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Did you ever have an ant farm? The death of Milton Levine

Posted on January 30th, 2011 in Culture,History by Robert Miller

It is not often that I read the obituary column, although the one in the New York Times typically displays the names of prominent New Yorkers or national figures and it is hard to miss, especially in the Sunday edition. In today’s obituary section, the death of Milton Levine was noted. He invented the “ant farm” in 1956; shortly after that, I bought one, as did many of my friends. It was called “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm.” I remember how one ordered the plastic farm, which consisted of two thinly separated clear plastic sheets, held together by a frame. After your farm was assembled, you filled it with the supplied sand. It didn’t come originally with ants, which you obtained by sending a form back to the ant farm company who mailed you a container of red ants, with which you populated your “farm.” Then you could watch as the industrious ants began digging out tunnels and compartments with the kind of industry we expect from these amazing little creatures. Eventually, some of the ants would die out and you would need new ones. I can remember thinking that all red ants looked alike, so I went next door to an empty lot, which had lots of red ant hills, and I scooped up a bunch, put them in the ant farm, expecting continuity of harmonious productivity. But to my shock, the new and old ants went to war against each other and one group annihilated the other. The ones I added seemed like an efficient army, which promptly disposed of the “California ants (the obituary points out that Milton Levine’s source of ants was the California red ant Pogonomyrmex californicus).  I remember thinking how naive I was about ants and how complex their behavior was organized, because to me, the two groups looked identical. I once used my ant farm experience to write about how Bush and Cheney might have more humanity within them if they had only had an ant farm (and learned the humility that you didn’t know enough and needed to learn more about the subject).

More than 20 million of these ant farms were sold and the company, Uncle Milton Industries was sold last year for $20 million. You can still buy an ant farm and the price has only gone from $1.98 in 1956 to $10.99 before the company was sold. When asked about the staying power of ants, Milton Levine remarked “I found out their most amazing feat yet,” he said. “They put three kids through college.” Levine was a WW II veteran.
Why aren’t we generating new industries like Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm here in America?
If by any chance, you have been stimulated to learn more about ants, I strongly recommend The Ants by B. Holldobler and E.O. Wilson. That book will convince you that we know more about the communal life of different ant species compared to our knowledge of any other living animal. Although this is a rather amazing book, it does not contain any bedtime stories and is not recommended as an overall bedtime reading book.

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In which country are people happier?

Posted on January 27th, 2011 in Culture,Economy,Education,Politics by Robert Miller

The Economist is highly respected for its news and analysis of the economy, but often strays away from its mainline, free-market theme in an attempt to create a more visible and sensitive image for the journal. In my opinion, these little side adventures don’t turn out too well because the magazine is always promoting an ideological point of view of a free market economy, which often shields them from getting at the essence of the story. They have written on things such as the evolution of the suit and the dangers of medieval warfare. These articles probably serve their readers well for one evening at the bar, and perhaps that is the intent. This unabashedly right wing, pro-free market economy magazine often has difficulty getting to the heart of a story because they have a hard time dealing with large concepts such as human needs, redistribution of the wealth, economic justice, social inequality and rarely do they admit that countries with more socialized democracies are doing better than we are here in America. I used to subscribe to the journal, a gift from a friend and when the one year gift subscription ran out, I re-subscribed for a couple of years, but gradually ran out of patience with the articles and the journal’s main emphasis.  Now I only read it when others write articles based on those in The Economist. Recently Eric Alterman, writing in American Progress (an excellent source of information by the way) writes about one of the articles which appeared in the traditional year-end, double issue of 2010.

The subject of the cover story article was “happiness.” By investigating recent research into happiness, they discovered that people generally become happier after age 46 than before. And, since the average age of people in the world is 47, the average person should be happy. They imagine that the concept of happiness is like the U-turn in the pipes underneath your kitchen sink–you go down for a while, then make a U-turn at 46 and start to feel better about life. This seems to occur no matter what your economic conditions is, so the obvious solution for addressing sadness is to wait until you turn 46 and everything should get better. So that seemed to be the emphasis of the article–if you’re unhappy, just wait, you will make the kitchen sink U-turn and things will get better. How reassuring. The article goes on to talk about other factors forming happiness, including neuroticism and extroversion, the polar ends of the happiness scale, with extroverts generally happier. And they mention other factors that include gender (women tend to suffer more from depression), external circumstances and, as mentioned previously, age. Education is one of the “external circumstances;” it makes people happier, but that may be because educated people are, on average, more wealthy.

