COVID-19: From Here To There

It seems to me….

When the coronavirus-positive cases were 500 in the country, you ordered the shops to shut down, and now when the tally has crossed 50,000 you are opening them.  I don’t understand the logic.”  ~ Jaideep Ahlawat[1].

While I will not claim to have foreseen the exact form in which the current economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 virus would be initiated, it was readily apparent it was coming and would not require much of a push to get underway.  I, and many others, have on numerous occasions expressed the belief that we were grossly unprepared for either a healthcare emergency or an economic downturn.  No one, even the most pessimistic is sufficiently prescient to predict it would be a health crisis that would initiate an economic one.  Still, I began criticizing the lack of preparedness back under the concluding year of President Obama’s tenure in office.  Trump repeatedly ignored all obvious indications of increasing potential problems.  While he and many conservatives loudly extolled the strength of the U.S. economy, it was largely a façade based on massive deficit spending.

There definitely are times when we regret being able to say we were right about something.  While not knowing its exact nature, this was an all-too-easy prediction.  There were sufficient warnings but not having faced a serious pandemic crisis in one hundred years, it was easy to be complacent and not consider the threat sufficiently seriously.  Now, anticipated GDP quarterly growth declines could possibly substantially exceed anything experienced as far back as World War II.

While markets have mostly recovered following their initial slump immediately following the pandemic’s start – the S&P 500 regained most of those losses within 90 days – the coronavirus will more likely inflict a serious blow to the economy.  Unfortunately, the Fed and its counterparts do not have many options with which to respond.  I did not know when the economy would next face a serious challenge but did believe it was not prepared to withstand any downturn without incurring an alarmingly high level of debt.

In 2005 George W. Bush gave a speech to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)[2] concerning the risk a new virus might pose to the U.S.  He said, “Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland”.  He announced a plan to detect outbreaks anywhere in the world, stockpile existing vaccines and antiviral drugs, and improve the U.S.’s capacity to quickly produce vaccines against new virus strains.  He warned, “We must be ready to respond at the federal, state, and local levels in the event that a pandemic reaches our shores”.

Mr. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, also made a speech to the NIH in 2014.  “There may and likely will come a time in which we have … an airborne disease that is deadly.  And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure – not just here at home, but globally – that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly … So that if and when a new strain of flu, like the Spanish flu, crops up five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment and we’re further along to be able to catch it.

President Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, unfortunately, was the person sitting behind the desk when the warnings actually came true.  Before the pandemic arrived, his budgets (which in the U.S. are really statements of priorities) proposed funding cuts for the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Those same agencies were working on the pandemic response plans that his predecessors had argued for.  When COVID-19 infections began rapidly escalating in New York in March, the President blustered “Just stay calm.  It will go away.”, dispensed bizarre health advice, and encouraged people to protest against the lockdowns his own administration had recommended.  He has since cancelled funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) and announced his intent to withdraw from the organization.

Trump was briefed on the possibility of a pandemic but canceled early warning programs designed to find threats exactly like COVID-19[3]:

  • The Obama administration[4] provided the Trump administration with a pandemic playbook based on experiences during the Ebola and H1N1 pandemics. The Obama administration[5] also tried to prepare the Trump administration with a pandemic response exercise during the transition.
  • In 2018, the CDC[6] held a conference and Webinar warning of a potential pandemic. However, also in 2018, Trump dismantled the National Security Council’s (NSC)[7] global health section which was supposed to fight pandemics.
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)[8] under Trump stopped running pandemic preparedness simulations.
  • Last fall, just months before completely missing the ball on an actual pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services (HSS)[9] conducted Operation Crimson Contagion exercises about a global pandemic. Also last fall, White House economists[10] warned of the economic effects of a pandemic.

Most Americans think that Trump, whose messaging on COVID-19 has been all over the place and not coordinated the kind of response from federal agencies that the country needs, has not responded acceptably in the crisis.  He reacted to the COVID-19 threat first with denial, then with frantic efforts, not to control the pandemic, but to shift the blame for shambolic, ineffective policies to other people.  Someone would have to be a political nihilist to believe there is no relationship between Trump’s lack of leadership and the mounting U.S. COVID-19 death toll.

Fortunately, the U.S.’s federal system has been able to adapt and provide most of the leadership Trump should have been doing.  State governors and mayors took on the decisions of how to balance lockdowns with the need to keep the economy going.  State officials are building the infrastructure for testing and for contact tracing rather than the federal government.  It does not follow from this that Trump has not made any difference in the U.S. response as it cannot be known how many deaths might have been averted by a more competent response from the federal government.  But to pin it all on Donald Trump both overstates his role and distracts from the fact that the real governing is being done in the states, not in Washington.

As the pandemic upends much of society, frontline healthcare workers are shouldering the burden of a systemic lack of preparation[11].  In the U.S., a sluggish government response, along with the mismanaged rollout of testing, allowed the virus to widely spread.  Years of running lean operations left many hospitals without the resources to quickly expand care.  Global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators made these crucial supplies insufficient.  Backup stockpiles proved too small, and efforts to bolster supplies were uncoordinated or, even worse, forced hospitals and jurisdictions to compete with one another.  Now ERs in hard-hit areas struggle to keep up with a flood of critically ill patients.  Staff in eerily quiet hospitals elsewhere look on wondering if the virus will overwhelm them next.  Nurses facilitated final phone calls between the dying and their loved ones barred from entry.  As morgues overflow, refrigerated trucks arrive to temporarily house the overwhelming number of bodies.

The COVID-19 pandemic might have a structural impact on the U.S. and the global economy with unemployment levels possibly taking years to decline back to pre-pandemic levels.  It could affect the global economy in three main ways: by directly affecting production, by creating supply chain and market disruptions, and by its financial impact on firms and financial markets.  Much depends on the public’s reaction to the disease.  Unfortunately, too many people refuse to adhere to recommendations – they are not wearing face coverings or practicing social distancing.

Even when the number of cases starts to recede (caseloads are still growing exponentially in many states), without a vaccine or viable treatment, consumers will avoid activities that could increase their risk of contracting the virus.  The economy could possibly be severely impacted for many years to come:  Many customers are avoiding restaurants and bars.  Travel is down as are lodging numbers.  Oil prices are extremely low affecting banks which financing these high-debt operations.  Insurance companies are also on the brink after paying considerable sums to vast numbers of businesses that have been forced to close under stay-at-home orders.

With the Federal Reserve printing money to stimulate economic recovery, inflation could substantially increase inversely affecting personal savings values.  One of the possible reasons why the stock market continues to increase in value is an expectation of this eventuality.  With the economic impact yet to fully occur, many have looked at stock prices with huge dividend yields and low P/E ratios without factoring that revenues will most likely decline in Q2 earnings reports and possibly falling even further in Q3 depending on the sector of the company in question.

The fight against COVID-19 has seen governments, particularly those in the wealthiest nations, increase their national debts to such an extent that the way in which they will be paid off could have a long-lasting effect on their economies and significantly affect the distribution of wealth[12].

Advanced economies will run an average deficit this year of 11 percent of GDP according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – even if the second half of the year sees no more lockdowns and a gradual recovery.  Their public debt could exceed $66trn, about 122 percent of GDP, by year’s end.

Governments wishing to see such debt burdens diminish basically have only three broadly defined options:  they can pay back the borrowing using taxation, decide not to pay or agree with creditors to pay less than they owe, or can wait it out rolling over their debts hoping it will decline relative to the economy over time.

Inflation can assist in lessening the debt burden but could involve both a high tolerance for such inflation and an ability to stop interest rates from following it upwards.  Emerging economies may have no alternative other than to default or restructure their debts which will result in significant hardship.

The public is likely to reject paying off pandemic debts through a return to austerity.  The emotional, as opposed to economic, logic of austerity – that people have spent too much and must be reined in – will not be accepted.  Most people are likely to demand increased spending on healthcare post-COVID-19, not less.  More than half indicated they would support tax increases to pay for higher spending on the national health services even before the pandemic struck.  Aging populations are also increasing the demand for public spending as are investments needed to respond to deteriorating infrastructure and climate change.

Demand for various products will see a decline as consumers cut back on purchases as a result of employment uncertainty.  A disruption in both supply and demand could cause a severe contraction in economic activity.  The scale of these effects remains largely unknown and, at this point, unknowable.  It is precisely this uncertainty that enhances the paralyzing impact the pandemic could have on the economy.

In the U.S., the spread of COVID-19 has been financially negatively impacting manufacturers.  In a National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) survey conducted from 28 February to 9 March 2020, around 80.0 percent of respondents anticipated COVID-19 to have a negative financial impact on their businesses and around 35 percent of them are already facing disruption in a supply chain process.  The financial losses to U.S. manufacturers will, in turn, affect production capacity and foreign trade operations.

To understand COVID-19’s hit on the economy, consider its effect on industries.  Consumption makes up 70 percent of the U.S.’s gross domestic product (GDP), but consumption has slumped as businesses close and as households hold off on major purchases as they worry about their finances and their jobs.  Investment makes up 20 percent of GDP, but businesses are putting off investment as they wait for clarity on the full cost of COVID-19.  Arts, entertainment, recreation, and restaurants constitute 4.2 percent of GDP.  With restaurants and movie theaters closed, this figure will now be closer to zero until quarantines are lifted.  Manufacturing makes up 11 percent of U.S. GDP, but much of this will also be disrupted as global supply chains have been obstructed by factory closures and companies are shutting down factories in anticipation of reduced demand.  Ford and GM, for example, have announced temporary closures of car factories.

There will be scores of smaller business that never open again.  There will be fewer jobs, making it more difficult to find one.  It is important for job seekers to put their best foot forward when applying as companies will be hiring high-performing individuals and probably pay them more as well.

This economic devastation is most keenly felt among low-income employees.  65 percent of those earning between $30,000 and $50,000 annually said they would not get paid if the virus kept them from working for two or more weeks.  A majority of this group, 69 percent, said that it would be difficult to keep up with expenses.

For those earning less than $30,000, the employment consequences of the virus are even more dire.  More than three-quarters of workers in this income group who indicated they would not be paid if they could not work for two weeks also said it would be impossible to keep up with expenses.

A further complication is that many jobless Americans have also lost their health insurance in the midst of a pandemic – and now Trump has requested the Supreme Court to declare what remains of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional denying healthcare to an additional 20 million people at a time when such assistance is most needed.  This virus has disproportionately affected peoples of color and the economically disadvantaged.  There is nothing racially related to severity or susceptibility concerning COVID-19.  It is the environment in which minorities live that is responsible for elevated infection and morbidity rates.

Families pay an average of $9,167 a year per child for daycare, the median pay for people working in those facilities is only $11.65 per hour.  With most childcare centers, schools, and summer camps remaining closed, caregivers are unable to return to work.  And if they are unable to return, they are unable to afford alternate forms of childcare to enable them to do so.  It is a dilemma that is also hurting businesses.  Even before COVID-19 struck, U.S. firms were losing billions of dollars every year when employees could not report to work because of breakdowns in childcare.

Conservatives who believe in the magical power of tax cuts insist we should respond to a pandemic by cutting taxes.  No one should believe cutting taxes would greatly increase Americans’ incentive to work harder (it does not), tax cuts are not the answer when millions of workers are necessarily idle because of a lockdown meant to limit viral infection.  There is no justification for having to choose between economic resilience and protecting lives.

In much of the rest of the world – including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and South Korea – governments have temporarily paid the salaries of workers in order to prevent millions of layoffs.  The U.S. has taken a different path.  It created a complicated mix of different stimulus policies, including loans to businesses and checks for families.  This approach does not appear to be working as the U.S. has had a sharper rise in unemployment than other countries.

There have clearly been problems with the business loan programs in the federal government’s coronavirus stimulus as many companies, especially small businesses, have struggled to obtain loans.  There is growing recognition in Congress that execution of the stimulus program has not been the main problem, it has been the design of the program itself.

There is much talk about fiscal and monetary measures to alleviate the slump in the advanced capitalist economies but there is little about the devastating hit to the billions in the so-called ‘Global South’.  Many of those economies were already in a recession – Mexico, Argentina, South Africa… – prior to the start of the pandemic and now the collapse in commodity prices, particularly energy, will hit many of their economies which depend on staple commodities as their main exports.

The coronavirus slump actually makes the case against a universal basic income (UBI), which has been proposed by some liberals, less advisable even though part of that $2 trillion proposal did involve sending everyone a check.  Workers have bills to pay; they need replacement income close to what they were making prior to being laid off.  The rest of the work force does not need anything comparable.

Response should not focus at this time on economic stimulus but on disaster relief for those losing their incomes; infrastructure spending, which generally is one of the best forms of stimulus, however desirable, does not address immediate issues.  Enhanced unemployment benefits and aid to small businesses provide greater focus on the current problem[13].

It remains too early to predict when life will return to some semblance of how we knew it prior to the crisis but it is apparent that it will not be coming back any time soon and even then not necessarily in the same way.  Rather than looking at a return to some normality in a few months, it more likely will be at least one year.  Economic recovery could possibly be further delayed until mid-2022 with higher than average unemployment extending well beyond that.  Possible cascading, resurging COVID-19 global outbreaks pose a significant risk and could further limit recovery.  Waves of infection will extend through the summer and most likely well into the fall.

Long-term changes will result in something more akin to a ‘new normal’.  It is possible that ubiquitous deployment of broadband and 5G could lead to rapid digitization of business and society fueling innovation and a return to growth.  Negatives, however, such as record indebtedness, longer-term change in business and customer behavior, and lack of interest rate options could far outweigh any positives.

Prolonged recessions with weak supply and demand combined with financial system shocks also disrupt social and economic life.  The pandemic will likely increase social unrest and homelessness, prompt government bailouts, and increase government economic involvement.

