Herbert Sweet

Herbert Sweet

Saturday, December 26, 2009


According to the dictionary (Dictionary.com) stereotyping is “a generalization, usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that is used to describe or distinguish a group.”

I won’t argue with that but there are nuances that need to be explored.

Exaggerations and offensive words are useful in helping to gain an understanding. On the other hand, today’s “politically correct” language commonly paints everything in monotones to the point that the truth is covered up entirely.

Exploring the dictionary definition observe that the first word in the definition is generalization. While generalizing gets about as bad press as stereotyping does now-a-days, it is really an essential part of living -- the reason being that generalizing is simply a matter of expectations and that, in turn is based on experience. Therefore, if one were not to generalize at all, then he would be treating all situations without regard to experience. No one can function in this way.

The problem comes, simply put, when the generalizing individual refuses to accept that new experiences will often deviate from prior ones. So for example, to expect that all Germans are rigid and all Frenchmen are carefree would be a mistake. On the other hand to expect that rigidity is higher in Germans than in Frenchmen may not be too far off the mark. On the other hand, this may be a generalization whose time has come and gone.

Another view on stereotyping would be the following observation on doctors’ wives. These are attractive women who marry for money and status. They don’t see enough of their workaholic husbands, have little to do, and few friends due to their isolated economic status. Over the years they get less and less happy.

Is this a stereotype? Certainly. Is it true? Of course it is not absolutely true. But let’s suppose that somehow a scientific study was done and it was found to be true 30% of the time. So would that make it a poor generalization being 70 percent wrong? Maybe not. If that description was only true for other housewives only one percent of the time, then it would be extremely significant.

My conclusion? Stereotyping is essential but has its limits.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

'Whistle Stop ' in Hyde Park

Some would like to open the Hyde Park train station for weekend tourists. The catch word is 'Whistle Stop'.

I'm a big Charlie Rose fan; I learn more watching interviews there than from any other news source.

A couple of nights ago he was interviewing the chairman of Sprint who told him that the cell phone industry was about to join the small circle of trillion dollar industries. There are now four of them. They are: food, auto, military and tourism. Who'd have thunk that the world wide budget for tourism was right up there with those big players.

Retail and manufacturing, the industries that everybody wants here, aren't even on that list and, for many, tourism is written off. I suspect that is because tourism may be perceived as ethereal and low paying. It may also be that historical tourism has little meaning to those whose focus is more earthy. Whatever. What it has to mean to us is that there is a bigger opportunity for Hyde Park than we may have realized.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Land Use Restrictions

In the short run, it can be argued that land use restrictions inhibit economic development. But, eventually, the cumulative impacts of unrestricted land use will be highly visible and the opposite argument can be made. Locales where the land has been protected from the perils of flooding, lack of aquifer recharge and general environmental degradation will become more valuable than those areas not so protected. Where would you prefer to live? It should also not be forgotten that history is full of examples where short run benefits left states and countries permanently degraded as a result of the plundering of environmental resources.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What is driving the noise about healthcare

In the public discourse on healthcare we tend to focus on the words and not the underlying emotions. This is a mistake.

Transcendent to the healthcare discussion are two driving forces. The first is fear derived from the current very real experience or at least the anticipation of loss of job, loss of retirement savings and value of home. Add to this the diminution of power of the traditional white Christian society and you will see a populace ripe for manipulation by demagogic influences.

The second force is the loss of civility in public discourse. This may have occurred when fear of authority quietly dissolved into history. While beyond the memory of most, there once was a time when respect for authority was the norm. The reason for that was because those in power were not reluctant to wield their power and everyone knew it. Looking back at some of that behavior it seems crude by today’s standards. Never the less, the exercise of power does create order and stability.

