Monday, February 27, 2017

Advantages and Disadvantages

This is the 600th entry in Real American Solutions.  I have posted twice a week for almost 6 years.  Each time I look for an example from the news or from current advertising to point out common behavior in America, usually poor choices or a lack of understanding, within the five key behavioral dimensions.

So far it has been easy to find examples, because though it’s commonly accepted that behavior has consequences, the idea seems to elude so many.  People spend money as they earn it and wonder why they don’t have a comfortable retirement.  People overeat and don’t exercise and wonder why they are overweight.  They look to technology and magic diets and wonder why the purveyors of these miracles get rich while they don’t get any slimmer. People have families before they can afford to support a family and believe that gives them the right to demand higher wages.  Some people look to politicians to fix their problems with money the government doesn’t have.  Others hang around malls or coffee shops complaining about the evils of capitalism, unaware that capitalism is the reason the malls and coffee shops exist.  Parents try to instill good values in their children while setting the opposite example in their personal lives.  These are easy things to spot and they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Behavior has consequences for individuals and families, but the consequences to society as these misconceptions spread across American are even greater.  They become the crises and epidemics we hear about in the news every day.  That is why 600 in less than 6 years has been relatively easy.

From the beginning, though, I outlined a few rules for myself.  First, I would not write about political subjects.  There are too many editorials, blogs and tweets obsessed with politics.  Also, my model is based on the premise that the only real, permanent solution to people’s problems, and by extension America's problems, comes through improved, wiser behavior and not government action.  So I avoid politics as much as possible.  Second, I committed to never resort to the kind of labeling, name-calling and insulting behavior so common across our society.  The model is based on the premise “criticize behavior, not the actor” – just like the excellent advice we hear all the time about pets, children and employees.

It is a definite challenge to avoiding political subjects.  As we move into 2017 it seems everything has become political.  It’s harder to find subjects that don’t have some political angle, or at least won’t be twisted around to try to justify some political rebuttal or angry outburst.

One example from a minor news and opinion website makes the point.  They report that a few people including a Yahoo writer accused quarterback Tom Brady of racism.  (That's name-calling).  They base it on the fact that after winning the Super Bowl he posted on line the poem by Rudyard Kipling, titled “If.”  It is one of the best-known poems of the 19th century written in the form of advice to his son with the message of keeping calm during adverse circumstances (like being down by 25 points at halftime).

Now the detractors said that Kipling was a racist and a white supremacist – a colonialist (in India), who coined the phrase “white man’s burden.”  Quoting him apparently makes Brady the same.  He is also criticized for copying the poem without giving Kipling credit.  Add plagiarism to the charges.

First, if being a colonialist in the late 1800s was a sin, many British and Americans from that era would fall into the same category.  Second, the poem was purported to be inspired by a valiant defeat during the Second Boer War where the British were fighting the (white) descendants of Dutch immigrants in South Africa with, in some cases, the assistance of the native Africans.  It doesn't sound like a basis for calling the British (or the poet) racist.  Also, Kipling is one of the most-cited authors in the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement - do we also label those lexicographers as racist?

And as for plagiarism, since the Boston Red Sox used the same poem at the retirement of David Ortiz late last year, I doubt if Brady was trying to trick anyone into believing he just made it up.  But Brady has a reputation for backing the President and those of the opposite opinion see him as fair game for attacks.  Instead of calmly and rationally working out differences, America is now engaged in a civil cold war, verbally attacking each other wherever they can find any excuse.

That’s how crazy things have become!  But I will continue to look for and publish non-political examples of behavior and their consequences as objectively as possible.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Thinking About The Social Security Cutoff

Having a Social Security cutoff just seems to be unfair.  Everyone this year who earns less than $118,500 pays 6.2% of their income for Social Security taxes.  Those who make more than that stop paying after they reach the limit.  Long before they reach $1 million, they are paying at a rate of less than one percent but remain eligible for benefits.

But wait.  There is also a cutoff for benefits.  Social Security was set up to function like an annuity, make regular payments over time and then collect monthly benefits.  And the benefits are skewed in favor of the less fortunate.  Below is a graph showing benefits at full retirement age for a person earning between $15,000 per year, about minimum wage, up to a person making $125,000, just above the cutoff.  (I used the AARP benefit calculator to find the various benefit levels leaving all variables other than income the same.)

It is clear how the size of the increases in benefits flatten out as income increases.  Social Security replaces 68% of the lowest worker’s income and only 28% on the high side, even though each pays in 6.2%.

A few thoughts come from this.  First, Social Security has been characterized as an annuity, but it has been administered as a pay-as-you-go program.  Today’s workers pay today’s retirees.  If the rich were forced to pay the tax on all income, it no longer looks like an annuity or insurance or an investment.  It looks more like what it really is, a tax collected from everyone to finance a pension program for everyone. 

Presumably if they eliminated the earnings cap, they would leave the maximum benefit alone, so people making $1 million would pay $62,000 per year in taxes to later collect benefits equal to $31,700 per year.  Not a good deal for them.

