The “Avoiding Panic” Dodge

These days we’ve got plenty of people advising us not to panic about the Ebola virus.  Whether it’s those ubiquitous, generic “psychologists” who seem to pop up whenever there is some significant incident, or public health officials who want to reassure us that in the grand scheme of things Ebola is really not that big a deal, experts galore are urging us to control the inner demons that might otherwise transform us into a howling, red-eyed, torch-wielding mob that could end modern civilization as we know it.

The counseling to avoid panic is a dodge, of course, because no one is panicking.  But by depicting concerns about how the Ebola issue has been poorly handled as indications of unfortunate mass hysteria, the people who have dropped the ball can deflect and avoid legitimate inquiry.  Tsk, tsk!  They’re the rational ones; the rest of us are excitable, poorly informed boobs who are just going to make matters worse.  Like the policeman at the yellow tape of a disastrous crime scene, they just want us to move along.

We shouldn’t fall for this sham in this case, and should insist on getting answers to some entirely reasonable questions.  Ebola isn’t a phantom menace; it is a deadly disease, and in the latest outbreak in West Africa it has had a mortality rate of 70 percent, according to  the World Health Organization.  In America, we have established the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention precisely to deal with the enormous risks posed by such dread infectious diseases. When a man infected with Ebola reached America and received treatment in Dallas before dying, it appears that the CDC and the Dallas hospital that provided the treatment were unprepared to deal with the case in a way that ensured effective containment of the disease.  First one nurse, and then another, were found to be infected, and now we learn that the second nurse was permitted to board an airplane when she was exhibiting a low-grade fever that is one of the first signs of the virus.

Is it panicky and irrational to question how and why these circumstances could possibly occur?  If you were one of the 132 unsuspecting passengers flying from Cleveland to Dallas with that nurse — people that officials are now trying to trace and presumably monitor — wouldn’t you think it was entirely legitimate to question the competence of the CDC and to ask whether it was following any kind of meaningful containment strategy?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the CDC has badly fumbled this situation, which means that it is failing at the principal reason for its existence in the first place.  Demanding answers about how that happened is not a a sign of hysteria, but rather of requiring accountability by a government agency that simply has not done its job and, in the process, is exposing the people it is supposed to protect to unnecessary risk.

Why Are Marriage Rates Hitting New Lows?

The latest census data show that the rate of marriage in America is still declining.  In fact, the marriage rate has hit an all-time low, and the number of Americans over 25 who have never been married has hit an all-time high.  In 1960, nine of ten Americans over 25 had been married; in 2012, half of that population segment had never been married.

Why is this so?  The article linked above discusses three possible reasons, two of which seem totally off-base and the third of which may be looking in the wrong direction.

The first is the economy and issues of “financial security,” which some young people cite as reasons to defer marriage.  There no doubt are people who want to be settled, in terms of their jobs and careers, before they get married, and the current economy is making that settling process more challenging.  However, the decline in marriage is a long-term trend, not a temporary blip that tracks economic performance.  Moreover, data shows that married couples, with their pooled resources and shared expenses, are far more likely to be wealthy than their unmarried or divorced counterparts.  No one should get married for purely economic reasons, of course, but if you are in love, getting married and staying married is far more likely to produce financial security than any other course.

The second is whether the increasing availability of same-sex marriage has caused rates of marriage to fall.  I think it is far more likely that the opposite is true.  As a mathematical matter, the fact that couples who previously could not marry are now part of the potential marriage pool is bound to increase marriage rates, and the zeal with which loving gay couples have pursued their right to marry assigns a value to the institution that should encourage more people to make that commitment, not the other way around.  It also seems implausible that those people who vigorously resist any change to “traditional concepts of marriage” are going to eschew getting married simply because gay people now have that right.

The final potential reason is the eradication of taboos on unmarried cohabitation and having out-of-wedlock children.  Those taboos, too, have been gone for a long time and therefore wouldn’t explain recent changes in marriage rates.  I think other, less noticeable long-term social forces provide an explanation.  It’s not the eradication of sex-related taboos that is at work, but rather increasing acceptance of the concept of being alone, both by the individuals in question and society as a whole.  Whether it is because they enjoy their private, internet-focused lives, or because they find their work far more rewarding than awkward social interaction, or because they don’t want the pressure of a permanent relationship, more people are perfectly comfortable with being single.  Decades ago, their families and friends would have put enormous pressure on them to get married; now those forces don’t exist.

The Top Half

Here’s a sobering statistic:  according to the latest Credit Suisse report on global wealth, if you have net assets of $3,650, you are in the top half of the world’s wealthiest people.

Sad, isn’t it?  Even though the amount of global wealth grew by more than $20 trillion in the past year, you can qualify for the top half of the world’s wealthiest people if you have simply accumulated what many Americans earned at a summer job as a lifeguard or a waitress during one of their high school years.  And that $3,650 figure includes the value of your home and all of your other assets.  To get into the elite Top Ten Percent of the World’s Wealthiest People category, you need only have collected $77,000 in net assets — and the people in that category, together, hold 87 percent of the world’s wealth.

Although the Credit Suisse report talks about the world’s wealth, the message it conveys is really about the world’s poverty.

Another Reason Not To Celebrate Columbus Day

Columbus Day is one of those “holidays” that really isn’t a holiday in any meaningful sense of the word.  Sure, federal workers and state workers get the day off — they get every holiday off, without fail — and so do bank employees.  For the rest of us working stiffs, however, Columbus Day is just another day to slog into the office and briefly wonder why that the flow of rush hour traffic is lighter than on the average work day.