It should be kept in mind that recovery eventually will occur but, for now, necessitates patience.  It remains difficult to predict when it will occur or what economic and social changes will result.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Jaideep Ahlawat is an Indian actor who has appeared numerous movies in the U.S., Bollywood, and in the widely acclaimed Amazon Prime Web series Paatal Lok.

[2] Prideaux, John.  Checks And Balance, The Economist,, 8 May 2020.

[3] Clawson, Laura.  Trump Canceled Pandemic Early Warning Program Designed To Find Threats Exactly Like COVID-19, Daily KOS,, 3 April 2020.

[4] Clawson, Laura.  Trump Team Ignored A 2016 Pandemic Playbook That Warned About Testing And Protective Equipment, Daily KOS,, 26 March 2020.

[5] McCarter, Joan.  How The Obama Administration Tried To Save Us From What Trump Is Doing Right Now, Daily KOS,, 17 March 2020.

[6] Clawson, Laura.  CDC Doctors Warned About Dangers Of Pandemic In 2018 – Yet Another Warning Team Trump Ignored, Daily KOS,, 2 April 2020.

[7] Sumner, Mark.  Donald Trump And John Bolton Conspired To Destroy America’s Defense Against The Coronavirus Pandemic, Daily KOS,, 12 March 2020.

[8] Sumner, Mark.  Trump’s DHS Scrapped The System That Was Supposed To Prepare The Nation For Enduring A Pandemic, Daily KOS,, 25 March 2020.

[9] Sumner, Mark.  Operation ‘Crimson Contagion’ Shows How The White House Flubbed A Test Run At Handling Coronavirus, Daily KOS,, 19 March 2020.

[10] Clawson, Laura.  Add White House Economists’ 2019 Report To List Of Pandemic Warnings Team Trump Ignored, Daily KOS,, 1 April 2020.

[11] Mock, Jillian.  Psychological Trauma Is The Next Crisis For Coronavirus Health Workers, Scientific America,, June 2020, pp36-37.

[12] The Pandemic Will Leave The Rich World Deep In Debt, And Force Some Hard Choices, The Economist,, 23 April 2020.

[13] Krugman, Paul.  Opinion, The New York Times,, 7 April 2020.

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COVID-19 Education Response

It seems to me….

The last thing that should happen is funding cut for education; it should be increased.  We need to put more money towards education, and anything else is abusive.”  ~ Flea[1].

The COVID-19 pandemic required most educational providers to switch from classroom to online instruction.  Primarily as a result of the rapidity with which it needed to be accomplished, the change is not considered to have been totally successful.  Much of what was needed to make this transition has actually been discussed and practiced by many schools for many years, and, as such, is not new.  The main difference is in the manner in which it had to quickly become mainstream.

It therefore is interesting that much of what is old is suddenly once again new.  Most of what is now being posted on the Internet related to online instruction is essentially verbatim to what was being said 30 years ago.  I presented many of these same concepts and recommendations at a number of conferences at that time.  There is extensive reinvention of the wheel – I found a couple of postings that matched bullet points in my conference proceedings submissions from back then.

Unfortunately, while widely advocated, those recommendations have mostly been ignored.  While there have been numerous minor changes, educational pedagogical practices have mostly evolved only reluctantly.  Now, COVID-19 resulted in schools closing their physical structures.  Globally, over 1.2 billion children were suddenly out of their classrooms.  As a result, education has changed dramatically with a distinctive rise in e-learning; teaching is now largely undertaken remotely on digital platforms.

With little prior notice, teachers were asked to leave their classrooms indefinitely and, in many cases, to recreate a learning environment that is 100 percent virtual.  With more than 50 million U.S. students at home with their families and engaged in varying degrees of quarantine schooling, questions emerge about how long this will last and what education may look like post-pandemic.

School closures impact not only students, teachers, and families but have far-reaching economic and societal consequences.  School closures have increased awareness of various social and economic issues including student debt, digital learning, food insecurity, and homelessness as well as access to childcare, healthcare, housing, Internet, and disability services.  The impact has been more severe for disadvantaged children and their families causing interrupted learning, compromised nutrition, childcare problems, and consequential economic costs especially to families unable to work.

For many, the unplanned and rapid move to online learning with no training, insufficient bandwidth, and little preparation resulted in a poor user experience unconducive to sustained usage.  On the flip side, others believe a new hybrid model of education with significant benefits will emerge.  Being forced to switch from classroom to online instruction, provided an opportunity to finally exploit many of the possible technological advances in education that have long been advocated.  Research suggests that online learning increases information retention and take less time – many of the changes due to the coronavirus might therefore remain following the end of quarantine restrictions[2].

Even before COVID-19, there already was high growth and adoption in education technology investments, commonly referred to as “edtech” – the combined use of computer hardware, software, and educational theory and practice to facilitate learning – which reached $18.66 billion in 2019 with the overall market for online education is projected to reach $350 billion by 2025.

The reality is that children now starting school will become adults in a digital-first world that will demand new skills and new ways of thinking than what was required in the past.  To succeed, both in life and at work, they will need all the social, emotional, and academic support they can get via rich and flexible learning experiences vastly different from the schooldays of their parents.  Education’s age-old three Rs – Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic – must now additionally include a fourth topic: Flexibility.

We have solutions that have the potential to transform and improve the system so students can achieve more and develop valuable skills with better outcomes.  The problem has been how to get educators to use technology to rethink education.  Educational curriculums have failed to evolve as they continue to teach with the same teaching methodologies used in the past.  Other than for some notebook computers in some classrooms, a teacher from 100 years ago would feel quite comfortable walking into most classrooms today.

Many teachers are not only good, they are exceptional.  Unfortunately, this is not always true.  Colleges primarily admit students into education programs with SAT scores from the bottom half of those taking the exams – the College Board reported that SAT test results comparing the scores of 38 different majors, education majors ranked 26.  Given the increasing importance of quality education, the quality of the instruction students receive must be improved; this will necessitate an improvement in the general ability and quality of teachers.  Several substantial changes are required for this to happen.  If better teachers are going to be credentialed, admittance to educational degree and certification programs has to be improved: students with SAT scores in the lower half should not be admitted.  If schools expect to retain excellent teachers, they must be compensated commensurately to other occupational fields.  Teachers should never be required to purchase classroom materials using their personal money.

Online learning effectiveness varies amongst age groups.  The general consensus for children, especially younger ones, is that a structured environment is required as they are more easily distracted.  To get the full benefit of online learning, there needs to be a concerted effort to provide this structure and go beyond replicating a physical class/lecture through video capabilities.  Instead, using a range of collaboration tools and engagement methods is necessary to promote inclusion, personalization, and intelligence.

For those who do have access to the right technology, there is evidence that learning online can be more effective in a number of ways.  Some research[3] shows that on average, students retain 25-60 percent more material when learning online compared to only 8-10 percent in a classroom.  Students are able to learn faster online – e-learning requires 40-60 percent less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting since students are able to learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

Some students are finding they prefer this pandemic distance learning experience over traditional schooling.  A recent survey[4] found that more than half of respondents have a more favorable view of homeschooling as a result of the pandemic, suggesting a rising openness to different K-12 learning models.

For today’s students to be successful in the world they will inherit, changes are necessary in how they are educated.

Teachers of the future will need to spend less time designing subject content components and devote more time to the learning experience so their students can find and create their own meaning around that content.  They will need access to appropriate real-time data on how well each of their students is progressing, both scholastically and emotionally, so they can devise new challenges and provide support for each child as appropriate.  They should not be bound by a 40-minute lecture structure, classroom dynamic, or assessment that is connected to a curriculum but recognize that the goal is to expand every student’s potential.

Parents must assume a greater involvement with their child’s education.  In an online environment, they no longer can depend on schools for custodial care and then be critical of teachers if their child receives poor grades.  If a child fails, it is the parent who actually has failed the child.

Students must be empowered to learn for themselves, often in flexible collaborative ways, both inside and outside classrooms, at their own pace.  They should be able to follow their own interests and be challenged where appropriate.  They must learn that real learning can be both difficult and exciting.

There are many challenges associated with a move to online education that need to be overcome such as providing meals for low-income students and finding childcare for essential workers.  Additionally, relying on remote learning and online classes has also exposed the country’s deep digital divides: too many children in the U.S. live without essential Internet services.

The transition to digital learning will be especially challenging within lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color.  As neighborhood poverty rises, the broadband adoption rate falls precipitously.  As COVID-19 requires more schools to transition to online learning, the students who were already the most vulnerable to falling behind will face even more hurdles to keep pace.

Students without reliable Internet access and/or technology will have difficulty participating in digital learning; a gap seen across countries and between income brackets within countries.  In the U.S., there is a significant disparity between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds: while virtually all 15-year-olds from a privileged background said they had a computer to work on, nearly 25 percent of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not.  According to 2017 data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), 3.1 million households (14.1 percent) with school-aged children have no wired broadband connection at home.  Though some of these families likely have a wireless subscription, these data plans are not sufficient for extended online learning.

In the early days of the Internet, the assumption across the educational field and the prevailing sentiment of the culture in general was that online education would always be inferior to traditional, classroom-based education.  This is no longer necessarily correct[5].  Public schools in almost every state are chronically underfunded, and an increasing number of teachers find it necessary to strike to demand fair pay and support from their department.  Even prior to the current pandemic-mandated move to online education, safety issues in some schools and overcrowded classrooms and subpar conditions in many others had raised the question about offering students an online school option.

Bricks-and-mortar schools will continue to play a valuable role in the future.  For instance, a school is a safe place for children to learn social skills while their parents are at work.  Spending the day with peers, getting to know other students, and working together on group projects are some of the ways the in-school environment can be important.

There is a persistent myth shared by many not associated with education that online education is less expensive than classroom instruction.  It can be though primarily only at the college level: MOOCs (massive open online courses) are courses with unlimited participation offering open access via the Web are a prime example.  These types of classes provide little direct instructor/student interaction and are appropriate only in limited circumstances.  Online classes require considerably more time to prepare additional resources and should be restricted to extremely small class sizes.  In addition, any classes, e.g., general standard or advanced biology, chemistry, or physics courses will include a lab which cannot be taught online.  (Labs could possibly be offered at local community or vocational colleges.)

School districts have largely failed to provide both sufficient resources for teachers attempting to convert lesson material for online instruction and have also not funded training classes for teachers to learn methodologies and teaching techniques appropriate for use online.  Online teaching is very different from classroom instruction and very few teachers have had any instruction as to how to make that transition.

There has been a dearth of textbook and teacher support materials available for online instruction but that is rapidly changing as textbook publishing companies rush to fill the new demand.  Unfortunately, most of these materials are still relatively primitive and will require additional improvement prior to providing comparable functionality to currently available in-class materials.  While this can be anticipated to occur relatively quickly, online materials take at least 10 percent longer and are about 20 percent more expensive to prepare[6] than for those intended for classroom use.

While pedagogy can be expected to evolve quite rapidly in the next few years, especially if much instruction remains online for an additional academic year, new technologies that will additionally impact learning are undergoing rapid development.

Education has held on to antiquated methods and practices and is one of the last industries to realize the benefits of technology.  Educators from all grade-levels are starting to recognize the benefits it can provide.  The objective of technology is not to replace teachers, only to complement them.  Technology can collaborate with teachers to create a system where students learn faster, better, and with increased efficiency.

While numerous technologies with the potential to transform education are under development, three rapidly evolving innovative technologies anticipated to significantly impact education within the very near future are artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR).

AI probably has the greatest potential to broadly reshape education both inside and outside the classroom and could have a greater impact on education than almost any other industry.  It will influence the next generation of education technology by facilitating ever more powerful tools, enabling children to receive personalized lessons, and ultimately improve educational outcomes.

AI-based applications can provide personalized learning offerings by customizing study materials based on the student’s knowledge, experience, and learning mode.  AI systems can adapt educational programs to students’ needs and provide additional assistance when appropriate.  Teachers are therefore able to direct their energies towards engaging with their students and dealing with challenges they are facing; they can fully assess each student’s strengths and weaknesses and work with them individually.

Homework assignments and tests in lecture courses can be tedious to prepare and grade, teachers often find that such classification requires considerable time which could be better used interacting with students, preparing for class, or working on professional development.

AI allows educators to focus on the individual needs of the student.  Various AI-enabled algorithms can analyze the users’ knowledge and interests and provide more personalized recommendations and training programs.  It can provide adaptive and personalized instruction that could give teachers the chance to create more constructive one-on-one learning opportunities.

By identifying early warning signs, red flags, and students who are most likely to struggle academically, teachers and administrators will be able to create retention plans that anticipate, rather than react to, students’ difficulties.

Augmented, virtual, and mixed reality are examples of transformative technologies that enhance teacher instruction while simultaneously creating immersive lessons that are fun and engaging for the student.  AR and VR provide a potential to significantly revolutionize the world of education by creating multi-sensory experiences for students through truly immersive virtual content that incorporates kinesthetic learning.

Experiential learning is much more effective than any other methods of learning and can help students learn complex subjects in no risk situations.  AR and VR are technologies that promote kinesthetic learning by providing a highly engaging, interesting, and comprehensive immersive learning experience that can be controlled and managed within the classroom.  These technologies have the potential to revolutionize the world of classroom pedagogy, making learning interactive and fun.  VR, for example, provides the ability to take students to any point in history anywhere in the world, to take a tour inside the human brain, or to travel in space amidst distant constellations.

Students better understand concepts, especially with difficult topics, when they visualize it in reality and learn more quickly with 3-dimensional model representations.  Augmented reality in the classroom is an efficient solution to provide an almost-real experience of the theoretical knowledge imparted on the students.

Everyone understandably wants all the problems associated with COVID-19 to just go away and for everything to return to normal.  While it eventually will, no one can predict whether our educational system will primarily be required to utilize online teaching for another academic school year.  Unwarranted faith in miracles never succeeds.  While simple expedience dictates that school districts prepare accordingly, it also can be viewed as an opportunity.  Unfortunately, a change from in-class to online instruction involves increased expenditures and school district budget allocations must likewise be increased.

