-going racial gap in earnings and wealth should also improve as more minority students gain practical financial access to college.

So we get richer and have a more just society as a result of some up-front government tuition subsidy (which gets made up over time, hopefully, by increased tax revenues from higher overall worker earnings and business profits). Also, we should live better and more fulfilling lives. According to certain studies, college grads have longer life expectancy, greater life satisfaction, and better general health e.g. lower incidence of obesity. They are also less likely to commit crime, drink heavily, or smoke. They are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates. College‐educated parents engage in more educational activities with their children, who are better prepared for school than other children.

College helps students to more fully participate in cultural and societal events and activities throughout their lives. Not surprisingly then, the rates of suicide for educated individuals is far lower than their uneducated counterparts. And, so the education idealists tell us, a more educated public is a more united public, experiencing  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:27 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Public Policy ...

The tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida which occurred two weeks ago has gotten a lot of people talking about gun policy. It has also inspired the numbers geeks to take another look at the numbers regarding “mass shooting incidents” and regarding “assault rifle weapons”. Both of these phrases are easy to say, but quite difficult to define precisely.

However, given that I consider myself a hobbyist numbers-geek, I thought I would search around and see what kind of stats I could come up with from public internet sources. I wanted to see if there are any apparent correlations between shootings and social trends in public communication, such as the rise of 24 hour cable news, the world wide web, and smartphones and social media. I was wondering if the rising “sensitivity” of our society to sensational events like mass shootings because of instantaneous media sources, widely-available sources of information that did not exist before 1980, had anything to do with the rising number of shootings in our country.

OK, so how to define “mass shootings”? There does not seem to be any one agreed-upon standard; one fairly common definition is taken from a July 2015 Congressional Research Service report. This report defined a mass shooting as “a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms, within one event, and in one or more locations in close proximity.” An even stricter definition starts with this requirement, and further removes gang-related,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:05 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Economics/Business ... History ... Public Policy ... Society ...

In my last post, I discussed the notion of a “political economy” and reviewed some very insightful thoughts by political journalist John Judis, which seek to explain the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in economic terms. In a nutshell, Judis feels that both Sanders and Trump represent different points on the same underlying wave of populist dissatisfaction with our nation’s current political economy. Just what is this “economy” that so many people are dissatisfied with? It’s a high-tech version of what we called “Reaganomics” back when it was introduced in the early 1980s, with various modifications and adjustments made during the presidency of Bill Clinton. As such, I call it the “Reagan-Clinton1” political economy, although Judis gives it the more academically acceptable tag of “market liberalism” (not to be confused with political liberalism, which largely detests Reaganomics).

Many other pundits have explained the rise of Trump in terms of racism, perhaps a backlash against the ascent of Barack Obama. They admit that many of Trump’s largely white supporters have experienced tough economic times, but contend that the motivations behind Trump’s ascendancy largely reflect the fact that minorities have gained power, and that whites are increasingly anxious about this. Certain pundits, however, (e.g. David Roberts and Derek Thompson) also contend that this racial resentment has an economic component, a racial selfishness reflecting the belief that whites are no longer automatically first in line when it comes to reaping the benefits of the system.

My question is whether the political responses to Reaganomics from the black community and its leaders have in any way fed into the white racial anxieties that Trump seems to have drawn much of his support from.

Ironically, a look at some income statistics spanning the past 40 years indicates that in the aggregate, whites  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:33 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 27, 2016
Current Affairs ... Health / Nutrition ... Public Policy ...

About once a week I take the train to work, and I’ve noticed that the NJ Transit stations and the insides of the trains still have advertisement posters, even in this day and age when everything important is on your smartphone. About a year ago, I saw a lot of posters for Oscar, the “new kind of health insurance”.

So it was sad to read that Oscar is pulling out of the Obamacare market in New Jersey (where I live and where my train line is), along with Dallas. They aren’t completely abandoning the Obamacare exchanges; in fact they are expanding their offerings in some places (like San Francisco). But they tried to make ObamaCare work in NJ, and it didn’t happen for them. That’s too bad; I liked their ads. They were cute, especially the big walking bear. If you live outside of NJ, you might see them (supposedly Oscar is still drumming up business right across the river in New York). They are very cute and innovative, and they emphasize Oscar’s tech savvy nature (one ad said “Hi, we’re Oscar. We’re using technology to make health insurance simple, human and smart”). Actually, prior to Oscar I don’t remember ever seeing any sort of advertisement for health insurance! To actually have an insurer trying to convince you to buy their health coverage was very different.

At present, I don’t need Oscar; my Aetna policy from work meets my needs for now, and in a just few years I will be on Medicare. Still, it was nice to see an insurance company trying to innovate, a health insurer that seemingly wanted my business (just in case worse ever came to worst with Aetna). It all seemed like a good sign, an indication that Obamacare was working. Hey, if  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:57 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Public Policy ... Technology ... Weather ...