What is needed is some balance between the individual and the authority of those representative of the larger community – especially when individuals act with impunity towards it. Likely this will not happen as a result of observations such as this but, instead, will occur when the discord gets to such a level that it impairs any action at all. Then there will be a clamor for order and the cycle will reverse.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Public Discussion on Healthcare

In the recent public discussion on healthcare the demagogues have taken over. Instead of rational discussion on cost, inclusion and effectiveness we are being detracted by manufactured issues. The two party system is supposed to counter the corruption that comes with the concentration of power. But with inflammatory rhetoric cynically manipulating public fears, it hardly seems to be working out. While the Republican Party hasn’t produced the only demagogic leaders in town it certainly looks that way now with Pallin, Gingrich and others knowingly twisting the provision on living will counseling into “death squads”. These people have certainly lost my trust. And why are the Democrats so bent on including them in bi-partisanship? Compromise is best used when there is an honest difference of opinion – not with people who seemingly are more interested in their own power than the public good.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Should Congressmen Read Every Bill?

Looking through Google, I see a lot of sentiment supporting the idea that Congressmen should not only read the healthcare bill but should read all of the bills that they pass. I suspect that, even with all of their waking hours devoted to reading bills and even with the staff assisting in their understanding, it might be a physical impossibility. This might be confirmed by checking the bills passed at Thomas.gov.

Could this be resolved by making the laws shorter? Just from my limited experience of writing zoning laws, I would say no. Laws have to be very explicit otherwise they end up as either unenforceable or in court.

If my suspicions are correct, the ideas circulating around that Congressmen should pledge to read all of the bills is just a tactic used by those who oppose the passing of bills they don't like.

What to do about this? The answer seems to me to be that, to handle a lot of information, a lot of people are needed. There would be those who establish the goals and concepts, those who translate that to a structured approach to reach those goals and concepts and, finally, those who construct the detailed text.

After all this is done, there needs to be a structure to verify that everything has been done according to the demands of Congress. It certainly should be Congress that puts it all in motion. For all I know, this is the way that it works. At least I hope it does. If the staff is running the place and Congressmen are negligent (which I'm sure many are), we're in trouble!

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Government Takes Control of GM

Well, now the government is going to own GM. First the government took control over the banks and now a good chunk of the auto industry. I’m sure that the conservatives will howl about this. We’ll hear a clamor about nationalization and socialism and all of that.

On the other side of the argument is the fact that both banking and automobiles are a very large part of the economy and are intertwined with just about everything. Let them fail, and, for sure, the country, and even the entire world, would be facing a depression or even worse.

IMHO, the solution is not a return to laissez-faire capitalism. Indeed, it is unrestricted capitalism that allowed these entities to grow to the point where their survival threatened the entire economy. These enterprises should have been downsized long ago to have kept this from happening.

In addition, medium size companies always have to be worried about their survival. Medium size companies provide an opportunity for ownership and management to be intertwined. For these companies there is less likelihood for their managements to rob the till for bonuses and golden parachutes and, instead, do what they are supposed to do – manage.

The lessons learned in the Teddy Roosevelt era and then again in the Franklin Roosevelt era have either been forgotten or seemed to belong to history and therefore not considered to be relevant. Beware of calls for ‘reform’.

It is government and only government that can control the economic environment so that individual decision making can produce thriving individual enterprises. Laissez-faire, after all, is just another word for anarchy.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Health Care -- Public or private is the wrong question

The country is now immersed in a great debate over the health care delivery system with the main focus being whether that system should be paid for through private insurance or through public insurance.

This is the wrong focus and, regardless of the outcome, health care cost will not be contained.

There are three fundamental health care cost factors that are not receiving the nation’s full attention.

The most important of these is in the area of terminal illnesses. Terminal illness, put bluntly, means death and very few are willing to come to terms with that. The basic reason is that, while most everyone believes in a life after death, few are really confident of that belief. This is well expressed by the old joke that everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to go now. The result is a desperate attempt to hold on to life.

That desperation turns to medical technology which merely prolongs the agony without curing the disease. This is extremely costly resulting in the consumption of a large percentage of the nations health care dollars.

The second most important factor is the population’s lack of control over weight. Today, two-thirds of all Americans are either obese or overweight and it is well known that this alone leads to costly chronic disease.

The final factor is that the age demographic is sliding upwards due to the aging of the baby boomers.