This will elicit strong political objections at a time when the primary emphasis is on allocation decreases.  It is the last thing politicians want to hear as education always is the first place they consider when budget reductions are necessary.  Education is traditionally underfunded and that is especially true now.

There are several ways increased costs can be somewhat mitigated.  New texts, study material, and educator’s materials specifically prepared for online instruction need to be purchased – associated costs for those cannot be reduced.  As very few certified teachers have received training specifically oriented toward online instruction, each state should require all teachers to complete compulsory online certification provided by their state college’s teaching education program.  Each state should also require their Public Utility Commission (PUC), and possibly the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to require all providers of common home broadband Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) access to deliver a minimum of 12MHz or 100Mbps to any household or location using that system for educational purposes.

Without adequate support, the benefits of online education will not be realized; everyone involved – students, parents, educators, politicians – will consider the pandemic-necessitated experiment to have been considerably less than totally successful.  It would be extremely unfortunate if this opportunity is squandered due to insufficient support.  It does not have to be but if there is to be an efficacious transition to online education, it will require a clear understanding of what is required in order to succeed.  Without that level of support, there most likely will be sufficient dissatisfaction to delay its adoption until still further into the future.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Michael Peter Balzary known professionally as “Flea”, is an Australian-American musician and actor.

[2] Li, Cathy, and Farah Lalani.  The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Changed Education Forever.  This Is How, World Economic Forum,, 29 April 2020.

[3] Michigan, David.  How Online Learning Will Change The Education System Post Covid-19, Entrepreneur,, 27 May 2020.

[4] McDonald, Kerry.  Four K-12 Education Models That May Gain Popularity During COVID-19, Forbes,, 17 May 2020.

[5] Robbins, Keaton.  Online Learning vs Traditional Learning: Considerations For Educators And Students, Voices,, 28 June 2019.

[6] Movchan, Sergiy.  How Much Does It Cost To Develop An Online Course?, Raccoon Gang,, 1 December 2019.

Posted in Adaptive, AI, AI, AR, Artificial, Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Broadband, Chiildren, Classrooms, Computer, Computers, Coronavirus, Cost, COVID-19, Curriculum, Digital Subscriber Line, Distance, DSL, EdTech, Education, Education, Educational, FCC, Federal Communications Commission, Grades, Homeschooling, Intelligence, Internet, K-12, Learn, Learning, MOOCs, Network, Networking, Online, Online Learning, Pandemic, Parenting, Pedagogy, Public Utility Commission, PUC, SAT, SAT, SAT, Scholastic Aptitude Test, School, Schools, Student, Students, Teach, Teach, Teachers, Teachers, Teaching, Technology, technology, Testing, Textbook, Training, Virtual Reality, VR, Web, World Wide Web | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Employment And Technological

It seems to me….

Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate.”  ~ Alvin Toffler.[1]

A discomforting pattern taking shape across the U.S. economy is that despite all the shiny new high-tech businesses, the vast majority of new jobs are in workaday service industries such as healthcare, hospitality, retail, and building services where pay is relatively low[2].  The forecast of a U.S. where robots do all the work while humans live off some yet-to-be-invented welfare program may be a Silicon Valley pipe dream but automation is changing the nature of work eliminating workers without a college degree out of productive industries like manufacturing and high-tech services and into tasks with meager wages and little prospect for advancement.  Despite the spread of information technology, robots, and artificial intelligence (AI) breakthroughs, overall productivity growth has remained relatively sluggish.

Our entire socioeconomic system has entered a phase of accelerating transformation: markets, businesses, education, government, social welfare, and employment models will be severely impacted.  Some technologies, such as AI, are proving to be very effective in handling more complex activities such as those requiring processing of multiple signals, data streams, and accumulated knowledge in real-time; e.g., autonomous vehicles; than initially anticipated.

At present there are millions of people working in administration, entering and copying data between systems, and chasing and booking appointments for companies.  As software improves at automatically updating systems and flagging crucial information, the need for such administrators will decline.

As with every technological shift, new jobs will be created to replace those lost.  What is uncertain, however, is whether these new positions will be created sufficiently rapidly to offer employment to those displaced and whether the newly unemployed will have the necessary skills or temperament to fill them.

Policy makers are lagging behind the speed of technology development and often do not understand the uneven consequences their policies can inflict.  Too busy tackling populist fears and concerns related to growing inequality, they are mostly treating symptoms, not root causes.

Automation has pushed workers into less productive parts of the economy resulting in employment becoming bifurcated with highly educated well-paid professionals at very profitable corporations like Intel or Boeing enjoying high profit margins per employee.  Unfortunately, employment in highly productive industries, such as finance, manufacturing, and information services, has been substantially reduced over the last 30 years.

At the other end of the employment spectrum, not only are some tasks difficult to automate, employers have little financial incentive to replace minimum wage workers with machines.  Employees in these categories are generally less educated working in business areas like hotels, restaurants, and nursing homes that generate much lower profits per employee and remain viable primarily by keeping wages low.  The majority of jobs are now in those areas where productivity is also low: building services (janitorial, gardening…), healthcare and social services, hospitality, food services, building administration, and waste services where most employees make less than $450 a week.

History has shown that technology always replaces human labor in some form.  It both complements and substitutes for human skills but the correlation to job skill levels and wages in either case may now not be as evident as with previous technologies.  When it complements skills, it typically has driven wages up, but sometimes substitutes for skills normally driving wages down.  Although technology always replaces some aspect of human labor, economists typically believe total long-term employment is not affected as innovation possibilities result in infinitely more that needs to be done.  While the economy eventually catches up, in the interim, it does affect the distribution of income and the size of the middleclass.

Normally there is a lag time for impacting workers who have neglected evolving their skills in anticipation of coming changes.  The key for workers is to make technology work for them through continued education, training, and constant retraining.

Economists have in general believed that by reducing prices and improving quality, technology would increase demand creating more jobs and that more productive workers would therefore have higher incomes creating demand for new products that somebody would have to make – but over the last 40 years, jobs have declined in every single industry that introduced technologies to enhance productivity[3].  The only reason employment has not decreased across the entire economy is that other industries, with less productivity growth, picked up the slack.  The challenge is not the quantity of jobs, the challenge is the quality of jobs available to low- and medium-skill workers.

Some technologies; e.g., so-called big data (significantly large amounts of either structured or unstructured data) and information based on it; are restructuring and redefining the patterns and meaning of employment.  Similarly, AI can help innovators dig deeper to reach higher: it can mine and analyze data faster than humanly possible.  It can advance knowledge to help do what people do better, plus come up with entirely new processes, services, and products that can benefit societies and economies.  Technological, sociological, and psychological processes are converging to reshape the workplace.

There is a broad range of opinion about how quickly AI systems will surpass human capabilities though there is a relatively high probability that AI can surpass humans at all tasks within 45 years and automate most human jobs within 120 years.  What seems to be certain is that AI will change the nature of work with the only basic question being how rapidly and how profoundly automation will alter the workplace.  Many people are doing routine, repetitive jobs but that is the very type of work at which technology is particularly good at automating.  For many people, there is a significant risk of technologically provoked unemployment over the next few decades.

Much of this is dependent upon having sufficient numbers of employees with the necessary education and training available to fill the rapidly expanding demand for specific skills.  Increasing the number of graduates with STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees is ever more important as those who excel in these subjects will build and program the machines that will automate all other jobs.  It is estimated that working hours for advanced information technology (IT) and programming workers will nearly double by 2030 while demand for all technological skills will grow about 50 percent[4].

The highest number of STEM-qualified employee shortages are in computer sciences and engineering, which also happen to be the U.S.’s least diverse workforce[5].  Women account for about 50 percent of all STEM employment, but only 14 percent in engineering and 25 percent in computer science.  This imbalance extends beyond gender.  Whites and Asians are overrepresented, holding 85 percent of engineering and computer science positions, while Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented, holding only 13 to 14 percent.

Silicon Valley’s dream of an economy without workers may be implausible but an economy where most people toil exclusively in the lowliest employment categories might not be any better.  Without significantly expanded investments in education, training, and retraining, economic inequality will only further increase, innovation enabling enhanced quality of life will be delayed, and additional workers will be forced into less desirable employment categories.

Change will necessitate considerable investment, which will entail overcoming political opposition, but that investment would return ample economic, social, and political dividends.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Alvin Toffler was an American writer, futurist, and businessman known for his works discussing modern technologies including the digital revolution and the communication revolution with emphasis on their effects on cultures worldwide.

[2] Porter, Eduardo.  Tech Is Splitting The U.S. Work Force In Two, The New York Times,, 4 February, 2019.

[3] Autor, David, and Anna Salomons.  Is Automation Labor-Displacing?  Productivity Growth, Employment, And The Labor Share, Brookings Papers,, 8-9 March 2018.

[4] Bughin, Jacques, and Eric Hazan, Susan Lund, Peter Dahlström, Anna Wiesinger, and Amresh Subramaniam  Skill Shift: Automation And The Future Of The Workforce, McKinsey & Company,, May 2018.

[5] Funk, Cary, and Kim Parker.  Diversity In The STEM Workforce Varies Widely Across Jobs, Pew Research,, 9 January 2018.

Posted in AI, AI, Artificial, Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Automation, Boeing, economic growth, Economy, Education, Employment, Employment, employment, Engineering, Income, Inequality, Inequality, Innovation, Innovation, Innovation, Intel, Intelligence, Jobs, Jobs, Manufacturing, Mathematics, Minimum Wage, Productivity, Productivity, Robotics, Robotics, Science, STEM, STEM, Technology, Technology, Wages | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Black Lives Matter

It seems to me….

“’Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean that all lives do not matter, rather it is a cry for equal treatment in the greater circle of justice for all Americans.”  ~ Wayne Messam[1].

The U.S. – and in truth, much of the rest of the world – currently is simultaneously dealing with two vastly different challenges: the global COVID-19 pandemic and deeply-ingrained systemic racism.  The novel coronavirus is basically a health issue for which an inoculation does not currently exist and there are relatively few treatment options.  Current racial protests are hardly unique and ensue from an all too common pattern of police violence against minorities.  The significance of both issues complicates responding to either.  Many are reluctant to participate in the widespread protests fearing the virus, others join in knowing the almost certainty of contracting it.  Under different circumstances, each would deserve our full attention but, unfortunately, we are not afforded that luxury.

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, an African American man, died in Minneapolis, MN, while handcuffed and lying face down on a city street during a questionable arrest.  According to the criminal complaint against the white American police officer, he kept his knee on the right side of Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that occurred following when Floyd became unresponsive.

Floyd’s death sparked outrage and protests in over 140 U.S. cities; pundits and politicians responded with obviously warranted demands for reform.  The anger results from long accumulated grievances.  For many of us, however, it evokes a feeling of déjà vu – we have been here many times before.  George Floyd is just one of the latest names on a very long list – Natosha “Tony” McDade, Yassin Mohamed, Terrance Franklin, Miles Hall, John Burris, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery… – of those similarly murdered by white police officers.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from enacting legislation that would abridge the right of the people to assemble peaceably.  The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution makes this prohibition applicable to state governments.  A number of protestors/demonstrators committed numerous incidents of violence, looting, and arson which no one condones.  While these acts were perpetrated by an extremely small percentage of those assembled, they unfortunately not only reflect badly on all who participated but result in a general condemnation by those unsympathetic to the cause of minorities.

No one will disagree that police have a dangerous role in society.  While all of us are grateful for everything they do, they also must be held to a higher standard.  While violence was committed by both the demonstrators and police, instances of unnecessary use of police force were very apparent in almost every city where mass protests occurred.  Violence tends to escalate following any initial incident.  Police attempting to disperse a previously peaceful gathering can quickly become a violent confrontation if excessive force is employed.

Society has repeatedly told African Americans they are disposable[2]: the dehumanization of the auction block; brutality of the lynching tree; backbreaking work in the cottonfields and slaughterhouses, demeaning chain gangs, segregation, excessively high incarceration, inferior educational, voting interference, occupational discrimination, economic deprivation….

Black Americans are disproportionately affected by police violence across the U.S.  Since 01 January 2015, 4,728 people have died in police shootings: around half, 2,385, were white; 1,252 were black; 877 were Hispanic; 214 were from other racial groups.  As a share of the population, however, statistics are quite different.  Black Americans account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population but the rate at which they are shot and killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans.  Racial bias in criminal convictions is equally obvious: African Americans are exonerated due to wrongful conviction seven-times more frequently than Caucasians.

Racism is sufficiently prevalent that it will be extremely difficult to eliminate.  It not only is rampant in our society; it is deeply ingrained in our history and culture.  Society has repeatedly shown itself to be remarkably resilient to change – it bends under immediate pressure but following cessation of that pressure, quickly returns to its previous form and essentially nothing has changed.

Yes, there admittedly has been limited progress.  More than 1 billion have risen from extreme poverty since 1990.  While inequality is a concern, it is worth remembering that rights have expanded.  After 400 years of slavery, segregation, and discrimination in the U.S., African Americans have been gradually moving up.  After thousands of years of being treated as structurally subordinate, women are now gaining genuine equality.  Once considered criminals or deviants, gays, regardless of race, can finally live and love freely.  The fact that these changes might cause discomfort to some is not a reason to pause nor to forget that it represents deep and lasting human progress giving reason to celebrate.

Bias, in general, seems inherent in all aspects of life.  While most people claim to be unaware of these biases, they still remain regardless of our awareness of their unfairness or desire to change.  Even in fields such as science which is totally dependent on factual analysis, women and minorities, even when independently judged superior, receive fewer recommendations and referential citations.  In academic disciplines, they are less likely to be named as deans or department chairpersons even in medical schools where female majors now comprise the majority of students.