But, putting aside age-related happiness, and focusing on one of the more obvious sources of happiness–that of money–is where we see The Economist begin to lose its bearings as it so often does when viewing topics through an ideological lens (as if the same factors worked in every culture–an unproven hypothesis). Europeans believe that growth-oriented, free-market economies got it all wrong–their system of social democracy is far superior and they have data to prove it. In fact, in America, we provide some of the data that helps make their case through our poverty rates and income inequality. Europeans often cite such data from America as evidence for strengthening their approach. Evidence that money is not the entire source of happiness also comes from data gathered by The Economist. Hong Kong and Denmark have similar income per person levels, but Hong Kong’s average life satisfaction score is 5.5 on a 10 point scale, while that of Denmark’s is 8, significantly higher. The Economist’s unwavering commitment to the free market economy makes it impossible for them to define why there is a difference in the life satisfaction scores, when the income level is about the same. Writer Eric Alterman has less difficulty in providing a more objective appraisal and suggests that the life satisfaction score of Denmark puts them ahead of Hong Kong because it’s a better place to live. If you have ever been to the two countries, you shouldn’t have any difficulty understanding Alterman’s conclusion.

In making comparisons between Hong Kong and Denmark, The Economist forgot to mention that there might be something in the way that public support is offered that helps create a more satisfied population in Denmark when compared to Hong Kong. Alterman points out that there is no mention in the article that Denmark spends nearly one-third of its gross domestic product on government-run benefits and taxes its citizens at an equivalently high rate. In recent years, the top bracket in Denmark is more than 60%, roughly about the place where we were before Ronald Reagan. With these revenues, the state pays nearly 5 percent of GDP on the unemployed and as much as 2 percent on “flexicurity,” or labor market programs to help retrain workers who have been displaced.  In contrast, the United States pays just 0.16 percent, which is, by quite a margin, the lowest level in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD (Western economies). As a result, the unemployment rate is much lower in Denmark than it is in the United States. Denmark’s “quality of life” index is higher than that of America, with advantages like universal health care, day care and an extremely low rate of poverty that’s not even 1/4 of what we have in the United States. They have learned how to build a country for all of its citizens, not just those at the top. In America, most of us live such that the very wealthy have in fact most of the country’s wealth.

Alterman states that “American journalists tend to treat inequality as a fact of life. But it needn’t be. In 2009, the average income of the top 5 percent rose. Everybody else’s fell, furthering a 40 year trend during which the share of total income going to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans has risen from about 8 percent during the 1960s to more than 20 percent in 2011.”

“U.S. income inequality outpaces that of every other advanced industrial nation–never mind Denmark. That puts us in the same category with miserable places like Turkmenistan. Authors Jack Hacker and Paul Pierson point out that these changes have resulted from deliberate decision-making in congress, whose members’ elections are funded by the same wealthy folks enjoying all the benefits.”

“Since the late 1970s, they note, Congress has cut tax rates on the highest incomes over and over, together with capital gains and estate taxes. It has also made it more difficult for unions to organize and extract a fair share of the profit pie for workers. At the same time, Congress has loosened federal oversight and restrictions on banks and other financial players. It repealed the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 to allow the creation of global megabanks like Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase that are “too big to fail” and hence too big to behave responsibly with their investors money.” In short, the Danish score well on this test for reasons that those writing in The Economist are unable to concede or describe. Their contentment comes from the fact that they live in a society where everyone has an education, opportunity and have pay for retraining, funded by government, should they lose their job.”

So in the meantime, we can’t even be honest about the kind of country that gets generated by the social democracies of Europe. Our news media, describes Europe as a bunch of countries that are on their last legs financially because of too many social programs. Yet these programs produce a country that has a far higher index of social success than we do and they tend of have export economies because the same people stay in their jobs for life and get better and better at what they make. In this country, people have multiple jobs before they are thirty and this mobility of our work force means that we don’t make very many things that other people want to buy. In the meantime, we can’t decide whether a country like China, which owns a large fraction of our debt, is an enemy or friendly competitor. If it’s the latter we had better fix a lot that’s broken about the social fabric of our country.