The world today is a really, really complicated place, and it’s hard sometimes to figure out what makes it better and what makes it worse. One confusing issue regards natural gas as a major energy source. There are some big disagreements as to whether we should encourage or discourage the production and use of natural gas. On the plus side for natural gas: as with petroleum and coal, it’s a practical way to provide energy where ever and whenever you like, in large or small quantities; it can be stored without energy loss; it’s relatively cheap and easy to produce, especially given newer drilling technologies such as fracking; there is plenty of it in the USA and in many other places around the world; and it burns relatively cleanly, without smoke and with half the carbon dioxide by-product that coal emits per unit of energy obtained (e.g. the BTU), and 2/3 of what oil emits.

Natural gas requires infrastructure to safely utilize, e.g. a network of storage tanks and pipelines and pumping stations — but most of that already exists in the US. It’s not quite as portable as a petroleum product (e.g. gasoline and diesel fuel), given that gas is harder to contain than a liquid. Thus, natural gas may not be a good fuel for most transportation needs, although there are some buses and trucks that can utilize it. But for many uses including home heating, power generation and commercial/industrial processes, it seems to be superior to both coal and oil.

Given that human-made climate change is now widely recognized and accepted as a real and significant phenomenon, a phenomenon that could have very costly and disrupting effects on human civilization in the coming decades; and also given that climate change is largely driven by carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, it would seem that we should encourage  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:22 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 9, 2015
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Society ...

The New Yorker recently published perhaps the first personal profile of former Ferguson, MO Police Officer Darren Wilson since he shot and killed 18 year old Michael Brown. Wilson obviously met with and cooperated extensively with writer Jake Halpern, who gave a detailed overview of Wilson’s life and career experience leading up to the Brown shooting, and since that time. At first, I found the article to be fair and quite informative, a well-needed focus on the perspective of Wilson, given that he unwittingly became involved in an incident where the media overwhelmingly focuses upon the victim and the many reactions from the public. In the end, however, I was disappointed by this article. Halpern had an agenda after all, a very familiar one for media such as the New Yorker; basically, to use Wilson as exhibit 1 in explicating the faults of whites in general, and white police officers in particular, in dealing with African Americans in an organizational context.

Halpern spoke in some detail about Wilson’s choice to work in North County outside St. Louis, as it was a more challenging environment for a police officer than a quieter, more affluent suburb. While working for a different but near-by police agency prior to his employment in Ferguson (in Jennings, MO), Wilson made the acquaintance of Mike McCarthy, another white officer (a field-training officer). McCarthy seemed to have a better understanding than Wilson did of the minority communities they were patrolling, and thus Wilson asked him for guidance in how to best deal with the people living in these areas. Wilson admitted to “culture shock” while addressing McCarthy, who agreed to help Wilson. Halpern seems to indicate that McCarthy’s efforts weren’t in vain, and that Wilson appeared better able to work in relatively high-crime minority communities because of it.

Halpern obviously asks McCarthy how he felt about the Brown killing. McCarthy’s reaction was that Wilson was basically doing his job, doing what any police officer in that situation would have to do, and that the tragic outcome did not have to do with Brown being black and Wilson being white. But of course, Halpern was not satisfied with this, so he pushed McCarthy further. Was it possible, Halpern wanted to know,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:40 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, July 18, 2015
Public Policy ... Science ... Society ...

The New York Times recently published an article about genetic crop modification (“GMO“, as popularly known) by financial experts Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Taleb. Spitznagel and Taleb (yes, the “black swan” Taleb) think that tinkering with agricultural products by intentionally altering their genes through now-common scientific techniques is a formula for trouble. They feel that “complex chains of unpredictable changes in the ecosystem” could lead to catastrophe (shortages, high prices, economic depressions, starvation) if important crops get unexpectedly wiped out or are no longer able to grow in a changing environment.

To give their argument some weight, Taleb and Spitznagel compare the current GMO situation with the growth in the late 90’s and early 2000’s of hybrid financial arrangements for sub-prime investments (e.g. credit default swaps, tranched mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, etc). These investments were designed based on detailed economic studies, statistical analyses and complex mathematical and computer techniques, and became very popular in the big-money world of high-finance. Unfortunately, they had some unforeseen flaws in them, such that changing conditions in the US housing market triggered a cascade of events that ultimately led to a financial crisis and a “Great Recession”.

Their logic was criticized in an article in Forbes by Henry I. Miller, a biomedical scientist and former FDA drug regulator. Miller first points out that Spitznagel and Taleb are  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:40 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, July 12, 2015
Public Policy ... Spirituality ...