In many sectors of society, black lives have, historically, not mattered.  Saying “black lives matter” is basically a definitive way of saying “black lives matter, too,” just as much as all the other lives that society has always valued.  When the phrase is used as a rallying cry against police brutality, it reminds us that although more white people are killed by police each year, black people, comprising a smaller portion of the population, are disproportionately affected.

Many conservatives seem insistently determined to make the phrase Black Lives Matter into something which it is not.  They reflexively respond, “All Lives Matter”, which of course they do – no one has said they do not.  They want to egotistically make it about themselves rather than about racism.  The conservative media seems to have a distorted understanding of what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for.  When conservatives dismiss cries of “black lives matter” by shouting that “all lives matter”, they come across as callous toward the unique difficulties and injustices of being a racial minority.

Similarly, while the slogan is admittedly not sufficiently specific, those claiming that demands to “DefundThePolice” is actually an attempt to eliminate all police department funding are being intentionally misleading and manipulative.  Without alteration in police department accountability, there is very little likelihood of any actual meaningful change.

Racial inequality, bigotry, prejudice…; regardless of what it is called, is not a single-issue problem.  It is a multi-issue quandary that will remain a deep national concern until all aspects are addressed.  The high rate of national economic inequality disproportionately affects minorities.  Substandard educational opportunities.  Unaffordable healthcare.  High crime rates.  High unemployment or only minimum wage prospects.  Housing in environmentally contaminated areas.  The best determination of a child’s future success has been shown to be the zip code where they are born and raised.  Without outside intervention, most minorities face extremely poor prospects.  Affirmative action is widely opposed as being reverse discrimination though there clearly is a distinction between “equality of provision” and “equality of outcome” where identical treatment serves to preserve inequality rather than eliminating it.

Technically, since there is no official rule or law categorizing a person’s race; “self-identification” is the only factor used to classify it.  Hence race is ultimately a social construct.  Based on DNA test data, if everyone with an African ancestor was categorized as “Black”, it would include around 20-30 percent of white-Americans[3].  If everyone with a European ancestor was categorized as “White”, all but around 10 percent of African Americans would be considered “White”.  Virtually none of the African Americans tested by DNA companies was inferred to be 100 percent sub-Saharan African.

Many harbor false beliefs regarding people of racial backgrounds different than their own.  Humans are not rational; when presented with unfiltered information, they appropriate that which conforms to their prior opinions.  This conformational bias is one of the primary factors in propagation of misinformation.  Conspiracy theories arise when people are unable to determine simple causes for complex adverse circumstances.  Once beliefs are internalized, such persistence is difficult to correct.  Such beliefs are normally only strengthened when challenged with factual information.  Numerous studies have repeatedly proven the non-existence of racial based differences though the belief widely persists.

Historically, perhaps what all Americans should find most disconcerting is that, prior to World War II, the most radical Nazis were the most aggressive champions of U.S. law[4].  Where the fascists found the U.S. example lacking, it was because they thought it was too harsh.  The Nazis looked to an innovative U.S. legal culture which found ways to relegate Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and others to second – and even third-class status; the many devious pathways around the Constitutional guarantees of equal protection; the deliberate textual ambiguity on the definition of race itself; the draconian penalties for sexually consorting with a lesser race, or even meeting publicly.

The very founding of the U.S., in white supremacist history, was the crowning achievement of the Aryan peoples.  But as far as racially inspired lawmaking is concerned, the U.S. aroused Hitler’s interest the most, even as he deplored its liberal-egalitarian ethos.  He loved the novels of Karl May that depicted cowboys conquering the West and Hitler’s model for creating German Lebensraum in Europe was the U.S. genocide of indigenous peoples, the depopulation of their lands, and their subsequent legal subjugation and ghettoization.  Nazi intellectuals and doctors had a sustained engagement with the eugenics movement[5], which was codified into U.S. immigration law and served as a model for the Third Reich’s own sterilization and euthanasia program.  Is this what U.S. racists actually want?

What is troubling about Hitler’s U.S. model is how closely those events of the 1930s mirror our own.  What is most alarming is an unstated implication: if U.S. racism, anti-immigrant hostility, and third-class citizenship influenced the Nazi regime, then remnants of such influence must still exist today.  Indeed, they appear to be resurgent.  At the heart of the current white nationalist project is the racial supremacy of people who believe the U.S. was exclusively founded for them.

It is extremely disconcerting that a 2017 study[6] found that 43 percent of Republicans said there is considerable discrimination against whites.  Only 27 percent of Republicans said the same with regard to discrimination against blacks.  Under what rock are they living to be in such denial of all which is so readily apparent?

While during the 2016 election campaign many of us objected to Hillary Clinton remark “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.  … The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.  And unfortunately, there are people like that.  And he has lifted them up.”  Now, almost four years later, it seems she might have been correct in her assessment.

Trump has a history of speech and actions that have widely been viewed as racist or racially charged.  Evidence for Trump’s racism is so abundant and explicit that the claim should not even be controversial.  His blatant racism, dog whistles, and disinterest in unifying the country, particularly in recent days following the death of George Floyd, show just how far he is willing to go to stoke fear, incite violence, and ensure the country descends into further chaos up to the election.  He embodies the hatreds and fears that have been part of U.S. politics since its founding and that erupt with every rapid change in our society and the world.

Trump began his political campaign with a racist conspiracy theory concerning President Obama’s nationality.  He then ran a racist campaign, especially regarding Mexicans.  And now as President, he continues to make racist statements.  I have always been told that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck – it most likely is a duck.  As a simple point of fact, it should be obvious to everyone and to agree – without hesitation – that Trump is a racist.

The Trump administration has included several figures who are associated with the alt-right[7] including Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller, Special Assistant to the President Julia Hahn, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications Michael Anton, former Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, former speechwriter Darren Beattie, and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.

The Republican party in its lemming-like stampede over the precipice into neo-fascism has totally abandoned traditional Republican Party values and now has welcomed the far-right lunatic fringe of Tea Party adherents, libertarians, the alt-right, white supremacists, and other extremist elements into their party.  The Republican Party, in its current form, has become a threat not only to our fundamental democratic values and institutions but to the rules-based international order.

Trump’s first year in office was marked by an increase in both white supremacist groups, as well as a backlash in the growth of black nationalist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).  There has been a substantial emboldening of the radical right, and that is largely due to the actions of Trump, who has tweeted out hate materials and made light of the threat to our society posed by hate groups.  Multiple white supremacist factions saw their memberships increase, according to the SPLC, with the number of neo-Nazi groups growing from 99 to 121 and anti-Muslim organizations increasing from 101 chapters to 114.  Intolerance can never be permitted to masquerade behind the mask of national pride.

I do not understand the rational of discrimination based on the color of one’s skin.  Skin color isn’t any more meaningful than the color of one’s eyes or hair.  Intolerance based on body weight or age might actually make more sense.  It would be more beneficial if those objecting to some individual characteristic based their opposition on something such as educational attainment to encourage a higher percentage of people to continue their schooling.

While I would like to see permanent changes resulting from the challenges of prejudices, there most likely will be relatively few, if any, that are meaningful.  Other events which seemed sufficiently impactful to result in permanent change did not: school shootings, environmental change, military intervention….  Society is remarkably resilient, it bends but doesn’t break, and then quickly reverts back to the previous norm.  Systemic societal change is challenging as it spans multiple disciplines and political ideologies.  There was a time when I was more socially active and actually involved in organizing protests – when all of us believed we could change the world into something better[8].  Disappointed, we can still hope but now being more realistic, it is difficult to see what it will actually take to effect permanent change.

Still, as long as a sufficient number of people with a social conscience remain willing to actively object to what they consider wrong or unjust, hope will remain.  Reform is possible.  It might not happen as quickly or to the extent desired but as long as advancement continues, optimism brings confidence that someday it will be achieved.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Wayne Martin Messam is a U.S. former football wide receiver, businessman, and politician serving as the mayor of Miramar, Florida.

[2] Glaude, Eddie S. Jr.  We Cannot Wait For White America To End Racism, Time, 15 June 2020, pp24-25.

[3] Gates, Henry Louis Jr.  Exactly How ‘Black’ Is Black America, The Root,, 11 February 2013.

[4] Aziz, Omer.  America Through Nazi Eyes, O Society,, 29 July 2019.

[5] Eugenics is the philosophy and social movement that argues it is possible to improve the human race and society by encouraging reproduction by people or populations with “desirable” traits and discouraging reproduction by people with “undesirable” qualities.

[6] Cox, Daniel and Robert P. Jones, PhD.  Discrimination Against Whites vs. Blacks, Public Religion Research Institute,, 10 March 2017.

[7] Alt-Right, Wikipedia,, 6 June 2020.

[8] For those interested, one of the best assemblages of articles about the late 1960s antiwar movement is:
Goodman, Mitchell.  The Movement Toward A New America, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, and Pilgrim Press, Philadelphia, PA, SBN 394-70944-6, 1970.

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COVID-19 Economic Response

It seems to me….

As we learned after President Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff at the outset of the Great Depression, vibrant international trade is a key component to economic recovery; hindering trade is a recipe for disaster.”  ~ Asa Hutchinson[1].

Given the ravages of the COVID-19 virus, the world economy would be in crisis regardless of what actions any nation might have taken in their attempt to mitigate it.  In the U.S., it has been intensified by poor preparation and disregard to sound economic theory.  While primary responsibly lies with the current administration for their politically motivated tax reductions, constant financial stimulus based on massive deficit spending, elimination of the virus alert program, and attempted 15 percent funding reduction for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some of that responsibility must also be shared with the previous Obama administration as it also failed to reduce stimulus spending due to a less than desirable inflation rate.  Trump has eliminated funding and is now attempting to cancel U.S. membership in the World Health Organization (WHO) when such membership and support is most critically needed.

There is much that can be done to somewhat mitigate the overall negative effects of economic crises, such as recessions, but they remain a normal aspect of any economy.  Even with all the advances in economic theory in recent years, it remains impossible to predict the occurrence of a downturn.  Everyone “supposedly” learned in basic ECON-101 the importance of paying down any deficit during “good” times to prepare for substantial deficit spending necessitated during the inevitable “bad” times.  That clearly did not occur here in the U.S. as conservatives hid behind a façade of low unemployment and a rising stock market.

There are very basic differences between how conservatives and liberals consider the economy.  Liberals believe a market system in which government regulates the economy functions best.  That the government must protect citizens from the greed of big business as unlike the private sector, the government is motivated by public interest.  Governments need regulation in all areas of the economy to level the playing field.

Conservatives believe the free market system, competitive capitalism, and private enterprise create the greatest opportunity and the highest standard of living for all.  That free markets produce more economic growth, more jobs, and higher standards of living than those systems burdened by excessive government regulation.  This has, in general, not been shown to be correct.

Adam Smith noted that markets function well only with appropriate rules and regulation.  The lessons from history are that markets, by themselves, do not remedy market failures: governments do.  In the U.S., Republicans have responded to the utter failure of free-market orthodoxy and the remarkably successful predictions of their much-hated Keynesians by digging in even deeper determined to learn nothing from experience[2].

There are many common examples of market failure which we unfortunately frequently accept without question: traffic congestion, pollution, over exploitation of natural resources…, the market isn’t any different.  While the advantages afforded by a market economy are generally appreciated, there always should be awareness of the largely unseen costs frequently associated with what is either being proposed or claimed.

Blaming President GW Bush for the 2008-2009 financial crisis is totally reasonable based on his two unjustified tax reductions while starting two expensive but unfunded wars (also unjustified) but the Democratically controlled Congress during the Clinton administration deserves equal responsibility due to their repeal of regulations preventing combined commercial and investment banking, refusal to regulate so-called exotic derivative financial instruments, and other pro-bank tax code provisions not permitted under Glass-Steagall regulations.

Stimulus funding following the 2008 crisis successfully prevented a total collapse of the economy by propping up highway employment and keeping essential services from being decimated – teachers, police, firefighters…, but saving jobs did not “lower” the high unemployment rate allowing the conservative opposition to argue that it did not “create” any new jobs.

When Congress passed the national Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 (Pub.L. 110–185, 122 Stat. 613) in early 2008, a provision requiring that U.S. funds be given solely to U.S. companies was stripped out at the behest of multinational corporations.  In China, however, when they approved a similar stimulus program, it not only required that funding go only to Chinese owned companies, but that all parts, components, and raw materials had to be Chinese-only putting their country and their people first which the U.S. did not.  China also used its stimulus funding to invest in their future contrary to the U.S. with its so-called “shovel‑ready” projects, most of which should have been the responsibility of local governments.  It did not achieve the hoped-for success as unemployment failed to return to pre-crisis levels until around 2017.

As a result of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program begun in response to the 2008 financial crisis following Congressional conservatives’ refusal to take effective action, distortions in the corporate debt and equity markets developed increasing the probability of a reoccurring recession.  While this did not occur, historically low unemployment rates eventually did which normally result in higher inflation rates.  Inflation instead remained stubbornly lower than desired though not totally apparent why.  Also unclear is why the introduction of new technology does not appear to have increased productivity or why the traditional relationship between stocks and bonds has apparently weakened.  Both of these are possibly due to a combination of transitioning to a post-industrial economy and soaring economic inequality.

No government handled the financial crisis of 2008 better than the U.S. which acted in a surprisingly bipartisan fashion and almost seamlessly coordinated policy between the outgoing Bush and incoming Obama administrations but the backlash to the bailouts produced the most consequential results here in the U.S.  Having led the world safely out of the financial crisis, the U.S. is now facing a wave of nationalism, protectionism, and populism that could make recovery from the current COVID-19 crisis more difficult.  The crash brought together many forces that already were prevalent – stagnant wages, widening inequality, anger about immigration, and, above all, a deep distrust of elites and government – and supercharged them.

For several years following the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. government ran large budget deficits, mainly because the depressed state of the economy caused revenues to plunge and certain kinds of spending, especially unemployment benefits, to soar[3].  At the same time, the Federal Reserve intervened heavily in financial markets, “printing money” by crediting banks with deposits created out of thin air at a rapid pace.