The end result is a nation of aged, overweight and desperate people focused solely on themselves unwilling to think in terms of the costs that others must incur. Few politicians are willing to buck this sentiment so the problem will likely worsen until rising health care costs produce a fiscal crisis. At this point health care costs will threaten the provision of Social Security and the rest of the entitlements, the functioning of government itself and even the provision of military security.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Social Classes

There is a new series of episodes of the Poirot character. I watch very little drama but do enjoy these. The accents and following the plot provide a bit of a challenge but ‘who dun it’ is not my primary interest. What attracts me is the portrayal of the ambiance and values of the times.

While watching the show yesterday, it occurred to me that most everyone, to some extent, seemed to be wrapped up in their social status or lack thereof. It is true enough that England has always been a class society but those values are not confined to that country. It is just more visible there.

I suspect that this anxiety started somewhere in the later part of the nineteenth century when stature became more identified with fortune rather than peerage. Prior to that you were either of the gentry or just another peasant.

The social status anxiety lasted up through the fifties. Even then, folks would dress to go to the grocery store. But by the sixties it was just about gone and people growing up since then will have no recollection of any of it.

There is some residue, though, and it is seen as a bellicose attitude common to what is euphemistically referred to as the ‘working class’. These folks generally seem to be of the opinion that there is some kind of conspiracy intended to dominate and deprive them of their rightful status. There is also a sense of pride and some humor as well expressed through the ‘redneck’ jokes and identification.

But, now-a-days, there really are no more fixed classes. People more up and even down. And what class you are in more of a self image or degree of awareness than it is of personal wealth. There are plenty of scholars and artists as well as many jobless middle class people that are shy on funds these days. They are not characteristically ‘working class’. (Is there a better name?) On the other hand, there are some relatively ‘successful’ folks that have chosen to identify themselves in this way. It gets complicated.

Perhaps some day these fuzzy distinctions will all be in the history books if not forgotten.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Eliminating Al-Qaeda's Sanctuary

On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by Al-Qaeda. Their base of operations is in Afghanistan. We are pursuing them there so that there is no ‘sanctuary’ for them. The task is enormous as the terrain is very mountainous. History’s ‘best’ conquerors have all failed to subdue the place.

But the United States has tremendous resources and, with an effort on the scale of that mounted during World War II, undoubtedly the task could be accomplished. But would it eliminate Al-Qaeda? Would Al-Qaeda and their sympathizers simply leave the world scene?

I doubt that. It seems more likely that they would simply move to another ‘failed state’ or some other remote part of the globe. How many failed states is the United States willing to mount full scale military operations to subdue? And how long and at what price could control be maintained?

In addition, it must be remembered that the Al-Qaeda 9-11 operation was planned in Hamburg, Germany. Are we then to subdue all of the Mid-eastern populations that have become minorities in all of the Western countries?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Iranian Uprising

Those of us that spend time listening to the ‘talking heads’ are hearing concerns about whether, and how much, the US should be getting involved in the uprising in Iran. At this point (Friday, June 19th), the administration is making only general statements not wanting to fall into the trap of being perceived as the ‘great instigator’. Congress, on the other hand, has been less cautious.

Thus far the political analysis has mainly focused on the behavior of the people and the government in Iran since 1979 but a more basic understanding is essential. That understanding is of the fundamental relationship between a leader and his followers.

There is a half conscious understanding between a leader and his followers that he is going to satisfy their needs and desires. Perhaps it was best put by Yasser Arafat in an appearance on the Charlie Rose show some years ago. Arafat was quoting Charles De Gaulle who was told by someone that public opinion was a ‘window of opportunity’. De Gaulle’s response was that was the wrong metaphor. Instead, De Gaulle said that “public opinion was like a galloping horse and you have to ride it”.

Throughout history autocrats have been overthrown when they have failed to understand this. The disconnect between themselves and the population occurred through either their own insularity and confidence in the permanence and righteousness of their positions or through the notion that their power was derived from their relationship with God and not from the people. The Iranian ‘Supreme Leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like King Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas II before him, is squarely in that camp.

Clearly, he is not a politician who owes his success to his understanding of the public mood. This Ayatollah sees himself as enlightened by the Word of God and thinks that the Iranian population buys that as well. This means that he believes that his view trumps those of all others. Negotiations and influence are accordingly going to be of little value. The final chapter, then, will occur when the populace becomes desperate enough and knowledgeable enough to end his reign.