Obama’s speech tonight: America’s Sputnik Moment

Posted on January 25th, 2011 in Politics by Robert Miller

President ObamaState-of-the-Union speeches are rarely special, but I thought Obama’s speech tonight was remarkable, not so much for its content, but instead for a clarion call that seemed to suck Republicans in almost against their will. It was like the healthcare summit all over again, but this time Republicans were speechless, and had to rely on televised facial expressions to reveal their surprise. There was very little clapping–it was a serious speech. What happened to the Republican victory of the 2010 election? Keep in mind that the neo-conservative mantra is anti-jobs–that’s why they are focused on budgetary deficits, even though it was a Republican Congress and a Republican President that put us into such a deep hole, both with the fiscal crisis we are presently in and the tax cuts that helped generate our deficits. It is plain stupid to think and talk about deficits when the country is in a serious recession, so the Republicans are not serious when they have this conversation. But they have control of such a big noise machine, that whatever they say draws attention. You can only make the recession worse by cutting the Federal budget and even the freeze that Obama proposed tonight will, as Nixon aptly demonstrated, be met with sharp increases in Federal wages, including those of the Congress, once the recession has been beaten back. And the savings are trivial. Only when the economy is sound, perhaps sometime away, does it make sense to talk about balancing the budget.

What resonated with me the most about tonight’s speech was when  Obama  articulated that today,  America was faced with its “Sputnik Moment.” Probably few Americans truly understand the sea-change that took place in response to the Russian launching of Sputnik in 1957. In the past, I have tried to repair that deficiency by referring to Sputnik more times than I can apparently recall.  Naturally, my goal in the past with respect to Sputnik has been to provide a very modest attempt at curing America’s deficiency in knowledge of the event and our transformational response to it. We did it once and we can do it again. But, finally something got through.  I have admittedly tried to cure the information deficit by writing about Sputnik more times than I realized. So I went back and documented the occasions that I wrote about Sputnik: it’s a nice story that bears repeating and that is what I apparently did. The most recent discussion of Sputnik was just a few days ago, when I included a picture of the little satellite, just for good measure. But I did it previously in October 2010; God help me if I didn’t write about it in June 2010. And as if addicted to the concept, I couldn’t help but write about it in March 2010. But before March 2010, I had a long period of sobriety on the issue and hadn’t touched the matter since July 2009 in a story related to the National Institutes of Health, one of the major benefactors of Sputnik. In June 2009, I was fortunately able to once again bring Sputnik into the conversation in relationship to the “Scopes Trial” in the Dover PA case related to “Intelligent Design.” In January 2009, I again referred to Sputnik in relationship to Bush’s Presidency and the Republican “war on science.” But that article was preceded by a long interlude in which nothing was said for nearly the prior year, when in December 2008, I ventured into the topic again by commenting on “Folly Compounding in America.” I brought it up in November 2008 when discussing Wall Street. In January 2008, I brought the issue up in discussing how we had turned our back on science. April 2007 I mentioned Sputnik in reference to student loans. Sputnik is mentioned in my “Welcome page,” and in my “not so biographic sketch.”

If there was a problem with Obama’s speech tonight, it was that he didn’t emphasize quite enough that the fastest computer in the world now belongs to the Chinese: that bears repeating again and again as it does represent today’s Sputnik. I think in essence that’s what he actually said, but he didn’t say it as explicitly  and emphatically as it should be.  And Obama needs to repeat that theme again and again, because even Republicans don’t want to live in a country which has the second fastest computer and very few of them speak Chinese, so moving to China, even though we can hope,  is probably out of the question. We once formulated a brilliant strategy when confronted with the imaginary challenge from Sputnik; if Obama can, through repetition of this connection, establish a searing American response that ultimately generates a new economy, I would look at tonight’s speech as a special moment, more than a notch above most state-of-the-union speeches. Clearly my incessant pounding on the issue of Sputnik finally helped get the attention it deserves. What better way to start out the new year than by committing ourselves as a nation to an American Sputnik Moment. Here, here.

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