Many economists considered those fiscal and monetary developments reasonable under the circumstances arguing it normally is beneficial to run deficits in a slump as there is little risk those deficits will create any kind of crisis.  There also was little risk in printing money that might cause inflation.

Many conservatives saw it differently.  In May 2009, with unemployment at 9.4 percent and still rising, The Wall Street Journal declared that deficits would provoke an attack by the bond vigilantes.  Commentators on Fox News warned about imminent hyperinflation.  A Who’s Who of conservatives sent an open letter to Ben Bernanke, the then Federal Reserve chairman, warning that he was debasing the dollar.

During the Obama years, many well-known Republican-leaning economists followed the party line on economic policy – even when that party line was in conflict with the nonpolitical professional consensus.  When a Democrat was in the White House, G.O.P. politicians opposed anything, including the proposed American Jobs Act, that might mitigate the impact of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath as did many economists.  In 2010, prominent Republican economists denounced the efforts of the Federal Reserve to fight unemployment warning in a public letter that it risked currency debasement and inflation, though there were reasons to suspect otherwise.

There was no debt crisis and both interest rates and inflation stayed low.  It might be expected for those who got it wrong to engage in some self-reflection about why they were so mistaken.  But they have not.

Almost without exception, those who predicted disaster from deficits and monetary expansion continued thundering the same warnings year after year, never conceding they had been wrong.  Bloomberg News actually contacted many of the signatories of that open letter to Bernanke four years later; every single signatory who replied insisted that the letter was right, even though the promised inflation never occurred.  None of those economists who wrongly warned about looming inflation were willing to admit their error after the fact.

The real test came after 2016 when after years of hysteria about the evils of debt, establishment Republican economists enthusiastically endorsed a budget-busting tax cut.  After denouncing easy-money policies when unemployment was sky-high, some echoed Trump’s demands for low interest rates with unemployment under 4 percent and the rest remained conspicuously silent.

But that was then.  As we begin to emerge from COVID-19 economic lockdown, hopefully, something has been learned from the less than adequate responses to past financial crises.  Extensive stimulus will be necessary, but it should be used to invest in the essential basic factors of productivity, so that not only does our nation recover quickly but is financially more sound afterwards.  Funding allocation should be non-political determined and invested such that it will be quickly spent in a manner with a maximum multiplier effect.

  • $250 billion for creation of a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) that would provide loans for projects including transportation infrastructure, water infrastructure, and energy infrastructure whose priorities are determined by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling: roads, bridges, tunnels, electrical grid (renewable energy), water and sewer, railways, air transport, waterways, communications, waste disposal….  Just to complete high priority repair and modernization has been estimated to cost around $1.5 trillion in today’s dollars and the longer that work is delayed, the more everything will degrade and cost to repair.  The amount recommended is therefore only an initial down payment on what will ultimately be needed.

This would provide employment for the many unemployed by the crisis who out of necessity would spend any amount received immediately back into economic recovery.  Infrastructure projects have been shown to have a very high multiplier.

  • It is the people who live in a nation that are its actual strength. Increased support is desperately needed for both healthcare and education but $250 billion to public colleges to promote attendance and reduce student expenses is needed immediately with special emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degree programs.

Students are traditionally one of the social classes with the lowest incomes.  Given the current high demand for college graduates, the unaffordable cost of attending college, and the extremely high debt level among graduates and those currently attempting to attend college, any investment in colleges assisting students will immediately flow back into the economy.

  • $250 billion for basic research to increase national innovation and the foundation upon which future development is based.

Basic research and development are the future of our nation but the people conducting that research must be supported for it to occur.  This is where post-recovery employment will be essential to recovery.  As a nation, our most fundamental employment problem is not the quantity of available jobs – it is the quality.  Prolonged wage stagnation has resulted in severe economic inequality as our nation has become a post-industrial society.  The majority of new jobs are now being created in the low paying service industry.  To do better, we need to become more innovative, more creative, smarter.

  • $250 billion to states to help defer debt resulting from COVID-19 related expenses.

States have incurred extremely high debt responding to this virus but are by law required to maintain a balanced budget.  Without federal support, critical programs will suffer drastic reductions.  First responders (police, fire, medical…), education, transportation, and workers in other programs will face unemployment.

  • Since all of this must eventually be paid for, a tax increase of up to 70 percent on the top 10 percent of income earners, both individual and corporate, as they have not been affected to the same extent as the general public.

Statistics show how different segments of the population have been affected by the pandemic.  It is readily apparent that the virus has widened existing divides between professionals, low-paid workers, and the young[4].  Many professionals have been able to work from home throughout this crisis, replacing one-on-one meetings with phone calls and group meetings with Zoom gatherings or Google hangouts.  They have been largely unaffected and mostly continued receiving full pay while many have additionally been spared a daily commute.  For them, the lockdown may be an inconvenience (particularly if they have children) but it has not constituted a threat to their standards of living.

COVID-19, as terrible as it is, should be seen as an opportunity to rectify some of the many serious problems facing our nation.  While it might be difficult to expect political compromise and a willingness to cooperate so as to expedite recovery, hopefully it has become sufficiently obvious to all, both those on the left and right, that healthcare no longer can remain associated with employment.

While any healthcare related recommendations are not specifically included here, though critical, converting to a universal healthcare provision would exceed funding available at this time and further increase already excessive national debt, such action will therefore need to proceed incrementally.  In addition to universal healthcare, other government programs, such as assisted daycare for both children and dependent adults, are essential.

Much more needs to be done.  The list is long but a willingness to take action is not readily apparent.  We will recover, but when do, let’s do it so that we are better, smarter, and stronger.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] William Asa Hutchinson II is a U.S. Republican businessman, attorney, politician, and the 46th Governor of Arkansas.

[2] Krugman, Paul.  The M.I.T. Gang, The New York Times,, 24 July 2015.

[3] Krugman, Paul.  In Praise Of Infallible Leaders, The New York Times,, 25 May 2020.

[4] Coggan, Philip.  Zoomers, Zeros and Gen Z, The Economist,, 23 May 2020.

Posted in American Jobs Act, American Society of Civil Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, Bridges, Childcare, Communications, COVID-19, daycare, Debt, Deficit, Deficit, Depression, Economic, economic multiplier, Economy, Education, Education, Education, Employment, Employment, employment, Fiscal, Glass-Steagall, Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, Great Depression, Healthcare, Inequality, Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Innovation, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Post-Industrial, Postindustrial, Productivity, Railways, Recession, Recovery, Research, research, Roads, Sewers, Single-Payer, STEM, STEM, Stimulus, Stimulus, Student, Students, Taxation, Taxes, Taxes, Technology, Tuition, Tuition, Tunnels, Unemployment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Benefits Of Space Exploration

It seems to me….

Space exploration is important research to our economic and national defense, and America’s space program is a symbol of our success as a scientifically and technologically advanced nation.”  ~ Randy Forbes[1].

The challenges of space exploration have sparked new scientific and technological knowledge of essential value to humankind leading to a better understanding of our universe and solar system.  While space exploration admittedly requires extensive up-front investment similar to all research and development, it always has paid for itself many times over in the wide range of hardware, software, and processes that have resulted from the comprehensive applications development required.  Much of the technological progress in the twentieth century was derived from the space race of the 60s.  Many direct commercial products and other benefits used in daily life here on Earth were initially developed for various space programs.

NASA reports[2] that 444,000 lives have been saved, 14,000 jobs created, 5 billion dollars in revenue generated, and 6.2 billion dollars in cost reductions have resulted from NASA research programs spin-offs in collaboration with various companies every year.  NASA produces an average of more than 1,500 new inventions each year.  Advancements have been in numerous fields including health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, energy and environment, information technology, and industrial productivity[3].

The need to explore the universe has driven numerous industries in the development of innovative new products.  While far too many advances and innovations have resulted from space-related research to possible mention, they include solar panels, water-purification systems, dietary formulas and supplements, space suit clothing materials, and global search and rescue systems.  We now have camera phones, CAT scans, LEDs, athletic shoes, water purification systems, wireless headsets, memory foam, portable computers, and even scratch-resistant lenses because of the need to innovate for the harsh environments of space.

It has led to the creation of new and improved medical equipment such as cancer detection devices, small heart pumps, and laser eye surgery.  Anyone who has ever had a digital x-ray, a mammogram, a CAT scan, been hooked up to a heart monitor, or had specialized heart surgery to clear blockages in their veins has benefited from technology first built for use in space.  Infrared thermometers have been developed to measure body temperature without physical contact.  Kidney dialysis machines and minicameras have been developed able to take photographs of human internal organs.  The need to remotely monitor orbiting astronauts pioneered telemedicine leading to unprecedented improvements in patient monitoring both within and out of medical care facilities.

It has resulted in the creation of various safety devices like fire-resistant clothes and vehicle interiors as well as popular smoke detectors.  Materials used to keep our homes warm are based on the technology used for insulating space stations.

By putting satellites and crewed spacecraft into orbit, scientists learned a great deal about Earth’s atmosphere, Earth’s ecosystems, and led to the development of Global Position Satellite (GPS) navigation.  Geostationary orbits and GPS systems use the network of satellites orbiting Earth to facilitate communication and essential navigation.  This enables television receivers and mobile phones to receive signals from satellites moving around the globe.  The airplanes we fly in, cars we drive, trains we ride in, and boats we sail on all use space-age technology to navigate.  Their construction is influenced by lighter materials used to build spacecraft and rockets.

Accurate and reliable weather reports are possible because of weather satellites enabling prediction of natural calamities such as floods, storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

Electronic and computer systems were developed mainly to facilitate space exploration.  Satellites are fitted with electronic and computer systems which can perform functions automatically.

While the space program might not have directly developed some technologies, there are numerous commercial advances it substantially contributed to including “memory foam” (first used for airline crash protection), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and smoke detection.

These constitute only a few examples of the beneficial spinoffs that have been produced by U.S. space programs.

The drive to explore space has created numerous highly skilled employment opportunities here on Earth.  There are more than 18,000 people currently employed because of NASA.  SpaceX founded in 2002 has an estimated 7,000 employees.  While space exploration is often considered as the job responsibility of an astronaut, it is much more than that.  It requires engineers, spacecraft designers, scientists, trainers, nutritionists, astronomers, and many more people involved in that effort and those jobs economically benefit each community.

One of the more prevalent criticisms of space exploration is cost[4].  It should always be remembered that programs such as the $2.5 billion investment made just in the Curiosity Mars rover landing project was not spent on Mars but here on Earth supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states.  Other programs have similarly benefitted our economy.  The money that is spent goes to manufacturing, research and development, salaries, benefits, insurance companies, doctors, teachers, scientists, students, blue- and white-collar workers, and both large and small corporations and businesses.  That money disperses throughout the economy in the same way as money spent on medical research, building houses, or any other activity engage in with either government or private spending.

For comparison, it cost over 1.5 trillion dollars to get the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft from the drawing board to procurement by the U.S. and other nation’s armed forces[5].  Spread over the course of twenty-four years (1992-2016) that is an average of over $125 billion a year.  The amount of money that is spent annually to subsidize the fossil fuel industry was over $5.2 trillion just in 2017 according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)[6].

If NASA still received the same level of funding today that it received in the 1960s, its budget would be $65 billion dollars per year rather than its actual budget of $17.5 billion.  Since 1972, NASA’s budget has been reduced by roughly 75 percent – where it essentially has remained for 42 years.

Space exploration creates multiple possibilities in engineering, design, mineral extraction, chemistry, botany, agriculture, healthcare and medication, psychology, pedagogy, and numerous other fields.  An important benefit of the Apollo program was its impact on the U.S. workforce inspiring an entire generation of students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) related careers.  The current Moon project, Artemis, could similarly motivate the current generation to do the same.

The space environment is especially hostile and unforgiving; exploration, similar to any new venture, will always entail risks.  There unfortunately will be injuries and fatalities but it is part of the price to be paid.  Development of manned flight was not any different.  Numerous planes have crashed since the initial Wright Brothers flights in the very early 1900s[7].  While every attempt should be made to minimize possible accidents, their occurrence can be anticipated.

There are many ways to utilize space that may be profitable for the private sector that may be inappropriate for government endeavors.  Similarly, much initial research and development is not practical for the private sector to undertake as there isn’t any near-term means to make a return on the necessary investment.  This is where early government funding is required to provide lessons learned so private entities can then undertake commercial development.  Government subsidized research and development is essential until private entities are able to profitably market a product or service without further dependence on government assistance.

We always have been fascinated with exploring the unknown.  It is through the insatiable human desire to continually push the boundaries of knowledge in space that we have made unparalleled advances in research and technology.  Ultimately, the future of humanity depends on becoming a multi-planet species.  Although there are many problems here on planet Earth that need to be addressed, the benefits of space exploration far outweigh any disadvantages.

How do you put a dollar value on scientific knowledge, inspiration, or the expansion of our frontiers?  It is impossible to place a value on the inherent benefits accrued from any basic research, especially for an area such as space exploration.  We can discover new mysteries about the universe that can be applied to science and technology here at home.  There are few other public activities with such a sustained level of performance and impact.  Whatever we spend on manned space exploration is a bargain and our investment will be returned to us, both quantitatively and qualitatively, many times over.  Personally, I believe we are getting this value at a bargain.  The cost relative to what has been achieved is small but the value for people around the world who feel connected over a rocket launch, a rover landing, a photo, or a spacewalk is priceless.  Let’s never stop.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] James Randy Forbes is a U.S. Republican politician who served as Congressional representative for Virginia’s 4th district.

[2] Benefits Of Space Exploration, Wikipedia,, 25 April 2020.

[3] Comstock, Doug, and Dan Lockney.  A Structure For Capturing Quantitative Benefits From The Transfer Of Space And Aeronautics Technology, NASA, Office of the Chief Technologist,,E5,2,2,x10720.slides.pdf, 3-7 October 2011.

