Saturday, July 27, 2013

Two American Families: Complexity At Work?

It’s a central premise of the American dream: If you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be able to make a living and build a better life for your children. But what if working hard isn’t enough to ensure success — or even the basic necessities of daily life?

FRONTLINE’s Two American Families follows two ordinary families who have spent the past 20 years in an extraordinary battle to keep from sliding into poverty.

The film, a collaboration with veteran PBS journalist Bill Moyers, who has followed the Stanleys and the Neumanns over the years, raises unsettling questions about the changing nature of the American economy and the fate of a declining middle class.

“He will not be able to see the retirement, you know, that he probably would hope for when he was working at A.O. Smith,” say Keith Stanley, the son of Claude Stanley who was laid off from a steady, good paying job in the early ’90s. “That’s just not a reality. My heart goes out to that generation that was promised something from America, by America, that they would have a better life and that’s not the case anymore.”

Here's my comments on the structural change and the implications if the system that changed is a complex system in a critical state. Click to listen.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The State of America's Middle Class

The following was taken from "The State of America's Middle Class in Eight Charts" by Jason Breslow and Evan Wexler, Frontline, PBS. Click here for charts and article.

Wages are down

Middle class incomes have shrunk 8.5 percent since 2000, after enjoying mostly steady growth during the previous decade. In 2011, the average income for the middle 60 percent of households stood at $53,042, down from $58,009 at the start of the millennium.

Less income for the middle class

Partly as a result of lower pay, the middle class’s share of the nation’s total income has been falling. In 1980, the middle 60 percent of households accounted for 51.7 of the country’s income. By 2011, they were less than half. Meanwhile, the top fifth of households saw their slice of the national income grow 16 percent, to 51.1 percent from 44.1 percent.

Union positions are shrinking

One factor behind the decline in income has been a drop-off in the number of workers earning union salaries. In 2012, the median salary for a unionized worker stood at roughly $49,000. The median pay for their non-union counterparts was just shy of $39,000. Since 1983, however, the share of the population belonging to a labor union has gone from one-in-five workers to just over one-in-ten.

More workers stuck in part-time jobs

A second factor weighing down pay is the rise in the number of Americans stuck in part-time jobs. In 2012, more than 2.5 million Americans worked part-time jobs because they could not find a full-time position, the most since 1993.

Fewer jobs from U.S.-based multinationals

Part of the challenge for job seekers is that U.S. multinational corporations having been hiring less at home. These large, brand-name firms employ roughly a fifth of American workers, but from 1999 to 2008 they shed 2.1 million jobs in the U.S. while adding more than 2.2 million positions abroad.

Rising debt

Predictably, the economic pressures facing the middle class have left families deeper in debt. . In 1992, the median level of debt for the middle third of families stood at $32,200. By 2010, that figure had swelled to $84,000, an increase of 161 percent.

Families are saving less

The rise in debt has meant fewer families have the ability to put away money for things like retirement or a child’s tuition bills. In 2001, more than two-thirds of middle class families said they were able to save money in the preceding year. By 2010, that figure was below 55 percent.

Net worth has plunged

The impact on family net worth — the amount by which assets exceed liabilities — has been painful. In 2007, median net worth peaked at $120, 600. Then came the financial crisis, which pushed millions of Americans into joblessness and home foreclosure. By 2010, net worth had plummeted 36 percent, to $77,300.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Snowden, Polls and Critical Thinking

As you know from things I wrote before, I’m becoming increasing wary of public opinion polls and the people who write about them. Mark Mellman’s blog post, “Have We Been Snowdened?” raised my curiosity on the subject. Below is a summary of the data he writes about in his column. And, as a full disclosure comment, I’m aware, and you should be also, by summarizing the data as I did I’m altering exactly what each survey reported.

The person who leaked information about this secret program did a good thing in informing the American public or a bad thing
ABC/Washington Post
The NSA surveillance program was classified as secret, and was made public by a former government contractor named Edward Snowden
Snowden leaked information to the press about NSA’s monitoring of phone and Internet usage
Releasing the top secret information about government surveillance programs was the right thing or wrong thing to do

First, I couldn’t verify all of the data he reported, specifically the YouGov poll. And, when I went to look for this poll’s data (because Mellman changed the format of how he chose to report the results) I found even more polls on the subject. In browsing some of the poll data, I found that it makes a big difference whether you ask a question about Snowden, his actions, or what NSA is doing. I also have no guarantee that the sampling is valid in any of the polls, or whether the statistics employed is valid because of complex system effects. Moreover, the results depend upon when the poll was taken.

I’m not so interested in the results of these polls that I’ll invest the research and critical thinking time to find out what the public may think about this issue. However, look at the word usage in the polls – “leaked” and “secret” in the Time poll; “surveillance”, “NSA” and “government contractor” in the ABC poll; “leaked”, “press”, and “NSA” in the Reuters poll, the only one to mention “Phone” and “Internet”; “top secret”, “government” and ”surveillance” in the YouGov poll. These are all words likely to shift a person’s response to the statement.

My sole reason for writing this is just to alert you to critically examine any polling important to you. There are many ways to alter the response, or to “skin a cat” as the old saying goes[1].

[1] “Mark Twain used your version in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889: “she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat”, that is, more than one way to get what she wanted.”

Monday, July 1, 2013

Critical Thinking In Justice

According to Wikipedia, "Since the 15th century, Lady Justice has often been depicted wearing a blindfold. The blindfold represents objectivity, in that justice is or should be meted out objectively, without fear or favour, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness; blind justice and impartiality."

Isn't it curious that Lady Justice was always a woman, and that the first woman justice of the US Supreme Court was Sandra Day O'Connor in  1981?

I view this description of Lady Justice as a representation of critical thinking.

But, if I look at the recent rulings of the US Supreme Court, I do not see evidence of critical thinking. I see two voting blocks with one judge moving between the two blocks. Is this really justice?