And these days many people don’t care much for Christopher Columbus, either.  Admiral of the Ocean Sea, persuader of Ferdinand and Isabella, intrepid explorer — forget all that stuff we learned in grade school!  Now we hear that Columbus brought disease and slavery to the New World and is viewed as standing for colonialism, cultural insensitivity, and a Eurocentric vision of the world.  That’s why some people insist, instead, on celebrating Indigenous People’s Day.

Poor old Chris and his lame holiday are taking a beating from every quarter — which is why I got a chuckle out of the story sent along by the Friendly Doc Next Door, about an Ann Arbor, Michigan bank that announced that it wasn’t celebrating Columbus Day because Columbus, after all, is a city in Ohio.  Why not?  College football’s greatest rivalry is as good a reason as any to not recognize a federal holiday that is a “holiday” in name only.  When Arbor Day rolls around, we here in Ohio will retaliate by not celebrating it, either.

Student Loans And Shrinking Choices

We’ve all heard a lot lately about college students graduating with crushing amounts of student loan debt.  A recent Washington Post article brought home the grim and spiraling reality of student loan debt — and made me wonder what its long-term ramifications are for the families of those students and the economy as a whole.

The Post article compares consumer debt loads in 2005 to those in 2014.  Nine years is not a long time — less than a decade and only one presidential administration ago — but the changes are dramatic.  The percentage of 20-somethings with mortgage debt has fallen from 63.2 percent to 42.9 percent, and the percentage with student loan debt has almost tripled, from 12.9 percent to 36.8 percent.  In short, fewer are borrowing to buy a tangible asset and more are borrowing to acquire an intangible asset with uncertain value.

We don’t know how far up the age scale this exchange of mortgage debt for student loan debt extends, but the homeowners among us should consider what a shrinking pool of potential buyers means for the value of our property and our chances of selling it.  Banks won’t view young people who owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans as good candidates for hefty mortgage loans, and young people who can’t find the high-paying job they need to make debt payments won’t want to be saddled with a house that might interfere with their freedom to move to where jobs are more plentiful.  The upshot is shrinking choices for debt-addled 20-somethings and shrinking options for the rest of us.

But the impact goes even farther.  The Post article shows that people in their 60s also have increased their student loan debt, and that more families in every income bracket are borrowing to pay for college.  The cost of a college education thus affects entire families, with credit-worthy senior citizens taking out loans to help their children and grandchildren pay for that diploma.  The acquisition of new debt by 60-somethings runs counter to the most fundamental rule of retirement financial planning, which is that people nearing retirement should pay off debt rather than taking on more.  How many older people are deferring retirement to pay off student loans — and in the process hanging on to jobs that might otherwise be available to those recent college graduates?

For too long we have viewed a college degree as a kind of holy grail that will inevitably produce a successful career and have geared national policy to make college more “affordable” by increasing the availability of student loans.  That approach has removed any incentive for colleges to hold down costs, and the result is sharply increased tuition costs funded by long-term consumer borrowing that affects entire families.  I’m as much of a fan of a college education as anyone, but isn’t it time to challenge our colleges and universities to figure out a way to provide that education at lower cost?

The Wonder Of Fuel Points

When I first started driving, back in 1973, I think the price of regular gas was about 27.9 cents a gallon.

IMG_3442Then the first oil embargo occurred, and gas prices skyrocketed to — oh, I don’t know — maybe 55 cents a gallon?  And the nation was outraged.

In those long ago days, the idea that Americans would pay more than $60 to fill up their gas tanks would have been absolutely ludicrous.  Now, unfortunately, it is commonplace.

Which is why I felt young again when Kish and I stopped to fill up the tank at Giant Eagle on Sunday, and our accumulated Fuel Points allowed us to get premium unleaded gasoline for the ’70s-era price of 55.9 cents a gallon.  A complete fill-up for less than $10!  I felt like going out for a sausage pizza at Tommy’s and then taking Kish to watch the terrifying new thriller Jaws.

Who would have thought that a marketing technique like Fuel Points could make you feel like you were back in high school?

How Common Is Plagiarism?

On Friday the U.S. Army War College formally revoked the master’s degree it had conferred upon Senator John Walsh, a Democrat from Montana.  The college found that Walsh had plagiarized significant portions of the research paper that he was required to complete as a prerequisite to graduation.

A review board at the college found that Walsh’s plagiarism was “egregious,” that the paper was “primarily composed of verbatim liftings from other sources,” and that the plagiarism was “intentional.”  According to news reports, Walsh’s office said he disagreed with the report’s findings but accepted the review board’s decision; he also apologized to the people of Montana.  Walsh, who was appointed to the Senate seat, dropped out of the race for election to a full term after the New York Times reported the plagiarism charges.

How common is plagiarism — the act of borrowing someone else’s work or ideas without attribution?  No one really knows.  Some years ago the Los Angeles Times reported that 30 percent of college term papers were plagiarized.  Another piece says that many college students engage in a practice called “patchwriting,” where they don’t simply engage in verbatim copying of prior work but instead try to paraphrase and rearrange.  In either case, of course, the writer isn’t doing their own original thinking.

The internet has made plagiarism both easier and more difficult.  Easier, because there is so much content that can be borrowed with a few clicks of a mouse; harder, because there are now software programs and services that can scan phrases and compare them to see whether matches are found in the mass of words floating somewhere in the cloud.  It’s hard work, but if teachers care enough, they can ferret out plagiarized work.

Of course, the means of accomplishing plagiarism doesn’t explain why people are motivated to plagiarize in the first place.  Perhaps the best indication of the commonness of plagiarism is the fact that you can find multiple articles addressing the most common excuses students offer for their plagiarism.  Sad, isn’t it?