[4] Williams, Matthews S.  Is It Worth It?  The Costs And Benefits Of Space Exploration, Interesting Engineering,, 17 April 2019.

[5] Pierce, Charles.  The F-35 Remains A Nonfunctional, Money-Sucking Nightmare, Esquire,, 24 October 2017.

[6] Ellsmoor, James.  United States Spend Ten Times More On Fossil Fuel Subsidies Than Education, Forbes,, 15 June 2019.

[7] The first known death in a modern aircraft was in 1905 when a plane piloted by Orville Wright crashed seriously injuring him and killing U.S. Army Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge.

Posted in Artemis Project, Benefits, Cell Phone, Curiosity, Digital Camera, Earth, Exploration, Exploration, F-35 Lightning II, GPS, Integrated Circuit, Mars Rover, Mars Rover, NASA, NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Personal Computer, Space, Space, Space Flight, Technology, Wright Brothers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vehicle Autonomy

It seems to me….

If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day Weekend.”  ~ Doug Larson[1].

Many in the automotive and technology worlds are convinced that all-electric fully autonomous self-driving vehicles are the future[2] of personal vehicle transportation and could reshape every industry that relies on the automobile from car manufacturing to taxis, limousines, and trucking[3].  But who will get there first (old-line automakers, new-economy startups) and how (by selling passenger cars, taxi services, commercial vehicles…) remains unclear.  Self-driving ventures tend to draw on a relatively concentrated pool of engineers, executives, and investors so the emerging field has rapidly become a small but tightly bound web of connections.

By taking humans, the majority of whom are not the competent drivers they think they are, out from behind the wheel, self-driving vehicles could potentially save millions of lives.  Computers have much swifter reactions than even the best human drivers enabling automated cars to safely travel far faster than those that are human-driven.  An additional advantage of autonomous vehicles, which most likely will be all electric, will be that fuel economy in gas-powered vehicles typically decreases at speeds over 50 miles per hour.  It is estimated that widespread use of autonomous vehicles could eliminate 90 percent of all auto accidents in the U.S., prevent up to $190 billion annually in damages and health-costs, and save thousands of lives[4].  Vehicle automation could allow vehicle makers to reduce the considerable weight of safety equipment if self-driving makes accidents a rarity.

Electric self-driving cars will also have a profound effect on the environment.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector.  Automated vehicles should be further able to reduce emissions as computers respond more smoothly to acceleration and braking.  They also could be programed to choose the most fuel-efficient route.

The biggest potential downside of driverless cars for the environment is that automation could dramatically increase the total number of miles traveled.  Self-driving cars should result in increased productivity and housing affordability, as well as reclaim land currently used for parking but also could result in greater energy use, traffic congestion, and sprawl[5].  Automation would make car travel less onerous and encourage car owners to make an extra trip rather than stay home as they might otherwise if they had to spend the time behind the wheel.  Commuters might not mind living a few more miles away from work if they could do something else while the car did the driving.  It might actually be less expensive for car owners to send their vehicle constantly driving around the block rather than pay for a high-priced urban parking space.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) classify six levels of automation (LOA)[6], starting from completely human operated vehicles at Level 0 to fully autonomous vehicles at Level 5.

Level 0:     The lowest level, vehicles do not have any autonomous features.  The driver must be fully in control of the vehicle while driving and is fully piloting without any autonomous machine features.  About 80 percent of the vehicles on the road today are still at level 0 autonomy.

Level 1:     Vehicles can perform just one autonomous task at a time.  These cars mostly feature autonomous safety-oriented features such as automatic lane keeping or adaptive cruise control.  The driver still needs to be fully cognizant and in control of the driving.  Many newer cars on the road today have level 1 autonomous features and what once were perceived to be optional product offerings are rapidly becoming standard.

Level 2:     Vehicles can perform two autonomous tasks at a time such as steering and lane-keeping or auto-brake and operative adaptive cruise control.  At Level 2, just like levels 0 and 1, the driver must be in control during travel in the vehicle.  This is the highest level commonly available at this time (though several manufacturers are claiming level 3).

Level 3:     The vehicle provides “conditional autonomy” meaning the vehicle can only be in self-driving mode in certain conditions.  These conditions are typically good weather and in a geo-fenced area[7].

Level 4:     Vehicle is fully autonomous but only in certain conditions.  A level 4 can only handle certain speeds and certain terrain within a geo-fenced area.  The driver does not need to be fully in control during travel but must be able to take over suddenly when the vehicle is no longer able to handle a situation.  No commercially available level 4 vehicles currently exist but many companies are working towards this goal.

Level 5:     Vehicles are completely self-driving and autonomous.  The driver does not have to be in control at any time during travel and the vehicle can handle any road condition, type of weather, and is no longer restricted to geo-fenced locations.  A level 5 vehicle provides full autonomy.

There is an inherent flaw in the LOA specifications – they only address vehicle capabilities and do not consider the operator[8].  This becomes increasingly problematic at higher levels as demonstrated by human-automation interaction defects in aviation and military operations that have resulted in numerous fatalities[9].  Though clearly specified by the manufacturer that the vehicle operator must remain in control of the vehicle at all times, the human tendency is to overly rely on the system and not be able to quickly assume control when confronted with sudden system disengagement resulting from conditions beyond the ability of the automation to control.  This apparently has been the cause of almost all fatalities involving automated vehicles (one test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Phoenix, AZ, in 2018).

While many self-driving features aimed at ordinary consumers amount to mere convenience, outfitted with the right tech, truck drivers stand to benefit much more: lowering the likelihood of crashes, increasing fuel efficiency, and getting more use out of an expensive asset.  Trucks often sit idle because drivers must abide by safety limits on how much they can drive in a given week.

While several manufacturers are developing autonomous trucks, Otto [10] (now owned by Uber) aspires to retrofit existing long-haul trucks with tech that enables self-driving solely from exit to exit on freeways, which poses a more manageable set of problems than fully automating passenger vehicles as it means no city driving and fewer pedestrians, traffic lights, and complex intersections.  Theoretically, the driver of a truck with Otto’s technology could go off duty and sleep in the back collecting the usual rate per mile as computers temporarily take control.

Currently, fully autonomous vehicles are not legally operating on any U.S. highways but partially autonomous vehicles, cars, and trucks with varying amounts of self-automation, from conventional cars with brake and lane assistance to highly independent, self-driving prototypes are.  Self-driving cars are a goal of all automakers and technology companies with various levels of semi-autonomy increasingly include those features in each new model release.  Though much of the technology has already been developed, it will still be a number of years prior to when fully autonomous self-driving vehicles are commonly available.

The technology is rapidly developing to enable fully self-driving vehicles while the regulatory environment is still attempting to adapt to the anticipated changes this new technology will bring.  On the technical side, the problem is that vehicles constantly encounter new situations on the roads and contend with obstacles and situations of which designers and engineers never dreamed.

Full LOA level 5 does not currently exit – and might not for quite some time.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Doug Larson was a columnist and editor for the Door County Advocate and wrote a daily column, “Doug’s Dugout,” for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, both Wisconsin-based newspapers.

[2] Steinmetz, Katy.  Why Self-Driving Trucks May Be The Next Big Thing On The Road, Time,, 1 September 2016.

[3] Worland, Justin.  Self-Driving Cars Could Help Save The Environment—Or Ruin It. It Depends on Us, Time,, 8 September 2016.

[4] Ramsey, Mike.  Self-Driving Cars Could Cut Down On Accidents, Study Says, The Wall Street Journal,, 5 March 2015.

[5] Larson, William, and Weihua Zhao.  Self-Driving Cars And The City: Effects On Sprawl, Energy Consumption, And Housing Affordability, Elsevier,, March 2020.

[6] Walch, Kathleen.  The Future With Level 5 Autonomous Cars, Forbes,, 20 June 2019.

[7] Geofencing is the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network and/or local radio-frequency identifiers (such as Wi-Fi nodes or Bluetooth beacons) to create virtual boundaries around a location.

[8] Roth, Emilie M., and Amy R. Pritchett.  Special Issue: Advancing Models Of Human–Automation Interaction, Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making,, 1 March 2018.

[9] Canellas, Marc, and Rachel Haga.  Unsafe At Any Level, Communications of the ACM,, March 2020, pp 31-34.

[10] Dreibus, Tony.  Otto Moving With ‘Urgency’ To Introduce Autonomous Truck Tech, Trucks,, 16 August 2016.

Posted in Arizona, Automotive, Autonomous, Autonomous, AVs, Cars, Driverless, Electric, Electric Vehicles, Environment, Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, EVs, EVs, Fatalities, Fossil Fuel, National Highway Traffic Safety Association, NHTSA, Otto, Phoenix, SAE, Society of Automotive Engineers, Trucks, Uber, Vehicle, Vehicle, Vehicle Safety, Vehicles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pandemic Opportunities

It seems to me….

It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good.”  ~ Proverb[1].

All of us have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  It still remains considerably premature to predict what long-term effects will result though there already are some indications that, at least in the larger industrialized economies, there will be a number of significant changes socially, economically, and possibly politically.  There has been a possible potential erosion of political and economic sovereignty due to financial and geopolitical dysfunctions.  It is the political possibilities that potentially could be the most threatening.

Hopefully, while accepting the tragic aspects of the pandemic, it will be seen as an opportunity to correct many of the most obvious deficiencies further apparent as a result of it[2].  The impact of the virus will to some extent affect every segment of society and require several years to fully recover.  Additionally, there is a very-real possibility that there will be a viral resurgence with greater vehemence than initially experienced further delaying recovery.

While perhaps somewhat premature to consider recovery from what is now the worst crisis we have faced in over a half century, if a semblance of political cooperation can be achieved rather than continuation of the diatribe that has recently characterized our elected representatives, it could be an opportunity to correct many of the societal deficiencies which have become both urgent and distressing.  The electorate will hopefully demand sufficient change to prevent such catastrophic results of future similar challenges from ever again occurring.

The wealthiest fifth of Americans are more often members of married, highly educated couples and have made greater income gains than those below them in the income hierarchy in recent decades.  As high-salary professionals or managers, they live in Internet-ready homes that will accommodate telecommuting and where children have their own bedrooms and are not as disruptive to a work-from-home schedule.  In this crisis, most will earn steady incomes while having necessities delivered to their front doors.  The other 80 percent of Americans lack that financial cushion and, while some will be OK, many will struggle with job losses and family burdens.

Unemployment rates have soared to their highest levels since the 1929 depression and many of those unemployed are being forced to navigate this crisis without an adequate safety net further confirming the inherent inadequacies of employer-provided medical insurance.  Wages for the lowest income workers have risen by only 3 percent since 2000 while those in the top 10 percent have seen their income increase by 15.7 percent.  37 percent of workers with only a high school diploma had filed for unemployment insurance as of early May compared to 6 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree.  The percentage of those unemployed with only a high school diploma is projected to still further increase.

Prior to the pandemic, 160 million Americans, or roughly half the population, received their medical insurance through their employment but now, layoffs triggered by quarantine measures threatens that coverage for many of them.  Of those who lose employer-based insurance, an estimated 7 million Americans will remain uninsured and lack access to healthcare during the worst pandemic in a century.  If the pandemic results in a 20 percent unemployment rate, as some analysts expect, anywhere from 25 to 43 million people could lose their health insurance.  Another 30 million people lacked insurance even before the pandemic.  Many will be forced to use Medicaid, the public health insurance program for those with low incomes.  Eligibility criteria, however, varies from state to state with extensive restrictions especially in Republican-led states.

The U.S. healthcare financing system was not built to withstand the combined impact of a pandemic and a recession.  Medical facilities have been overwhelmed.  Enormous insurance losses could dramatically alter the U.S.’s healthcare landscape and most likely result in additional deaths as people avoid unaffordable healthcare.  It is inevitable that additional people will die because they cannot get the care they need due to the looming recession.

It is totally understandable that so many are demanding an immediate reopening of employment even though it will result in a large increase in the number of those infected with the virus and subsequent deaths.  Too many families live paycheck to paycheck.  Nearly three in 10 (28 percent) U.S. adults do not have any emergency savings, only 40 percent have sufficient savings to pay an unexpected $1,000 expense, such as an emergency room visit or car repair.  Only 18 percent say they could live off their savings for at least six months.  Many are seeing all of their retirement savings being wiped out by current expenses.

With loved ones sick and children suddenly home from school indefinitely, many are being forced to make impossible choices between their families, their health, and financial ruin.  Meaningful childcare assistance is extremely limited, access to long-term care is piecemeal at best, and too few workers have access to paid family and medical leave requiring many to miss work and consequently missed pay.

Stock markets worldwide, which initially had their largest single-week declines since the 2008 financial crisis, have largely recovered but stability is threatened as the extent of economic impact remains unknown.  This primarily affects the 10 percent of Americans who own 84 percent of all stocks.  They also benefited from a slight change in the tax code passed as part of the relief package at the end of March.  Several sectors, such as technology, have remained relatively unaffected but will experience sales declines if the crisis is prolonged.

This crisis should result in widespread political support for Universal Family Care, a single public federal fund providing support for people with disabilities, paid family leave, and help employees take care of their families with child and elder care while they work.  At the conclusion of this health emergency, the extent to which wealthy, well-connected, and well-resourced communities have been supported, while contingent, poor, and stigmatized communities have been thoroughly devastated, will be readily apparent.

Though there should be sufficient food to feed the world, millions of people are at risk of starvation as harvests are going to waste as laborers are banned from working, can’t travel to farms, or don’t want to work for fear of becoming afflicted with the virus.  Additionally, many farm workers already struggling to feed their families are now facing dire situations as work opportunities and jobs fade away.  The issue is more about food supply disruption rather than food shortages.