This might be an excellent approach, because it would get rid of all the misunderstandings about non-existent lock boxes and a bogus trust fund and people wrongly believing they are collecting their own money that they paid in over the years.  They simply paid a tax to the government to cover current and future benefits paid out.  That is really the way it works.  So, it would be more honest and would collect more money to finance a program in danger of running out of funds.  This one change would fix the majority of the shortfall.

The biggest problem with Social Security is that it’s running out of money.  A close second is that Americans either don’t take the time to understand how it really works or when they are told, they go into denial because it’s not what they wanted to hear.

On a side note, in my research I found several articles critical of Social Security saying it treated the poor unfairly.  This was spurred by a book-length report on life expectancy from the National Academy of Sciences saying that low-income Americans tended to have shorter lifespans, almost 13 years shorter comparing those who have reached age 50.  Because they didn’t collect for as many years, the poor were getting shortchanged.  The difference in life expectancy was attributed to several factors, some of which were behavioral choices, like smoking, drinking, and poor diet.

Out of curiosity, I used the data I had to compare the highest wage benefits to the lowest wage benefits to find what percent of annual earnings each would receive over a lifetime by applying the age differences in the study.  The poorest still received a larger percentage, 6.8 times their annual earnings compared to 5.8 times for the higher earners.

Now, mine was a crude comparison, but any difference couldn’t be as unfair as some of these articles would have us believe.  Besides, how can you cheat people out of money they can only collect when they are alive if they're dead?  Remember, it’s not really anything like getting back the money you paid in.  It’s really a tax to pay current retirees.  I guess the purpose of the articles is to make us feel guilty.  People who are not critical thinkers seem to spend a lot more time feeling guilty about made up numbers and controllable problems than they should.

Monday, February 20, 2017

To Breakfast or Not To Breakfast

After several studies were released a few years ago, this nutrition website was just one of many to assure us that breakfast had been declared optional.  It is not your most important meal as we had been told in the past.  If you don’t feel hungry in the morning, skip it.  At the time of the article about 25% of Americans were regularly skipping breakfast.

That conclusion was based on a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  A number of studies came out about the same time in response to the number of people skipping breakfast as a way to lose weight.  They were not losing weight, and some experts worried that the act of skipping breakfast was putting their health in jeopardy.  This new research was intended to reduce that worry.

Researchers found that although studies showed that people who ate breakfast tended to be healthier on average, no one had proven a causal relationship.  It could be coincidence or it could be that breakfast eaters just had healthier habits overall.  Higher-quality studies show that it makes no difference whether people eat or skip breakfast.”

From a standpoint of weight loss, skipping might hold a slight benefit.  Whether you eat or skip breakfast has no effect on the amount of calories you burn throughout the day.”  If you are hungrier at lunch and eat a little more, it will usually not be enough to offset all the calories missed from skipping breakfast.

Furthermore they said, “Skipping breakfast is a part of many intermittent fasting protocols. Intermittent fasting can have numerous health benefits.”

But that article and a similar one from the Huffington Post came out three years ago, February 2014.  Things have changed since then.  This latest article, also from the Huffington Post, tells us that eating breakfast does make a difference after all.  The headline reads:  “Skipping Breakfast Could Increase Your Risk Of Heart Disease.”  New research from the American Heart Association says people who eat breakfast daily are more likely to avoid common risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure.  Those who skip also are more prone to experience other risk factors like obesity, poor nutrition, diabetes or high blood sugar.

They add that the timing of meals may affect the body’s internal clock and it’s smarter to eat more calories earlier in the day than at night.  By doing so and eating a sensible balanced diet, you “reduce the odds of a heart attack, stroke or other cardiac or blood vessel diseases.”

I use the Huffington Post as an example, but I’m sure it’s true of most other news organizations.  They report these new studies, but rarely point out the obvious conflict with information they have previously published - in this case, only three years ago.  Nor do they try to reconcile the apparent contradictions.  It’s up to us to sort it out.  (I found a nice exception to this here at Forbes.  That same article mentions that the health benefits of intermittent fasting have been exaggerated.)

It may have been in response to the news of 2014, or just to the increasingly hectic pace of life, that the proportion of adults in America routinely skipping breakfast has now climbed to about 30 percent.  

Until they get this sorted out, I think I’ll just continue to do what I’ve been doing.  I have time for breakfast and eat a nice bowl of bran flakes, sometimes with a little fruit.  Teachers insist that kids who miss breakfast are less attentive in school, so it seems a smart lifestyle choice, an easy answer for anyone who can just be organized enough to find the five or ten minutes it takes to fill a bowl and eat it.  Meanwhile, it makes no sense to stress over whether or not to eat breakfast, as the experts can't seem to agree. And another study will be along soon.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Luck or Hard Work?

As I was doing research for another entry, I ran across an interesting Quote of the Day on the Forbes website.  “People that work hard and legitimately do everything they can, tend to be luckier” – Julian Edelman.  For those who are not sports fans or happened to miss it, Julian Edelman is the receiver on the New England Patriots who made the spectacular, shoestring catch near the end of regulation time that allowed the Patriots to win the Super Bowl.  It looked like luck was involved as he sprawled between two defenders to keep a deflected ball from barely touching the ground, but a great deal of skill and excellent reflexes were evident in the many replays.  (Google Super Bowl highlights.)