Back in November, 2014, I was discussion Obamacare, and I cited a then-recent poll indicating that public support for Obamacare was improving, closing the excess of disapprovals over approvals down to 6%. Shortly thereafter, new polls came in showing that this poll was a fluke, and the overall disapproval margin was hovering around 10%. Well, don’t look now, but it appears that some better results are finally coming in for the Affordable Care Act of 2010. A recent Gallup Poll showed the disapproval margin down to 1 measly percentage point, and a CBS / NY Times poll actually showed a 3 point favorability margin — the first positive poll since early 2013. This is a very recent trend — two polls in May showed disapproval margins of 12 and 15 percentage points.

If the recent trend continues, however, then perhaps Obamacare is here with us to stay, no matter how the big 2016 election goes. I personally wish that the GOP would just stop being so pigheaded in its opposition to the ACA, and get down to proposing ways to implement more market-driven mechanisms and fewer government-managed aspects of a national health insurance system. That probably won’t happen, however, unless they win the White House in 2016. They will then propose to replace Obamacare, but in the end, when the dust settles, it will be Obamacare with a few more market-based features and a few less government control mechanisms and oversight boards. That is, if the public popularity trend continues. Stay tuned.

Oh, while I’m here — one more odd topic, having nothing to do with health care. I was reading an article on the Atlantic website about one of those recent neuroscience studies regarding the brains of Buddhist meditators, and all the wondrous things that lots of mediation  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:01 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Society ...

Looks like Fegruson, MO might be back in the news shortly. A Grand Jury is soon expected to release its decision as to whether criminal charges should be filed against Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting and killing of 18 year old Michael Brown by Darren. The Washington Post reports that the testimony of six local residents to the Saint Louis County Grand Jury who eyewitnessed the shooting, along with physical evidence collected at the scene, tend to confirm Wilson’s version of the story (i.e., that a physical struggle between Wilson and Brown ensued while Wilson was in his police vehicle, during a stop by Wilson to warn Brown and his companion not to walk in the middle of a busy street; Brown tried to take Wilson’s gun from him during the struggle; Wilson’s gun was discharged during the struggle, but did not hit anyone; Brown and his companion then ran from the vehicle while Wilson recovered his weapon and then got out and ordered them to stop; Brown stopped, but then starting moving towards Wilson without any sign of surrender — i.e., no “hands up”; and Wilson then raised his gun and discharged a volley of shots at the approaching Brown, hitting him at least 6 times including in the forehead, thus killing him).

If the Post report is true, then the likeihood of a “no-bill” (whereby the Grand Jury lets Wilson off) must be taken seriously. Local officials thus fear that there could be significant protests and possible disturbances once again in Ferguson as a result. There is no doubt that many in the African American community, including a majority of its leaders, will be upset if Wilson walks away without any sort of punishment. To repeat the obvious, many African Americans have had upsetting and arguably disrespectful interactions with police in their lives, and thus well remember the many incidents reported in the press over the past decade where unarmed black community members were killed by law enforcement (e.g., Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Wendell Allen, etc., with very many others not making the national news). The Ferguson situation is just another lightening rod for their angst and frustrations.

However, there does appear to be a valid argument that Officer Wilson was mostly doing what he should have been doing (other than perhaps the final barrage of close-range shots  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:51 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Public Policy ... Society ...

I’d like to discuss a small but somewhat interesting situation involving the side-effects laws and customs that attempt to make things better for some portion of the human community. A few years ago, my home state of New Jersey passed a law requiring motorists to jam on their brakes and stop anytime a pedestrian enters a roadway intending to cross it. You can get a ticket with points and fines if you don’t immediately stop, even if the speed limit is 40 and you’d have to make a panic stop and risk getting rear-ended because some pedestrian starts into the road just ahead of you.

Well, actually this rule applies at marked crosswalks and at street intersections, marked or not; it may not hold when people take their chances with “jaywalking” on an open road stretch. The obvious intent of this law is to prevent auto-pedestrian collisions and the terrible injury they cause. The unfortunate side effect, which is becoming very apparent in my current home town of Montclair, is that pedestrians are getting careless and stepping out into the road without any regard for whatever vehicles may be approaching. This is especially apparent with the younger generation; a lot of kids don’t even look for approaching traffic anymore, they just step zombie-like onto the crosswalk. However, older folk also seem to be getting sloppy and assuming that every motorist is going to grind to a stop on a main thoroughfare as soon as they arrive at the curb.

In some towns, the chances that you are going to get ticketed for a technical violation of this law, i.e. for not stopping when there is clearly no danger to the pedestrian because the road is wide and they are still 15 or 20 feet away from where your car will pass, are relatively low (although you never know when a cranky cop will go after you just for fun). This is especially true in the low-income urban  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:19 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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