The economy, and the social order it helps support, will collapse if the government does not guarantee income for the millions of workers who will lose their jobs in a major recession or depression.  Many young adults will be forced to default if the government does not help reduce or cancel their student debt.  Recover will take far longer if the government does not provide sufficient economic stimulus.

Not all societal changes resulting from the pandemic require a political solution.  Nor is it apparent to what extent or how quickly life will return to what it was like pre-COVID-19.  Whether by necessity or choice, many are adopting acts of frugal self-reliance such as baking bread, home schooling, and home repairs and maintenance normally left to others.

Evictions were avoidable; the homeless could have been housed and sheltered at shuttered military facilities; water and electricity did not need to be turned off for people behind on their bills; paid sick leave could have been a right for all workers; late mortgage payments did not need to lead to foreclosure; and debtors could have been granted relief.

While not every job can be accomplished remotely, many people are learning that the difference between having to dress up and tolerate an hour commute or to work efficiently from home was always just the ability to download one or two apps and their employer’s permission.  Once companies sort out their remote work protocols, it will more difficult and expensive to deny employees those options.

Educational systems worldwide have been affected leading to widespread closures of schools and universities.  Resistance to support for at least partial K-12 homeschooling or online learning has been swept away by necessity.  Though many classes, especially those with labs, are difficult to teach online, it will be near-impossible to put that genie back in the bottle in the fall with many families finding that they prefer full or partial homeschooling or online homework, especially if childcare is available.  For many college students, returning to an expensive dorm room on a depopulated campus will not be appealing forcing massive changes in a sector that has long been ready for innovation.  Additionally, online education could partially alleviate time/location limitations of continuing education or retraining for those desiring to further their education.

The epidemic had a sudden and substantial impact on the arts, entertainment, and cultural heritage sectors worldwide and might not quickly recover.

Restaurants and bars have closed to sit-down dinners and are limited to only takeout orders and delivery.  With restaurants mostly closed and as isolation increases, many people will learn or relearn how to cook.  With more people working from home, many may reduce how often they eat out following food establishments reopening.

The retail sector has been severely affected as numerous outlets have been closed, purchasing has shifted online, and product demand has exceeded supply for many consumables.  Many of those outlets might never reopen or experience sales reductions as people continue to purchase online.

Monetary impact on the travel and trade industry cannot yet be estimated.  Global conferences and events across technology, fashion, and sports were cancelled or postponed.  The aviation industry has been significant impacted due to travel restrictions as well as a slump in demand among travelers.  Cruise lines had to cancel sailings after experiencing extremely high infection rates and it is unlikely booking rates will quickly recover.

Financial insecurity, stress, and uncertainty have led to increased aggression at home and reports of domestic and intimate partner violence.  Many, especially extroverts, are experiencing psychiatric distress from isolation and reductions in social opportunities.

The colossal failure of the Trump administration both to keep Americans healthy and to slow the pandemic-driven implosion of the economy might shock the public sufficiently to insist on something from government other than emotional satisfaction.  Frighteningly, it could turn toward authoritarianism; a dystopian scenario is a very real possibility.

Our collective notions of the possible have changed.  The virus has already reorienting our relationship to government, to the outside world, even to each other.  Hopefully, governments and society respond to the coronavirus and its economic aftermath to rebuild and produce something better and more humane.  In a normal crisis the prescription for solving this is simple – the government spends, and it spends until people start consuming and working again.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has recently engaged in massive deficit spending leaving it poorly prepared for any economic crisis.  The national debt to GDP ratio was at its highest level prior to this crisis since immediately following World War II.  Though that level is clearly unsustainable, additional spending will be necessary to aid in recovery.

As serious as it is, crisis moments also present opportunities: more sophisticated and flexible use of technology, less polarization, a revived appreciation for the outdoors, and life’s other simple pleasures.  It is not readily apparent who was the first to say “Never let a good crisis go to waste[3]” but it would be very unfortunate if nothing beneficial results from what has been learned from this pandemic.

It also is true that for many, “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view[4].”  Hopefully, the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to break the U.S. out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization in which it has been trapped and help change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality.  There is much that should be done, much that could be done, but unless there is increased Congressional willingness to cooperate, much that will not be done.  The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an excellent opportunity to correct glaring social deficiencies.  Now it takes the willingness to take action.  Now is not a time for business as usual.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] This proverb is commonly attributed to John Heywood (c. 1497 – c. 1580), an English writer known for his plays, poems, and collection of proverbs.

[2] Coronavirus Will Change The World Permanently.  Here’s How, Politico,, 19 March 2020.

[3] Frequently attributed to Winston Churchill but most recently stated by Rahm Emanuel.

[4] Obi-Wan Kenobi in Return of the Jedi.

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IoT Goes Mainstream

It seems to me….

Device makers, especially consumer-focused ones, have been the Achilles’ heel of IoT security.  These vendors have often viewed proper security implementations as extra cost, complexity, and time-to-market burdens with an unclear payoff.”  ~ Maciej Kranz[1].

Media attention to the Internet of Things (IoT) has faded as it has become mainstream.  Development and deployment of IoT devices, however, continues to accelerate in all areas of the economy.  It is difficult to measure the economic impact of IoT though some estimates are that it could constitute 11 percent of the global economy by 2025[2].  Much of this remains unseen by the general public.  The seamless transfer of information could account for forty percent of the potential value of IoT applications.  While it primarily is largely advanced economies who stand to gain, strategic developing economies also will benefit.

Seemingly, everything has the potential to be connected.  The promise of IoT is to turn many “things” that currently are network-independent products and services (like a home thermostat) into ones that are network-dependent (like a mobile app or a smartphone).  Those devices communicate between themselves, gather data, and even interact with the environment around them.

The IoT is beginning to permeate every facet of our world and take hold in all major industries.  There already are more connected devices in the world than people.  The introduction of IoT technologies into manufacturing and large, industrial scale machinery is fostering a new economy nurtured by these technologies.  Industrial IoT enables machines to communicate with one another as well as with their human counterparts providing improved safety, security, and efficiency.

These advances go beyond just manufacturing and are now spreading into farming, city planning, energy management, and more.  This expansion will create a boom of technological, economic, and global benefits.  It is predicted that this growth will be comparable to the industrial revolution.  If so, it will increase the GDP around the world, and provide new economic, technical, and employment opportunities to citizens globally.  As with previous revolutions, it is expected that the industrial IoT revolution will drive up average income and living standards, particularly in industrially advanced economies.

The market for IoT devices is expanding rapidly day by day and becoming more popular as well with the drastic increase in the number of users who use them.  These devices come in infinite forms from smart building technologies, which monitor and manage energy usage, to connected vehicles, which help anticipate and avoid potential collisions.

Think of consumer devices residing in remote-controlled houses alongside important improvements in business functions like transportation and manufacturing.

Although much attention has been paid to consumer and business IoT applications, many people remain unaware of the ways the IoT is delivering positive economic and social impacts, transforming our societies, the environment, and our food supply chains for the better.  For consumers, the IoT has the potential to deliver solutions that dramatically improve energy efficiency, security, health, education, and many other aspects of daily life.  For enterprises, IoT can underpin solutions that improve decision-making and productivity in manufacturing, retail, agriculture, and other sectors.

From smart home appliances to connected cars, consumers are increasingly experiencing the benefits of the IoT.  IoT devices also can provide us with many conveniences enabling us to concentrate on more professional and personally rewarding tasks.  It already is impacting the daily life of anyone who owns a Smartphone or wears a Fitbit probably more than they are aware.

Smart cities, buildings, and homes enabled by the IoT can also go a long way toward cutting waste, pollutants, and greenhouse emissions making our modern lives more sustainable over the long run.  In cities, development of smart grids, data analytics, and autonomous vehicles will provide an intelligent platform to deliver innovations in energy management, traffic management, and security while sharing benefits derived from this technology throughout society.

Much of this progress has been enabled by development of low-cost sensors and reliable wireless technology making it possible for sensors to be implemented in all scales of equipment while long-range networks provide connectivity across massive distances.  Further expansion of IoT technology will be fueled by and paired with parallel growth in related industries and while it can be expected to drive economic growth, associated economic benefits of this growth will not accrue equitably across national, industrial, or socioeconomic lines.  It is not a panacea guaranteeing technological progress; there are a number of inherent problems such as possible job reduction, lack of standardization, and privacy protection that still need to be resolved.

A great deal of attention has been focused on privacy and data-security issues raised by IoT devices which gather and analyze massive amounts of data to produce recommendations, reports, and decisions.  New disruptions, efficiencies, and automated systems, normally associated with the introduction of any new technology, could potentially reduce the number of available job positions especially in lower-skill employment categories such as those associate with manual labor required to take and stock inventory, monitor manufacturing processes, and read utility meters.

All industries will be affected as more devices become connected.  Although automating tasks has caused job losses in manufacturing in the past, often when automation takes over a mundane task, the skills required for replacement positions frequently shift to more complex tasks requiring higher levers of education than previously necessary for those jobs lost.

There also is the remaining question of who owns the data created by these devices.  Homeowners consider it their property for personal devices along with the right to determine how it is used but manufacturers often include shrink-wrapped user agreements stipulating in the fine print (which no one ever reads) that it belongs to them.

Protecting consumer privacy becomes increasingly difficult as the IoT becomes more prevalent.  Both control of data and of the very devices that are connected are at stake.  There have been numerous reported incidents of someone hacking into user’s personal home appliances or applications.  Control also can be lost as more companies collect data about users – data which often paints a detailed picture of individual user’s online activities.

Since IoT devices are connected to the Internet, they are vulnerable to the same kinds of cyber-attacks that can afflict consumer, commercial, industrial, and governmental computer systems.  Smartphones, just like computers, carry an enormous amount of personal information about their owners.  They often link to bank accounts, email accounts, and increasingly, household appliances.  These companies often use the data to improve the user’s experience, but they also use this data to sell users products or sell it to other companies who sell users products.

IoT has the potential to transform our world for the better.  As Internet-connected devices and sensors become smaller, less expensive, and more prolific – and as technologies like fog computing[3], machine learning, and advanced data analytics become more widespread – it will be possible to leverage the IoT in many more new, innovative ways.

IoT provides a future where connectivity is the norm, not something novel.  While the name may change or disappear, as connectivity becomes customary, the basic concept will not.  All of us need to embrace the IoT because it is going to be part of our future.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Maciej Kranz is a Polish-American executive, New York Times bestselling author, angel investor, faculty member of Singularity University, and an expert in Internet of Things technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, and fog computing.

[2] Manyika, James, et al.  Unlocking The Potential Of The Internet Of Things, McKinsey Global Institute,, June 2015.

[3] Fog computing or fog networking, also known as fogging, is an architecture that uses edge devices to carry out a substantial amount of computation, storage, and communication locally and routed over the Internet backbone.

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Social Welfare Under Stress

Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability InsuranceIt seems to me….

The stabilizing influence of the modern social welfare state emerged only after World War II, nearly 200 years on from the 18th-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.”  ~ Moshe Vardi[1].

Welfare is a type of government support for the citizens of that society.  Programs vary from country to country frequently even differing within sections of the same country.  The following comments will primarily address programs in the U.S. – acknowledging available assistance in some areas, such as healthcare, are generally rated as worse than in other advanced nations.  U.S. policies are also open to criticism for being disorganized and difficult to access.  Requirements for many programs vary from state to state differing as to minimum income thresholds, work or education requirements, and minimum eligibility ages.

A social welfare system may be provided to people of any income level, as with Social Security (and is then often considered a social safety net), and usually is intended to ensure that individuals and families can meet their basic human needs for necessities such as health, food, and shelter.  It also attempts to provide a minimal level of well-being, usually either a free or subsidized supply of certain goods and social services, such as healthcare, education, or vocational training.

Social welfare programs can include any of a variety of governmental programs designed to protect citizens from the economic risks and insecurities of life; e.g., healthcare, empowerment, housing, and other programs geared towards assisting the poor, unemployed, and marginalized in society.  They can include cash assistance, healthcare and medical provisions, food assistance, housing subsidies, energy and utilities subsidies, education and childcare assistance, and subsidies and assistance for other basic services.  Similar social welfare benefits are sometimes provided by the private sector either through policy mandates or on a voluntary basis such as employer-sponsored health insurance.

Welfare programs have existed throughout history.  In the Roman Empire, the first emperor Augustus provided the Cura Annonae or grain dole for citizens who could not afford to buy food every month.  The earliest modern social welfare laws were enacted in Germany in the 1880s.  In the U.S., colonial legislatures, and later state governments, adopted legislation patterned after the English “poor” laws.  The first large-scale U.S. social policy program was assistance to Civil War veterans and their families.

Welfare can take a variety of forms, such as monetary payments, subsidies and vouchers, or housing assistance.  Welfare systems differ from country to country, but welfare is commonly provided to individuals who are unemployed, those with illness or disability, the elderly, those with dependent children, and veterans.  In most countries, the term social security refers to the economic security that a society offers when people are sick, disabled, and unemployed.  E.g., in the U.K., welfare includes help and benefits for the poor and includes specific social services such as help in finding employment.  A person’s eligibility for welfare may also be constrained by means testing or other conditions.

In the U.S., a “welfare program” is a general term for government support for the well-being of the poor or disadvantaged.  The term social security has come to be referred to as a social insurance program for those retired or disabled even though Social Security is itself a retirement insurance plan paid for by taxes taken from the individual worker’s payroll check and matched by his employer; it is not paid by the Federal Government.

The so-called “welfare state” refers to the provision of healthcare, income support for the elderly, aid to the poor, and other programs that reduce economic insecurity.  Social welfare systems provide assistance to individuals and families through programs such as healthcare, food stamps, unemployment compensation, housing assistance, and childcare assistance.

Politicians often disagree about how much assistance lower-income families should receive to help pay for their healthcare, housing, food, and other items.  While the inadequacies of U.S. social welfare programs have been widely acknowledged, impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated the need for comprehensive reform.