It struck me as a very good thought, along the lines of people making their own luck, the saying popular among motivational speakers.  But do most people really believe this?  And if so, does our behavior reflect it?

My first stop took me to this headline from 2006, again from Forbes:  “Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work.”  Worldwide research, including many studies over the prior decade usually in sports, music and chess where performance is easier to observe and assess, but also in other areas like business, have supported a few surprising conclusions.  The first is that “nobody is great without work…  There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.”  Second, there is a difference between deliberate practice and mere repetition.  “Consistency is crucial.”

Though there are some skeptics, experts pretty much agree that success depends on hard work.  But do ordinary Americans believe hard work is superior to luck in most cases?  I searched for likely poll questions for a clue.

This source shows results from a Pew Research worldwide questionnaire.  In less developed countries citizens believed luck or political connections were more of a factor, but the US led the pack with the opposite stance.  When asked, “Which forces affect your success?” 79% listed hard work and only 19% mentioned being lucky.  (More than two answers were possible with the sum being more than 100%, so some may have answered both.  It wasn’t a pure either/or question.)

A Reason-Rupe Poll from the fall of 2011 asks a similar question but sorts the responses by political affiliation.  They asked which was more important, either hard work or luck and help from others.  Overall, 81% voted for hard work over the luck and help, which got 15%.  The range was surprisingly close. Tea Partiers were at 89%, Democrats at 74%, with Republicans and Independents in the middle.  In a separate analysis by race, findings were similar with the lowest agreement by African-Americans, who still favored hard work by about three out of four, a sizable majority.

More recently, a 2013 Rasmussen Reports of American attitudes found “86% Believe Individuals Make Their Own Success” by hard work and good decisions.

It appears that the sentiment expressed after the Super Bowl is widespread in America and not divided across political, racial or any other lines.  Most Americans think you get ahead through hard work.  It is difficult then to explain how politicians can get any support for notions like the one-percent haven’t worked hard for their wealth and don’t deserve it.  Conversely, why are we expected to assume that everyone who is not making it in America is a victim?  The behavior factor in most cases is totally ignored.  The news media always portray the homeless and others in difficult situations as being “down on their luck,” downplaying at best any poor decisions that may have led to their predicament.  Hence young people today who could benefit by learning from the mistakes of others see only victims of circumstance rather than behavior to avoid.  Great learning is lost by our need to be compassionate in all cases and a failure to be intellectually consistent.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Own the Problem and Solve It

Sometimes there are easy solutions to situations, as long as the principle doesn’t get in the way.  If everyone who voted for Hillary Clinton donated $8.35 to Planned Parenthood once a year they wouldn’t need any government funding.  Problem solved for less than a couple of trips to Starbucks.  And if some of the 90 million who didn’t bother to vote in November joined in, the needed contribution would be even less.  Since the donations are tax deductible, a portion of the contribution would indirectly shifted back to the government.  It would be like stealth government funding.  Of course it’s the principle of the thing.   

Isn’t falling back on the principle of the thing a lot like whether it’s more work for the husband to put the toilet seat back down or for the wife to put it down herself?   Now that’s a worthwhile argument. 

Both cases fall under the heading of responsibility, taking ownership for what you see is the problem.  In the first case the problem is that everyone does not want to be forced to support a cause that some people strongly believe in.  If you don’t think your time protesting is not worth more than $8.35, you are undervaluing yourself.  And think of the anxiety avoided with one simple action of writing and mailing a check.  In the second case, if you really care about domestic tranquility, you make the effort – though it seems almost laughable to call it effort.  In general, if you really care, you don't let principle stand in the way of an easy fix.

But Americans are falling more and more away from taking responsibility for problems that are under their own control.  That's when the law steps in and everyone loses.

“Apple could be facing a class action lawsuit in California, demanding they find a technological solution to prevent their customers from texting and driving."  It stems from a fatal crash caused by the other driver using FaceTime while driving.  First of all, FaceTime is not texting.  Second, how does the phone know if you are driving or just riding in a car (or on a train)?  Finally, and most important, why should Apple or any other company be held responsible for the reckless behavior of their customers? 

In America the last question is never dealt with.  It is just assumed that if a customer misuses a product, it’s the company’s fault for not anticipating every inane use for their product.  For proof of this, look up dumb product warning labels on the Internet.  So much extra time and expense with lawyers and labels to avoid being sued by irresponsible people who refuse to admit to a mistake made by individuals, themselves or others.

But we have not yet gotten as bad a France where they just passed a law making it illegal for restaurants to offer free refills of soft drinks (even if you are not fat and really thirsty).

But that’s what happens.  When a sizable number of citizens act irresponsibly the lawmakers go to work to protect us or steer us in the right direction.  We lose our free choices because so many previous free choices have been poor ones.  So many problems can be easily solved by taking responsibility and so much freedom lost by ignoring those opportunities.