Friday, April 22, 2011

Common Sense and the Role of Government

Starting in August, an airline that loses your bag will have to reimburse you for the baggage fee you paid to have it safely delivered with you to your destination. The airline can’t lose your bag and keep your money, as is currently the practice.

Why will the airline have to refund your fee? Because the government says so.

That’s why we need government.

For many years, Americans have bought into the notion—a common theme among Republicans—that government regulation isn’t necessary because “the market” takes care of everything.

Well, the market doesn’t take care of everything. In the words of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, “Competition has not taken care of these problems. We would not be addressing them if competition had done that.”

Airlines are businesses, and their moral compass is profit. Without pressure of some kind to be fair, a business such as an airline has no incentive to do something that may be inconvenient and unprofitable, such as refunding a fee for a lost bag.

Banks had no reason to stop escalating the already usurious interest rates they charged for credit card purchases, or to refund unfair or unwarranted fees and fines, until the government stepped in and provided some firm, fair guidelines. Without government, processors have no incentive to be sure our foods are safe. It’s government that makes sure no company can dump toxic waste in your back yard—convenient as that might be for the company.

It’s an imperfect system, but it beats saying to a major corporation, “Please, sir or ma’am, I know I’m only one person, and I’m not rich or famous or powerful, but would you please be kind enough to . . . .”

Good luck with that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dragons Are Lucky . . . and Other Silly Beliefs

We all have our weaknesses. One of mine, I confess, is Mahjong. During the past few weeks, while my husband has been laid up after knee surgery, we’ve spent more time at home than usual. Unfortunately, home is where my computer is, and my computer is where I play Mahjong.

This addictive little game simply requires the player to click on sets of matching tiles, arranged in different configurations, to make them disappear. Depending on their location, the tiles may be “free” or blocked by other tiles that have to be removed first. There are 36 sets of 4 tiles each for a total of 144.

It sounds easy, but the tiles are often arranged in such a way that, as you get further into the game, it’s harder to find matching tiles that are not blocked.

With practice, a player develops strategies that improve performance but also expectations that have nothing to do with reality. For instance, I’ve noticed that I’m likely to win if I start a game by matching dragon tiles—or at least I feel that I’ve noticed it, which is a very different thing.

Actually, when I’m thinking with the rational part of my brain—the frontal cortex—I’m absolutely certain that my percentage of wins over time is about the same whether I begin a game by matching dragons or by matching any of the 35 other sets of tiles. But my deep, old, emotional brain—the limbic system—still gives me a little jolt of confidence and satisfaction if, in the first moves of a game, I kill a few dragons.

With all the chatter in the media about politics, no one ever seems to allude to this absolutely critical distinction between intellectual and emotional thinking. Barring a serious brain disorder, most of us use both parts of our brain every day, switching back and forth between using intuitive or emotional “logic” (which can be very useful in some circumstances) and using actual, fact-based reasoning skills—which is the only way to understand things having to do with, among other things, money.

Thus we have a situation in which a goodly number of well-intentioned Americans march off half-cocked to Tea Party rallies, chanting about budget cuts and tax relief. The Pied Piper leading this pathetic parade is Big Business, represented by Dick Armey, the Koch brothers, and others who are either very rich or who have been (like Scott Walker) bought and paid for by the very rich. Relieved (in large part by the Bush tax cuts) of their responsibilities to help fund the government, they’ve convinced a very large contingent of the “little people” that they should panic about the government going broke and make up the deficits by sacrificing their own meager, middle-class earnings and benefits.

Thinking with their emotional brains, millions of Americans now routinely vote against their own interests, victims of years of successful GOP propaganda that says the country is broke and only more sacrifices by the poor and middle class—and even more tax relief for the very, very rich—can save the country from bankruptcy.

In fact, as all reputable economists know and have been saying, spending is good during a serious recession. Injecting more money into the system fuels a recovery by supporting manufacturing, small business, and other vital aspects of the economy. Cutting taxes and increasing revenue for common folk so that they can buy more food, clothes, and cars makes sense. Increasing revenue by allowing corporations and the very, very rich to pay their fair share also makes good sense.

What doesn’t make sense is for General Electric, Exxon, and Wall Street financial firms to suck money out of the economy while paying little or nothing in taxes.

But it’s no use trying to tell that to Tea Party folks. They’re too busy marching off to kill dragons.