In general, liberals tend to support welfare, including long-term welfare, believing it provides a safety net for those most in need and necessary to bring fairness to U.S. economic life.  Conservatives oppose long-term welfare believing that opportunities should be provided to make it possible for those in need to become self-reliant.  They maintain that it is far more compassionate and effective to encourage people to become self-reliant rather than allowing them to remain dependent on the government for provisions.  Both viewpoints are correct and non-exclusive.

While not possible to adequately describe the entirety of U.S. welfare programs in this limited context, some aspects of a few better-known programs will be mentioned.

Social Security

In the U.S., Social Security[2] is the commonly used term for the federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program administered by the Social Security Administration that provides benefits to retired people and those who are unemployed or disabled.  It is the U.S.’s oldest major social program, signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, and provides crucial support for older Americans, a majority of whom depend on it for more than half their income, and a quarter for almost all their income[3].  Social Security is funded primarily through payroll taxes called the Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax (FICA) or the Self Employed Contributions Act Tax (SECA).

The largest component of OASDI is the payment of retirement benefits though a number of other programs are also administered by the Social Security Administration.

The Social Security program is one of the U.S.’s most popular welfare programs and only 6.2 percent of the U.S. public favors decreasing Social Security, the rest believe it should be kept at either its current level or increased.  A problem is that Republican budgets normally feature huge gaps between revenues and expenditures.

The earliest age at which retirement benefits (reduced) are payable is 62 with full benefits depending on a retiree’s year of birth but reaching their highest rate at 70.

Unfortunately, Congress has borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund which for many years took in more revenue through payroll taxes than it needed to meet payment requirements.  While this money should have been invested to be available when workers retire, it actually was “loaned” to the government to finance increased deficit spending.  This interest-free loan helped keep Treasury Bond interest rates low allowing more debt financing.  The problem is that it is not actually a loan since it can only be repaid by increased taxes when required and has not earned income interest to accumulate on those investments at generally available rates.

Liberals believe the Social Security system should be protected at all costs and that reduction in future benefits is not a reasonable option.  Social Security provides a safety net for the nation’s poor and needy and changing the system would cause a reduction in benefits resulting in many people experiencing deprivation.

Conservatives maintain that the Social Security system is in serious financial trouble and major changes to the current system are urgently needed.  In its current state, the Social Security system is not financially sustainable, will collapse if nothing is done to address the problems, and that many will suffer as a result.  Their recommendation is that it must be made more efficient through privatization and/or allowing individuals to manage their own savings.

The long-term finances of Social Security are unsustainable for two reasons.  One is that an aging U.S. population is resulting in a rising ratio of older Americans receiving payments to those of working age paying to support the system.  The other, less frequently acknowledged, is rising income inequality.  The payroll tax that supports Social Security only applies to income up to a maximum level, currently $137,700.  Rising inequality has therefore resulted in a declining share of total income accruing to workers in the taxable range eroding the system’s revenue base.

While there is general acceptance that Social Security is unsustainable in its current form, there is little agreement on how to remedy it: raise the retirement age (being done), reduce benefits, eliminate the cap on tax applicability….

While true that life expectancy has considerably increased for affluent Americans, it has much less, if at all, for those with lower incomes who most rely on Social Security but, on average, die at a younger age.  Raising the rate of eligibility is very unfair to those needing it most.

The latest recommendation for personal retirement savings, which is a totally unrealistic goal for the vast majority of people, is a minimum of $3 million and $4 million to $5 million[4] for those able to do so – only 3 percent of the U.S. population presently has a net worth of even $1 million.  As availability of Social Security at current rates is not a certainty, personal savings are increasingly relevant.

Assuming a withdrawal rate of 4 percent, standard in planning circles, an investment of $1 million delivers $40,000 a year which generally is not insufficient for anything other than the basics in what supposedly are one’s “golden years”.  Double that, and $80,000 is more realistic.  Moving up to $3 million provides about $120,000 per year which should be sufficient to permit some limited travel, dining out, and other amenities.  To achieve a $3-million goal, using a 6 percent average annual return, a retirement age of 67, and starting at 20 years old, someone would need to save almost $1,000 a month for 47 years.

This is obviously not realistic and only serves to demonstrate the increasing dependency of the average American on Social Security.  Nearly three in 10 (28 percent) U.S. adults do not have any emergency savings, only 40 percent have sufficient savings to pay an unexpected $1,000 expense, such as an emergency room visit or car repair.  Only 18 percent say they could live off their savings for at least six months.

Personal preparation for retirement is extremely low.  22 percent have less than $5,000 in savings earmarked for retirement.  Another 5 percent have between $5,000 and $24,999 put away and only 16 percent have saved $200,000 or more.  (An additionally 46 percent indicate they do not know how much they have saved for retirement.)

Social Security is the most significant source of income for Americans age 65 and older[5] and its importance will continue to increase over time.  Nearly nine out of ten individuals age 65 and older receive Social Security benefits.  Those benefits represent about 33 percent of the income of the elderly.  Among elderly beneficiaries, 50 percent of married couples and 70 percent of unmarried persons receive 50 percent or more of their income from Social Security.  Among elderly beneficiaries, 21 percent of married couples and about 45 percent of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income.


The U.S. is unique among advanced industrialized countries in that it does not have a uniform health system, has no universal healthcare coverage, and while legislation mandating healthcare coverage for almost everyone was enacted, conservatives have managed to repeal many of the legislations provisions.

Some aspects of the U.S. healthcare provisions were enacted as part of President Johnson’s Great Society Program (actually extensions of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier Program); e.g., Medicare, Medicaid; which were further expanded by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford though parts of the program were eliminated by Ronald Reagan.

The nation’s healthcare system became a major policy and priority issue during the 2008 Presidential election campaign.  Costs were increasing at an annual growth rate of 6.7 percent and growing numbers of Americans were uninsured though the U.S. was spending more on healthcare than any other nation.  As a consequence, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) was approved in 2010 without Republican support.  Republicans have consistently sought to repeal the act since its approval.

Healthcare in the U.S., which is provided by many separate legal entities, is undoubtedly the most complex and controversial of welfare and security programs.  Healthcare facilities are largely owned and operated by the private sector.  Health insurance, however, is now primarily provided by the government in the public sector with 60–65 percent of healthcare provision and spending coming from programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Veterans Health Administration.

Medicare is a social insurance program administered by the U.S. government, providing health insurance coverage to people aged 65 and over; to those who are under 65 and are permanently physically disabled or who have a congenital physical disability; or to those who meet other special criteria.

Medicare has four basic parts:

    1. Hospital Insurance (to cover inpatient expenses, introduced in 1965)
    2. Medical Insurance (optional outpatient expenses, 1965)
    3. Medicare Advantage Plans (private alternative to A&B, 1997), and
    4. Prescription Drug Coverage (enacted 2003).

Funding for each of those parts varies.  Part A has dedicated funding via payroll taxes (2.9 percent of total payroll), though has been running at an annual deficit since 2008 as related payments exceed taxes; the Trust Fund could possibly be depleted by 2026 if reform is not enacted.  Part B & D has no dedicated funding (75 percent of funding comes from government allocation; 25 percent is from enrollees’ premium payments.

Medicaid is a health program for certain people and families with low incomes and resources.  It is a means-tested program that is jointly funded by the state and federal governments and managed by the states.  People served by Medicaid are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, including low-income adults, their children, and people with certain disabilities.  Medicaid is the largest source of funding for medical and health-related services for people with limited income in the U.S.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides matching funds to states for health insurance to families with children.  The program was designed to cover uninsured children in families with incomes that are modest but too high to qualify for Medicaid.  In some states, CHIP even covers pregnant women.

Tricare was previously called the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS).  It is a healthcare program of the U.S. Department of Defense Military Health System.  Tricare provides civilian health benefits for U.S Armed Forces military personnel, military retirees, and their dependents, including some members of the Reserve Component.  Tricare is the civilian care component of the Military Health System, although it historically also included healthcare delivered in military medical treatment facilities.

Most basic healthcare plans fail to cover many important health-related issues; e.g., dental, vision, hearing, mental, addiction, etc.  While some of these can be obtained in higher cost or supplemental insurance plans, they are beyond the financial capability of those most in need.

There are many people in desperate need of medical and psychological assistance that currently fall through the cracks in the system.  It has been estimated there could be as many as 5000 homeless veterans living in the mountains just in our area of northern California.  Having helped at military stand downs, we can attest to the problem.  The Veteran’s Administration is seemingly limited in what it can do to help them.  There are apparently homeless people begging on half the corners around town.  While the true extent of the problem is not known, many appear to have drug, alcohol, or psychiatric problems.

The growing burden of healthcare costs is impoverishing millions of U.S. families[6] every year.  An estimated 530,000 families, two-thirds (66.5 percent) of those filing for bankruptcy, do so resulting from medical issues either because of high costs for care or time out of work.  The primary reason was inadequate healthcare insurance.  Insurance that is available and affordable to most people, or employer provided, is not adequate protection when medical emergencies arise.  Most families do not have enough saved for a simple emergency let alone thousands of dollars in unexpected medical costs.

The logical solution is some form of universal single-payer protection similar to what is available in all other advanced nations – but this has inexplicably remained controversial here in the U.S.

Other Programs

There are numerous other assistance programs – too numerous to mention here.  In general, there are too many programs providing insufficient aid.  Assistance programs frequently are overly complex, overlapping, and disorganized.  These programs address such issues as unemployment, college tuition, childcare, etc.  There are so many programs no one can possibly be familiar with even a small fraction of them.  This is especially true for those with limited education, financial means, and experience but who are most in need of assistance.  Program complexity allows many to fall through the welfare safety nets created to help them.  Additionally, low personal savings and high unemployment frequently make even moderate change difficult.

Where do those in need even start?  Financial assistance for food purchasing for those with either low or no income is provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.  It is a federal aid program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but benefits are distributed by the individual U.S. states.

An extremely important assistance program, especially now resulting from COVID-19 related job losses, is The Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) that, along with state unemployment systems, provides for payments of unemployment compensation to workers who have lost their jobs.

4 out of 5 adults have needed or used government assistance – unemployment, SNAP, etc. – at some point in their lives.

For anyone having a serious health condition and needing to taking time off from work for family or medical leave, there is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) providing the right to take unpaid time off from work to care for one’s child, parent, or spouse.  Unfortunately, fewer than half of private-sector employees are eligible under the act placing the U.S. far behind the rest of the world.

Public housing assistance (PHA) is a group of federal programs administered by various city and state public housing authorities and overseen by The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) designed to aid in subsidizing rents for low-income individuals and families.

The U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) provides financial aid in grants, work-study funds, and low-interest loans to help pay for college or career school each year to approximately 13 million students.

The minimum wage is the starting hourly wage an employer can pay an employee for work is set by as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act as a way to help lower-income families.  The current federal minimum wage for covered nonexempt employees is $7.25 per hour.  Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits sex-based wage differentials between men and women employed in the same establishment who perform jobs requiring equal effort, skill, and responsibility.

Major areas of social welfare remain either only limited or totally unaddressed.

For example, childcare, also known as day care, is the care and supervision of children or physically or mentally disabled adults provided during the day by a person or organization.  Parents or legal guardians need to trust that the provider will offer a safe, stimulating, and loving environment in which those under their care will mentally and physically thrive.

What is needed is for liberals to restrict benefit qualification and for conservatives to face up to the true magnitude of the problem.  The concept of reciprocal responsibility would reduce poverty and economic dependency.  A compromise is clearly necessary with both liberals and conservatives relinquishing their most extreme demands.

Following are some suggestions for changes to current U.S. social welfare programs.  These are not intended to be either inclusive or comprehensive and are only included to initiate discussion as to what might be beneficial.

  • Most welfare programs should be combined and simplified into a new comprehensive program administered by a single agency.
  • There should be a mandatory national single-payer health insurance program totally replacing Medicare, Medicaid, and other similar types of programs.
  • Unemployment benefits should be available only to those actively seeking employment. Health-related exceptions should be rare and dependent upon being under medical care.

Unemployment benefits are only intended as a temporary stopgap assistance providing limited financial support until the recipient secures new employment.  Continued receipt of unemployment benefits longer than for some minimum period should be dependent upon satisfactory participation in a job-training program (training programs should be subject to the same approval criteria as for other educational assistance programs).

  • Income support under SNAP should be available only to those employed with an income below the poverty level.
  • The homeless should be provided temporary housing possibly in available unused military barracks on closed military bases. (They should be entitled to unemployment benefits subject to the requirements stated above.)  Anyone begging on the streets should be considered homeless.  Medical, psychiatric, and other necessary services should be available to anyone in need of them.
  • Educational assistance should be available to everyone; especially those completing a national service commitment (military, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps…).

(Educational assistance should be restricted to attendance at academic institutions fully accredited by nationally recognized accrediting agencies determined by the U.S. Secretary of Education to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by those institutions.  Individual schools and programs within those institutions should likewise be accredited by recognized crediting organizations within each academic field.)

Much of the funding currently allocated for welfare is ineffectively spent.  It has been estimated based on census data that the U.S. spends nearly four times as much on welfare as would be necessary to essentially eliminate poverty.  That is most likely an overestimate but even a superficial review of current programs indicates there are considerable opportunities for improvement.  Unfortunately, based on current political realities, there is very little probability anything will change.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Moshe Y. Vardi is a University Professor, Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering, and Director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University.

[2] Social Security (United States), Wikipedia,, 17 April 2020.

[3] Krugman, Paul.  Opinion: Joe Biden Is Stronger Than You Think, The New York Times, 21 January 2020.

[4] Langlois, Shawn.  Retirement Dreams: $3 Million Is The New $1 Million, MarketWatch,, 28 January 2020.

[5] Fact Sheet, Social Security Administration,, 2020.

[6] Konish, Lorie.  This Is The Real Reason Most Americans File For Bankruptcy, CNBC,, 11 February 2019.

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